Famous authors and artists are commonly photographed alongside a trusty mug of coffee, but that cup of joe is more likely to help the Great American Manager. Caffeine, it turns out, does not improve creativity, but it significantly enhances problem-solving, according to a new study.
This is news, given how strongly we associate coffee with creative occupations and lifestyles. The study, published today in Consciousness and Cognition, followed 80 participants after they consumed either a placebo or 200 mg of caffeine—the equivalent of 12 ounces of coffee—and then tracked their problem-solving, creative idea generation, working memory, and mood. While problem-solving abilities improved significantly, the caffeine had no effect on memory or creativity. Subjects also reported feeling “less sad.”
Previous studies have shown that caffeine improves alertness, focus, attention, and motor skills, but little research existed on creativity.
This means that caffeine helps some kinds of thinking, specifically convergent thinking, such as when you need correct answers, for instance, while taking a GRE or MCAT or recalibrating a budget. It will not help you in the divergent thinking of creativity, such as brainstorming a novel plot or imagining a new design. “It also doesn’t make it worse,” notes lead author Darya Zabelina, assistant psychology professor at the University of Arkansas, “so keep drinking your coffee. It won’t interfere.”