coffee creativity study
Photo: 55Laney69 via Flickr

Any freelancer who’s ever posted up at a local cafe to get some work done can confirm what science has theorized, which is that the soothing hum of a bustling coffee shop can spur productivity and creative thinking. But should you swap your latte for an herbal tea or smoothie? Though plenty of us swear by our morning cup (or three) of coffee, there’s still some debate about the impact of caffeine on creativity.

First, let’s start with what we know about how caffeine works on the brain. This video explains pretty well:

Essentially, caffeine keeps your brain from sensing fatigue by blocking the chemical that sends your body the signals to feel calm and even drowsy. However, in addition to warding off sleepiness, caffeine also actively spurs your brain to release dopamine, which makes you feel positive and happy — and productive. Increased nutrient and oxygen flow to the brain can help you concentrate and solve problems.

But the positive impacts of caffeine can quickly be tamped down by the negative if you overdo it, or if you’re a person who’s especially sensitive to the impact. Excessive caffeine can cause jitteriness and anxiety, which can make it hard for you to focus and get work done. And, as Maria Konnikova pointed out in a 2013 article for the New Yorker, too much caffeine can also make it harder for our brains to idle and wander, a proven creativity ingredient.

coffee quotes
Photo: Rod Waddington via Flickr

Additionally, if you’re using caffeine as an alternative to sleep, you may be losing valuable brain function; enough deep sleep the night is beneficial for cognition (though at least one study has linked insomnia to enhanced creativity, so maybe a little sleep loss isn’t such a terrible thing from time to time).

Still, “too much” caffeine is probably more than most of us realistically consume; 400 mg is generally considered to be the safe limit, which is as much caffeine as five Red Bulls. And even if you don’t guzzle the stuff, just the anticipation of your morning cuppa has been shown to improve overall mood and positivity.

Caffeine has been a beloved (and controversial) sidekick for creatives and artists since the invention of the stuff — from Albert Camus, Honoré de Balzac, and Jonathan Swift all had things to say about its power and occasional pain. But, like just about everything else ever in life, moderation is key.