Alcohol, Drugs, and Creativity

How many times have you heard someone say that true creativity comes when you’re drunk or high?

The old saying that Hemingway would write with two fingers of whiskey (or scotch, or whatever that saying is) is one that I hear from many people. Once at a doctor’s office, upon learning that I was working on a book at the time, my GP said that he always wanted to write—that he needed to just sit down with his stiff drink and start typing away because, in his words, “that’s what you do, right?”

There’s also a cultural subtlety that hides in plain sight: the annual barrage of articles online that say you should be buzzed (or high, or tripping, or whatever) before doing something creative, because getting a buzz “unlocks” your creativity. Whatever the case may be, there’s a culture around alcohol and drugs and their perceived benefits for creative people that warrants a critical eye not just because of how influential and ubiquitous these types of suggestions have become, but because influential publications are citing scientific research to back up their clickbait headlines.

And as it turns out, like most articles online, the actual research is greatly misunderstood.

One very recent example is from a 2017 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. In it, researchers used a Remote Association Test to see if having a blood alcohol level of .03 or greater would have a statistically significant effect on creative thinking. This study and ones like it are often cited as being “proof” that getting a buzz will help us be creative, but what the study actually found was only a reinforcement of previous findings from many studies before: anything that mitigates fixation improves our creative thinking.

Fixation is a concept that refers to our ability to focus on what we want to pay attention on, and ignore things we want to ignore. Fixation mitigation is the act of consciously and subconsciously pointing our attention toward and away from things based on our motivations and goals. If we think about task-oriented behavior, for example, we might consider fixation mitigation as our internal act of focusing on what we’re trying to accomplish despite background noise or distractions that might deter us from reaching our objective. You might be consciously wanting to pay attention to my words, but subconsciously your mind is seeking out forms of distractions that it has grown accustomed to, like your phone, or T.V., or that good-looking person across the way.

When it comes to art, though, mitigating our fixation can have deleterious effects if we don’t give ourselves permission to focus when we need to focus and permission to fixate when we need to fixate. Writing is one form of art that illustrates this well. You have to be in the moment when you’re writing a sentence. Each sentence as you construct your story fits together in a paragraph, which themselves form webs of greater and greater narrative structures. Writing by the seat of our pants–which is when you write your story without a goal or end-state in mind per se–can only get you so far. Eventually, you need to stop and think about the big picture so that your story feels like a story. What is my character doing, where are they trying to go, and why? Who wants to stop them, and why? Ultimately, what is this story about? What do I want the reader to feel when I am done?

Some people are better at handling these kinds of big-picture abstractions in the back of their minds, but however it’s accomplished, it’s still accomplished. In fact, the ability to see your story as a whole–to look at the path you’ve laid in front of you and all the possible dimensions of reality where choices you could make right now could affect the outcome of the story–is truly what separates a writer from someone who just wants to say they are a writer.

And this is where mind-altering substances come in. Imagine you’re someone who desperately wants to do a thing, and you see others doing that thing, and you are constantly told that what you need to do is expand your mind so that you can start thinking like people who can already do that thing. Now, mind you, you’ll notice I didn’t mention the one thing that needs to happen that no one wants to talk about: practice. No one wants to talk about practice because it’s boring. No one wants to talk about practice because anyone can practice. People want the magic pill. They want the elixir that will allow them to skip ahead and cheat. They don’t want to put in their 10,000 hours; they want the fruits of 10,000 hours of practice right now.

And do you know what teaches them to seek out ways to cheat at practicing art? Studies, and articles, and stories, and anecdotes about how drugs and alcohol surge your creativity. But the fact of the matter is that reality is not as exciting. These studies that are misquoted and incorrectly used to suggest that creativity is just a drink or a joint away are only showing that spontaneous processes in creative thought are more able to come out when we are less inhibited by the anxieties that tend to get blurry when we use mind-altering substances.

One study that helps explain this put the lens over cannabis. Here, researchers used self-reported measures of cannabis consumption, openness to experience, and the appearance of enhanced creativity to determine whether self-reported creativity was higher among users versus non-users. What they found was that  increased reports of openness to experience were correlated to cannabis use and subsequently self-reported creativity, suggesting that it’s not the drug that gives us creativity, but the mood that the drug gives us permission to succumb to that does.

That mood is somewhat hard to define. Some might call it bliss or peace, others might call it a sense of satisfaction or clear-headedness. What is clear, however, is what this mood is not: it’s not anxiety, it’s not worry, it’s not dread, it’s not suspicion, it’s not overthinking. Once you are in a state where your anxieties melt away from around you, your senses no longer control where your attention focuses–your mind does. So when people talk about drugs “unlocking” your creative mind, it’s not the drugs and it’s not the drug’s effects, it’s the state of susceptibility that the drugs helps us achieve.

