Do Psychedelics Boost Creativity?
Floris Wolswijk, the founder of Blossom, breaks apart a recent study on the process of synthesizing MDMA in this monthly column in cooperation with Lucid News. Blossom is your go-to place to find insights on the latest psychedelic research and the companies bringing this into practice.
The science suggests that psychedelics work by letting your brain make new connections between neurons, brain regions, and concepts. At Horizons 2021, neuroscientist Gül Dölen described the brain state after the use of psychedelics as a critical learning period that can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
With this knowledge in hand, and with the changing winds of public perception and local regulation, several psychedelics are now being developed as medicinal treatments. Researchers and entrepreneurs alike are asking if we can use this critical learning period to heal those who are suffering. But can we take the next logical step and ask if psychedelics can also be used for the betterment of the well?
This question is far from new. Since time immemorial, people have used psychedelics for spiritual development, personal growth and expanded creativity. But rigorous research on psychedelics for self-improvement is only just starting to pick up steam.
Isabel Wießner and colleagues at the University of Campinas, Brazil, recently came out with the most comprehensive experiment on the effects of psychedelics on creativity to date. The study used a battery of tests to determine what happens to creativity under a low-to-medium dose of psychedelics. I spoke to Wießner to find out how psychedelics may influence creativity.
Expanded, Not Incapacitated
In the study, 24 participants received either 50μg of LSD or a placebo. Around the peak of the effects, 2.5 hours in, participants were asked to participate in several tasks. Those who had gotten the placebo received LSD during the following session. The researchers chose a dose level that would allow most participants to participate in all the tasks.
“Based on the previous literature, we’ve chosen 50μg. This dose would be associated with relatively little risk and impairment. That way, the participants could still understand the instructions, maintain focus, and execute the tasks,” explains Wießner. “Interestingly, the same dose has also been used in therapy before, psycholytic therapy. So we also wanted to close that gap and study this dose in modern scientific research.”
Compared to the placebo, LSD changed creativity on several levels and elicited two opposing phenomena of “pattern break,” reflected by more novel, surprising and original responses, as well as decreased “organization”, as expressed by reduced usefulness and more chaotic responses.
Symbolic Thinking Under the Influence of LSD
One of the most interesting sections of the creativity paper addresses the kinds of patterns that emerged in the responses to the creativity tasks. Participants were asked to come up with alternative uses for items (such as a stone) or interpret drawings (like waving lines).
“When we looked at the responses, there was a distinct pattern to those under the influence of LSD that was different from placebo, which we have termed symbolic thinking. For example, when asked to find creative uses for a knife, those who had gotten the placebo answered that it could open a plastic bag or be used as a mirror,” says Wießner. “Those under the influence of LSD gave responses such as cutting the important from the trivial in life. These responses moved away from concrete, rational thinking towards more abstract or symbolic thinking.”
These findings are in line with the limited amount of prior research on psychedelics and creativity. Broadly speaking, psychedelics were shown to lead to impairments in convergent thinking – finding one well-defined solution – during the acute drug effects, while some studies found improvements in divergent thinking – generating multiple solutions. An early study found that paintings made under the influence of LSD were judged as more imaginative (divergent) but of lower craftsmanship (convergent).
Kim Kuypers, a researcher at Maastricht University, has previously explored similar phenomena in her own research. In her study on ayahuasca and creativity, she found that: “Ayahuasca decreased convergent thinking and improved divergent thinking at the peak of effects. This change from baseline shows that people are better at thinking outside of the box, after consuming ayahuasca.”
Another study on creativity and psilocybin conducted by her research group found that convergent thinking was back to baseline the day after the trip. “When we translate that into the therapeutic context where out-of-the-box thinking is important, it is important that convergent thinking is not disturbed the day after ingestion. This is when the integration session takes place, discussing/reflecting on what has all passed during the session with the substance,” says Kuypers.
Creativity in the Real World
Findings from the Campinas study and previous research paints the picture that psychedelics have distinct effects on our creativity. Yet the number of studies is small, with only nine experiments and 30 research papers found in Blossom’s database. Making extrapolations from specific measures, such as an increase in the originality of ideas, to the messiness of the real world may not be that easy.
With the added proviso of not drawing overtly large conclusions from specific research, Wießner states: “I think creatives should be aware of the different effects and the utility of them during each stage of the creative process. So, maybe LSD can be helpful during the stage of creation of brainstorming new ideas and new opportunities. But then when it comes to elaborating ideas and selecting which idea is best, then LSD I think would be not so helpful.”
Kuypers shares that sentiment, and believes that a lot more research with larger populations and different dosages is necessary to make more claims about the effect of psychedelics on creativity. “The tests given in experiments truly measure divergent and creative thinking, but this doesn’t translate one-on-one to real-life creativity,” she says. “It’s really hard to find an approximation of real-life processes, but we’re trying. The same applies to all cognitive but also emotional processes such as empathy.”
Those who have used psychedelics for creativity tend to agree that it is a difficult process to capture. A quantum machine learning architect I spoke with (who asked to withhold his name for professional reasons) argues that we have to take a step back and “answer the fundamental question first, what is creativity?” From his experience, he sees that psychedelics can certainly enhance ‘expressive’ creativity. “But for inventive creativity, bringing something new into the world that wasn’t there before, I can’t say psychedelics themselves are the ones to give credit to. Maybe it is much more about set and setting,” he suggests.
Finally, Wießner points towards the paradox of creativity research: while it’s a topic that everybody likes, not much funding can be found for it. Without any clear business model emerging around psychedelics for creativity, and the large-scale regulatory changes that are necessary for the legal, non-medical use of psychedelics, this area might not see as rapid a rise in research as psychedelics for mental health. However, that certainly won’t stop people from using these substances for self-development and creative expression.
Image: Nicki Adams