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Does Getting High Make You More Creative?

Chances are, a lot of your artistic heroes were drug addicts.

In fact, the question, in many cases, isn’t whether a certain famous writer, painter, musician or great thinker got high—it’s “what was their drug of choice?” And the pattern of drug use as an artistic facilitator begs the question: does getting high actually make you more creative? Does it make you a better artist?

In 1954, Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, a seminal text on the crossroads of psychedelic drugs and creativity. Not long afterwards, he spoke to The Paris Review about his experiences taking mescaline and LSD. When asked if there’s a significant amount of carry-over from the drug-taking experience to his writing, Huxley explains that the way psychedelics “[transform] the outside world” has a lasting effect. “It does help you to look at the world in a new way,” he notes, calling the experience “liberating” and “widening.” While he’s not wholeheartedly endorsing drugs as a magic cure-all for writer’s block, Huxley adds that the experience is valuable in that it can offer “penetrating insights...into one’s own life.” He goes on:

“It shows that the world one habitually lives in is merely a creation of this conventional, closely conditioned being which one is, and that there are quite other kinds of worlds outside. 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.”

Through his experiences, Huxley came to believe that the brain is a “reducing valve” that heavily filters everything it takes in. “What comes out at the other end,” he says, “is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.”

Scientifically speaking, Huxley was right, at least according to many researchers. In the brain, our sensory perceptions are filtered through the thalamus, which acts as a gatekeeper that sorts incoming signals as “relevant” or “not relevant.” Psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms may inhibit the thalamus’ ability to filter, so more signals slip through. The result is that the drug-taker sees things they would have otherwise missed—hence the brighter colors, greater detail and so forth. Their doors of perception, so to speak, are open wide. Other theories suggest the psychedelic experience is a result of increased neural firings, rather than inhibited activity. Whatever the reasoning, the question we’re especially interested in is the one raised by Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (another book that chronicles the use of drugs for creative means). “Man has become so rational, so utilitarian, that the trickle becomes most pale and thin,” Wolfe said of Huxley’s work. “It is efficient, for mere survival, but it screens out the most wondrous part of man's potential experience without his even knowing it. We're shut off from our own world.” The question? If we’re shut out, how do we tune back in?

For one thing, by opening ourselves up. A prevailing theory is that drugs temporarily disable the mechanism that holds you back, thereby expanding your mind and unlocking creativity. Speaking to VICE, Canadian neurologist Dr. Alain Dagher echoed this sentiment. “Low doses of certain drugs like alcohol can cause just enough disinhibition that you can become, in a way, more creative,” he says. It makes sense—just think how much more amenable you are to belting it out at karaoke after a few margaritas.

But there’s another way it can work, Dagher says. “That is, making conceptual links in your brain between things that you may not normally link. So, to a certain extent, this relates to madness—there are many artists whose creativity is almost like madness, but not quite.” He explains that in schizophrenic mind, “you have thoughts that are jumbled together that don't necessarily belong together—you have tangential thinking, and thoughts go in bizarre directions, which might be helpful with coming up with bizarre ideas,” adding, “Part of creativity is being original.”

Herein lies the crux of the argument for taking drugs in order to spark creativity: madness. Essentially, the idea is, being a little crazy is the secret to true artistic greatness. There’s plenty of evidence for this—the list of mentally tortured souls who channeled their struggle into creative masterpieces is long and ranges from painters to poets to inventors to rock stars. Drugs offer a synthetic method of inducing a state of temporary insanity, which, under ideal circumstances, would result in creative genius—or so it goes.

That’s a dangerous game, though. Many of the world’s creative masterminds were self-medicating with drugs to cope with their own broken minds. And so many artists have met untimely ends as a result of too many drugs. So the question becomes, is disabling the mind’s reducing tendencies, even if it means seeing the world around you anew, worth the risk?

Perhaps, though, true greatness needs no chemical aid. Case in point: In the new Showtime documentary David Bowie: Five Years, Bowie implies that after years of heavy drug use (and, it must be said, some incredible work, whether or not as a result), it was refreshing to write while not under the influence, and to prove to himself that he could. “The thing that was most exciting about it all,” he recalls about a period in the late ‘70s when he was living clean in Berlin, “was that I found that without drugs I was still writing very well. That was probably the most rejuvenating aspect of it all...you don’t need to get stoned out of your gourd to write well, you know?” The clarity he speaks of is the other side of the drugs-as-creative-catalyst coin. And the result, in this case? Just one of the most perfect songs of all time.

Do you believe drugs make you more creative? Is there a safe way to dabble in mind-altering substances in order to get inspired? How do you get your creative juices flowing? Tell us in the comments!

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