It’s common for creatives to pour a cup of coffee before sitting down to work every day, but how does caffeine actually affect creative thinking?
In a nutshell: caffeine blocks the chemical receptors in your body (known as adenosine receptors) that tell it to rest or sleep. With those receptors blocked other chemicals – the kind that stimulate neurological activity – can work overtime. There are plenty of pros and cons for creatives when it comes to consuming caffeine, so grab a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage (or don’t) and let’s explore.
To start us off, consider this: as you read this, neurons (those microscopic connections in your brain that look a lot like spider webs) are firing off at a rapid pace.
It’s these tiny signals being sent through your brain – and all around your body – that allow you to process thoughts and experiences coming through your senses. Basic biology 101 stuff.
As your neurons fire they release a chemical known as adenosine, which serves several purposes in your body. One thing adenosine does really well is to act as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that when the chemical builds up in the body, it signals that the system is exhausted and rest is needed. The more your brain works, the quicker you’re going to reach exhaustion.
Caffeine does some pretty interesting things in your body, one of which is to mimic adenosine. When caffeine is consumed, it blocks the biological receptors that typically activate when adenosine is received, sneakily telling your brain that the body doesn’t need to rest (when it actually might).
So a big cup of coffee isn’t actually giving your body energy, it’s simply telling the body that the energy reserves it currently has are still good to go. This is good news for reasons we’ll explore in the next few paragraphs, but it’s also bad.
It’s bad because, at some point, your body will realistically be out of energy (glucose is one fuel that is naturally created in the brain, which we also get from food, which neurons burn through). Caffeine tells your body that energy reserves, like glucose, are still at the level they were when you first started drinking that cup of coffee.
So how does this bit of trickery affect creativity exactly?
With your adenosine receptors blocked, your neural activity continues to pump away, allowing two other major chemicals to work overtime in your brain: dopamine and glutamate.
Dopamine is the chemical that acts as a primary neurotransmitter in the brain, building and maintaining the bridge between nerve cells. Caffeine allows the dopamine levels in your brain to more or less maintain, keeping the signals between neurons firing on all cylinders long after their energy levels would regularly allow.
You’re cheating your biological system when you consume substantial amounts of caffeine. Tricking dopamine into thinking there’s a full tank of gas when there may very well not be.
Glutamate is the other chemical that keeps on working away when you consume caffeine. As another primary neurotransmitter, glutamate works to create a long-lasting signal between neurons. It’s a super powerful cognitive chemical that helps major functions like learning and memory, and because it’s allowed to work overtime when caffeine is introduced into your body, you’re more likely to use reservoirs of it up quickly.
Stronger and longer lasting signals between neurotransmitters in the brain means you’re more likely to make connections between pre-existing ideas (which is all that creativity is). So yes, caffeine certainly can help you to think creatively.
Unfortunately the results are short-lived and not always worthwhile. Sapping your energy reserves with caffeine can leave you stuck in a cycle of tricking your body into thinking it doesn’t need to rest, then experiencing a heavy loss of energy, trying to make up for it with more caffeine, and on and on.
When the adenosine receptors that caffeine blocks suddenly free up, and real adenosine finally gets through, that’s when people typically feel a big “down” that kills productivity and, more importantly, creativity.
So, if you’re looking for a quick boost in productivity and creative thinking, a cup of coffee can certainly help you out. But if you’re the type of person who has a regular cup or two (or twelve) every day, you’re burning on fuel your body doesn’t really have and you’re going to be in a fight for good ideas.
Caffeine can certainly help you think, but only if you consume it once every 10 days or so (a good half life for the affects it has on your body).
So have a cup or don’t, just remember what’s happening to your body when you do.
Photo by Laura D’Alessandro.