Drugs and other toxins have been known to help artists in many fields reach their creative potential, or at least it has been claimed so by the likes of The Beatles, Bill Hicks or Hunter S. Thompson to name just few.
The (ab)use of such substances have also led to premature deaths of countless musicians, writers and painters. Does creativity and drugs mix well or is it simply an excuse of rock stars while they dip their nose in white powder?
Drugs have also indirect connection to number of mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, particularly found amongst writers. From the states of mania, when affected tend to write a lot with decreased need for sleep and ferocious energy, to the state of depression, when the feel for suffering and questioning meaning of life puts a writer in a state of reflection, and, raising the need for self-criticism, such writer will focus on editing his own work. Van Gogh is known to have been suffering from bipolar disorder amongst other mental issues, which eventually have led him to take his own life at the age of 37. It is also said, although this is speculative, that his brilliance was purely achieved by the “help” of his mental states and his post-impressionist paintings represent how he actually saw reality.
Aldous Huxley, author of a highly acclaimed novel Brave New World, has been advocating use of LSD throughout his life. In the interview for The Paris Review in 1960 he said that “Some people could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it. I suppose in an indirect way it could help the creative process”. He also said that “It does help you to look at the world in a new way. And you come to understand very clearly the way that certain specially gifted people have seen the world. You are actually introduced into the kind of world that Van Gogh lived in, or the kind of world that Blake lived in. You begin to have a direct experience of this kind of world while you’re under the drug, and afterwards you can remember and to some slight extent recapture this kind of world, which certain privileged people have moved in and out of, as Blake obviously did all the time.” As you can see, Huxley thought of mental disorder as a “privilege” of the likes of Van Gogh. He enjoyed re-visiting LSD and drew his inspirations from it. He wrote extensively on these experiences in The Doors of Perception (fun fact: Jim Morrison was so influenced by this book that he decided to name his band after it). He has admitted that one would not be able to perform his craft while under the influence however. He concluded his interview by saying “While one is under the drug one has penetrating insights into the people around one, and also into one’s own life…It’s a very salutary thing to realize that the rather dull universe in which most of us spend most of our time is not the only universe there is.” Huxley died at the age of 69 of laryngeal cancer and his last wish was for his wife to inject him with 100 micro grams of LSD.
While there is number of artists, accomplished artists at that, telling us that drugs allow them to reach their creative highs (pun), science tells us otherwise. For instance, the toxic effects of cocaine on brain are destructive and irreversible, especially to prefrontal and temporal lobes, critical areas for executive function and memory. These are the most crucial brain areas for creativity, which requires imagination, abstraction, analysis and memory. More so, as mentioned in 7 Habits of Highly Creative People, creativity can be stimulated by the power of habits, daily routines that are repeated continuously to make us the best creative selves we can be. If one will rely on drugs to stimulate one’s creativity, he will be running a huge risk of addiction which will eventually lead to self-destruction. We read in Scientific American that “These drugs of addiction activate the brain’s reward system (amygdala, ventral striatum, and frontal cortex) which uses the neurotransmitter dopamine, but the system becomes less sensitive to the drug with repeated exposure to it, thus ratcheting up the dose needed to achieve the same effect (a process called drug tolerance). Eventually the brain’s reward system is shot. The addict now takes the drug not to achieve pleasure, but rather to avoid activating the brain’s pain and stress circuitry that are stimulated when the drug is withheld. “Reward in excess can activate the brain and body stress systems,” Koob said in his presentation at the SfN meeting…The drug is now taken to quell panic, not to obtain a reward.” I found this to be very true with coffee. If you give in to temptation of having coffee every morning, it will no longer stimulate you but only bring you back to your “normal” level. I now found that one coffee a week gives me a nice energy boost but does not affect anything else. So while drugs can give one a creative jump, it is certainly not a long term solution to one’s creative struggles.
In regards to mental disorders, we can certainly learn from writers affected by them as of to the cycles of working (working when hyper, insights and edits when down). One does not need to suffer from bipolar disorder to experience better and worse days. The swings are obviously more subtle but with meditation practice for instance, one could learn how to take advantage of those and use them to one’s benefit.
Disclaimer: Authors of ditchitall.com do not advise readers to experiment with dangerous and/or illegal substances and will take no responsibility of any health or legal issues.