Neuroscientists have asked Can you eat your way to creativity?
Highly creative individuals show us that there are many ways to feed the creative muses. Steve Jobs was an on-and-off fruitarian. Walt Whitman liked to start his day with oysters, and Beethoven would wake up and count out precisely 60 beans for his morning cup of coffee. Oliver Sacks almost always lunches on herring and black bread, while midday for the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman meant cornflakes and strawberry jam. Thomas Wolfe had a prodigious appetite and would write standing up in the kitchen with the top of the refrigerator as his desk. The pianist Glenn Gould fasted every day and visited a diner each night for the same meal of scrambled eggs, salad, toast, juice, sherbet, and decaf coffee.
Their dietary habits don’t tell us much.
Highly creative personality types are complex and paradoxical individuals, but clearly there is no single dietary pathway to creative thinking. And this jives with recent research confirming the way in which multiple neural pathways and cognition contribute to the creative process.
For years we believed in a theory of left brain/right brain thinking; that logical, practical, analytical types are left-brain dominant, while creative and artistic types are right-brain dominant. A universe of psychological testing, career planning, team building, and self-help publishing has evolved around this theory, which we’re now learning is a bunch of hooey. Rather than staying in a single hemisphere, brain processes are widely distributed throughout the different regions, and in fact it’s the crossover connections that get creative juices flowing.
What that tells us is that we have to feed the whole brain.
There’s no single pathway to creativity. You want to keep all your synapses firing through every step of the creative process from incubation to illumination to verification. Fortunately, there are foods that can protect the brain from damage, counteract the effects of aging, ward off mental disorders, and enhance cognitive abilities. Here are the big seven:
Nothing fuels and sustains a brainstorm like coffee. It gets the creative juices flowing and keeps them there by blocking the biological receptors that tell your body when it’s time to quit. The expectation of coffee’s effect is so powerful that you can get a placebo-like boost from decaf disguised regular, or even just the sounds of a coffee shop, a phenomenon that’s given rise to the ambient sound app Coffitivity.
2. Dark Chocolate
Just a few bites of dark chocolate gets you three hours of increased blood flow to the brain. Three hours! Since sugar is sheer poison for the brain, you want to look for chocolate with a high cocoa content- say 85% -to crowd out the added sweetener. The combination of caffeine and antioxidants helps fight fatigue and improve mental acuity, and the anti-depressive qualities of chocolate can give their own boost to creative thinking.
Nuts improve the clarity of your thinking by increasing the delivery of oxygen to the brain. Walnuts are best and almonds and hazelnuts are pretty good. There’s less evidence for peanuts, pecans, cashews, and chestnuts.
Fish oil is a well-documented brain food—the brain just loves those omega-3 fatty acids. But did you know that the fattiest fish, like salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, herring, and sardines, can actually give you a bigger brain?
Water also boosts brain volume. You want to keep the organ plumped up and hydrated for better blood flow. Good brain hydration is especially valuable to visual artists since it seems to give the biggest boost to visual and spatial thought processes.
Blueberries can hold back the clock on brain function. They seem to prevent the kind of nerve cell degeneration that’s associated with aging to maintain youthful qualities within brain cells. Hours after eating just a handful of berries, an older brain’s stamina, concentration, and even motor functions and learning capacities are more like their youthful equivalent.
Alcohol gets you to the aha! moments. By impairing executive functions and relaxing inhibitions, alcohol creates a more hospitable environment for creative thoughts. Writers become unblocked, Mad Men get their catch praises, and nobody should operate heavy machinery.