You put down your pen and save the file. Then you stand up, stretch, and head for the fridge, the biscuit tin or the wine rack (Don’t you?).
If we ask ourselves why, we’ve probably come across the fact that the brain uses up 20% of our energy. So, we rationalise, it’s not surprising that intensive, creative brain work makes us hungry. We also need energy for self-control, in the form of disciplining ourselves to sit down and work.
And don’t good and wine famously go with writing, art and music?
Unfortunately, those answers are only half true, at best.
But before you resolve, despondently, to turn to the rice cakes, let’s examine the evidence. Because it’s beginning to look as though creative people may well have an unusually sensitive relationship to food. When we understand that, it has the potential to have a big impact on our mood, creativity and output.
Brain energy: is writing really burning up the calories?
Firstly, brain energy. Researcher Robert Kurzban points out an unfortunate truth: the amount of energy the brain uses in total is about a quarter of a calorie per minute. So, significantly less than that croissant sitting on your desk. (Sorry). And the amount extra required for a few minutes of self-discipline is significantly less than the amount you’d burn off with a few minutes of physical exercise. (Again, sorry).
Let’s look instead at what the brain wants. One answer is stability. Stability is, generally, good for survival. So it has developed a highly sensitive early warning system for anything that’s unusual or threatening – and that includes blood glucose levels.
The creative process while it happens in the brain is notoriously difficult to observe. You can’t pin a poet, research scientist or composer in a brain scanner and ask them to do their best creative work. But what we know now is that it involves activity right across the brain.
Creative work is intense work
Even though the amounts of glucose needed may be small, creative work is energy-heavy. It involves creating new neural pathways right across our brain, testing, experimenting, evaluating, and feeling.
That means that if creative work feels hard at times, that’s because it is. It’s much easier to use well-worn pathways in our brain than to look for unrelated dots and form them into a pattern, which is essentially what we’re doing.
So let’s say you get down to work after a breakfast that perhaps isn’t as healthy as it should be. Before long your brain notices that energy levels are dropping faster than usual. It isn’t that you’re actually in any danger of running out of energy. But your brain isn’t a glass-half-full kind of being, focused on gratitude and abundance, and shrugging off a change in levels that’s barely measurable.
Nope. Your brain is greedy, and a bit fearful. It tells you that you need to top up those glucose levels now. And if you don’t, it will start to send you messages that you are, really, terribly tired, and maybe hungry, and that the fridge is only downstairs. Before you know it, that message has been rewarded by half a packet of Cheddar and three Hob-nobs.
Researchers have observed the same thing with physical exercise. We stop running way before we actually need to, because we believe we’re just too tired. That’s useful, because we can see how sports people have developed ways to ignore the brain, or to train it not to react at the first sign of the energy gauge dropping.
But before that, let’s ask whether there’s anything special about creative brains and food. It turns out that there may well be.
Your brain is wired to be sensitive
There’s a region of the brain that’s particularly relevant to researchers of so-called disorders, including ADHD, autism and schizophrenia. They’re all related to how the brain handles dopamine. It turns out to be broadly the same area that’s proving of interest to creativity researchers.
The exact connection between those areas is far from pinned down, but we do know that creative people are more likely to show signs of ADD or ADHD, or have a family member with it, or a related brain structure. The brain research suggests that the brain structure in cognitively ‘normal’ creatives has common features with the brains of those with schizophrenia, a related disorder.
There’s research evidence that that a significant number of of children with ADHD or ADD have an increased sensitivity to food. That might be a food allergy, intolerance, or changing their diet to help control their behaviour. It’s true, too, among schizophrenia sufferers, with gluten and dairy particularly implicated.
As we gradually discover increasing links between the brain and the gut, we find that the parts of the brain that seem to be different in creatives also seem to be affected in some way by food.
HSP creatives and food sensitivity
Sensitivity to caffeine and food is one of the characteristics of what psychologist Elaine Aron calls Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). Although being a HSP doesn’t mean someone is creative, a high number of creative people have the kind of nervous system she describes: particularly alert and sensitive to external stimuli. The cells in their body react particularly strongly to certain food and drink, including stimulants and medication.
