I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to caffeine. God, I love coffee and soda and tea. Without it, I just drop like a fly hitting a plastic swatter. The sad thing is, I’m completely dependent upon it. Yes. I’m Catherine, and I’m dependent on caffeine.
What a weakness to admit! I’m addicted to a legal drug, something that can be as stimulating as I want it to be, depending on how much I choose to drink. It’s my choice to drink two cups of coffee in the morning, a soda at 9:30 or 10:00, another something with lunch, and, possibly, another coffee at 4:00pm. How much is too much, though, in terms of medical aspects and “creativity cramping (phrase from The New Yorker, Konnikova, 2013)? I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve done some research I’d like to share, though.
First, why is this important to me and you? I’m a writer. If you’re reading this blog, which is focused on writing, you’re probably a writer, too. Writers tend to be creative folks, and we tend to be highly stimulated by ideas, projects, and, sometimes, coffee.
I once read a passage in a book on writing called Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, and in it she makes a note that there’s a threshold at which the caffeine goes from stimulating creativity to hindering creativity, getting in the way of the process. The tipping point is different for everyone. Malcolm Gladwell, of The New Yorker, wrote a book called The Tipping Point (2000) about the time when something goes from being just enough to too much. While he didn’t refer to caffeine specifically, the principle applies. My theory is that each of us is different, that there isn’t one, particular number of perfect caffeine dosage to spur creativity while not going so far that your hands shake too much to type or write. However, if you want a number to aim for, two of the studies I read suggested that 200 mg a day (cite), several hours before bedtime, is a good number that won’t set one too far over the edge. Again, I’m not an expert. I’m not a medical professional. This comes from my sources, and each person will have a different threshold, if he or she indulges in caffeine at all.
Caffeine can stimulate the brain; that much appears to be true. Caffeine can make one more aware. Caffeine can make one too aware, and, as James Hamblin from The Atlantic mentions in his article “Caffeine: For the More Creative Mind” (2013), if it interferes with our lives, as with any addiction, obsession, or activity, then there’s a problem and the person should probably step back and evaluate what’s going on:
“If you’re taking in enough caffeine that it messes with your sleep, the benefit can definitely be negated. If you become so motivated and vigilant that you spend hours perfecting every aspect of basic tasks, neglecting others, or your own relationships or hygiene, or not exercising, all of that is also no good. Like every drug, its effects can’t be considered in a vacuum. Like all good things, moderation. You can’t get too much moderation. ‘Fear can sometimes be a useful emotion.'” (Hamblin, 2013, par. 13)
This article from The Atlantic followed an article called “How Caffeine Can Cramp Creativity” from The New Yorker the week before (2013). As the article’s title suggests, the following excerpt sums up its thesis: “. . . modern science is challenging [Balzac’s] view of caffeine causing ideas to ‘quick-march into motion.’ While caffeine has numerous benefits, it appears that the drug may undermine creativity more than it stimulates it” (Konnikova, 2013, par. 2).
What’s the truth? What’s the truth for you? The best take-away from this may be to step back and examine your caffeine usage, as I am. Also, the study I read, “The Combined Effects of L-Theanine in Caffeine on Cognitive Performance and Mood” (Owen, 2008) described the effects of studies conducted on people in “general good health” who regularly drank caffeinated beverages (Owen, 2008.) Medications one takes and overall health can affect the effects of caffeine on a person. Talk to your doctor about that.
In this guide to nutrition during college students’ study times for exams from “Food to Fuel Concentration and Memory: Can Diet Make a Difference When Preparing for Exams,” there’s a chart of how much caffeine certain popular beverages contain (Saxelby, n.d., p. 6).
Certainly, I’m not Balzac or Kerouac. I’m not writing novels while ingesting very high amounts of stimulants, period. As Hamblin suggested, perhaps I’m scared of what leaving the caffeine behind will do to my creativity. Is my creativity innate? I certainly can’t accomplish anything if I’m sleeping all day, right? Will my projects be motivation enough to keep me awake and focused? In fact, could it be that the amount of caffeine I consume actually hampers my ability to process, analyze, and write?
Last, there’s sleep. Sleep is so important for everything. Everything. I strongly believe this, as I am in bed by the ungodly hour of 9:00pm and up at 6:00. If I fall asleep at 10:00, that’s a solid eight hours of rest. Afterward, sure, I drink my morning brew, but I also get a lot accomplished. Sleep is vital for optimal brain function and productivity, including physical activity (Saxelby, n.d.). The most important thing about all of this, to me, is that caffeine can make one not get enough out of sleep, no matter how many hours one puts into it. That could be the one thing that pushes me back to the other side, back to the mythical 200 mg or none at all.
I’ll let you know how that goes!
What’s your relationship to caffeine? How do you think it affects your creativity, productivity, and focus?
Hamblin, J. (2013). Caffeine: For the more creative mind. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/06/caffeine-for-the-more-creative-mind/277069/
Konnikova, M. (2013). How caffeine can cramp creativity. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/06/how-caffeine-short-circuits-creativity.html
Owen, G.; Parnell, H.; De Bruin, E.; Rycroft, J. (2008). The combined effects of L-Thianine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.com
Saxelby, C. (n.d.). Food to fuel concentration and memory: can diet make a difference when preparing for exams. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.com