Does chocolate make you (more) creative?

Overview of main cacao seed components and chocolate (cacao solids) production [Image Credits]

Chocolate is one of the most popular food types. Originally cacao was referred to as the ‘food of the Gods’. Nowadays, chocolate is often used as a way for saying thanks, goodbyes, apologies… It is also a loyal allied during long working hours, cold winter days, meetings and a great companion of coffee. But, most important, chocolate could be beneficial for health (particularly dark chocolate). Its health benefits have been widely discussed, scientifically proved and findings indicate that chocolate could trigger varied psychological effects:

Well-being. Chocolate could be used as anti-depressant or mood-lifter, but with fewer (or different, I would say) side effects than prescription drugs. Eating chocolate releases endorphins in the brain, which are hormones that produce a feeling of well-being and can dispel depression. Chocolate also could alter serotonin levels in the brain, being serotonin a neurotransmitter which is often used as an anti-depressant.

Aphrodisiac. Two chemical components of cacao solids (chocolate), tryptophan and phenylethylamine alkaloids, could produce a psychological effect on people’s desire. Although the amount of these neuroactive alkaloids, which contribute to feelings of happiness and euphoria, is pretty small in chocolate, it is believed that when people consume chocolate they feel happier, more energetic and alert.

Euphoria. The previous two components combined with anandamide, also contained in chocolate, could produce an euphoric feeling similar to that of marijuana or caffeine in excess. Phenylethylamine and tryptophan ‘interfere with the breakdown of anandamide in [the] body, prolonging [the] feelings of well being’. The difference with marijuana is that it would take around 25 pounds of chocolate to have an effect as strong as the one produced by the plant.

Health problems. Research also shows that (dark) chocolate could be beneficial for a range of health problems. Chocolate constituents could be used to ‘treat vascular impairment, including dementia and strokes, and thus for maintaining cardiovascular health.’ In addition, chocolate could be useful to enhance ‘brain function for people fighting fatigue, sleep deprivation, and even the effects of ageing’.

Intelligence. A recent online BBC article introduces an investigation that seems to indicate a powerful connection between chocolate consumption with levels of intelligence. Initial results seem to demonstrate that chocolate could effect the improvement of mental function. The investigation, led by Franz Messerli of Columbia University, presents a link between the number of Nobel prize winners in a country and the amount of chocolate consumed in those countries. For example, Switzerland is both the country with the highest number of Nobel prize winners and the highest levels of chocolate consumption. Although this theory could be seem as ambiguous (e.g. Sweden has a high number of Nobel price winners but its levels of chocolate consumption are the lowest), the idea that chocolate does have a strong effect on some people’s mindsets does not seem that out of place to me.

It is worth mentioning that it is not the aim of this post to judge Messerili’s theory, but to highlight another possible effect of chocolate in the brain. Personally, I don’t have a formal opinion yet, but I do believe that in addition to analysing the number of Nobel prizes of each country attention should be paid to Aztec and Mayan civilizations (and other civilizations from those regions) as they were the first ones to produce and consume chocolate.

While ago I wrote about how, to some people, creativity could be enhanced when working in public places with a certain level of ambient noise. And as coffee places and chocolate are two of my favourite pleasures, after reading the BBC article about a possible chocolate-intelligence link, I started wondering of the power of chocolate for creativity. I don’t have any scientific evidence which indicates a possible link between those two, but based on the benefits of chocolate discussed above this idea doesn’t seem that improbable. The following analysis about creativity is an initial attempt to unpack my theory.

Understanding creativity

Looking into my notes of an unpublished post entitled: What is creativity, I found that creativity could be defined as a ‘mental and social process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new associations of the creative mind between existing ideas or concepts.’  Another definition states that creativity is ‘the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.’ In simple words, it is the act of making something new. Creativity is related to the right side of the brain, which also deals with aesthetics and feelings. Hormones seem to have a direct influence on a person’s levels of creativity, but also attitude for learning, consistency and commitment to a particular task, and curiosity for exploring the unknown. The following six have been defined as the essential mindset components to become a highly, successful creative person:

  • Commitment & Development. Successful creatives see the world with different eyes, and have a need to spread that particular view to rest of the world. This determination drives them through the development of a practice and of personal ‘language’ to communicate that view.
  • Curiosity. Asking the correct questions led creatives to identify the core problem and then find the appropriate solution within the boundaries of their field. Successful creatives see things that everyone around us sees but make connections that no one else has made.
  • Open-minded. Highly creative people are receptive to new perspectives and ways of solving a problem. They challenge assumptions and put ideas together through metaphors, analogies, opposites and contraries.
  • Exploration & Consistency. Being a successful creative is often seen as inseparable from failure. Not all that creatives produce can be described as masterpiece. On the contrary, creative people are constantly and consistently producing work until they finally achieve what they wanted to do. They do not give up easily. ‘Constant seeking of excitement and stimulation (including mental stimulation), acceptance of failure as part of the creative quest and ability to learn from failure’ are essential aspects for success.
  • Objectivity. To be successful, creative people need to be able to judge and critically reflect on their own work. Ego is put aside, ideas are assessed and tested through closest friends and family advice, and external opinions respectively.
  • Passion. Creative people enjoy and love what they do, regardless the level of success they could achieve.

So, how could chocolate fit in or have any effect on those six trails?

Even though chocolate is not a ‘drug’ in the same sense than marijuana, cocaine or other hallucinogen, it could psychologically effect the brain in similar ways. As explained throughout this post, chocolate could help release stress and make people feel happier. These two effects could be enough, for some people, to be more productive and enhance the quality of their creative process, and thus become innovative thinkers. The novelist Amanda Craig suggests that ‘the smallest change in metabolism affects our minds as well as our bodies’.  Some people are highly sensitive to the most unimaginable stimulus. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if chocolate does have ability to make people smarter or more creative. In any case, I would happily volunteer to test any of those hypotheses, and for example, try different types of chocolate, in case each might have a different effect as well.


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