In particular, she notes ‘how quickly we crash when hungry’. HSPs have to pay particular attention to keeping their systems stable. That means neither underaroused (bored, or unable to take action) or overaroused (overwhelmed by too many stimuli and sensations). Caffeine, she points, out, increases arousal, whereas alcohol decreases it.
For HSP creatives, it means continually trying to find the balance that allows them to have new, effective insights and ideas, and turning them into something that’s usable and practical. Brain stability for a HSP, she suggests, is likely to come from eating more frequently, and paying close attention to the food that serves them and the food that creates more problems.
Dark chocolate in particular contains well-documented mood-enhancers. Add that to brains particularly sensitive to chemical changes in the body, and that may be another reason that chocolate exerts such a pull on many creatives.
Creativity and food: are we seeking new sensations?
What’s more, given that high sensitivity also means perceiving sensation more intensely, it seems reasonable that it could lead to either an increased interest in food, or being particularly fussy about its flavour, smell or texture.
There are plenty of famously creative people who’ve taken great pleasure in food and drink. Monet, the son of a grocer, suffered years of poverty before success allowed him to indulge in unashamed gourmandising, while Sylvia Plath found solace from grief in the kitchen. Ernest Hemingway wrote up his years as a jobbing journalist in his memoir A Moveable Feast (“all the paintings in the Luxembourg museum were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry”, he wrote). Classical musicians often like nothing better than high-quality food and excellent wine after a concert.
There’s something else linking the classic creative vices of dark chocolate, coffee and red wine (even, if you like, the absinthe beloved of Parisian 19th century writers). They’re all strong, stimulating flavours. Elaine Aron has identified a particular kind of HSP as sensory-seeking. All those flavours, along with cheese, maybe olives, and perhaps red meat, give the nervous system a strong hit of sensation.
When we seek out strong flavours and textures, it’s quite possible we’re also seeking a jolt to our creative processes. In a similar way to going for a walk, or finding a change of scene, we may be using food to provoke still more connections in our brains and see new possibilities.
Our brain and gut are closely connected
Our understanding of how our bodies and brains respond to food is still at an early stage, but it seems likely that plenty of creative people are made up of cells that respond in a particularly sensitive way to the huge variety of components we eat and drink.
But what does that mean, practically?
Should we eat chocolate while we create?
So bring on the coffee, or the biscuits, if it affects you in a useful way. If you find you need food regularly to function fully, acknowledging this might be a game-changer for you. Paying attention to your body’s signs can be the difference between a day of frustration and a deep feeling of creative satisfaction.
But it’s important to be aware of what’s going on beyond the ‘brain hunger’ idea.
Go for the jolt of strong flavours or stimulating textures. Allow yourself to be discriminating, even fussy. Swap overdosing on supermarket coffee for fewer, high-quality beans. Recognise that it’s the crunch of beautifully made toast you crave, and try something that might give you a different sensory kick.
And if you find your diet has been shaped more by other people, it’s worth looking at your own body’s response more closely. The food habits you’ve been brought up with, or those of your family, might not be serving you as well as you’d hoped. A food journal – perhaps tracking your eating habits alongside your moods or creativity – might provide unexpected insights. Or perhaps you have a hunch, already, about a food you’d like to cut out, or something else you might need more of. You need permission to try it? Here it is (on a plate, even).
Trick your brain instead of eating
If you’re finding that giving into your brain’s interest in food is having a bad effect on your teeth, wallet or ability to fit into your favourite jeans, your brain can be tricked – or reassured – in other ways. Gentle exercise – a short walk, or stretching, is a particularly good to rebalance the chemistry in your brain.
Sports scientists have shown us that you can train your brain to understand that the gentle emptying of the fuel tank is normal. You probably can’t go from 30 minutes of writing a week to completing a novel in 10 days, any more than you could go from a gentle stroll to a 100km run in the mountains. But take it slowly and mindfully, and you’ll notice that it becomes much more achievable, and less exhausting. Creating a habit of pushing through it, will train your brain into a new ‘normal’ of energy use.
As with so much else in being effectively creative, it seems that being mindful of what we’re doing is the key to getting the most from our actions.