Joe Sixpack: Does beer really make you smarter?

Posted: May 03, 2012

LAST MONTH’S media reports that beer consumption makes you smarter ranks up there as one of the no-spit revelations of all time.

The “revelation” stemmed from a paper called “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving,” by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It concluded that test subjects solved certain problems more quickly after reaching a blood-alcohol level of .075 percent.

Alcohol, the researchers proved, helps the brain access remote areas and develop ideas beyond the confines of typical linear reasoning.

Naturally, journalists — perhaps because we love research that justifies our own lifestyles — ran with the story. Scores of newspapers, TV stations and blogs picked up on the report, proclaiming that beer makes you smart.

The attention came as a bit of surprise to one of the researchers, cognitive psychologist Jennifer Wiley, because the research subjects didn’t even drink beer. They were dosed with cranberry juice and vodka. Moreover, Wiley told me that her group had predicted tipsy subjects would test better than sober ones partly because there’s already ample anecdotal evidence that alcohol and creativity go hand in hand.

What kind of evidence? Read on.

According to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, beer itself is responsible for civilization and separates primitive man from human beings. As early as the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, there are references to the civilizing, intelligence-enhancing effects of drinking beer.

Standage also notes that it was the distribution of beer that spurred the Sumerians to invent writing.

Too ancient? How about this: Mark Zuckerberg invented the first version of Facebook while he was drunk.

Quick: Name history’s greatest teetotaling writers. The list pretty much begins and ends with Franz Kafka.

Now, great writers who drank: Fitzgerald, O’Henry, Capote, Melville, Poe, Cheever, Thomas, Faulkner, Williams … the list is endless, and don’t get me started on the Irish.

Douglas Adams said he came up with the idea for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while drunk.

Raymond Chandler consumed nothing but alcohol for eight days while he pounded out the screenplay for “The Blue Dahlia.” Alcohol, he said, gave him energy and a self-assurance.

Charles Bukowski, who admittedly took things to an extreme, reasoned that drinking “joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall.”

Thomas Moore put his finger on it in Odes of Anacreon (1801):

If with water you fill up your glasses,

You’ll never write anything wise,

For ale is the horse of Parnassus

Which hurries a bard to the skies.

Some famously drunken writers — notably F. Scott Fitzgerald — say they didn’t start drinking until their day’s work was complete.

Still, alcohol surely played a part in the creative process; the poet Robert Lowell said that although he perfected his work while sober, “I have looked forward to whatever one gets from drinking, a stirring and a blurring.”

Speaking from personal experience, drinking while writing necessitates clearheaded editing.

Of course, it’s completely possible to overdo it.

Stephen King, who gave it up, said he doesn’t remember writing Cujo, one of the lesser novels that he wrote while downing a case of tallboys every night.

Jackson Pollock didn’t become a great artist till he started drinking. He also died at age 44 in a drunken-driving crash.

And although hard-drinking Malcolm Lowry wrote the literary masterpiece Under the Volcano, he produced little else because of his drunkenness, leaving behind a collection of unfinished manuscripts.

I’m sure there are still doubters out there, so I’ll leave it to Monty Python to summarize the obvious:

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar

who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume

Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine

who was just as sloshed as Schlegel …

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,

and Hobbes was fond of his dram.

And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:

“I drink, therefore I am.’’ n

“Joe Sixpack” is written by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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