Common sense (and your irrational compulsion to, you know, keep your job) says drinking at work — or working when you’re groggy — are bad news. But as Wired’s Jonah Lehrer points out, recent studies reveal that being sleepy and/or drunk is great for creativity. Here’s why:
Photo by star5112.
When you’re solving problems, your brain is built to shine a spotlight on what it considers relevant, ignoring ideas and connections that aren’t likely solutions to your problem. This is a good thing, as without that focus your mind would be flooded with loads of irrelevant information when attempting to solve a simple task and for what Lehrer calls standard analytic problems, that kind of focus is essential. When it comes to creative problem solving, however, your brain does better without that focus.
To demonstrate, researches presented two groups — one of which consisted of patients with severe attention deficits caused by damage to their pre-frontal lobes — with puzzles. When presented with the more creatively challenging problem, the patients suffering from attention deficits performed significantly better:
In this case, only 43 per cent of normal subjects were able to solve the problem. The patients who couldn’t pay attention, however, had an 82 per cent success rate. What accounts for this bizarre result? Why does brain damage dramatically improve performance on a hard creative task? … The patients with a severe cognitive deficit… can’t restrict their search. They are forced by their brain injury to consider a much wider range of possible answers. And this is why they’re nearly twice as likely to have a breakthrough.
A second, similar study presented creative and analytic problems to groggy students, and a third did the same with drunk students. Like the patients with pre-frontal lobe damage, the tired and drunk students consistently performed better on creative problems. Lehrer sums it up nicely:
The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination. So the next time you are in need of insight, avoid caffeine and concentration. Don’t chain yourself to your desk. Instead, set the alarm a few minutes early and wallow in your groggy thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, chug a beer.