coffee and creativity

Can Coffee Boost Creativity?

SATAN’s DRINK—what some Europeans called coffee when the exotic drink first made its way from Arabia to Europe in the seventeenth century. Such an honorable label would have been more fitting tied to tequila but nevertheless, the Christian Europeans shunned the arrival of coffee to their native land.

The resistance didn’t last too long however once Pope Clement VIII decided to throw back a Cup of Joe to see for himself what all of the fuss was about. The Pope must have been given a damn good cup of coffee that day because he was hooked instantly on the beverage so much so that he blessed it. What was once considered an “evil” drink was now blessed by the Bishop of Rome and accepted by all with open coffee cups throughout Europe and eventually the rest of the world.

The great Voltaire was known to down an estimated 50 cups of coffee a day and ended up living to the old age of 83 dying in 1778. This is some feat considering that the average life expectancy in the 1700s was only 35 years of age. Perhaps coffee can be considered the Holy Grail.

As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle. -Honore de Balzac

Honore de Balzac, the great French novelist and playwright also drank 50 cups a day fueling his 14-hour-a-day marathon writing sessions. Balzac claimed coffee was a requirement for his writing. He unfortunately did not have the same luck as Voltaire and suffered physically from his coffee habit with twitches, headaches, stomach cramps and high blood pressure. Volataire died at the age of 51.

During the 90s we were told coffee was bad for us. Numerous studies reported the adverse effects of caffeine and for the first time in many years, coffee consumption had declined around the world.

Today paints a completely different picture as coffee reins supreme as a powerful nutritional antioxidant in addition to its energy boosting super powers. Recent studies seem to suggest nothing but positive benefits such as the ability to lessen or prevent the effects of cardiovascular disease, cancer, liver disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Notwithstanding coffee’s nutritional benefits and adverse effects, how does coffee affect the brain and creativity?

This is your brain on caffeine

Caffeine works by blocking the brain hormone adenosine. Adenosine is what tells the body you are tired and that your brain needs to chill out after stimulation from mental activity. With adenosine blocked, activity increases in the brain as other neurotransmitters are released causing you to feel more alert with increased reaction time, energy levels and metabolic rate. These effects are all a result of your mind being tricked into believing that you are not tired. What you are feeling is not an actual jolt of energy but just the “tired alarm” in your brain being temporarily shut down during a caffeine high.

So why is it that Bob the sales guy can throw back six Starbucks venti sized blonde roasted cups of coffee a day without a single twitch and Peggy from accounting seems like she’s swinging from the rafters like an ape after a shot of espresso? It comes down to a person’s caffeine tolerance and sensitivity levels.

Know your caffeine tolerance and sensitivity

My girlfriend recently skipped her morning coffee which was followed by the onset of a raging headache accompanied by an attitude, grogginess, and irritability. Combine these caffeine withdrawal symptoms with the other physical and emotional symptoms that women experience during a certain part of the month and what you have is……The Perfect Storm.

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can occur immediately following a missed dosage for habitual coffee drinkers. Routine daily coffee consumption causes the brain to create additional adenosine hormones to compensate for the blocked ones.  The extra adenosine is what causes the headaches and tiredness as the body tries to return to a caffeine free state.

Someone who drinks two cups of coffee everyday will not feel the same boost as when the coffee consumption began. This explains why folks will increase the dosage to three, four, and eventually six cups a day in order to feel the pleasant effects because a tolerance had developed for the two cup routine. A tolerance can develop even for only a measly one cup a day routine.

According to caffeine researcher Laura Juliano, most coffee drinkers who have no built up tolerance only need a small amount of caffeine to enjoy its energy boosting effects. Just 100 milligrams will do the job which can be found in a standard 6-ounce cup of coffee. A standard short 8-ounce cup of Blonde Roast coffee from Starbucks contains 180 mg of caffeine.

Genetic makeup also plays a role in caffeine sensitivity and tolerance. No two individuals react the same way to caffeine intake. Caffeine dosage will differ from person to person when it comes to building up a tolerance and experiencing the effects.

Can caffeine tolerance be removed or reset?

Yes, it can take a heavy coffee drinker with a high tolerance 7–14 days to reset their caffeine tolerance. By going cold turkey for two weeks however, will come with its share of negative withdrawal symptoms.

Do coffee and creativity go hand in hand?

It’s no secret that many artists, writers, and creatives swear upon the benefits of their coffee rituals each and every morning. For many, it’s a morning requirement that sits at the top of their pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Writer Jeff Goins said,

Although it is not the only factor, coffee has helped me be more creative and become a better writer. Ideas seem to flow easier, words chain together faster, and creative juices show up when I need them.


There is no factual evidence or science that can concretely prove coffee boosts creativity. Maria Konnikova stated in an article for Smithsonian that coffee can actually hinder creative expression.

To string together seemingly unconnected ideas to spur a creative insight, you need your brain to relax. Creativity depends in part on the very thing that caffeine seeks to prevent: a wandering, unfocussed mind.

The brain on caffeine is not relaxed. Ideas and creations usually spring up when the mind is calm and settled.

Coffee’s true power arises when it comes time to EXECUTE ideas by giving your mind the power punch it needs to crank through those late night grind sessions. Lifehacker reported that beer is great for generating ideas as it can calm the mind while coffee is the substance that gets your ideas done.

Another strike against coffee is that if it’s consumed later in the day, it can disrupt sleep and a tired mind is no longer a creative mind.

I waited until my early thirties before picking up a coffee drinking habit. However I recently cut my daily ritual to only drinking coffee 2-3 days a week to avoid building a tolerance. I consume when I need the extra boost and stick to the same times during the day which is 9:30am followed by another cup at about 1:30pm. If I’m feeling a little crazy in the evening while out on the town, I’ll throw back an occasional espresso shot with my brewski.

I prefer to wake up naturally in the morning by relying on hormone cortisol to do its job. According to Steven Miller P.h.D., your body is “naturally caffeinating” with cortisol when you wake up in the morning.

According to Miller, cortisol levels peak between 8am and 9am. If you drink caffeine during these peak times, you are less likely to experience the caffeine benefits which also can result in a faster tolerance. The key is to consume coffee after your cortisol levels come down.

Coffee guru, Ryoko Iwaka, provides the optimum coffee drinking schedule:

Not only is there a science behind how coffee and caffeine affect the brain, there is also a science to one’s consumption regimen. Finding that perfect caffeine level will allow you to maximize the benefits of your coffee intake which can boost your mental alertness propelling you to take action on your ideas that are going to change the world.

Now go fire up the French press. Just make sure it’s before five in the afternoon.

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