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.

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.

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.

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”.

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.

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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