Drugs and Creativity: Fact or Fiction?

September 13, 2018

Creativity, a human ability that provides artistic, organizational, and scientific innovation, moves the world forward. Do drugs that alter perception help or hinder that process?

Creativity, a human ability that provides artistic, organizational, and scientific innovation, moves the world forward. Creativity is dependent on individual or group cognitive capabilities that exceed the existing baseline expectations.

One of the cornerstones of creativity has been described as divergent thinking, which is the power to think outside the box. The application of divergent thinking is a necessary step in sharing creativity outside of one’s own mind.

Throughout modern history, there has been great interest in whether psychedelic drugs have an impact on the creativity of musicians, painters, writers, and other artists. Scientists have recently been able to objectively assess the impact of psychedelic drugs on measures of creativity, with surprising results.

Cannabis

Marijuana is considered a substance that alters perception. It is one of the drugs commonly linked with creativity in popular culture, but evidence for whether there is really a relationship is difficult to define. The validated effects of marijuana include producing a sense of relaxation, increasing appetite, slowing the perception of time, inducing laughter, and heightening sensory perception. Creativity itself is a behavioral characteristic that is not easy to assess objectively.

A group from Leiden University Institute of Psychology in the Netherlands examined the effects of cannabis on divergent thinking to be able to objectively measure the effect of the drug on creativity.1 The researchers administered 5.5 mg delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or 22 mg THC to a group of volunteers. They tested creativity by administering divergent (Alternate Uses Task) and convergent (Remote Associates Task) tests to the participants.

They found that the lower dose and placebo groups did not experience any impact on their level of creativity or divergent thinking, while the high-dose group experienced a decrease in divergent thinking.

LSD

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is also commonly linked with creativity. The drug produces what is described as a psychedelic state, which is associated with a change in perception of surroundings and altered integration of sensory stimuli. Research from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Okinawa, Japan, studied the impact of LSD on creativity using functional neuroimaging techniques.2

The study author reported that LSD induces decreased restraint in the brain, but it also decreased the ability to appreciate cause and effect and to “organize, categorize, and differentiate the constituents of conscious experience.”2 This suggests that perceptions caused by brain activity may be novel, but the ability to apply the novel sensory perceptions to create something original is impaired.

The bottom line

There are a number of possible explanations for why psychedelics have been linked with creativity. These drugs are used and abused by many people, few of whom have produced any creative innovations. When someone who generates exceptionally creative products reports using any substance, the substance is assumed to be the cause of the original creation. The vast majority of the population, who are neither exceptionally creative nor drug users, may hypothesize a possible connection.

Another explanation is that creative individuals possess their exceptional abilities despite, not because of, drug use. The process of creating music, art, or literature, could be so cognitively demanding that artists may seek to dissociate from reality as a way to release stress, not as a tool for their art.

References:

1. Kowal MA, Hazekamp A, Colzato LS, et al. Cannabis and creativity: highly potent cannabis impairs divergent thinking in regular cannabis users. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015;232:1123-1134.

2. Gallimore AR. Restructuring consciousness -the psychedelic state in light of integrated information theory. Front Hum Neurosci. 2015;12;9:346.