a black and white photo of a male and female scientists working with tubes, pills and bottles.
a black and white photo of a male and female scientists working with tubes, pills and bottles.

Drugs, Alcohol & Creativity

Paul Kiernan

This is an eternal question, do drugs and alcohol make you more creative? There are examples on both sides of the argument, creative geniuses who recovered and never reached their pre-recovery excellence ever again. And there are numerous examples of artists who used drugs and alcohol to elevate their creativity only to become addicted and destroyed.

This is an eternal question, do drugs and alcohol make you more creative? There are examples on both sides of the argument, creative geniuses who recovered and never reached their pre-recovery excellence ever again. And there are numerous examples of artists who used drugs and alcohol to elevate their creativity only to become addicted and destroyed.

For those looking to embark on a creative life, it's something to consider. Do you use drugs and alcohol if you're in a creative dry spell? Do drugs and alcohol improve the creative output, or do they numb and destroy your creative abilities?

First off, to be clear, we do not condone nor condemn using drugs or alcohol; that's a personal choice. This piece is not about saying yes; by all means, get drunk or high before you take on any creative endeavor. Neither are we saying that you're a terrible person if you use drugs or alcohol and should be put in a small hole. This article aims to examine the question and the facts on both sides of the coin.

Before we go on with this discussion of creativity and chemical stimuli, let's dig a bit deeper.

Drugs and the Brain

We've seen the commercial, girl in the kitchen holding an egg, this is your brain, and then she smashes the egg into an iron skillet proclaiming this is your brain on drugs. Dramatic possibly effective as a deterrent to drug abuse, but realistic?

Neurotransmitters are the highway upon which your brain sends, receives, and understands messages. This highway allows your brain to process pain, pleasure, friend, foe, and the like. Marijuana and heroine have a chemical makeup that mimics a natural neurotransmitter in the body, so they can attach themselves to and activate neurons. However, these neurons are not activated in the same way as in a drug-free brain, so abnormal messages are sent through the neural network.

Essential Areas of the Brain are Altered by Drugs

When drugs or alcohol are introduced into the system, there are areas of teh brain that can be jostled about and produce abnormal reactions. For example:

  • The basal ganglia play an important role in positive forms of motivation, such as the pleasure derived from eating, socializing, and sex. It's also involved in forming habits and routines. When drugs or alcohol are present, pleasure receptors can become overactive, leading to the drive for pleasure being in overdrive. This can easily lead to addiction and ignoring all things that get in the way of enjoyment.
  • The extended amygdala deals with stress, anxiety, irritability, and unease. These characteristics of drug withdrawal cause a person to seek the drug again. As drug use increases, this circuit becomes even more sensitive. The more sensitive it becomes, the more chances for erratic and even dangerous behaviors to set in.
  • The prefrontal cortex allows planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and impulse control. Since this is the part of the brain that matures last, drugs make teens more vulnerable. A person with a substance use disorder will seek the drug compulsively. And with reduced impulse control, the balance between prefrontal cortex circuits shifts among the basal ganglia circuits and extended amygdala circuits.
  • The brain stem controls basic functions critical to life, such as heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. When people overdose on drugs like opioids, the result can be depressed breathing and death.

Note that you do not see the brain being "enhanced" or "improved" by introducing drugs or alcohol in all of these situations. Yes, the pleasure centers are stimulated, but your brain isn't working in a normal way.

Substance Abuse & Creativity

hypodermic needles and cigarettes.

From writers to rock stars, actors to musicians, and even a famed Austrian neurologist who later became the father of psychotherapy, have had connections with drug and alcohol addictions. Sadly, so many of these creative geniuses have been taken down and are now lost to us because of their addictions. And yet, they kept using.

With all these creative minds using substances, is it really an unfathomable leap to connect drug and alcohol use and creativity? Creative masters Like Edgar Allen Poe, the Beatles, Sid Barret, and even the painter of light, Thomas Kinkade, have used drugs and alcohol to stimulate their creative output. Kinkade's light was inspired by Alcohol and Valium.

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Nottingham Trent University (UK), studied the connection between creativity and drug use. His conclusion;

  • Substance use is more characteristic in those with higher creativity than in other populations.
  • This association is probably based on the inter-relationship of these two phenomena. At the same time, there is perhaps no evidence of a direct contribution of psychoactive substances to enhanced creativity of artists.

Simply put, although creative people are more inclined toward substance abuse, there is no evidence of even a causal connection between drug use and creativity.

