Hallucinogens and Creativity
by Susan Opar
Can hallucinogens make you creative?
Hallucinogens such as LSD, peyote, MDMA, DMT, psilocybin, morning glory seeds, and many others are thought to be mind-expanding drugs able to increase one’s creativity. Psychedelic, mind-altering drugs have been used for thousands of years and have left their mark in almost every population around the globe (Devereux, 1997). Yet, each culture and each era have viewed and used hallucinogens in very diverse ways. One common link between the various cultures is that each has conveyed its psychedelic experience through art: drawings, paintings, dress, mass media, films and the like. This phenomenon has led some to believe that there is a connection between the use of hallucinogens and creativity (Baggott, 1997).
Since the late 1950s, when psychedelics became more potent and more easily available, many studies and interviews focused on the influence of hallucinogen on the creative process. Most interest was placed on understanding how the mind works under the influence of hallucinogens. Is it possible for these altered states to modify cognition so that a higher level of creativity is reached? In effect, can psychedelic agents enhance mental performance in the sense of making it more operationally effective (Harman and Fadiman, 1970)? During the early 1960s, Harman et al. led "drug sessions" where twenty-seven professionals were invited to receive doses of a psychedelic substance followed by workshops requiring creative-thought problem solving. These researches wanted to observe whether hallucinogenic experiences could improve cognition or cause a long-term personality change. Perhaps heightened creativity and better self-actualization would follow and increase the productivity of the subjects. The results showed that the subjects could describe several types of enhanced functioning during the problem solving session that are related to the effects of hallucinogens. They reported a feeling of low inhibition and anxiety. "There was no fear, no worry, no sense of reputation…," "…a lowered sense of personal danger…," and "…the normal blocks in the way of progress seemed absent…" (1970). There was also the capacity to restructure a problem in a larger context. "I could handle two or three different ideas at the same time and keep track of each" (1970). "Looking at the same problem with psychedelic materials, I was able to consider it in a much more basic way, because I could form and keep in mind a much broader picture" (1970).
An enhanced fluency was also reported as they noted, "I began to work feverishly, to keep up with the flow of ideas," "…my senses could not keep up with my images," and "I was very impressed with the ease with which ideas appeared…it was the pure fun of doing, inventing, creating, and playing" (1970). The influence of psychedelic substances heightened their capacity for visual imagery and fantasy. The subjects were able to "move imaginary parts in relation to each other" enabling "fantasies to trigger ideas" in order to find solutions to their problems (1970). An increase in concentration was reported to help the subjects "shut out virtually all distracting influences" (1970). Without the psychedelic substance, one man said, "It would have taken a great deal of effort and racking of the brains to arrive at what seemed to come more easily during the session" (1970).
A heightened connection with objects and external processes enabled the professionals to become more aware of the problem itself without concentrating on the self that was trying to find the solution. Further, there was a strong sense of empathy with other people; it was as if they were thinking the same thoughts or came to the same conclusions.
The subconscious became more accessible as most of the subjects reported. "I was in my early teens and wandering through the gardens where I actually grew up. I felt all my emotions in relation to my surroundings" (1970). The hallucinogenic experience made it possible to associate very different ideas. One engineer was able to solve his problem when he thought of the word ‘alternate’, which led him to a logical conclusion to his problem. Most impressive was the increased motivation to solve the problems at hand. There was "tremendous desire to obtain an elegant solution" (1970). "In what seemed ten minutes, I had completed the problem, having what I considered and still consider a classic solution" (1970).
All of these enhancements allowed the visualization and completion of each problem as summed up by one of the subjects, "I had great visual/mental perceptibility; I could imagine what was wanted, needed, or not possible with no effort" (1970). Some subjects even noticed long-term changes in their performance levels several months later, suggesting psychedelic experiences could be used to upgrade the progress of effective professionals. The researches believe a psychedelic experience may give a person the self-actualization to uncover his or her full creativity that could enhance special abilities.
The studies of Harman et al. focused on the effects of hallucinogens on regular subjects. But what about its effects on markedly creative artists? In 1964, Frank Baron Ph.D. surveyed 91 major artists, including many highly praised and awarded artists, who were reported as having had at least one psychedelic experience (Baron, 1965). The most used hallucinogens were LSD, DMT, peyote, mescaline, morning glory seeds, and psilocybin. A remarkable 81% said they were psychedelic artists, that their work shows effects of psychedelic experiences, usually but not necessarily chemically induced at the time. Influence may have occurred during, after, or just from a reminder. 70% expressed that the experience affected the content of their work, 54% said it increased their technique for use of color, and 52% reported that they gained greater depth in art from their first experience. The psychedelic experience was a life-changing peak. Many reported the "inner life having been opened up" to a self-realization. The illogical, irrational and non-linear merged so that the "psychedelic experience emphasizes the unity of things, the infinite dance" (1965).
Kripper (1972) reported that the main effect artists feel is that boundaries are melted, the unconscious block to the inner self is struck down allowing free flowing ideas. A panel of art critics agreed that this may be true and even noted that some paintings under psychedelic influence had greater aesthetic value than the artists’ prior work. The use of color was more vivid and lines were much bolder. Yet, it was also said that the technical ability of the artist was slightly impaired. Some artists even admit that what they had created under the influence of hallucinogens was not as good (1972). Many artists feel that hallucinogens spark a higher level of appreciation for art, beauty, richness of imagery, or of pleasurable sensory experiences rather than increase skill. Art is the release of what was experienced in the psychedelic experience. Several artists judged their LSD productions to be more interesting, reaching a superior mode of expression where they put together new meaning for an emerging world. Experiments carried out in 1994 by Strassman conclude with the same findings (Allen, 1994). Subjects begin as grounded artists until the hallucinogen takes him or her to a kind of hyperspace where anything is possible. This is illustrated in the changing images seen in artists’ work after a psychedelic experience.
