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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Occult figure: David Bowie and living life at the extremes
Since David Bowie’s death earlier this year, I’ve already written two articles on the psychology of Bowie (which you can read here and here) but this article takes a look at the more extreme aspects of Bowie’s life (excluding his various addictions which I briefly examined in my previous pieces). As a long-time David Bowie fan I’ve been meaning to write this particular blog for a long time but just never got around to it. I had made lots of notes taken from various Bowie biographies (see ‘Further reading’ below) but Dr. Dean Ballinger (University of Waikato) recently beat me to the punch by publishing a similar article to the one I had planned in the March 2016 issue of the Fortean Times.
During Bowie’s five decades in music he has been interviewed on almost every conceivable topic but it’s always the interviews about his most extreme and esoteric subjects that have caught my eye whether it concerned his religious and spiritual beliefs, his political views, or his moral philosophy. I’ve always looked for hidden meanings in his lyrics and taken the view that his lyrics provide an insight into his personality as much as anything else that I have seen or read about him in the print and broadcast media. Like most other hardcore Bowie fans, I have been poring over the lyrics of his final studio album Blackstar now knowing that he wrote and recorded it while suffering from an aggressive form of cancer. The album is arguably his most cryptic and mysterious since the classics of the mid- to late-1970s (Station To Station, Low and “Heroes”) – although I also love 1.Outside and Heathen both lyrically and musically.
Looking back, it was probably the Station To Station title track that really made me wonder what was going on in Bowie’s head. Although Bowie says he was “out of his gourd” on cocaine at the time (and has little recollection of recording the album), the lyrics (as a teenager) made no sense to me at all (“Here are we/One magical movement/From Kether to Malkuth/There are you/You drive like a demon/From station to station”). I had no idea that Kether (“the crown” – divine will or pure light) and Malkuth (“the kingship” – the nurturing receptacle of the light) originated from Kabbalah (an esoteric school of thought rooted in Judaism) representing two of 10 sephirots (sometimes spelled ‘sefirots’ and meaning ’emanations’ or ‘attributes’) in the Tree of Life.
During his cocaine-fuelled days, Bowie rarely slept and filled his time reading books. Not only books about Kabbalah but also books on the occult (a number of books by Aleister Crowley; Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians; Israel Regardie’s books on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), on the symbolic obsessions of Nazism (most notably Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), and defensive magic and tarot cards (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense) as well as more general books on the secret history of Christianity, UFOs, political conspiracies, and numerology. It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s 1976 persona (‘The thin white duke’ in his ‘Station To Station’ lyric) is almost certainly taken from Crowley’s erotic poetry (“The return of the thin white duke making sure white stains” from the 1898 book White Stains).
It’s been claimed by Chris O’Leary (author of the excellent Rebel Rebel and founder of the Pushing Ahead of The Dame website) that “Bowie’s immersion in Kabbalah was part of an overarching spiritual quest that took him from Tibetan Buddhism (he almost joined a monastery in the late 1960s, until his teacher told him that he’d make a better musician than monk) to Christian mysticism, occult worship and a flirtation with neo-Nazi imagery that nearly derailed his career when it was discovered that he collected Nazi memorabilia”. I hadn’t realised that Bowie had made reference to the occult in earlier songs such as ‘Quicksand’ (The Order of the Golden Dawn – a late 19th/early 20th century organisation devoted to the practice of occult, metaphysical, and paranormal phenomena, and the root of more traditional modern day occult practices such as Thelema and Wicca) as well as Tibetan Buddhism (more specifically his use of the word ‘Bardo’ in the song – the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth).
Bowie’s interest in Buddhism and Tibet dates back to the 1960s as evidenced by songs such as ‘Silly Boy Blue’ (first demoed in 1965). In an interview by Bowie with the Melody Maker (24 February, 1966) notes:
“I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks, and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous—and it’s said they live for centuries…As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though”.
Chris O’Leary also noted that:
“Bowie’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t a sudden trendy affectation—he had begun exploring the religion when he was in his mid-teens, first inspired by reading Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet, and he eventually met and befriended the Tibetan lama Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche, who was exiled in London. Bowie even fantasized about becoming a Buddhist monk – cropping his hair and dyeing it black, wearing saffron robes and even changing his skin color (he’d have to settle for becoming Ziggy). Buddhism was an early influence in his songs: he had meant for the backing chorus of his single ‘Baby Loves That Way’ to sound like chanting monks.”
Bowie didn’t appear to have strong religious beliefs. In an interview in 1997 he noted that there was an “abiding need in me to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism…what I need is to find a balance, spiritually, with the way I live and my demise” but in relation to thoughts on his own mortality he said “I believe in a continuation, kind of a dream-state without the dreams. Oh, I don’t know. I’ll come back and tell you”. In addition to his spiritual leanings, Dr. Ballinger in his 2016 Fortean Times article goes as far to say that occult and paranormal themes constituted an “integral dimension” of Bowie’s career. Bowie clearly had an interest in aliens, science fiction, and the paranormal as reflected in many of his singles dating back to ‘Space Oddity’ (1969) through to ‘Loving The Alien’ (1985) and ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ (1996) (as well as many album tracks and his acting breakthrough as an alien in Nic Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell To Earth). Dr. Ballinger also argued that:
“Bowie was also reading upon esoteric subjects and alternative ideas in a relatively in-depth way beyond fashionable name dropping is made clear by the songs on his fourth album, Hunky Dory (1971). The jaunty pop of ‘Oh You Pretty Things!’ is belied by lyrics that evoke a rather sinister picture of spiritual evolution, in which the listener is asked to ‘make way’ for ‘the coming race’ of ‘homo superior’ Nietszchean super children…The ‘coming race’ is also a probable nod to the Bulwer-Lytton novel of the same name that became a staple of the ‘Vril’ mythos associated with occult-minded Nazis, a subject that would have a rather negative influence on Bowie in the near future. More overt is the ballad ‘Quicksand’, in which Bowie expounds a New Age manifesto – ‘I’m not a prophet or a Stone Age man/Just a mortal with potential of a superman’ – with reference to the Western magical tradition (‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/of imagery), [and] The Tibetan Book of the Dead (‘You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo’)”.
