The “chicken and egg” question comes in mind every time I question the link between creativity and the consumption of toxic substances.
As this ” link ” or positive correlation, as statisticians would say, has existed for centuries. The list of intellectuals, artists or major scientific visionaries experimenting with alcohol and drugs or who simply claimed their consumption, is long.
In scientific and artistic circles, for scientific or recreational purposes, absinthe, hashish, opium, LSD, cocaine …have always been consumed. The romantics were taking opiates while drugs like laudanum and morphine were consumed by poets and painters.
Painters and writers participated in the study and the exploration of drug-induced experiences and were part of the “Club des Hashishins ” founded by Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours in 1844.
Members included painters like Eugène Delacroix or Mr. Daumier, poets like Gautier, Charles Baudelaire and Gérard de Nerval, writers like Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Benoit Levingston.
Other famous writers known for their addiction to drugs and alcohol: Verlaine, Rimbaud, Kerouac, Burroughs Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Carver, Timothy Leary – famous supporter of the benefits of LSD – and Stephen King.
In the music world, drug use was almost normal and even advocated by some. The Beatles and the madness of the 60s, the infamous 27 Club and other famous singers like Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Elvis Presley, testify to this.
In the scientific community we have Thomas Edison, the French chemist Mariani, who developed a Bordeaux wine-based drink with 6 to 7 mg of cocaine per bottle, Sigmund Freud who wrote an essay on the beneficial effects of cocaine (Über Coca, published in 1884), Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who said that taking LSD in the 1960s was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life”.
Paul Erdős, a famous Hungarian mathematician also seems to share the same feeling:
“Before, when I looked at a white sheet, my mind was full of ideas. Today, all I see is a blank page.”
Deeper reasons behind
Wouldn’t the fact of speaking of a link between toxic substances and creation be just a half-truth? A mental shortcut that cloud our judgment?
It is well-known that drugs and other toxic, psychoactive substances, ” by definition, create altered states of consciousness”, explains neurobiologist Jean -Paul Tassin, Research Director at Inserm France. And it is these states that are, indeed, ” conducive ” to creativity.
Because of this disinhibition effect, these substances help with thinking “out of the box”, giving people the courage to go much, much further than they’d ever dare go otherwise and help with making connections and associations of ideas that our suppressed and censored mind, wouldn’t normally do.
By removing this inhibition, a new space, for mind drift and imagination, is created.
But since these states can be also achieved without taking drugs, let’s take a look at the other reasons, the much deeper ones that could translate the addiction to drugs and /or alcohol.
We know Baudelaire and his spleen from his prose poems:
” One always be drunk. That’s the great thing; the only question. Not to feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and bowing you to the earth, you should be drunk without respite.”
Or Alfred Musset, who wrote:
“The bottle does not matter, as long as one gets drunk.”
The former Beatles George Harrison, speaks of a constant search for this “something else” that he cannot fill or find :
“All your life you wanted to be rich and famous, and when you become rich and famous, you realize that’s not it, there must be something else. “
Today, we also learn more about Lady Gaga, his addiction to drugs and the difficulty of living while famous:
“I’ve been addicted to various things since I was young,” she said. “Most heavily over the past seven years… But, the truth is that it is very hard to be famous.”
She continued: “It’s wonderful to be famous because I have amazing fans. But it is very, very hard to go out into the world when you are not feeling happy and act like you are because I am a human being too and I break (..).”
Linda Leonard, author and organizer of workshops for artists on the theme of addiction and creativity, speaks of artists who use alcohol to explore their dark side, of an experience beyond a bland and ordinary reality, of fear and fight against the loss of emotional control.
The use of drugs and alcohol seems to be rather related to an identity crisis and a quest for the “self” than the one for art and creation, either by trying to avoid them or by falling further into them voluntarily.
Moreover, when we speak of creation, we speak of the transgression of his own limitations, of a quest for self, a certain sensitivity, hard work and everything that feeds and develops the intellect and the inner world of the creative person.
We must also remember that it is not because someone takes drugs that he or she will reach its creative genius. Hard work, sensitivity, vision and many other aspects and factors come into equation when it comes to creation.
A very dangerous road
However, drugs consumption is similar to driving on a very dangerous road.
Moreover, their effects can be totally counterproductive. What drugs will “offer” on one side, they will take it from you on the other side …. The drugs’ power of creation is like a Chimera as their side effects remove the opportunity to enjoy your creation and life. And this is true especially when the taking poor quality substances or without knowing them as well as its own receptivity to their effects.
For example, The Beatles understood very quickly that when they composed or recorded tracks while under the influence of drugs, the result was very bad.
Stephen King’s addiction to drugs and alcohol was so strong that he barely remembers having worked on some of his best sellers. One day he lost consciousness as a result of an excessive cocaine us. In his office, ” beer cans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottle and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup, Nyquil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash ….”
Anonymous testimonies on Internet of regular drug users, also confirm that once the euphoric effect disappeared it is an absolute “hell on earth.”
In his book The eight circuits of consciousness, the author, Laurent Huguelit, also confirms the counterproductive effect of these substances: “Tobacco, alcohol and opiates are the most physically addictive drugs; when used improperly, “over root” human beings and prevent them from reaching higher levels of consciousness.”
The price of this consumption is proving to be fatal in most cases. Many great minds and Nobel Prize winners disappeared at the height of their glory. We can only wonder what their work might have been today if they have lived longer and/or without this bipolar life.
Same results (if not better) when taking the safe route
Now, the question is: Are there other means of achieving these states of consciousness that open the doors to our perception and imagination? Moreover, are there other ways of letting go, of feeling good physically and mentally, of escaping disinhibition and be able to make conceptual connections between things and ideas that we would not normally make?
George Sand wrote in his autobiography:
“Inspiration can cross the soul as well in the middle of an orgy or in the silence of the woods; but when it comes to giving a shape to the thought (…) one must have complete possession of oneself. “
The creation implies a strong link between body and mind. According to an article published in Nature Neuroscience by several researchers from the University of Montreal, favourite music evokes the same euphoric feelings as drugs, the experience of pleasure being similar to that provided by cocaine.
The psychologist Timothy Leary suggests that meditation, yoga and sensory deprivation are also pathways to creativity and altered states of consciousness. ” It’s not the drug that produced the transcendent experience”, he wrote in 1964 in A psychedelic manual. “It just acts as a simple chemical key – it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.”
Many structured creativity techniques also produce the same result. Moreover, in the so-called incubation phase (one of the four phases of the creative process) the goal is letting go by letting the subconscious do the work. In order to do so, it is recommended to start a very different activity, one that reduce cognitive load: contemplating nature, listening to music, leaving home, practicing sports. The best time to have the famous “Eureka” moment is when ” the brain is not at its most logical intellectual efficiency, while the body experiences full energy levels” as we learn from F. Debois’s book “Tools for creativity”.
A healthy diet and specific food categories such as slow carbohydrates, oilseeds, dark chocolate have also been mentioned in the media for their action on the brain in terms of relaxation.
Therefore, it is very important to understand that today we have the chance to know all these mechanisms and to have so many tools that allow us to achieve the same results in terms of creation and this, without destroying ourselves; but by increasing our energy, our self-control and self-appreciation and by unleashing our true potential.