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Psychoactive Substances and the Creative Process | Does Addiction Aid Creativity?

Psychoactive substances have long been connected to the creative process. But how does addiction affect creativity? And what’s the relationship between mental illness and creative work? A look at the darker side of the coin here.

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We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.’

Ursula K. Le Guin.

A Long History

Drugs and alcohol have been our constant companions throughout history. The juices of the poppy have been known to you for millennia, well before the great civilizations of Ancient Egypt and later Rome.

Whilst Europe groped its way through the dark ages, the drug was in prolific use in the world of Islam. Opium made its way back to the shores in England during the 17th Century in its incarnation as a medicine. Created up by the Doctor Thomas Sydenham, it achieved popularity as laudanum.

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The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt

Five thousand years ago the poppy fields of Thebes, in Egypt, provided the pharaohs with the treasure they needed to build the pyramids; and by then processed poppy juice had already been known to man for millennia.

While poppy cultivation was too labor-intensive to flourish during the dark Middle-Ages in Europe, the drug blossomed in the culturally rich world of the Islamic golden age in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was back in Europe by the 17th century, imported first from India and then from Turkey. Named by the English doctor Thomas Sydenham, it was to achieve fame as laudanum.

A Gateway to Creativity

The Industrial revolution, birthed Romanticism and myriad diseases, including tuberculosis which ravaged the bodies of young and old alike. The combination of existential contemplation, opium and sickness inspired many works of the time, from the poetry of Keats to the ecstasies and despair of Shelley. So rather than being just a means of escape from the mundanity of life, was the drug a door to the glory of creativity?

Writer Thomas de Quincey claimed that it had intensifying properties and that its use would result in a less inhibited spirit. Other writers, like Coleridge, have stated that they needed the drug and attribute some of their best work to its use.

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Doctors as Dealers

Doctors were frequently the dealers of the day, as well as being addicts themselves. Laudanum eventually gave way to the more modern incarnation of morphine. In 1805 Friedrich Serturner, a brilliant German Pharmacist’s apprentice, isolated the active chemical principle of poppy juice , in a bid to make a drug that was safer and less addictive. He named it “morphine” after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.

The History of Heroin

In 1897 Heroin, a synthesized form of morphine, was created in the Bayer pharmaceutical workshop in Germany, was also hoped to be a non-addictive form of opium. It was notoriously marketed as a cough mixture for kids, amid the crisis of tuberculosis epidemic anything that would appear to have benefit or the respiratory system was seen as a positive.

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Eventually the nonprescription dissemination of heroin was made illegal and shortly after, the international drug cartels were born, along with the rather ineffective anti-drug crime fighting forces.

A Staple among Artists

Aristotle once noted: “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies towards melancholia”.

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Heroin has continued to be a staple in the diet of creative artists. Jazz artists, the beat generation, rock stars through to contemporary music artists and actors have found solace and celebration in heroin.

Sadly hugely talented musicians, writers, and actors continue to lose their lives to drugs and alcohol. Because of this seeming correlation is it any wonder that we continue to ask,

‘Does addiction foster the creative process?’

But to attribute art to drugs rather than the artist is to do those artists a disservice. There is no evidence though to suggest that the addicted population of artists is any greater than that of the rest of society. The Scientific Journal spoke with neuroscientist David linden of John Hopkins University School of Medicine. When asked if there was a link between creativity and addition he answered,

“No. I think the link is not between creativity and addiction per se. There is a link between addiction and things which are a prerequisite for creativity…. We know that 40 percent of a predisposition to addiction is genetically determined, via studies on heritability in families and twins. There’s no single addiction gene. We don’t even know all the genes involved in conferring addiction risk”.

Addiction could be called an equal opportunities disorder that impacts people regardless of age, race, religion or class. Particularly strong links have been identified between creativity and mood disorders, particularly manic-depressive disorder (a.k.a. bipolar disorder) and depressive disorder (a.k.a. unipolar disorder). In Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison summarizes studies of mood-disorder rates in writers, poets and artists. She also explores research that identifies mood disorders in such famous writers and artists as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, composer Robert Schumann, and Michelangelo. Perhaps the tortured soul of the artist is something that is not dissimilar to some kind of mental disorder, depression maybe.

