Both art and drug use are associated with higher mental functions, leading many to question the impact drug use has on creating art. Keep in mind that art isn’t just paintings, but also other forms such as sculptures, poetry, live performance, and much more. Therefore, the notion that drugs impact art is pretty clear considering drug use affects everything you do while high.
But the question remains, does drug use encourage creativity and creation of art? If so, which drugs encourage creativity, and what kind of implications does that have on addiction?
Not all drugs are created equal
An important aspect of this debate is in understanding that the term drugs includes a massively wide category of substances and chemicals. It would be foolish to group all drugs together and apply labels such as bad, good, helpful, or unhelpful. Instead, it’s important to understand the different categories of drugs, how they affect your brain, and what kind of roles they play in the world of addiction.
Commonly used categories of drugs include six categories, although some may disagree with the categories. The categories include stimulants such as cocaine, depressants such as alcohol, opioids such as heroin, dissociatives such as DXM, entheogens used in ritual practices such as peyote, and classical psychedelics such as LSD or magic mushrooms.
Each category and drug within those categories have different harm and addiction potentials alongside the mental impacts they may carry. We’ll explore those which may relate the most to creativity, such as the classical psychedelics and entheogens.
Creativity & LSD
LSD is among the most well-known and recently studied chemicals that change how creativity works in the brain. Research with MRI imaging technology has revealed that small doses of LSD lead to profound positive changes in the brain. These studies largely used microdoses, or doses so small that they are barely noticeable and are considered therapeutic doses and do not come anywhere close to producing trips or hallucinations.
In one study, researchers discovered that the ingestion of LSD directly related to changes in brain activity. The Imperial College London found that LSD decreased the role of the brain’s default mode network (responsible for the sense of self or ego). Instead, blood flowed more evenly throughout the brain. This meant that centers of the brain responsible for visual perception and other senses could communicate more effectively while under the influence of a microdose of LSD.
Many people claimed that LSD could enhance creative powers. Writer and psychologist Timothy Leary famously advocated its use, while Apple cofounder Steve Jobs also claimed that using the substance was “one of the two or three most important things” he did in his life.
The progressively experimental music of the Beatles was allegedly due to their experimentation with LSD, although the band said they wouldn’t play high or under the influence. They said that they’d use substances for the experiences but create the music later.
For many people, famous or not, experiences with LSD and other psychedelics helped them feel closer to God or a divinity. They say it helped them understand the universe and their place in it.
Your brain on creativity
Scientists hypothesize that three major networks are responsible for creativity in the brain. They are the default mode network (DMN) mentioned earlier, the executive control network (ECN), and the salience network.
The DMN is largely responsible for generating ideas, the ECN evaluates the ideas, and the salience network helps to identify which ideas pass from the DMN to the ECN.
So, the introduction of LSD into the brain means that each network receives a fairer share of resources. In MRI scans, this results in a far more active brain compared to brains that are not under the influence of drugs.
Therefore, in this scientific context, it appears that LSD does improve the prevalence of creativity in the brain. Even then, it should be noted that the use of substances can easily lead to mental and physical addictions that require rehab for drug and alcohol.
How about other substances?
Similar findings have been reported in those under the influence of other classical psychedelics and entheogens. Just a few of the substances include:
- Magic mushrooms
- THC (the mind-altering component in cannabis or marijuana)
Some classes of drugs appear to improve creativity or increase activity in the brain that could lead to more creativity. This means that if people are working on art, the legal consumption of certain drugs could render more creative work.
That’s one of the themes of famous author Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, in which the author consumes peyote and speaks about his experience. The result was an entire book about the experience and its implications for both himself and mankind.
Incidentally, The Doors of Perception inspired singer and songwriter Jim Morrison to name his band the Doors after the book. Sadly, Morrison died of a drug overdose in 1971, an illustration of the potential pitfalls of using drugs.
Are drugs worth it?
Other classifications of drugs may also promote creativity but could also lead to addiction and other negative health consequences. For instance, one study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago found that intoxicated individuals were able to solve complex word problems in less time compared to sober people, suggesting altered states may spur creativity.
But even then, consistently using substances such as alcohol for your creative process is not sustainable. Chronic use and eventual abuse of alcohol can ruin your life and prevent you from reaching your full artistic potential. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with yourself and keep a watchful eye on your use of legal or illegal substances.
Do you think that consuming substances enhances your creativity? If so, can you use them responsibly? Every person’s creative process is different, and so is their physical and emotional capacity for outside substances. It is up to you to determine how to fuel your creativity in a way that creates the happiest, healthiest possible life.
Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.