Bowie wasn’t the first musician to use The Tibetan Book of the Dead as inspiration for lyrics. More famously, John Lennon used it for The Beatles classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the final track on the 1966 Revolver album (something I forgot to mention in my previous article on Bowie and The Beatles). However, John Lennon based his lyrics after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. (And while I’m going off on tangents, I just wanted to mention that Alpert’s most well known book Be Here Now just happens to be the title of (Beatle-loving) Oasis’ third album).
Dr. Ballinger also makes the argument that in Bowie’s 1972 breakthrough LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars there were “evident resonances between occultism and his musical career” and that he drew inspiration from a wide range of esoteric cultural influences to source “stimulating ideas and imagery to explore in lyrics, costumes and videos”. Ballinger also claims that Bowie’s work at this point of his career had a more integral relationship with the theory and practice of magic and occultism:
“Parsing Crowley’s legacy, one of the key aspects of magic is the transformation of the self (and, possibly, the wider social reality) through acts that focus the imagination/will towards such change, such acts including sex, drug consumption, meditation, and creative performance (i.e., rituals). In this vein Bowie can be considered a distinctly magical musician whose whole career revolved around the transformation of the self and the wider culture through the ‘ritual performances’ of rock music, such as concerts, recordings, and videos. In his most influential period of the 1970s, Bowie created personae (such as Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke) and undertook musical experiments (the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans and the avant-garde/krautrock/funk synthesis of the ‘Berlin trilogy’) that in turn transformed rock culture by inspiring scores of other artists. The gender-bending that was a notable aspect of Bowie’s personae in this period (for example, the androgynous cover photo for The Man Who Sold The World (1970) or the 1979 video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’), and the cultivation of bisexual overtones in his lyrics and performance (‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ as an account of bisexual angst), are also interesting to consider in relation to Crowley’s emphasis on sexuality as a core component of magical transformation”.
Like some of the best music by The Beatles, some of the best music made by Bowie was while he was using drugs excessively (often described by his biographers as a ‘cocaine-induced psychosis’). Bowie himself claims that in 1975 he was in poor mental and physical health but ironically he was producing some of the best music (and acting) of his career. However, Bowie’s cocaine addiction has also been used as an excuse for his behaviour during the 1976 period where he flirted with Nazi occultism and made the claim that the UK would benefit from a fascist leader (“I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler. I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad”). Many musicians have said they are interested in Nazi imagery and fashion (e.g., Bryan Ferry) and others have collected Nazi memorabilia (e.g., Lemmy) but these interests do not mean such people are Nazi-loving or fascists.
Bowie’s esoteric and occultist interests appear to subside as his career progressed and it wasn’t until his final album that Bowie appeared to be using music (and the accompanying promo videos) in a symbolic way for people to re-interpret his music as a cryptic death note to all his hardcore acolytes (of which I would include myself). Unless Bowie left any explanation for his final seven songs, we can only speculate. However, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Dr. Ballinger who has done a better job than I could ever do:
“The Blackstar album has seen Bowie go out with a distinctly occult bang…As every prior Bowie album cover has featured a portrait, the five-pointed ‘black star’ of this one is presumably meant to represent Bowie too – perhaps in his ultimate persona as spirit (the five-pointed star being a classic Hermetic/Gnostic symbol of ‘man as microcosm’, with the contradictory image of a ‘black star’ also evoking a koan or the alchemical union of opposites). The creepy atmosphere conjured up by the lyrics of the title track – “In the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle/On the day of execution/Only women stand and smile” – is successfully evoked in the video for the song. Bowie is depicted as preacher of some dark 21st century faith, brandishing a Blackstar bible among acolytes whose spasmodic ‘dancing’ suggests a state of possession. A reading of the imagery here as analogous to Crowley and his Book of the Law is perhaps apt; director Johan Renck, who designed the videos with Bowie, has mentioned Crowley as a reference point. Some kind of Hermetic/Gnostic subtext about eternity, spirit and the flesh is further implied in the imagery of the video’s other ‘storyline’, in which the shade of a dead astronaut – Bowie himself, in his formative Major Tom persona? – floats up into a ‘black star’ of eternity, before, in a possibly Orphic reference, leaving behind his bejewelled skull for ritual veneration by a sect of mutant women. Where the esoteric overtones of the ‘Blackstar’ video are eerie, those of the video for ‘Lazarus’ are poignant. Bowie plays himself as a patient in a hospital bed, whose closet is a portal from which appears a double who is seemingly meant to signify his essential spirit. This figure is not garbed as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke or any of Bowie’s most famous personae, but in the striped black jumpsuit in which he undertook the famous occult photo shoot for Station to Station, in which he is depicted drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the wall. That Bowie chose this costume for his valedictory performance suggests he was giving a subtle nod to the deep, lasting metaphysical significance that this period had upon the rest of his life”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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