RERUN: Dry Stretch: Beer and Creativity (or, Beerativity)

[New blogging goals in my second year of blogging:  host more guest blogs + rerun some of my “notes” from Facebook, which I was clearly trying to use as a blog. The following is from July 27, 2011. Update afterward.]

My husband commented at dinner last night that it had been 18 days since he’d mowed, which he thought was a record. We’ve had such a hot, dry stretch here in Wisconsin that you can’t really even tell–the only things growing in the yard are those spiky things which we called plantains in Southern Illinois (so they’re probably called something else everywhere else).

It occurred to me that this is approximately the same amount of time I’ve gone without drinking.  No beer, no wine, and I hadn’t even gotten around to having my first G&T of the summer—I like to make tonic water ice cubes so the drink doesn’t get watery (though it does get tonic-watery).

A writer I know announced yesterday that he’ll be avoiding alcohol for 21 days in August & reporting for Men’s Health.

And doing more reading for my ongoing research on creativity, this section came up yesterday: “Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.” In this section, leading creativity researcher Mark Runco (who I like to pretend looks like Mark Ruffalo) makes these points, which seemed relevant to the whole dry-stretch theme:

  • In summarizing multiple findings, Runco gives these numbers:  One researcher “found a full 60 percent of those involved in theater probably having alcoholism, with writers of fiction and musicians not far behind (41% and 49% respectively).” Another researcher “found writers to be especially prone to alcoholism” (131).
  • (NOTE: poets score higher on the whole suicide index, to be fair.)

To make sense of the next point, you have to know that Wallas was an early creativity researcher, and any time a researcher discusses the stages of creativity, the basis began with Wallas, who described these as the stages of creativity: preparation (defining the problem, setting the task, doing research, mulling over different possibilities), incubation (setting the project aside & letting things stew/coalesce at a subconscious or preconscious level), illumination (that a-ha! moment), verification (when other people confirm whether the creativity is successful or just bizarro).

  • Runco reports two researchers who looked at drinking and creativity “found alcohol consumption to be related to improved incubation…as well as high originality but only in the illumination phase of the creative process. Alcohol seems to inhibit flexibility during illumination. It was also related to poor verification….” These researchers “were extremely precise in the methods used to administer alcohol. They used 1.0 milliliter of alcohol (100% pure alcohol, not Bud Light nor even Captain Morgan Rum) for each kilogram of body weight” (132).

Then he describes alcohol’s effect on primary processes (“Primary process is associative and uninhibited. It is impulsive, libidinal, and free of censorship”) and secondary processes (“realistic, practical, and reality-oriented”) (133).

  • Yet another group of researchers “administered alcohol with two experimental groups in an attempt to manipulate primary and secondary process. Surprisingly [they] reported that the alcohol group seemed to use secondary process more than primary process. The prediction had been that alcohol would allow primary process but inhibits secondary process….The surprising finding may explain the common misconception that alcohol frees up our thinking and therefore improves our creativity. Thinking while intoxicated may actually be more original, but it may also be unrealistic and worthless. Truly creative insights are both original and worthwhile Perhaps intoxicated individuals are simply very poor judges of their own thinking. They may indeed have a really bizarre and therefore original idea, and they may like it because it is original, but they fail to see that even though it is original, it is worthless” (132).

I have always been good at the preparation & incubation & illumination stages—it’s just the verification I’ve struggled with. And the notion of flexibility seems most relevant to revising—looking at options and not getting locked in to the original plan or draft.

So. It’s raining today in southwest Wisconsin, but at least at the moment, I’m still not drinking.  I’m sleeping better and feeling calmer overall. And it comforts me to know that I’m probably not losing anything in terms of creativity by staying sober.

Runco, Mark. Creativity: Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier,

2007. Print.

[11/26/12: I stopped drinking until I could imagine myself having a glass of wine or a beer without having a second or third automatically. It was the right thing to do–since I started drinking again (I think I went a couple months total without drinking), it hasn’t felt out of control at all. I’m checking to see if I can find the article Benjamin Percy wrote about his dry stretch.  One of the biggest disappointments about finding out that Jonah Lehrer is a big fat liar is that I really liked how his book on creativity talked about the benefits and drawbacks of drugs/alcohol on the creative process. Perhaps I’ll check his sources and write about that myself in a future blog.]

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