Thanet Writers Research Drugs, Drink and Creativity
Throughout history, many celebrated and respected authors have battled with addictions. Robert Louise Stevenson wrote 60,000 words in six days on cocaine, Philip K Dick took amphetamines as he felt they helped him write, Edgar Allen Poe was addicted to alcohol, Charles Dickens was a fan of opium, and Hunter S. Thompson took all the drugs he could find. Whilst it is still a belief that is held today by some that drugs, alcohol, or both are a good tool in the writer’s toolbox to help the creative process, others feel the writers who used them were already talented and would have written well no matter what. It is a debate that, in the interests of research, can be explored fairly and without sensationalism.
In order to address whether inebriation can influence the creative process, however, it is necessary to look at how the creative process itself works. Whilst there isn’t a definitive answer to this question yet, we do know about three networks in the brain that are working to make us more creative.
The Attention Control Network allows us to focus on difficult or complicated tasks with a very high level of focus while working to ignore other aspects that are not important to the task at hand.
The Imagination Network allows us to bring forward memories from our past and create future scenarios as well as works to create an image in our mind of what these would look like.
The Attention Flexibility Network is the controlling section of the other two. It is what allows us to bounce between being hyper focused on a specific task and being imaginative, aiding us to come up with creative ways to solve problems.
To be creative we decrease the Attention Control Network and increase the Imagination. This allows our minds the freedom to draw from our own experiences and memories and create imaginative scenarios from them. This process can be learned and improved over time through repetition. The more you do something, the more you strengthen and grow the neural pathways and connections that are used to do said task. Put simply, the more you are creative, the easier that being creative will be.
With a better understanding of how creativity works, it then becomes pertinent to look at how drugs and alcohol affect the brain by categorising them into the different types of substances that exist.
Depressants work by reducing or slowing down stimulation of certain areas of the brain. Types of depressants include: alcohol, barbiturates and benzodiazepines.
Stimulants have the opposite effect of depressants. They increase one’s ability to focus on the task at hand. Some, in high enough doses, will actually decrease your ability to focus. Types of stimulants include: caffeine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, cocaine and nicotine.
Opioids work by targeting specific areas of the central nervous system and slow down their ability to respond to stimuli. This is why they work as pain medication. Types of opioids include: morphine, heroin and codeine,
Hallucinogens work by targeting specific areas of the brain that have a lot of different signals coming at them naturally. When there, the drug disrupts these signals, causing the users’ perception to be altered. Types of hallucinogens include: LSD, PCP and magic mushrooms.
There are also some drugs, such as cannabis, that do not easily fall into one of these categories because they produce multiple effects.
The majority of claims that the influence of narcotics improve creativity are based on personal account, rather than scientific data. There haven’t been a large amount of studies conducted on this subject simply because of the difficulty in measuring any results.
To carry out a scientific comparison, a control subject would be required. Whilst it is possible to evaluate the output of Stephen King whilst under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, or afterwards, it is not possible to review his output without either. If there were two identical writers, both of equal creative levels and success, with identical work-ethics and neural networks, then a fair test could be done. Otherwise, any hypothesis cannot be proven, therefore we don’t definitively know whether or not alcohol and drugs can help improve creativity.
Based on a comparison of writers who have used narcotics for creative purposes and those who haven’t (of which there are considerably more than those who have), the results are still mixed. Drink and/or drugs can help improve creativity in some circumstances, but there are caveats.
Firstly, it hasn’t been made clear if the drug use is making the user more creative, or if it is just opening the neural pathways that allow them to be more creative and enhancing the experiences that result, which in turn gives a wider range of memories to draw from.
Secondly, it does depend largely on the effect of the drug. While stimulants have allowed many people to be more industrious in their pursuit of creativity, it really only helps output, not creativity. This is because to become more creative, ultimately, the brain needs to lose some focus and allow the imagination to take over. Stimulants are not designed to do this. Depressants are, however.
There have been some studies that have shown alcohol has allowed people to solve problems in a more creative manner, quicker than their sober counterparts. This has been in a laboratory-controlled setting where the blood alcohol level has been closely monitored to reach a certain level. Unless you have a similar set up at home it is unlikely that you’d be able to achieve the same results reliably.
To enhance creativity is more a mental challenge than anything, and whilst some substances may assist in that, none will cause it directly. Stimulants will, by all accounts, dull creativity but increase output. Depressives may increase creative thinking, but the higher the level of intoxication, the less cognitive function, and therefore the poorer the results. In other words, having a glass of wine or two might help to make you feel creative but illegal substances likely won’t, or if they do you will not be able to process the results effectively.
There are also heavy drawbacks to consider before attempting to conjure creativity through intoxication or narcotic use. It is very easy to become emotionally or mentally dependant on substances that alter your perceptions, especially if they are used to enhance creative output. Taking something (in whatever form) before writing has the high potential to quickly lead to becoming a requirement, resulting in mental dependency and then physical addiction. The risk is not worth the reward, as the reward is likely a similar level of creativity to what you would develop naturally through investment in mental creativity.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his experiences with drugs and alcohol.
“There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.”
On Writing by Stephen King
In conclusion, there is possibly some potential link to drugs and alcohol resulting in creativity. However, creativity is a muscle that can be strengthened over time with practice and training, at very little risk to yourself. There is also quite a bit of evidence in favour of the idea that the drugs and alcohol just make your innate creativity easier to access. So, if you need to be creative for drugs and alcohol to make you creative, why bother with the drugs and alcohol?
Disclaimer: Thanet Writers do not endorse the use of illegal substances or the unsafe or irresponsible use of legal substances.
© 2018 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.