Study: Caffeine is great for solving problems, but doesn’t boost creativity

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Where would so many of us be without caffeine? Probably still in bed. A hot cup of joe is an essential for millions each morning, but besides being a breakfast pillar, many people turn to coffee or another form of caffeine at all hours of the night or day when they have something important to get done. Researchers at the University of Arkansas investigated caffeine’s helpful effect on certain tasks, and discovered it’s more beneficial when it comes to focusing on and solving a concrete problem in comparison to creative endeavors.

“In Western cultures, caffeine is stereotypically associated with creative occupations and lifestyles, from writers and their coffee to programmers and their energy drinks, and there’s more than a kernel of truth to these stereotypes,” comments Darya Zabelina, assistant professor of psychology and first author of the study, in a press release.

It’s no secret that caffeine can help kickstart our engines; providing improved alertness and motor performance, but far less is known about its impact on creativity.

For the purpose of this research, concrete problem solving was referred to as convergent thinking, while more creative thoughts were called divergent thinking. More specifically, convergent thinking can be defined as seeking an accurate, indisputable correct answer to a problem, like solving a math equation. Divergent thinking on the other hand is more attuned with thinking of unique or novel approaches to a situation.

The study revealed a clear benefit to consuming caffeine when dealing with convergent thought, but no real improvement in terms of divergent thought.

In all, 80 volunteers took part in the study. Each person was randomly given either a 200mg caffeine pill (equal to one strong cup of coffee) or a placebo. Then, they were all tested on a variety of tasks measuring convergent thought, divergent thought, working memory, and mood.

Besides the study’s findings regarding creativity, caffeine also didn’t help the participants’ working memory. Although, they did report feeling less sad.

“The 200mg enhanced problem solving significantly, but had no effect on creative thinking,” Zabelina concludes. “It also didn’t make it worse, so keep drinking your coffee; it won’t interfere with these abilities.”

The study is published in Consciousness and Cognition.