How coffee effects designers creativity

how coffee affects designers creativity

Written by Daniel Walter Scott - February 2015.

At Bring Your Own Laptop we are starting the new year by reviewing our goals from 2014 and setting new goals for 2015. Exciting times! With all of this goal setting, it got me to thinking about my own personal goals and new year’s resolutions. Year after year I try the same old resolutions; go to the gym, get buff, eat better… and cut down on the booze and the coffee. So here I am , 8 days in to the new year, exhausted, starving, (I’m convinced I’m running a low blood sugar level), and I have a killer headache. If I’m honest, the thing that I am finding most difficult is the coffee abstention, first thing in the morning. And worst of all, I’m devoid of creative inspiration. Not a single solitary light bulb moment all week. So I get to thinking that maybe all of these ‘bad’ things that I spend the rest of the year enjoying are in fact what get my creative juices flowing.

A few hours of googling later and I realise that there is an abundance of information on the effects of coffee or caffeine on creativity levels, cognitive functioning and energy levels. But not all of it is clear cut.

Firstly, let’s look at the neurobiological effects of coffee (caffeine) in the brain.

I have found a neat little video that illustrates this very effectively:

Caffeine in the brain blocks adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a chemical in the brain which builds up throughout the day, gradually slowing the nerve activity and causing us to feel sleepy and ready to relax. By blocking the adenosine receptors, caffeine prevents these sleepy, relaxed feelings from occurring (or at least, delays them). Furthermore, caffeine causes an increase in Dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, in simple terms, heightens brain activity. It’s thought that the link between caffeine and dopamine levels is what causes us to become addicted to caffeine. But more on that later.

So the creative/designer in me went on the hunt for a creative way to illustrate or conceptualise these dry scientific facts about the effects of caffeine and found 2 clever analogies . In ‘Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine Hardcover- October 3, 1996, the author, Braun, likens the effects of caffeine on the adenosine receptors to ‘putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals’. Braun is also quoted as saying the effects of caffeine on the brain are like ‘taking the chaperones out of a high school dance’.

So we have seen how caffeine interacts with chemicals in our brains but what effect does my morning coffee (or 3) have on my actual cognitive functioning and more specifically, my precious creativity!! Well , this information indicates that caffeine can enable our brains to work more quickly and in a more focused manner. It is also reported to be responsible for decreasing cognitive fatigue and improving short term memory. But being able to think more quickly and that intense focus that results from that morning coffee isn’t in itself all we need to produce our best creative work. It may help us to file our tax returns more quickly, but not necessarily produce some cutting edge design for your latest web design project.

There are some well documented accounts of creative figures who were fans of coffee and in fact those who attributed their successes to coffee. Johann Bach was one such figure as was Voltaire. And of course one of the more famous and excessive creative consumers of coffee and advocate of the positive effects of coffee on the creative mind was Honore de Balzac who was known to crush up coffee beans and eat the powder, consuming the equivalent of 50 cups per day. Although perhaps this little habit had an adverse effect on his overall health, with him passing away, aged just 51.

And so my search for information led me to come across an article by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker dated June 2013. In it she states that; ‘Creative insights and imaginative solutions often occur when we stop working on a particular problem and let our mind move on to something unrelated’. In other words, those day dreamy moments in the shower or a mind wandering moment or two over a solitary coffee for that matter are the times when our brains are best positioned to think creatively and generate those magic ideas. As a designer, I can relate to this.

And yet, this doesn’t fully answer the question for me. So coffee is good for quick thinking and yet bad for creative thinking? But there is so much more to that daily coffee than the hard cold scientific effects. For me, that morning coffee is all about the ritual. I arrive at the office with enough time to get my laptop switched on and firing up, my coat on the hook and then pop down stairs to my favourite café. That morning coffee buys me an extra 15 minutes before I really need to face the realities of the working day. The barrister knows my order before I even open my mouth. I love the aroma of that space. I can feel the dopamine levels rising before I have even taken that first sip. And I sit there alone, in the aromatic joy, these days drenched in sunshine, and let that thick black nectar enter my veins. …….. (ok, I’m getting a little carried away)…And in that moment, I am sure that the seeds are set for some of my most inspired , designer ideas that are yet to come.

So what is it about the actual coffee that makes it feel so wonderful? We all know that feeling of absolutely needing that morning coffee. That headache that starts creeping in at around 9:30am if that morning coffee has been missed. The lengths that we will go to in order to ensure that we get that morning caffeine fix. Caffeine is a drug after all. The reason it becomes addictive is because of the science outlined earlier. The body starts needing more of the chemicals produced by caffeine to give you that same pick me up. I personally, experience a slump in the early afternoon. I always thought this was the result of a big lunch and a busy morning, but I realise now that the adrenaline induced by my morning coffees is wearing off leaving me feeling drained. I also find I’m less ‘chirpy’ in the afternoon. It’s likely that this is due to the dopamine levels mentioned earlier, decreasing. So, of course, I regularly make that 2pm trip to the coffee machine.

So at worst, my morning coffee might perhaps make my mind work a little bit too quickly to immediately come up with some clear ideas. Right? And even then, the scientific facts outlined above indicate that really, the only effects that coffee can have on the brain are pretty positive. Right? And so what if I’m a little addicted to caffeine. It’s not THAT bad, right? Well, not necessarily. How about those times, when you have had one too many coffees in a row and you notice that your heart starts beating faster, your muscles appear to get a little twitchy and tighter, your breathing gets faster, your hands get a bit colder and you get this ‘excited yet nervously/anxious’ feeling in your stomach? Well, it turns out that this too is linked to the effect of caffeine on the brain. When caffeine causes the brain to increase neural activity, the pituitary gland interprets this as some sort of an emergency for the body and so it causes the adrenal gland to release adrenaline. Adrenaline cause the body to go in to ‘fight or flight’ mode, as if the body was under attack or in danger….Possibly not the state you want to be in first thing in the morning at work.

And then, there is the difficulty getting to sleep at night. Like many designers I know, I’m a bit of a night owl and find that my creativity is at it’s peak at around midnight for some reason. But of course, this energised feeling is helped along by a little after dinner coffee. And yes, I always have difficulty shutting off at night. I always had my suspicions that coffee was the culprit and so made sure that my last coffee was no later than 9 pm. But now I realise that coffee has a 6 hour half life. This means that if I have my last coffee at 9, then 6 hours later at 3am when I am tossing and turning and unable to switch off, there is still half of the caffeine still left in my system.

So there you go, so I’m definitely going to give up the coffee this year! WRONG! Despite all that I’ve read and written above, I’m with Balzac!! I LOVE being addicted to the black stuff (coffee, not Guinness). In 2015, I’m going to drink coffee to my heart’s content and I’m going to produce some fine design work. So now I’ve got to give up something else in it’s place……Any suggestions?? Please hit me up on Twitter/Google+/Facebook.

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