The reality is that addiction or dependence on substances can actually stifle creativity.

The good news is that creativity can play a vital role in the recovery process.

Creativity & Recovery

Creative people have a slight advantage when recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Creatives are more open to expressing their pain, suffering, shame, or other deeply emotional situations that have come about through addiction. This freedom of expression allows them to recover more quickly and thoroughly.

What's the Answer

A sheep on a school desk in front of a chalk board. On the board is 2 + 2 = 5.

Technically, scientifically and medically, the answer is that there is no connection between using drugs and alcohol and creativity.

That being said, we cannot ignore that creative people tend to be superstitious. Whatever helped them create the great piece of art, the performance, the song, will be held onto as the magic potion.

People revere the white piano that John Lennon wrote "Imagine" on, but the piano was just the conduit for the creator. The song would have been written on any other piano because the guy writing it was the creative genius, not the piano.

Creativity is somewhat ethereal; we wait to be inspired; we wait for the right moment, the perfect setup, whatever. It seems free floating and without clear lines. So, if a creative person smokes a bowl and then creates some lovely music or poem, it will make sense to them that this tangible experience is what made them creative. They see an anchor in the situation, a reality they can follow to produce more great work.

Now you see the trouble. The substance takes the place of the ability, the training, the hard work, and dedication, and then the substance becomes more important than the work, addiction follows, and after that, the choices are limited; death or recovery.

Creatives have to understand there are no shortcuts and no magical elixirs. Creativity comes from hard work, dedication, a passion for the art, and some natural ability. Foreign substances in the body are not, by definition, natural, so they will not make you more creative or better.

You may feel more open and accessible if you're doing drugs or drinking, but that's not the same as being genuinely vulnerable and connected to the work. If you're seeking answers outside yourself and your body, you will always wonder, did I do that, or was it the drugs?

A Personal ViewPoint

the view from one end of a bridge.

It's important to share that the guy writing this blog is an actor, writer, director with 40 years of experience in the business and, he is a recovering alcoholic.

I have first-hand experience with this subject and wanted to share that experience with other artists.

I have literary and acting heroes who were all drug users and drinkers. My image of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs smoking hash, drinking all night and then putting such incredible work on the page was very appealing to me.

Likewise, stories of Richard Harris and Richard Burton drinking in the pub at intermission of a play were wonderful to me. So, I thought being drunk, high, or tripping was the way to go if you wanted to be creative. I idolized these people; they were my inspiration to live a creative life.

To be clear, as an actor, I never drank before an audition, rehearsal, and definitely never, ever before a performance. I didn't like feeling mentally out of control on stage or on camera. I drank after shows and shoots, playing moments over and over again, getting drunker and drunker.

I drank when I was doing homework and thinking about a scene at home. From time to time, I would discover something about my character or a scene that, in my mind, I thought was brilliant. When I tried to repeat the findings the following day in rehearsal, I could only catch glimpses of what I had worked on the previous evening.

However, I had the potential to be a serious addict. For many years when I started as an actor, whatever I did opening night of a show, if it was good, I would have to repeat it for the rest of the run. I assumed that my actions that day, from what time I woke to what I ate and at what time, were what made the performance work. This, of course, was silly, and eventually, I dropped that very confining habit. But because of that, I understand how people can think; this substance will help me repeat the good work I've done.

I could not say if drugs or alcohol made me more creative because I didn't go as deep as some did. I was always worried that anything I brought to the work that was informed by drugs and alcohol wouldn't be mine, wouldn't be real. I was afraid that I would get to a point where I wouldn't be able to create without using aids. I never wanted that to be the case.

In the end, it is a personal journey. However, there is no science to back any connection between drugs and alcohol and creativity. Your work comes from inside; when it's not there, dig deeper, trust that it is not gone, and know that your creativity, though it may seem like it is hiding, is getting stronger with time, age, and use.

I am five years clean and sober, and I can honestly say I have felt no drop off in my creative drive or impulses. I still live a creative life, still feel inspired, and am still able to produce at high levels.

If you feel your pursuit of a creative life has led you down the path of drug or alcohol addiction, call the SAMHSA National Helpline @ 1-800-662-4357. They have answers, can direct you to the help you need, and get you back on track to recovery.

Creation is never done alone; there are always influences, teams, and inspiration from others. The same goes for recovery, do not try to go it alone; get help, get better and get back to creating.