Are hallucinogens able to cause a blossoming of creativity? Most researchers say this is not the case. Artists are not formed from their chemical experience; they must provide intelligence, feeling, talent and imagination (Masters and Houston, 1968). Extraordinary experiences are what give artists their inspiration, the spark that ignites what is in the mind. That experience could be extensive traveling, religious exploration, or conversing with enlightened people; the hallucinogenic experience is just another visionary experience. Just as traveling opens a person up to new cultural ideas, hallucinogens get him or her in touch with the idea that we are only aware of such a small piece of reality (Doblin et al., 1999). Even when drugs are not involved, the creative process itself requires an altered state of awareness in order to access the contents of the mind.
Hallucinogens such as LSD have been reported as only being effective in the creative process when a question or problem is at hand. Hallucinogens cannot give birth to creativity, it can only inspire creativity that is already present in a person. The finding that 90% of a group of artists were intuitive and also that a greater percentage were introverted supports the idea that creativity is a part of the personality and not the drug (Barron, 1965). Artists have special characteristics and qualities apart from those of the general population.
Some of the main conclusions from the work with artists as well as with the regular subjects lead to similar realizations. One idea is that hallucinogens help to acknowledge that we do not function at our full cognitive capacity. The mind is a plethora of knowledge and memories that are usually censored by the conscience but can be unblocked by the mind-expanding qualities of hallucinogenic drugs. Hallucinogens allow different perspectives to be seen and realizations to be made. Further study relying more on palcebo results may lead to better, conclusive results.
What do hallucinogens do to cause changes in cognition?
Masters and Houston (1968) describe the three levels of the hallucinogenic experience as sensory, recollective, and integral. In the sensory level, vision, touch, and hearing become distorted with most of the distortion coming in the vision. Cross-sensing or synesthesia occurs allowing colors to be heard and sounds to be tasted. Siegal and West (1975) continue on this theme reporting that hallucinations can take the form of people. Emerging ideas may project a hallucination on an external object.
Self-analysis can follow in the recollective-analytic-symbolic level. This is the psychological level where the consciousness is expanded to higher realizations. The stored information in the brain becomes the stimulus for hallucinations. What is normal may become extraordinary under the influence of hallucinogens. Simple situations may take on a symbolic, historical, religious, or mysterious nature. Life reaches cosmic level, a unity that has no end. Siegal and West (1975) expand on this idea saying that there is an intensification of internal input, the inner self takes on outer qualities. More images are seen than can be processed. Unexpected and unplanned emerging ideas catch the person off guard.
The integral level is the level of self-transformation that is only reached by a few. It is said this is the level when the body feels as if it loses its boundaries, becoming one with the mystical union of the world.
Because each person is a product of their own culture and own individual experiences, there are myriad forms hallucinations could take. Each person calls upon his or her own subconscious memories when the censor is let down. Yet, there is evidence that hallucinogenic substances exert their effects in very similar ways (Siegal and West, 1975). Hallucinogens can effect the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain, causing an overall excitation, perhaps setting off the locus coeruleus (Pletscher and Ladewig, 1994). They can also act as a sympathomimetic or by acetylcholine mechanisms. Siegal and West also report evidence that suggests hallucinogens such as LSD shift action potentials toward the right hemisphere of the brain, the visiospatial center. Surprisingly those with brain damage to the left hemisphere, the verbal-mathematical areas, are reported to be very talented in producing beautiful, creative art. Children under ten years of age lose some creativity as they increase their verbal and math skills, shifting from the right hemisphere to the left. This may support the idea that hallucinogens do not make creativity but just unlock it by shifting concentration to the right hemisphere. Some people such as artists, may just use their right hemisphere more than the left.
There have also been studies focusing on how visual hallucinations and warped perceptions are formed (Siegal and West, 1975). Hallucinogens may act directly on the eye by raising the intraocular pressure and causing distinct patterns to be seen. These patterns can be easily seen by pressing firmly on closed eyelids. Hallucinogens may also mimic the effects of light on the retina causing abnormal reactions to and interpretations of vision by the brain. Light or pressure falling on the compact, regularly arranged rod and con cells of the retina may produce visual mosaic-like, honeycomb-like, or lattice-like patterns. Movement in blood vessels may cause fireballs, crystals and kaleidoscope visions. These perceptions are said to be entopic because they are formed within the eye.
More electrical stimulus of the visual cortex cells of the brain could also accounted for visual hallucinations. The direct electrical stimulus of a man’s visual cortex during open-brain surgery caused him to see moving and non-moving lights, geometric shapes and stars (Siegal and West, 1975).
An actual scale of images called form constants has been laid out by Kluever according to the reports of the images seen by users of hallucinogenic substances and according to recorded visions in art forms (Siegal and West, 1975). One group of images that are usually always reported include the lattice, fretwork, filigree, honeycomb, or chessboard images. The second group consists of cobwebs and swirls, and the third of tunnels, funnels, cones and never-ending spirals. Figures become patterns and take on the appearance of particle energy. Patterns of light are also considered part of the form constants. Surprisingly many of these images can be seen in a great deal of artwork cross-culturally.