More than one in ten Caucasians may have a “Churchill gene” which helps them turn booze into great works
Most people use alcohol as a social rather than creative stimulant, banishing cares with a potation or two after work; lubricating discourse rather than inspiring the intellect. Yet a number of our greatest writers, painters and musicians also seem to have relied on it as fuel for their muse. Winston Churchill claimed it crucial for The World Crisis, his six-volume memoirs, stating: “always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” Novelist William Faulkner drank more intermittently, but claimed not to be ab le to face a blank page without a bottle of Jack Daniels. Beethoven fell under the influence in the later part of his creative life. Among painters, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon and many others liked a drop or two while working.
Such figures make alcohol part of the territory of creativity. An exceptional few seemed to thrive on drink, leading to the idea of a “Churchill gene”: where some have a genetic makeup allowing them to remain healthy and brilliant despite consumption that would kill others. Mark Twain endorsed this view saying: “My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!”
No doubt some real genes—especially those with a high expression of alcohol dehydrogenase and tolerance of alcohol breakdown products such as acetaldehyde, the “hangover” chemical—contribute to this theory. Yet until recently science has had little to say about alcohol and the creative process, confining itself to studies of damage, tolerance and addiction. Over the last few years, however, evidence has emerged that some have, if not a Churchill gene, then a creative cocktail gene.
While it does not establish a direct link between alcohol and creativity, the gene suggests alcohol has effects beyond sedation and relaxation. A 2004 study carried out at the University of Colorado found that around 15 per cent of Caucasians have a genetic variant, known as the G-variant, that makes ethanol behave more like an opioid drug, such as morphine, with a stronger than normal effect on mood and behaviour. This variant seems randomly distributed among the population: it emerged through mutation, although the factors affecting its selection remain unknown since, like all genes, it does not operate in isolation. (Probably in an earlier stage of evolution it gave advantages by amplifying pain relief.)
The Colorado study tested the DNA of moderate-to-heavy drinking students to determine whether they had the G-variant gene. They were divided into two groups accordingly, before having alcohol injected directly into the bloodstream (to eliminate differences in absorption rate). Those with the G-variant produced a slightly different version of what is known as the mu-opioid protein, which elicits a stronger response in the brain. As a result they reported stronger feelings of happiness and elation after their shot of alcohol. This initial euphoria is usually followed by a longer state of relaxation, lasting several hours. For those with the G-variant, this period aids the creative process. Perhaps the odd additional tipple might be needed to keep the fire burning, although too much further consumption douses the flames prematurely, inducing lethargy.
The effect of alcohol on this group is not the same as an opiate. The euphoria is much less pronounced than, say, heroin, while alcohol still exerts depressive effects. A drink too many and the soporific effect predominates, overwhelming the endorphins and sending even the G-variant drinker to sleep. This may be why Francis Bacon, by his own admission, worked well after a few drinks, but not when drunk.
The creative effect of alcohol, then, seems to involve a delicate counterpoint between stimulation and relaxation. Unlike some side-effects of drink, such as its tendency to make some people morose or violent, this endorphin release is positive and pleasant to behold. People with this gene variant also seem more prone to alcoholism, perhaps engaging in an increasingly vain pursuit of the highs they used to experience after the first drink or two.
Short of exhumation, it will be impossible to prove a connection between the G-variant of the mu-opioid receptor and creativity among historical figures who drank. But some drinking artists of the present could step forward for the mu-opioid receptor gene test. Meanwhile the government may want to resist the advice of its chief medical officer to set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol; such moves could have unexpected side-effects for the nation’s creative output.
By Philip Hunter