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Particularly strong links have been identified between creativity and mood disorders, particularly manic-depressive disorder (a.k.a. bipolar disorder) and depressive disorder (a.k.a. unipolar disorder). A study involving more than one million people, conducted by researchers in Sweden at the Karolina Institute, reported finding strong correlation between creative occupations and mental illnesses. A word of warning to writers though, unfortunately writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.

Is There a Link?

If we see drug use as something akin to the self-mediating of a mental or emotional ‘illness’ rather than a hedonistic pursuit then the question becomes ‘Is there a link between mental illness and creativity?’

And the answer to that question is: Yes, though mental illness does not necessarily have to be present for creativity to exist, there is strong evidence for the link between creativity and mental illness.

About the author
Jason Shiers, Dip Psych, MBACP is a Transactional Analysis Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, and Head of Digital for and Jason has been helping people with all types of addictions for 23 years. He practices holistically calling on various modalities including, psychotherapy, 12 steps, mindfulness, energy and meditation to help people empower themselves to make positive change in their lives.

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  1. Hello Jason , I came across your article by chance today as I reach day 4 back from a severe and extremely painful relapsing on and off with drink, gambling , food and spending money wracking up debts a plenty. I moved out of Warrington in April and stopped going out and seeing friends and slowly stopped answering my phone to people an just texting that I.was ok and safe altho couldn’t talk as was to broken an could only deal with family. Mum and step Dad been ill in this time , my step dad quite worryingly so .

    I was put on Elvanse in March ADHD meds and without boring you to death and making this more than it should be I simply lost my mind , the police came out twice to check on me as safety concerns. Anyway I no longer know what’s real , I can read and write English although my head breaks letters, words and numbers into a code like acronyms, anagrams, reading things backwards etc at and I have personalised everything and it’s couch (light humour as in a lot of emosh pain) and I finally broke in pieces in my head, heart and deep down to the core of my soul on Thursday night my last night of drinking. Had my daughter not texted an said how worried something bad was going to happen an I not phoned her (drunk unknown to daughter or any of them) and told her I adored her an would sort everything out an get help ( as I have turned down psychiatrist appmts etc an I lost my counselling because I was deemed to high a risk as I screwed my car down the street as was nowhere to park an was that distressed I told them my plans to kill myself. So my p.t.s.d has been chronic. My binging had reached a higher level an my depression had reached total blackness with sliver of light being my 4 children. Anyway on Friday when I was sober woke up after 4 hours sleep (sleep not great for months) it was like I just personalised everything an rap songs , tweets , things people had said about everyone an their couch from childhood to now, my head was deciding it into a language which was all about how disgusting a disgrace I was . I was so paranoid although felt deserving of everyone’s hate ( I’m sorry you won’t understand it all as it goes back to the first and second time I cracked “up” when my head first started with the acronyms etc like a reg plate say mine which is MF07ZXX would mean .. Mother Fucker ( the 0 would be the letter O and 7 is the letter G so that backwards would me Go) then Z would mean sleep .. that can anagram to plees . Then XX is kiss for one of them then ten (as in Roman numberal) could mean ssik ( as s is for female S/he) then ten is net meaning trapped or caught or weight. Sorry this is turning into way more than I was meaning to an you prob understand none of it. What I am trying to do is let u know that Friday I was going to drop mason off and eat every single tablet I had , but anti sickness tabs if poss from chemist if not was gonna buy from internet and delay schedule and drink the 2 large bottles of wine as I was that convinced only me was a bad person , only I really took drugs , other people just pretended to prove how bad of a person I was.And when I crack like that my children are in on th plan too etc it’s way too much to try an explain plus I am not sure you will even be reading at this point still or whether you will even open my mail. What I am trying so hard to explain is despite everything I thought at least all my kids are safe an even tho i was chosen to be th scape goat as an example of what not to do I was ok as long as none of my kids were used in that way. I thought there were no wars it was just me causing all th wars an that’s why my Dad left an that’s why he said my abuser grandad was the nicest (makes incest) bloke her knew ( bloke mean b lo key .. be low key ) meaning do not tell me . So yeah i no longer know what is real as I have been nowhere for almost half a century so not much experience other than being a twin of jekyl an Hyde means je kill (to kill) Hyde ( High De (de for since, dumb) and Hyde for hides I hide , secret hidden)