It’s important to frame it this way because, even if you are a drug user, it’s the state of omitted anxiety that is important to strive for and not the high in and of itself–which means we should be trying as best we can to remove the anxieties from our lives that prevent us from achieving creative flow. Drugs are not the way to get us there, they only increase our susceptibility to our own efforts to drive ourselves to that destination through self-reflection and hard, honest personal growth.

In this way, we can frame drugs and alcohol as tools–and useless ones if we don’t have a properly trained mental toolbox. This leads us to a philosophical point that is not going to sit well with some people, but nonetheless something I feel is true: some people are naturally creative, and other people are not. I’ll caveat this with the statement that everyone has the capacity for creativity–after all, we’re the same species and the same sacks of meat–but true creative flow–and not just artistic mimicry–is something that not everyone can or wants to achieve. It takes time and effort and a lifetime of commitment to unlocking the creative parts of your mind to be a creative person; it’s not a light switch, it’s a lifetime of working. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting work. It’s sometimes thankless and lonely work. And it must be done all the time.

So the urge to believe that drugs unlock this thing inside us that takes a lifetime of work to reveal makes sense. Some people do not want to work their whole lives being creative. Other people, like you and me, have no choice. It’s an internal, existential calling; whether we are good or bad at it, we have to do it. We have to create. And so this leads people who are not naturally drawn to creativity wondering if there is some secret formula–there’s not–or magic way to unlock their own creativity–there’s not–so they look at stories about drugs and alcohol being these cheat codes for our minds. People are drawn to articles that pretend to base these statements in science because it helps them cope with the fact that they would rather not do the work to be creative. Put another way, they don’t want to write a book, they want to have written a book. They don’t want to spend years training for and running a marathon, they want to say that they have ran a marathon. They don’t want to make art, they want to be able to say they have made art. For non-creatives it’s about the destination, but you know as well as I do that creativity is about the journey, and the destination represents closure–not a beginning.

On the other side, people who actually are naturally creative who use drugs are now experiencing new ways to frame their sensory inputs–that openness to experience I talked about earlier–but it’s only “unlocking” something as much as it is just temporarily giving us a stepping stone to look over the mental fences that we build around ourselves. If you’re having trouble with coming up with an idea for a story because you want to write a book, getting buzzed or high isn’t going to magically make you a good writer and it’s not going to magically give you a compelling story. Writing, and failing, over and over again, is the only way your storytelling will improve. The same goes for any other type of art; I remember when I was learning figure drawing, and a friend of mine who works as a comic book inker said to me, “you’ll never get better if you keep comparing your work to mine. You should only be comparing your work to what you drew yesterday. The difference between you yesterday and today is the only thing that matters.”

So why are these articles posted every year about drugs and alcohol unlocking our minds all wrong? Why can’t drugs unlock our creativity, and bring people who are otherwise uncreative into the fold of those who are?

In January of 2018, Researchers at Harvard asked this very question, and using fMRI scans revealed that there might be neurological differences between people who are and are not creative. They found that, in creative people, there was a network of functions that didn’t exist in people who did not consider themselves creative.

“This high-creative network,” goes the story, “exhibits dense functional connections between core nodes of the default, executive, and salience systems—networks that typically work in opposition—suggesting that the creative brain is marked by a tendency to simultaneously engage these large-scale circuits to a greater degree than the less creative brain.”

Put another way, creative people have trained themselves to access parts of their brain in different ways than non-creative people. That means drugs aren’t a key to these doors inside our minds, but rather, they’re more like helmets we put on to alter the way our senses interact with what’s behind those mental doors.

But if we haven’t done the work necessary to unlock those doors, drugs aren’t going to do it for us. Instead, we’ll be those stereotypical drug users who think they have this transcendental view of the world but are really just translating mediocre platitudes disguised as self-expression into whatever form of art they’ll never take the time to master.

So while recreational drugs can suppress the effects of anything that would cause our attention to be too focused on our immediate senses, creative people who have been able to dabble and then fondly reflect back on a time when they tried drugs risk sharing an illusion of enlightenment to people who suffer from addictive personalities. People who can just do one hit of something and then never feel the urge to do it again are a rare exception. Think about it: you’re usually hearing famous artists talking about a time they tried drugs or even were using drugs heavily for a period. But the only reason we’re hearing their story now is because 1) they’re famous and have a platform to tell their story, and 2) they stopped. They made it through.

When it comes to creative thinking, if someone is not going to put in the work to use tools like mind-altering substances appropriately—and by appropriately I mean as a means to augment their existing creative energy—then we have to call it like it is: they’re using the notion of artistry to get drunk or high. And that makes it hard for the rest of us to communicate about the effects of mind-altering substances on the creative process.

In cases like this, the only person they’re fooling is themselves. If you want to benefit from things that alter consciousness, you have to put in the work on yourself. You have to create a foundation for self-reflection and confidence before you can use tools that enhance your openness to new experiences—otherwise, you won’t have the capacity or wherewithal to appreciate them and translate them into productive methods of self-expression.

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