Drinking and Art

Did you know? is one of  my favorite tumblr blogs, and they had a particularly good weekend.  I've had several of their tabs open for a few days now, because I wanted to blog about them.  Ultimately, the one I settled on was this:

I've suspected this for a while -- I don't think there's anyone who can reasonably defend the claim that getting blackout drunk can help smooth the work of a creative endeavor, but the effects of light drinking can only help.  In one of my favorite New Yorker articles, Drinking Games, Malcolm Gladwell explains:

Steele and his colleague Robert Josephs's explanation is that we've misread the effects of alcohol on the brain. Its principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision. It causes, they write, "a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion."

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That's why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center—and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

So, that's a reasonably respected reporter discussing the work of an established scientist.  The thoroughly unscientific provisional conclusion I've drawn from this is that having a drink or two while I work will probably help block out the otherwise disabling awareness that Tumblr is just a few clicks away.

TIME Magazine's article in their health section, the one to which the above Did You Know refers, goes further than that:

 Increasingly, science is confirming that altered states of consciousness — whether induced by drugs, alcohol, sleepiness, travel or anything else that removes us from our usual way of seeing the world — do indeed improve creative thought. The inhibition of what researchers call executive functioning, which includes focus and planning — abilities that decline when we’re under the influence — may be what lets us generate new ideas and innovative solutions, instead of remaining fixed on the task at hand.

The study, which, thankfully, TIME actually links to, is published in Consciousness and Cognition, a peer-reviewed journal with a self-explanatory name.

The article also dips into the risks of this kind of finding -- whether attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin diminish creative thinking, and whether this contributes to the rate of addiction in artists:

Having less executive control before you even take drugs means you’ll have less ability to stop once you start.

That would increase addiction risk two ways — by increasing desire to use, and by increasing the risk from use that occurs. And of course, the more high-profile creative types who become addicted, the more it seems that drugs and alcohol must be crucial to creativity. And that itself would attract even more artists to initiate drug use, escalating the cycle.

Personally, I know I'm prone to addiction, so I weigh my decisions to drink very carefully against the various risks, especially dependence. In a world governed entirely by my own preferences, I'd have access to professionals that can help me regulate my use of chemicals to adjust my state of mind to my preference.  By which I mean, I'd be able to get prescriptions for gin and LSD from my psychiatrist.