February 24, 2020

A Chicken and Egg on Drugs — The role of substances for creatives

The ideal for many of us is that we already have a robust process for teasing out the little bits of fleeting creativity to produce something, but sometimes (or often) that doesn’t happen so easily and we need a bit of “help” to get things going. But do drugs like cannabis and alcohol actually make us more creative?

Convergent vs Divergent thinking

While there are certainly a plethora of drugs that improve the mental capacity to support creative endeavors (such as stimulants like modafinil for focus and other nootropics), to narrow things down, we’re going to focus on the two drugs most popularly associated with the creative genius in authors and artists, alcohol and cannabis.

As for the creative side, two types of thinking are commonly tested in researching creativity: convergent and divergent thinking. The distinction between these two comes most famously thanks to the work of American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford. In a nutshell:

  • Convergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at a single or a few answers from many stimuli.
  • Divergent Thinking: The ability to arrive at multiple possible answers from a single stimulus.

While the human mind doesn’t strictly think (or create) this way, the dynamic of being able to think broadly for multiple solutions or hone in on a few targeted ones is one creatives frequently have to call upon.

The science

Anecdotal and personal experience suggests that ideas can flow a little more smoothly after a few hits (or bites) or drinks such as a Fernet Hunter and soda — or the improvised “pick-me-up” known as the Earl Simmons. But we also know all too well that we don’t produce the best ideas or even the most relevant ideas when we’re absolutely stoned or trashed.

The science lends some credence to this:

  • Cannabis does help if you’re not already creative: one 2012 study showed that people with low creativity benefited from being intoxicated through cannabis while the already creative group showed less change.
  • Too much = diminishing returns: in contrast, a study in 2014 concluded that “cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking.”

But here’s where we get to the chicken and egg problem: are people more creative because they take drugs or are they already creative in principle but happen to like drugs?

The answer is evidently a bit of both, but a recent study measuring the link between cannabis and creativity suggests there might be some weight to the latter. Here are the highlights of that study on cannabis:

  • ”Sober cannabis users showed enhanced self-reported creativity to non-users.”
  • ”Sober cannabis users demonstrated superior convergent thinking ability to non-users.”
  • ”Cannabis users were more extraverted, open to experience and less conscientious.”
  • ”Differences in openness to experience explained cannabis users’ enhanced creativity.”

For creatives, take our interpretation of the science with a grain of salt, but the research seems to somewhat reinforce what we know or can readily find out with any personal experiments at home: regardless of whether you need to think broadly or narrowly, your mind has to be open.

The culture factor

It goes without saying that subculture promotes the enjoyment of substances at a rate that exceeds clarity and education on its abuse while the mainstream consciousness misunderstands the whole dynamic. When fondly remembered in art, music, and literature, drugs have a disproportionate, almost mythical weight that ignores the truth: Hemmingway’s philosophy of “Write drunk. Edit sober?” Great marketing, terrible advice and simply not true according to his granddaughter.

In reality, people smoke and drink and they might happen to be creatives. But not only can they do so as a healthy habit in their lifestyle, but they can also do so whether it’s part of their creative process or not. They can also do other things to get them to a creative headspace that doesn’t involve drugs (though we’ll give the caffeine hit of morning coffee a pass in this case).

The Takeaway

Everybody’s personality and process are different, so there’s no hard or fast judgment on how much is enough to get the juices flowing when they’ve stopped — when we’re down to mentally “wringing the cloth dry” to come up with something. If you find yourself constantly moistening that cloth to have something to squeeze or rolling it up and smoking it to get every last bit out, that’s probably a sign something else needs to change.

But if the nature of our modern work means either a lot of stress to cope with or just a lot of creating on the daily, what’s wrong with using some of the oldest chemical technology to keep us going — even in combination through the delightfully-named crossfade (the pairing of cannabis and alcohol)?

Nothing, really. All that matters is when we can recognize for ourselves a difference between on-off quick fixes, reliable if only one of many tools in the creative toolkit, and chronically debilitating crutches. Otherwise, being able to create in any direction means a loose and open mind. However you get there is entirely up to you.

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