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Creativity and Drugs


Accounts of alcohol and drug use to stimulate creativity are apocryphal and anecdotal. For example, Samuel Taylor Coleridge reportedly composed much of his unfinished poem Kubla Khan while in an opium dream. In ancient Greece, however, the Pythian priestesses of the oracle at Delphi inhaled medicinal fumes to facilitate revelatory trancesas did the priests and peoples of most ancient societies. The institutionalized twentieth-century Native American Church continues to use the Peyote of their ancestors to promote profound religious experiences.

Psychedelic drugs, such as Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), Mescaline, Psilocybin, and methylene dioxyamphetamine (mda) have been usedboth legally and illicitlyto increase aesthetic appreciation, improve artistic techniques, and enhance creativity. Marijuana has been used to heighten the sense of meaning, foster creativity, and heighten perceptions (also both legally and illicitly); and Alcohol has been employed by countless people worldwide to relieve inhibitions, increase spontaneity, and stimulate innovation and originality.

In the industrial West, the common belief in, and positive association between, alcohol or drug use and creativity is strengthened by the popular stereotypes of artists, writers, actors, and others in the creative and performing arts as heavy users or abusers of such substances. Despite these anecdotal claims, little scientific evidence supports the notion that alcohol and drug use actually increase creativity.

Part of the reason that creativity is attributed to drug use involves the actions of many psychoactive substances in producing altered states of consciousness. These altered states are characterized by some or all of the following features: (1) alterations in thinking, in which distinctions between cause and effect become blurred and in which logical incongruities may coexist; (2) disturbances in time sense, whereby the sense of time and chronology may become greatly altered; (3) a sense of loss of control, during which the person becomes less inhibited and self-possessed; (4) a change in emotional expression ; (5) body image change, with a dissolution of boundaries between one's self and the world, resulting in transcendental or mystical experiences of "oneness" or "oceanic feelings" (6) perceptual distortions, including illusions, pseudohallucinations, heightened acuity, and increased visual imagery; (7) hypersuggestibility, representing a decrease in the use of critical faculties; (8) a heightened sense of meaning and significance ; (9) sense of the ineffable, in which the experience cannot be expressed in words; and (10) feelings of rebirth and rejuvenation. When people experience such features as these, it is understandable that they attribute creativity to certain drug experiences.

The immediate problem, however, in evaluating whether this is really so depends on the definition of creativity. At the outset, three dimensions of creativity need to be distinguished: those pertaining to the creative person, those pertaining to the creative process, and those pertaining to the creative product. If creativity pertains to an attribute of the person (e.g., original thinking), then any unusual or extraordinary experiences should qualify as "creative," even if nothing of social value emerges. If creativity pertains to a process (e.g., discovery, insight), then the testing and validation of the insights must take place as well. If creativity pertains to a product, it not only should possess some measure of social utility but should embody such qualities as novelty, surprise, uniqueness, originality, beauty, simplicity, value, and/or coherence. For both the creative process and the creative product, there is no substantive evidence to indicate that alcohol or drugs have benefit, despite the ongoing belief of many that they do. The experience of the sense of meaning or significance produced by drugs may have no bearing on whether that experience has true meaning or significance. The American philosopher and psychologist William James's claim that alcohol makes things seem more "utterly utter" is especially apt. This also happens with Psychedelic Drugs, which have the capacity to induce a sense of profundity and epiphany (intuitive grasp of reality), but usually without any substantive or lasting benefit or practical value.

What, then, is the actual state of knowledge about the relationship between substance use and creative achievement? What few studies exist, in fact, indicate mostly detrimental effects of drugs on creativity, especially when these substances are taken in large amounts and over an extended period of time. The results of studies on the actions of alcohol typify this. As early as 1962, for example, Nash demonstrated that small doses (about equal to two martinis) of alcohol, in normal volunteers, tended to facilitate mental associations, while large doses (about equal to four martinis) had adverse effects. With the large doses, they had more trouble in discriminating and assimilating details and performing complex tasks. In another study, Hajcak (1975) found that male undergraduates permitted alcohol on an ad-lib basis (without limits or restraints) showed greater initial productivity than when not allowed to drink but showed decreased appropriateness and decreased creative problem solving when intoxicated.

In an anecdotal study with seventeen artists who drank, Roe (1946) found that all but one regarded the short-term effects of alcohol as deleterious to their work, but they sometimes used it to overcome various technical difficulties. The general sentiment was that alcohol provided the freedom for painting but impaired the discipline. In a more extensive study of thirty-four eminent writers, Ludwig (1990) found that more than 75 percent of artists or performers who drank heavily experienced negative effects from alcoholeither directly or indirectly, on creative activity, particularly when they did not refrain from drinking when they were working. More positive effects of alcohol were found in a small number of cases, among those who used it in moderate amounts early in their careers to remove certain roadblocks, to lessen depression or mania, or to modulate the effects of other drugs.

With many anecdotal accounts to the contrary, the weight of scientific and clinical evidence suggests that long-term alcohol and drug use exert mostly negative effects on creativity. That drugs and alcohol are used so widely within the creative arts professions seems to have less to do with creativity than with social expectations and other extraneous factors. In fact, people use pharmacological substances for many reasons other than the stimulation of their imaginations. These reasons include relaxation, the facilitation of sleep, self-medication, social rituals, pleasure, or simply habituation or addiction.

Because writers, artists, actors, or musicians may write about, portray, or act out certain aspects of their pharmacological experiences does not logically or necessarily mean that these experiences are essential for the creative process. Creative people often exploit all aspects of their experienceswhether pathological or healthy and whether drug-induced or notin a creative way; they try to translate personal visions and insights within their own fields of expression into socially acceptable, useful, or scientifically testable truths. Without some measure of social utility, unique drug-induced experiences represent little more than idiosyncratic to quasi-psychotic productions, having value and meaning only, perhaps, to the substance user.


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Krippner, S. (1969). The psychedelic state, the hypnotic trance and the creative act. In C. Tart (Ed.). Altered states of consciousness. New York: Wiley.

Ludwig, A. M. (1990). Alcohol input and creative output. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 953-963.

Ludwig, A. M. (1966). Altered states of consciousness. Archives of General Psychiatry, 15, 223-234.

Ludwig, A. M. (1989). Reflections on creativity and madness. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 43, 4-14.

McGlothlin, W., Cohen, S., & Mc Glothlin, M.S. (1967). Long-lasting effects of LSD on normals. Archives of General Psychiatry, 17, 521-532.

Nash, H. (1962). Alcohol and caffeine: A study of their psychological effects, Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

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Tart, C. T. (1971). On being stoned. Palo Alto. CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Arnold M. Ludwig

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