Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH
Great artists felled by drug and alcohol misuse have become the stuff of legend. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Freida Kahlo, Heath Ledger — all died due to severe drug and alcohol use disorder.
However, Brian Wilson, the mastermind of The Beach Boys, and others recovered but never produced music at the same level again. As a further example, Peter Green, the founder of Fleetwood Mac, and Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, used drugs to cope with their schizophrenia.
Is there something about being an artist that makes one more susceptible to misusing drugs? Do drugs actually spark creativity? Genetics play a role in both creativity and substance use disorder. But neither can completely take credit for masterpieces or self-destruction.
How Drugs Affect the Brain
Before discussing the connection between drugs and creativity, it’s important to understand how drugs affect the brain. The brain’s neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Because their chemical structure mimics a natural neurotransmitter in the body, marijuana and heroin attach onto and activate neurons. But the neurons aren’t activated the same way those of a drug-free brain are, leading to abnormal messages being sent through the network.
Drugs can alter important areas of the brain:
- The basal ganglia play an important role in positive forms of motivation, such as the pleasure derived from eating, socializing, and sex. It’s also involved in forming habits and routines.
- The extended amygdala deals with stress, anxiety, irritability, and unease. These are characteristics of drug withdrawal that cause a person to seek the drug again. As drug use increases, this circuit becomes even more sensitive.
- The prefrontal cortex allows planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and impulse control. Since this is the part of the brain that matures last, drugs make teens more vulnerable. A person with a substance use disorder will seek the drug compulsively. And with reduced impulse control, the balance between prefrontal cortex circuits shift among the circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala.
- The brain stem controls basic functions critical to life, such as heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. When people overdose on drugs like opioids, the result can be depressed breathing and death.
“The Doors of Perception”
In 1954, British author Aldous Huxley published his book “The Doors of Perception,” which chronicled his experiences with mescaline. The book’s title came from William Blake’s 1793 book “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Huxley’s book praised psychedelic drugs as bringing mystical insight to art, science, and religion.
Beat artists William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg experimented with mescaline, which was especially easy since it hadn’t yet been classified as a controlled substance.
Eleven years after Huxley’s book was released, a University of California, Los Angeles film student named Jim Morrison would propose renaming his and friend Ray Manzarek’s band The Doors after “The Doors of Perception.”
Mr. Mojo Rising
So began one of the most legendary stories in rock music history. Morrison, the dark troubadour Lord Byron at midnight, had a natural talent for evoking mesmerizing images with his lyrics and voice. His prodigious use of psychedelics, other drugs, and alcohol seemed to fuel his dark energy.
By 1971, he was dead at age 27. Whether his death was caused by a drug overdose or a massive heart attack, all signs pointed to a lifeforce sapped by drugs.
Morrison and Psychedelics
Morrison is a fascinating subject for researchers studying the links between drugs, particularly psychedelics, and creativity. Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, is also commonly linked with creativity. The Neurology Times reports that the drug produces a change in perception of surroundings and an altered integration of sensory stimuli. Research from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University studied the impact of LSD on creativity by using functional neuroimaging techniques.
The study found that LSD induces decreased restraint in the brain. However, it also decreased the ability to appreciate cause and effect and “organize, categorize, and differentiate the constituents of conscious experience.” This suggests that perceptions caused by brain activity may be unusual, but the ability to apply these unusual sensory perceptions to create something original is impaired.
And that indeed was the case with Morrison. An article in Psychopathology focused exclusively on The Doors’ frontman, his art, and drug and alcohol misuse. By studying his lyrics, poems, and other writings, the researchers found that Morrison used his art to cope with traumatic events, depression, and uncontrolled impulses. It was, in fact, the creativity that operated independently of drugs and alcohol.
“In short, his motivation to create something new and authentic was reinforced by alcohol and drugs. … However, soon the frequent use of high doses of alcohol and drugs weakened his capacity to realize creative motivation.”
The Case of Cannabis
Marijuana doesn’t play a major part in the Morrison mythos, so studies of the connection between his creativity and drug misuse have focused on alcohol and psychedelics. To find how marijuana connects with creativity, controlled studies have been conducted.
Cannabis users often claim that the drug can enhance their creativity. Research suggests that aspects of creative performance might be improved when intoxicated with cannabis. But the evidence is not conclusive. So, one study investigated the acute effects of cannabis on creativity. The researchers administered three groups of regular marijuana users with a low dose of cannabis, a high-dose or a placebo.
