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As some say, "write drunk, and edit sober," many writers and artists use alcohol to try to get their creative juices flowing. But can alcohol really help to be more creative?

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Go to CuriosityStream.com/psych to learn more. [ ♪ INTRO ]. Maybe you've heard the advice, "write drunk, and edit sober." Or about the “Ballmer peak” — that people write computer code best if they calibrate their blood alcohol level to be just right.

Even if these are meant as jokes, lots of writers and artists use alcohol to try to get their creative juices flowing. And it turns out researchers have, in fact, spent some time studying whether some alcohol can make you more creative — and they've found that it does, at least in some ways. But as you might guess, there are limits to this, and you shouldn't go overboard.

To start, it helps to know what alcohol actually does in your brain. And from animal studies, we know that alcohol stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter. GABA, short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning it makes neurons a little less likely to fire.

That’s actually one of the main ways it lowers your inhibitions. Turns out, restraining yourself takes thought. Studies have found people who have been drinking do worse at something called a go/no-go task, for example.

That's a game where people usually have to press a button if a rule is followed, but not if it breaks a second rule. Like for example, push a button if you see a red shape, but not if it's a red square. So most people get an urge to click, but then need to pull back from it.

In a 2014 study of 50 volunteers, this struggle to follow the rules was linked to reduced activation of two brain regions: the insula and occipito-temporal cortex. Sober participants activated those areas a lot more when they were keeping themselves from pushing a button; the participants with a blood alcohol content between 0.06 % and 0.07% had less activation, and were more likely to push the button when they shouldn’t. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, you might think it makes sense that it could help you be more creative.

After all, if it helps the words flow out of your mouth to that random person at the bar, it might also help words flow out of your brain onto a piece of paper. And researchers have looked into this — but since it's hard to test whether writing or art become objectively better, they turned to some measures psychologists use to gauge creative thinking‚ like the remote associates test. That's where you have to figure out how 3 different things are related.

Like, if I said foul, ground, and mate, you might want to come up with "play" as a word that commonly goes with all of them. Basically, it’s a challenge that requires some creative thinking. In a 2012 study, researchers recruited 20 people as drinkers, and 20 others to serve as controls who stayed sober.

Then, and this is just what they did, they gave the drinking group vodka cranberries while they watched Ratatouille until their blood alcohol level got to about 0.075 % — close, but not over the legal driving limit in the U. S. Sounds like a good day.

Compared to the group who only watched the movie, those who drank solved way more of the remote associates problems, and did so more quickly, too. Follow-up research looked at why this works. This time, they aimed for a lower blood alcohol level of about 0.03, and this allowed them to use a placebo control group — that's low enough that people might not have known whether they were drinking or not.

Oh, and they replaced vodka cranberries with beer, and Ratatouille with a documentary about. South Africa. It’s in a paper, so I thought guess we just mention it.

They found the same thing as before — improved scores on a remote associates test. But the drinkers didn't improve on a test designed to measure divergent thinking: naming as many uses as possible for common items like a shoe. So it's not that alcohol makes you universally more creative — it’s more like it makes it harder for you to keep your attention in one place.

And when you’re looking for random connections, that might actually be a good thing. The buzzed participants also did worse on a test of executive control, which is a set of abilities you use when you’re doing some effortful thinking, like working memory and response inhibition. Specifically they took a two-back test.

Basically, they had to report whether a letter they were given was the same as the one two before it. All of which goes to show the small amount of alcohol was impairing their thinking — just in a way that made them do better on one measure of creativity. And that’s because, in the end, “creativity” isn’t a single process in our brains.

There are parts of it that require some real thought, and others where you might do better if you don’t overthink it. And alcohol is great at helping you not think things. But even this isn’t the whole story, because alcohol also has expectancy effects.

Basically, you have some expectations of what will happen when you drink, and then you behave accordingly. One study of 116 men manipulated both whether they were assigned to get alcohol or not, and whether they were told they were going to be drinking or not. They even brushed the rims of glasses with vodka in the placebo group — those that were told they were getting alcohol but didn’t — to make it convincing.

And the participants’ performance on a creative card sorting task improved when they thought they'd been drinking — but not necessarily when they actually were. Which is to say that most of the time when you drink, you're not in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial — you know you’re drinking. So you might overestimate how much your abilities improve as a result.

And you might overestimate how awesome your alcohol-inspired creativity is it in the moment, too. Like, in that first study with the vodka crans and Ratatouille, the participants who had been drinking rated their correct answers as way more insightful than the sober folks did. And that might be because alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin — both of which are often called feel-good neurotransmitters.

They’re probably why people like to drink in the first place, since dopamine is a key part of your brain’s reward system. And research has linked it to things like curiosity and the experience of insight. But the flood of dopamine you get from drinking could falsely make you think you’ve done something incredible, because you might feel that glorious “Aha!” you get when you create beautiful things from the booze instead of your work.

And even if drinking might improve some elements of your thinking, it's good to remember it impairs others. Like, one study found that having a 0.05% blood alcohol level made performance on memory and learning tests worse than staying awake for 24 hours. So if you’ve been drinking, you might not remember the details of, say, what you wrote on the previous page.

Alcohol seems to have the effect of making complicated situations seem simple — so like if you're writing the next big mystery novel, drinking too much might make it harder for you to weave in the right amount of misdirection for your M.-Night-Shyamalan-style plot twist. In the end, it's possible alcohol can help you a little, but it's good to remember, obviously not to go overboard. All of these studies were testing blood alcohol levels below the usual legal driving limit.

And hopefully, we're not the first to tell you that there are some health risks to drinking too much alcohol. So drink responsibly. And if you do have a glass of wine to help the words flow a little more easily, be sure you edit your work in the morning.

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This Curiosity Stream original documentary follows candidates seeking the coveted title of ‘Master Sommelier’ to show just how hard it is to be a true wine expert. And for as little as $2.99 a month, you can get access to it and all of their other videos. And if that’s not enough, as a SciShow Psych viewer, your first 31 days could be completely free!

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