After a glass or two of wine, I’m an awesome tango dancer. A real legend in my own mind. OK maybe, maybe not, but who can argue with the effects of a little libation on liberating the creative spirit? Writers, artists, really anyone in need of inspiration has to admit that it has helped some of the best in their respective fields to produce great work. The adage “write drunk, edit sober” may be an exaggeration, but it certainly isn’t a new idea. The Roman philosopher Horace (65-8 BC) wrote “No poems can please for long or live that are written by water drinkers.” Two millennia later, there’s science to back it up.
In 1992 researchers at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver BC got the ball rolling with a test of the effects of alcohol on creative writing with a small group of intrepid volunteers. Not surprisingly, they found that after consuming a moderate amount, “within-subject comparisons indicated significantly greater quantity of creative writing while intoxicated. These results were interpreted as supporting the belief that alcohol can reduce “writer’s block,” at least amongst nonalcoholic subjects.”
How a tipple tickles the imagination
Cheers to that you may say, but given the hazards of overconsumption, it is important to understand why. Is there more to it than simply imbibition suppressing inhibition? Brain research has generally held that cognitive control is crucial for creative thought, suggesting something else is at work. A group at the University of Graz in Austria concocted a study in 2017 to shed a little light on the question. Participants completed executive and creative cognition tasks before and after consuming either alcoholic beer to a blood alcohol level of 0.03 or non-alcoholic beer (placebo). The drinkers did experience impaired “executive control,” but improvement in scores on the “Remote Associates Test,” a measure of creative cognition.
If painting is your thing, there are plenty of opportunities to uncork your latent talent. Chances are there’s a franchise near you offering something along the lines of a “sip and paint” evening. “Still life with wine?” Maybe make that “Still life with empty wine bottle …” I asked my good friend and superb artist Willow Bader who offers “sip and draw” sessions for groups and is convinced that wine is part of the secret of their success. Here’s how she explains it: “A little wine helps turn off the critical part of the brain, making it easier for creativity to flow. I love to watch people relax with a glass of wine and enjoy trying something new with charcoal and paper.” (Because of Covid 19 she hosts the events outside with plenty of space between participants.)
As for her own painting, she says “I find I paint best with a glass of wine. It helps me get in the moment, turning off parts of the brain that inhibit creativity. I love a good evening in the studio with a glass of wine and a paint brush in hand. If I was a morning person, wine would be out of the question. But lucky for me I paint best in the evening and a glass of wine is the perfect compliment. Reflecting on it now I don’t think any of my best paintings were created without wine. I have tried other beverages, but wine proves the best match.”
Is it the wine?
So is wine the best choice for getting the creative juices going? Hard to measure, but I’ll wager that it has inspired more creative output than beer or spirits. The Nobel laureate poet Pablo Neruda penned an Ode to Wine, in which he uninhibitedly compared his lover’s breasts to a cluster of grapes; not the sort of tributes you hear about other alcoholic beverages. Bestselling writer Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci offers “Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking” seminars for clients such as Microsoft, Nike, and Merck. He is convinced that wine facilitates innovative approaches to problem solving.
There are obviously limits to this, and famous flameouts from alcohol abuse are notorious in the creative professions. As a surgeon of course I can’t even consider it in my day job. And to produce great work takes more than a glass or two at a cork n’ canvas party. If I do dance tango competently it is from years of classes, and it’s the same for all artists, poets, and musicians, professional or postulant. But if a glass of wine helps light a spark of creativity, who knows where it might lead.
Moral of the story:
If you want to be a true pioneer
You need to learn how to conquer your fear
To be amply creative
And more innovative
Drink anything but the placebo beer.
Three cups open the grand door to bliss;
Take a jugful, the universe is yours.
Such is the rapture of the wine,
That the sober shall never inherit.
- Tang dynasty poet Li Bai
Brunke M, Gilbert M. Alcohol and Creative Writing. Psychol Rep 1992 Oct;71(2):651-8.
 Benedek M, Panzierer L, Jauk E, Neubauer AC. Creativity on tap? Effects of alcohol intoxication on creative cognition. Conscious Cogn. 2017;56:128-134.