April 2, 2012

Survey: Drinkers may indeed be better novelists … to a point ….


Ernest Hemmingway getting down to work

Ernest Hemingway was supposedly asked by an editor how long it would take to finish a paragraph. Hemingway pointed to the whiskey bottle on his desk and said, “about an inch or two.”

This kind of looking for inspiration at the bottom of your glass is not usually recommended. Though the latest issue of New Scientist has some interesting news. Apparently, a study exploring the influence of alcohol on creative problem-solving suggests a small amount of booze could help you find some answers:

Andrew Jarosz and colleagues from the University of Illinois at Chicago gave 40 men either a vodka and cranberry drink, adjusted according to body weight, or a non-alcoholic one. The subjects then took a test which involved linking groups of words with a single concept.

The tipplers solved 38 per cent more problems than their sober counterparts and reached the correct answer faster. They were also more likely to say they hit on the answer with a “sudden insight” (Consciousness and Cognition,DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2012.01.002).

These insights were accompanied by a reduced working-memory capacity — a measure of your ability to focus on a specific task — which the team says supports the idea that alcohol fuels your creativity by allowing your mind to wander, connecting disparate ideas.

Wandering from one idea to the next can be fruitful. But before you hit the nearest bar to write your Great American Novel, researcher Marci DeCaro at the University of Louisville, Kentucky notes that its easy to overstep the line of alcohol’s usefulness. “It is possible to get a little too unfocused,” warns DeCaro.

Judging from Papa Hemmingways’ later works it’s a danger indeed.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.