Health and Wellness

A strong cup of coffee boosts focus and problem-solving — but not creativity

@wilsvanzyl | Twenty20

While a coffee break might seem like just the thing you need when you're feeling uninspired at work, a new study suggests it might not be the best strategy for creative thinking. 

Researchers from the University of Arkansas looked at how caffeine affects our ability to do two cognitive tasks: problem-solving and brainstorming. The researchers found that while consuming caffeine "significantly enhanced" problem-solving abilities, meaning they solved problems faster and more accurately, it has no effect on people's ability to think up new ideas.

The reason? These two thinking tasks require the brain to work in completely different ways.

On one hand, there's "convergent thinking," which is the ability to come up with one correct solution and relates to problem-solving. It requires several cognitive processes, including executive control and focused attention. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, which makes you feel more focused, energized, alert and awake, according to MedlinePlus

Then there's "divergent thinking," which entails thinking of a wide range of responses that are novel or interesting and is related to brain-storming. It requires "spontaneous thought," lower attention levels and reduced cognitive control. That's why other studies suggest that boredom triggers creativity

For the study, researchers gave 88 participants (who were an average of 21) a 200 mg caffeine pill, which is about one strong cup of coffee, or a placebo. They then had to answer 72 problem-solving questions, and three open-ended prompts. For example, they were asked to think about problems that would arise from being able to walk or fly without an airplane or vehicle.

It's possible that 200 mg is not enough caffeine to impact people's ability to generate ideas, the study authors wrote. Most people can safely consume 400 mg of caffeine a day, equivalent to about two strong cups of coffee. An excess of caffeine can cause shakiness, headaches, anxiety, sleep problems, dehydration and a rapid heartbeat.

While extra caffeine has the potential to make you feel uncomfortable, the good news is it won't negatively impact your creativity, Darya Zabelina, study author and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas, said in a press release. "[S]o keep drinking your coffee; it won't interfere with these abilities," she said.

Caffeine also has other perks: it's been shown to boost your mood, which could be useful if you're heading into a brainstorming session or working on a creative project.

That said, there are plenty of other science-backed ways to boost your creativity. Studies have shown that going for a walk in nature "opens up the free flow of ideas." Even taking a nap is shown to improve your memory and focus better than caffeine.

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