Tuesday, May 12, 2009

God, I Love Science

This article from Prospect Magazine's May 2009 issue discusses a possible genetic basis for a link between alcohol consumption and creativity--but only in some people:

Winston Churchill claimed it crucial for The World Crisis, his six-volume memoirs, stating: “always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” Novelist William Faulkner drank more intermittently, but claimed not to be able to face a blank page without a bottle of Jack Daniels. Beethoven fell under the influence in the later part of his creative life. Among painters, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and many others liked a drop or two while working.

Such figures make alcohol part of the territory of creativity. An exceptional few seemed to thrive on drink, leading to the idea of a “Churchill gene”: where some have a genetic makeup allowing them to remain healthy and brilliant despite consumption that would kill others. Mark Twain endorsed this view saying: “My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”


Over the last few years, however, evidence has emerged that some have, if not a Churchill gene, then a creative cocktail gene.

While it does not establish a direct link between alcohol and creativity, the gene suggests alcohol has effects beyond sedation and relaxation. A 2004 study carried out at the University of Colorado found that around 15 per cent of Caucasians have a genetic variant, known as the G-variant, that makes ethanol behave more like an opioid drug, such as morphine, with a stronger than normal effect on mood and behaviour.

However, before we all rush to the keyboard with booze in hand, there's this caveat:

This initial euphoria is usually followed by a longer state of relaxation, lasting several hours. For those with the G-variant, this period aids the creative process. Perhaps the odd additional tipple might be needed to keep the fire burning, although too much further consumption douses the flames prematurely, inducing lethargy.

The effect of alcohol on this group is not the same as an opiate. The euphoria is much less pronounced than, say, heroin, while alcohol still exerts depressive effects. A drink too many and the soporific effect predominates, overwhelming the endorphins and sending even the G-variant drinker to sleep. This may be why Francis Bacon, by his own admission, worked well after a few drinks, but not when drunk.

So what do you guys think? Do you often have a beer or a glass of wine or a cocktail at hand while you write? Do a couple of shots get your creative juices flowing, or do you end up doing a face-plant onto the keyboard, with nothing to show for it the next morning but prose that looks like "akjpoN%$hcq;oqohqnvnv"? Do you think there may be a genetic reason why the burning question in the minds of so many writers is "Which way to the bar?"


Hat tip to John Scalzi, an admitted non-drinker who's pretty damn creative without it, and who notes that: This statistic that will no doubt delight a number of artists and writers I know, not that they actually need an excuse to drink, mind you.

He's right. I don't need an excuse.

What I need is an alibi.


nathan singer said...

I pretty much always have a bottle of Jack in fronta me when I'm writing. I don't know that it really has any impact on my novels, but it
. . .um . . .uh. . .who are you people? GIT OFFA MY LAWN!!!!!

Bill Cameron said...

This was my view while working on revisions just last night. The beer definitely helped.


pattinase (abbott) said...

What I need is to be able to drink more without falling asleep. Nothing too creative comes out of that.

JD Rhoades said...

Bill: your desk is revoltingly clean.

Kate said...

Maybe that's what I'm missing . . .

David Terrenoire said...

I like to have a V&T by my elbow while I write, but I find, more often than not, that the deeper I get into the story, the less I drink and I soon have a watered down V&T growing tepid as I pound away at the keyboard.

It's interesting though, as I try to work with abstinence.

Diana Leeson Fisher said...

Red wine is my inspiration of choice. Not white - that just puts me to sleep.