Higher and higher: Can psychoactive substance use enhance creativity?
In a previous blog I examined whether celebrities are more prone to addictions. In that article I argued that many high profile celebrities have the financial means to afford a drug habit like cocaine or heroin. For many in the entertainment business such as being the lead singer in a famous rock band, taking drugs may also be viewed as one of the defining behaviours of the stereotypical ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ lifestyle. In short, it’s almost expected. There is also another way of looking at the relationship between celebrities and drugs and this is in relation to creativity, particularly as to whether the use of drugs can inspire creative writing or music. For instance, did drugs like cannabis and LSD help The Beatles create some of the best music ever such as Revolver? Did the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s use of drugs play a major role in why the album Pet Sounds is often voted the best album of all time? Did the use of opium by Edgar Allen Poe create great fiction? Did William S. Burroughs’ use of heroin enhance his novel writing?
To investigate the question of whether drug use enhances creativity, I and my research colleagues Fruzsina Iszáj and Zsolt Demetrovics have just published a review paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction examining this issue. We carried out a systematic review of the psychological literature and reviewed any study that provided empirical data on the relationship between psychoactive substance use and creativity/artistic creative process that had been published in English in peer-reviewed journals or scientific books. Following a rigorous filtering process, we were surprised to find only 19 studies that had empirically examined the relationship between drug use and creativity (14 empirical studies and five case studies).
Six of the 19 studies (four empirical papers and two case reports) were published during the 1960s and 1970s. However, following the peak of psychedelia, only three papers (all of them empirical) were published in the following 20 years. Since 2003, a further 10 studies were published (seven empirical papers and three case studies). The majority of the studies (58%) were published in the USA. This dominance is especially true for the early studies in which six of the seven empirical papers and both case studies that were published before mid-1990s were written by US researchers. However, over the past 14 years, this has changed. The seven empirical papers published post-2000 were shared between six different countries (USA, UK, Italy, Wales, Hungary, Austria), and the three case studies came from three countries (USA, UK, Germany).
Seven empirical papers and two case studies dealt with the relationship between various psychoactive substances and artistic creation/creativity. Among the studies that examined a specific substance, six (three empirical papers and three case studies) focused on the effects of either LSD or psilocybin. One empirical study focused on cannabis, and one concerned ayahuasca.
With the exception of one study where the sample focused on adolescents, all the studies comprised adults. More non-clinical samples (15 studies, including case studies) were found than clinical ones (four studies). Three different methodological approaches were identified. Among the empirical studies, seven used questionnaires comprising psychological assessment measures such as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT).
According to the types of psychoactive substance effect on creativity, we identified three groups. These were studies that examined the effect of psychedelic substances (n=5), the effect of cannabis (n=1), and those that did not make a distinction between substances used because of the diverse substances used by participants in the samples (n=7). In one study, the substances studied were not explicitly identified.
The most notable observation of our review was that the findings of these studies show only limited convergence. The main reason for this is likely to be found in the extreme heterogeneity concerning the objectives, methodology, samples, applied measures, and psychoactive substances examined among the small number of studies. Consequently, it is hard to draw a clear conclusion about the effect of psychoactive substance use on creativity based on the reviewed material.
Despite the limited agreement, most of the studies confirmed some sort of association between creativity and psychoactive substance use, but the nature of this relationship was not clearly established. The frequently discussed view that the use of psychoactive substances leads to enhanced creativity was by no means confirmed. What the review of relevant studies suggests is that: (i) substance use is more characteristic in those with higher creativity than in other populations, and (ii) it is probable that this association is based on the inter-relationship of these two phenomena. At the same time, it is probable that there is no evidence of a direct contribution of psychoactive substances to enhanced creativity of artists.
It is more likely that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process. This means the artist will not be more creative but the quality of the artistic product will be altered due to substance use. On the other hand, it appears that psychoactive substances may have another role concerning artists, namely that they stabilize and/or compensate a more unstable functioning.
Beyond the artistic product, we also noted that (iii) specific functions associated with creativity appear to be modified and enhanced in the case of ordinary individuals due to psychoactive substance use. However, it needs to be emphasized that these studies examined specific functions while creativity is a complex process. In light of these studies, it is clear that psychoactive substances might contribute to a change of aesthetic experience, or enhanced creative problem solving. One study (a case study of the cartoonist Robert Crumb) showed that LSD changed his cartoon illustrating style. Similarly, a case study of Brian Wilson argued that the modification of musical style was connected to substance use. However, these changes in themselves will not result in creative production (although they may contribute to the change of production style or to the modification of certain aspects of pieces of arts). What was also shown is that (iv) in certain cases, substances may strengthen already existing personality traits.
In connection with the findings reviewed, one should not overlook that studies focused on two basically different areas of creative processes. Some studies examined the actual effects of a psychoactive substance or substances in a controlled setting, while others examined the association between creativity and chronic substance users. These two facets differ fundamentally. While the former might explain the acute changes in specific functions, the latter may highlight the role of chronic substance use and artistic production.
It should also be noted that the studies we reviewed differed not only regarding their objectives and methodology, but also showed great heterogeneity in quality. Basic methodological problems were identified in many of these studies (small sample sizes, unrepresentative samples, reliance on self-report and/or non-standardized assessment methods, speculative research questions, etc.). Furthermore, the total number of empirical studies was very few. At the same time, the topic is highly relevant both in order to understand the high level of substance use in artists and in order to clarify the validity of the association present in public opinion. However, it is important that future studies put specific emphasis on adequate methodology and clear research questions.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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