The researchers then examined the effects on creativity tasks tapping into divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions in a free-form way. Convergent thinking is the ability to give the “correct” answer to questions that don’t require significant creativity, such as in standardized tests.
The results showed that people who received the high dose of cannabis vapor “displayed significantly worse performance on the divergent thinking task, compared to individuals in both the low-dose … and placebo … groups.”
Researchers concluded that the results suggest that low-potency cannabis “does not have any impact on creativity.” On the other side, “highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking.”
That’s Why It’s Called Dope
As studies suggest, cannabis use does not have any effect on creativity. However, as Scientific American reports, a large body of evidence indicates that cannabis use damages the brain. This is especially true in adolescents. In adolescence, cannabis use increases the risk of developing schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric problems later in life.
In 2012, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an intriguing report on cannabis use. Researchers at Duke University followed a cohort of 1,037 people from their birth in 1972 and 1973 to age 38. The study shows that cannabis users suffered a major decline in cognition.
Neuropsychological testing was conducted on the research subjects at age 13 before using cannabis and again at age 38. Overall, there was a reduction in cognitive ability among all cannabis users. But among those who used cannabis as adolescents, the impairment was more severe. That’s because the adolescent brain is still going through significant development. In addition, the effects on the adolescent brain were lifelong.
The Duke study found that the mean IQ dropped below 90 infrequent cannabis users who began taking the drug as adolescents. IQs also dropped in users who started using marijuana as adults. However, the damage was not nearly as bad.
Which Came First?
Experts generally believe that drugs and alcohol do not spur creativity. So why is there this persistent belief that drugs enhance creativity? Because they do — in already creative people. In other words, if a person is creative like Jim Morrison, the drugs will help them create innovative art — for a time. But continued and heavy use of drugs will eventually impair the brain’s natural abilities. If a person is not creative, to begin with, don’t expect that person to paint a masterpiece or write a brilliant song just because he took psychedelics.
In his book, “The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ,” David Shenk writes that genetics play a part in creating. But so too does “the combined consequence of early exposure, exceptional instruction, constant practice, family nurturance, and a child’s intense will to learn.”
Psychology Today reports that drug misuse stifles creativity. But in one of those odd twists of life, creativity can help a person with substance use disorder recover. Many people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol don’t understand what they’re feeling or how others feel or can’t put their feelings into words. Art therapy, music therapy, and psychodrama allow people with substance use disorder to express difficult thoughts, memories, and feelings without being held back by words.
Addiction, Creativity, and Genetics
We know genetics play a role in addiction and creativity. Scientific American asked neuroscientist David Linden of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine if there is a link between creativity and addiction. His answer: “No. I think the link is not between creativity and addiction per se. There is a link between addiction and things which are a prerequisite for creativity ….”
He added that while a 40 percent predisposition to addiction is genetically determined, many genes are involved. One genetic variant has to do with a low-functioning dopamine system in the signaling of pleasure and reward.
“If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive. None of which are explicitly creative, but they are things that get to creativity,” Linden said.
Also, because genetics play only a 40 percent predisposition to addiction, it is possible for people who carry the variants not to develop an addiction. It’s also possible for a person to not carry the variants and still develop a substance use disorder.
If an addicted person does carry the variants, will recovery eliminate creativity?
“When you cure the addiction, you’re not changing your genes,” Linden said. “[But] If you develop a full-blown addiction to a drug, the indications in rats are that it changes the brain forever. You can get it back a little but never entirely.”
Sacrificing Your Life for Perceived Enhanced Creativity
The truth is that for some individuals, it is difficult to come to a place of free-flowing creativity in a normal state. The temptation to use drugs to bypass the natural blockages that we feel as human beings which prevent us from expressing ourselves creatively can feel insurmountable.
However, deciding to continue drug use because of the perceived benefits, has proven foolish for many individuals. It’s a case of exchanging your health for temporary and fleeting moments of creativity. It’s not a sacrifice anyone should be willing to make.
The best way to deal with creative blockages is to look to the professionals. Many books have been written about getting in touch with your inner artist.
One notable book is The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameroon.
If you find yourself struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs, please call us today (385) 327-7418.
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