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[ Opinion ]

Drug Use And Creativity: What’s The Connection?

By Gary Najjarian

It shouldn’t come as a surprise for fans of any artist to discover that their hero has used drugs. Art is, among other things, a platform to express personal strife and mental illness. It also has the ability to send tremors through the status quo by challenging norms as well as being an opiate for everyday life. Drug use itself is not far off in that regard. 

From “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out” as a way to shed the constraints of stifling norms during the 60’s generation to hip-hop’s narratives of selling drugs just to survive, drugs and art have seemingly been woven into the same fabric. Usage and dependency often embody the same deviancy of artistry itself, whose practitioners are “outside the status quo” and too creative to contend with the demands of everyday life. According to statistics, this “deviancy” is also on the rise. 

What these numbers show is that more people consume illicit drugs now compared to 2002, suggesting that drug use is becoming more of an everyday occurrence for people over the last 10 years. If this is any indication, maybe the “status quo” are beginning to acknowledge and accept drug use. 

Yet as much as usage and dependency in our culture is on the rise, it continues to be perceived as being intertwined with the creative mind. 

The Tortured Soul

Some hold the opinion that death and overdoses are “the inevitable fate for the tortured soul,” and that the best art is made strictly from the most afflicted of people, who pay the ultimate price for being so creative. Popular music culture has always romanticized the cult of personality of figures like Jim Morrison, a person too wild, too creative to just settle for an everyday life. Their drug use often takes on the form of a harrowing epic that becomes a survivor’s tale if they live to tell it, and a romanticized tragedy if they don’t. 

For many iconic artists, however, their drug use can often become inseparable from their own work.

Lou Reed, for instance, couldn’t have cooked up the lyrics to “Heroin” if he didn’t inject the titular substance himself. George Clinton could not be the cosmic tune-smith he was without handfuls of psychedelics. Syd Barrett made arguably his best music as his sanity was slipping away. And Amy Winehouse could not sing so soulfully were it not for her addictions (While we all, as fans, sang along to “no, no, no”). 

The more you think about their drug use, the more you begin to paint an artist’s (supposed) internal life with much broader strokes. Their actual health takes a backseat to the pursuit of some artistic ideal. Rehabilitation and therapy seem to represent some kind of restriction to their creative impulses, a form of “selling out” by taming that dark corner of their mind. Ultimately, the affliction is always a necessary variable to our wild and rather aloof imaginations of fandom.

Rotors of Dependency

Some scientific research suggests that it’s not so much the drug use itself that propels the creativity of our fallen heroes so much as debilitating mental illness. One particular study, published in the Creativity Research Journal, says that “madness seems to be the rotor of creativity, but also the rotor of dependency.” It is believed if an artist is caught in the throes of mental illness, they could very well create the highest of art. However, that also comes along with a similar impulse to consume drugs. 

Dependency runs parallel to that creative drive, but while art can soothe the troubled soul, dependency takes its eventual toll both physically and mentally. An artist creates by the very same impulse that drives them to their illicit drug use. Yet while the previous notion is not outright false, it is also not altogether true. 

A more recent study from Sweden has found that that there are plenty of creative people that function without mental illness as well as without drug dependency. Conducted over the course of forty years with roughly 1.2 million participants, this study concluded that those who are dedicated to artistry or have creative professions were not more likely to suffer mentally. The keen distinction though is that while mental illness did not increase the likelihood of entering a creative profession, people with bi-polar disorder, the most prominent mental illness, held the largest percentage with only eight percent.

Furthermore, those that were siblings of individuals with autism or relatives of schizophrenics of the first degree were significantly prominent in creative fields. This research suggests that most creatively-minded people display the positive set of schizotypal behavior, such as odd perceptions and thin boundaries between yourself and others. So while artists were not found to be largely mentally unstable, their minds do work in peculiar ways to positive outcomes. 

In part, this study reaffirms the age-old myth about madness and creativity. However, the study did not confirm any major positive connection between drug usage and creativity.

Lifting The Cap Off Your Mind

While having or not having a mental illness does not reflect upon your capability of being creative, the exact and immediate neurological effect of drugs makes the question a little more gray. Dr. Alain Dagher even suggests drugs could initially trigger neurological processes that help you make creative abstractions. For example, the neurological effects of alcohol remove your inhibition, the kind of process that can “lift the cap” off of how your mind thinks. This may help you make abstract connections in the same way a poet searches for analogies to put into verse. Dr. Dagher even goes as far as to suggest that heroin, at least immediately, has many of the same effects on the brain as well.

But is consuming one of the most destructive substances the best way to achieve being an artist? Of course not! 

The odd drug binge might help a vacuum-sealed brain to think deeper or more tangentially, but the long-term effects are certainly not worth it. The human mind is more than capable of making those kinds of abstractions with or without drug use, and critical thinking can be boosted by regular creative routines such as reading. In fact, if it’s the dopamine in your brain that provides the heightened sense of pleasure and clarity that artists seek, then drug dependency is a sure-fire way of killing that pursuit. 

Prolonged drug usage can cause a person to need an exorbitant amount of dopamine to feel any pleasure or clarity (a tolerance that keeps climbing), which in turn causes your creative process to suffer. If artists needs to hit a certain “truth” or “abstract idea” in their work, dependency is not the route to take for you to keep on your A game.

With the myth of drug use and creativity debunked, there are still many ways to increase your creativity without destroying your life. For instance, try watching a great film or reading a really thought-provoking book. Photography helps too, as does any other creative medium that goads you along to contemplation. Even little instances of creative assessment during the most banal of daily routines can help. They won’t drive you completely crazy, and they certainly won’t kill you.