Whenever I am giving a public lecture on the science of creativity and there is an open Question & Answer round, one of the most common questions I get is:
Does taking XXX help you be more creative?
Now, sometimes the substance listed is very common, like alcohol.
Sometimes it is illegal in some areas, such as certain soft and hard drugs.
And sometimes it is for something I have never even heard of.
In those cases, I am unable to provide any clear answer.
But in many other cases, the good news is that there is actually scientific research into the effects of certain substances on creativity.
I will go through four in particular today: Caffeine, Alcohol, Marijuana and Psilocybin (one of the active compounds in magic mushrooms).
If there is one drink which is often most closely associated with creativity, it is coffee.
After all, if you wanted to look for examples of famous creatives who drank ungodly amounts of coffee, you could take inspiration from Beethoven (who was meticulous about having 60 beans per cup), and Voltaire (who allegedly drank between 40-50 cups per day).
Just be careful you don’t suffer from confirmation bias, because coffee doesn’t necessarily improve all parts of the creative process.
A study in 2020 tested the impact of caffeine on problem solving and divergent thinking performance. The results suggested that caffeine can boost performance in problem solving, but not in divergent thinking.
This indicates that caffeine may help creative work which is in the convergent thinking phase, when you need to focus on editing, but not necessarily on the divergent phase, when you need a variety of new ideas. This could also help explain why so many of the famous coffee drinking creatives did work which requires a large amount of focused editing, like composers and writers.
Caffeine may also hinder your creativity indirectly by significantly impacting the quality and quantity of sleep you are able to get.
So if you are looking for your next breakthrough idea, maybe put that next cup down.
If coffee is what you drink when you want to be productive, how about the most famous drink for when you want to party? Yes, what is the impact of alcohol on creativity?
After all, many of us have experienced the feeling of getting a “great idea” when we are drunk.
But how good are these ideas actually? Are they more creative, or do we just think they are because we are drunk at the time?
With alcohol, the impact on creative performance appears to be sensitive to how drunk the person is.
If you are completely drunk, you might think your idea for a business where “people can buy pets as well as grilled cheese sandwiches” will make you a billionaire, because your judgement isn’t clear in that moment. But other people will see the idea for what it is: terrible.
But with moderate intake of alcohol, scientists have clearer impacts on actual creative performance. And by moderate amounts of alcohol, scientists often talk about the effect of a single drink, bringing your BAC to 0.03.
The results, like a lot of cocktails, are mixed.
In one study from 2017, small amounts of alcohol helped participants solve an Remote Associates Test insight problem, but had no effect on their divergent thinking, and impaired their executive control (being able to focus on a task). A 2012 study also showed improved performance of alcohol on the ability to solve RAT challenges.
In another study from 2010, alcohol resulted in people being less flexible in their thinking, but slightly more original in the ideas they came up with.
A review of research in 2011 found multiple examples of alcohol making the participants more original, less flexible, and also worse at preparing for creative work and verifying the quality of the ideas which the person had generated themselves.
So alcohol may help people overcomes the inhibition which parts of the brain put on us during the incubation stage, but then makes the rest of the creative process more difficult.
The occasional drink won’t kill you. But it won’t make you a genius either.
Marijuana / Cannabis
After becoming legalised in many countries and states recently, more research now exists on the link between marijuana and creativity.
It is known as a relaxing drug, and therefore people often think it should be able to open their mind and lead to more ideas.
However, here the bad news begins.
Research shows a negative correlation between cannabis and creative performance.
A study from 1978 showed no improvement in divergent thinking scores after participants has taken cannabis.
Other studies from 2010 and 2015 found that cannabis use actually impaired divergent thinking performance.
So if you want to be creative, instead of passing that dutchie on the left hand side, it would seem to be better to pass on it altogether.
Psilocybin/ magic mushrooms
Finally, what about a drug which is truly associated with seeing new things? Psilocybin is the compound in magic mushrooms which can lead to hallucinations, but it also has a long history of being studied in the lab.
And interestingly, one of the major impacts it may have is making someone open to new ideas.
This is because research suggests that psilocybin usage may result in people being less inhibited, and significantly more open to new experiences. As part of the Big 5 Personality Traits, one of the only scientifically accepted ways of assessing and measuring personalities, Openness to Experience is significantly correlated with creative performance.
Usage of even microdosage amounts of psilocybin has been shown to improve creative performance.
A 2021 study indicated that while psilocybin usage may decrease performance on some divergent thinking aspects while the person was in a hallucination state, 7 days after the treatment, and without any further psilocybin in their system, their creativity scores were higher than before. This indicates a more long-term improvement to creativity after a single treatment.
Even more fascinatingly, a 2011 study indicated that after a single psilocybin treatment, a full 1 year later, participants were still more open to new experiences that before the treatment.
Somehow, it would seem that psilocybin does something to remove inhibitions in the brain and make people more open to new experiences in the long term.
I am not saying you should run out and buy some magic mushrooms, but the research appears to be very promising.