    Oh god I am making this hard sorry please just know that I thought that if there is an ounce of a chance my kids ( hate that word .. diks) love me as I love my parents despite not knowing if I’ve been set up an punished on a open platform etc by my dad an all of you in th world. So I decided to just try an be good for once in my life and so I needed you to know how dreadful I still feel about being such a sleaze bag around you and how much you are one of my big regrets as I really did value ur friendship and found you so interesting to know it’s just my sin got in th way an I ruined everything an from their my life became kinda harrowing as I felt like an empty shell , I no longer looked forward to mtgs etc I was filled with shame altho went on to embarrass myself further with John B and I still cry about those emails and cannot bear to reread them yet as they make me feel so ashamed although I remember a lot of what I said . And I also know i told him when I was drunk I still liked you etc. So I just hope you can at some point forgive me and allow me to be your friend even if that’s in 5 years as it’s been about 4 since we fell out or rather since I behaved like a slag. It was my sin etc I hope may be you will one day see that I have always remained so fond of you as a person , a excellent role model and father.

    So yeah about your article wow I cannot believe how even more clever you are an that you are also clever around poets , poetry and art etc as they my passions . Although I tend to see words very diff. My doctor asked was I autistic and it’s something that’s being looked into with Dr Johnson he is the nicest, most attentive doc I have ever met in my entire life . Anyway I’m not recapping over this so may be some typos ?? Orrr maybe their prob def will be knowing my phone . I tell you what though I feel like I have my own language now or that that’s how the secret society were talking in puns and riddles an I just had to work it out either way I have been totally me for 4 an 3 quarter days . So I am either bi linguistic or special orrrr just a loon . Are you with me ? Still ( St ill) I’m a saint at something oh I tell you my head is damn overblown with it and the flashbacks are even more horrendous.

    To finish off now I am writing you this as in all seriousness I may not make it out alive , I hope i will although I really do not know it is still too early .

    I have got a new sponsor from WSM a Welsh lady I knew wen I lived there an I have made some plans for this week and next week with females from Warrington, Widnes, Manchester an Accrington so hope fully I will be a winner and I won’t end up dead or on a lock down in a padded cell, if it wasn’t so tragically aching my heart and melting my head I would prob laugh. I loved what you had to say and drugs taught me that other language , I was on morphine as a child and read car regs as a kid it just expanded over th years , bit like my body weight doh.

    Anyway I will take a look at your other articles .

    Maybe one day when we are friends , if that ever happens if you’re interested I will tell you more about the hidden language of love I finally found .

    Hope you an the children are great an I feel I should apologise to Danielle at some point as my behaviour was disgusting an lucky for her you are not a slut and behaved like Gentle Man and I didn’t even recognise it. I am secretly (I think although fuck knows what’s really going on)on Twitter I only have my London best guy pal Paul on there an he a Gentle Man too as he known me for 14 yrs an believe I was nuts with him too on an off hence the boobs in lacy bra pic I sent him. Fml
    I went on Twitter for anonminity and yeah my melt down us documented. So shameful althoygh my cone back looking ok up to now and I am learning so much about writing, poetry, arts, crafts , when to shut up lol which was prob 59 paragraphs ago.

    If you’re still hear thank you for hearing me out and the police are called because I applied for a job via my housing group by email and it was off the wall. It tools a month before I could force myself reread it and I cried so very much at what a total knob I am.

    They were excellent with me and my tenancy was not at risk as I thought I would have to go to London to find my sanity which left me years ago and is apparently according to my email busking for money for my self worth coz he loves her ( that is some of what I wrote) along with ” I know the gardeners are great altho they have yet to plant a money tree an I am still waiting for the rent back you owe me as been waiting since April (as got keys in March an had pay th rent myself til I moved in April then pay rent til housing benefit was sorted)

    Ok I am on another tangent

    Take good care xx

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