That morning cup of coffee may be doing you more harm than good. It is certainly affecting your creativity.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to work?
Even before you open your email inbox and look through all those requests from managers and colleagues?
For a large proportion of people, the very first thing they reach for is a cup of coffee or tea (or in a lot of Startups: Red Bull).
“I can’t get anything done without my morning caffeine hit”.
And it makes sense. After drinking something caffeinated, you’ll feel more energised and alert.
This is especially true for people who need to come up with ideas throughout their day. Whether you’re creative by writing a book or finding a solution to why that new gearbox design isn’t working, many of the world’s most creative people swear that coffee was vital to their performance.
[Hell, I’m as guilty as anyone else, although my morning drug-of-choice is Coca Cola.]
There’s just one problem.
It may have actually been having the opposite effect.
New evidence shows that caffeine may actually be making you less creative.
How caffeine affects the brain
In order to know exactly why coffee makes us feel alert, it’s useful to understand how this molecule affects your brain. ASAP Science’s Youtube channel provided a great animation to show exactly what’s going on.
This is where the problems with caffeine and creativity arise. The fact that the surplus of caffeine makes the brain create more adenosine (sleepy molecule) receptors means that without the caffeine, you’ll actually feel more sleepy and unproductive than before.
While some studies indicate that moderate caffeine intake does result in improved cognititve performance, research from John Hopkins found that what you feel as the “hit” from caffeine is actually just your body no longer feeling caffeine withdrawal. It is essentially bringing you back up to the level you were without caffeine. Subsequent studies have shown that caffeine doesn’t actually provide a boost to mental performance.
In fact, if you want to feel more alert and get more work done, a study by the BBC found unlikely candidates that appear to actually improve performance: chewing gum or sage (herb) tablets.
Caffeine and Creativity
So what about the link between caffeine and creativity?
Well, there are two important aspects of creativity which can be negatively affected by the drug.
An over-excited brain isn’t good for original ideas
As you saw in the video above, caffeine also stimulates your body’s production of adrenaline. This can make you feel more physically energetic. But it’s also the brain’s chemical signal for a “fight or flight” response, which puts the mind in a super-focused high-energy state and primed to make reactive decisions based on whatever is around you.
This is excellent if you’re being chased by a bear.
But it’s terrible for many of the networks in your brain forming new ideas.
Neuroscience is providing a growing list of evidence that ideas are developed by the subconscious parts of the brain, in neural networks that you’re not aware of. These networks are most effective when you’re in a lower mental energy state and not focused on a particular issue (like when your mind is wandering or you’re in the shower).
When your brain is put into a high-energy state, like those fuelled by caffeine and adrenaline, those subconscious networks are blocked from doing their best work. You may feel like your brain is working really fast, or that you’re coming up with lots of ideas, but each of those ideas is likely to just be a slight variation on a memory, rather than something truly new and valuable.
So you might be able to come up with some ideas, but they won’t be any better than ideas you’ve had before. In fact, they’ll be almost identical as they’re essentially just memories.
Caffeine and Sleep
Caffeine’s other dirty secret is that it accumulates in your body, and has a half life of around 6 hours, which means it takes a full 24 hours to get out of your system. This means that if you have a strong cup of coffee at 9am, then 50% will still be in your system, and 25% will still be in your system at 9pm. Many people have several cups of coffee or tea a day, which means that by the time they try to go to sleep you’ll still be full of the chemical.
The problem with this is that caffeine severely decreases the quality of sleep you get, in some cases even stopping you reaching the relaxation required for Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which is when your brain recuperates from the day’s stresses and processes emotions and memories.
There’s also growing evidence that it is during this deep sleep that the brain is most effective at building out the new neural networks which eventually find new & original ideas. This is why people often come up with solutions to problems one or two days after the initial challenge, or even in their dreams.
Without this quality sleep, you’re missing out on some of your brain’s most productive creative processing time.
Not to mention the fact that a lack of good night’s sleep makes you significantly less able to perform tasks well the following day. Being seriously tired will also affect your creativity.
So what’s the solution?
Going cold turkey and giving up caffeine is probably not the right thing to do. But there are a couple of simple changes you can make which could lead to a surprising improvement in your ability to be creative and solve problems.
Start by decreasing the amount of caffeine you take in every day by switching to a lower-caffeine version of your drink of choice (and try to avoid high-caffeine beverages like Red Bull and espresso entirely).
Then, avoid drinking any more in the afternoon or evening, to give your body at least 10 hours to break it down in your system before you go to bed.
And finally, try to delay your first cup until slightly later into the morning, and do work which requires your creativity before you drink it. Some of your most creatively productive hours are in the morning, when your brain is closest to it’s low activity sleeping state.
So if you can wait until 10am to have your first cup, that gives you an hour in the morning when you’re most likely to come up with your next big thing.
What are you like in the morning before you’ve had your coffee or tea? Do you find you come up with ideas in your sleep? Let me know in the comments below.