What do Silicon Valley-type biohackers and Lil Nas X have in common? They both believe that psychedelic drugs can help them push through any mental blocks that might be hampering their performance.
But what about for less-stereotypical creatives? Scientific discoveries require intense problem solving and creative thinking on the part of the scientist. Could scientific creativity also get a boost from psychedelics?
A new review published in the journal Drug Science, Policy and Law explores just that. Examining recent studies and those performed in the first wave of psychedelic research in the 1950s and ‘60s, the review found that the brain hyperconnectivity and altered thalamus activity associated with the psychedelic brain state could enhance creativity and problem solving in certain contexts.
Altered mind states and scientific discoveries
Psychedelics have already been credited as a source of inspiration for many important scientific discoveries, as the new review highlights.
Speaking to the BBC in 1997, biochemist Kary Mullis explained how why believed that his use of LSD was key to his Nobel Prize-winning invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.
“PCR’s another place where I was down there with the molecules when I discovered it and I wasn’t stoned on LSD, but my mind by then had learned how to get down there,” Mullis said.
“I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymerase go by […] I’ve learned that partially I would think, and this is again my opinion, through psychedelic drugs […] if I had not taken LSD ever would I have still been in PCR? I don’t know, I doubt it, I seriously doubt it.”
Mathematician Ralph Abraham previously wrote that his experiences with DMT were important to his own work, adding that psychedelics “had a profound effect on the history of computers and computer graphics, and of mathematics, especially the birth of postmodern maths such as chaos theory.” Sir John Gaddam’s self-experimentation with LSD also generated important insights into the effects of serotonin in mood regulation.
“Although these anecdotes are not evidence that psychedelics systematically induce a state of heightened creativity conducive to scientific insight, they seem to indicate that, under certain circumstances, they can,” the review authors wrote.
While there is inherent selection bias in anecdotal evidence, the review authors also note that it is possible that psychedelics use among scientists is actually underreported, due to concerns over the personal and professional repercussions for their drug use.
Psychedelics may help experts push through a creative block
Anecdotes aside, there are a number of scientific studies that also suggest that psychedelics could enhance scientific creativity. One of the final legally-sanctioned psychedelic studies of the 1960s sought to determine whether psychedelics could help scientific creatives – including engineers, architects, mathematicians, physicists, and even commercial art and furniture designers – overcome problems that they had encountered in their work.
In this study, sixteen scientific creatives took part in a pre-drug session where they selected the professional problems they were going to work on. Many chose to select a problem that they had been working on for weeks or months without coming up with a satisfactory solution. They were then given a relatively low dose of mescaline and were encouraged to work on their projects either alone without distractions or in small groups.
All of the participants were found to display enhanced abilities on the psychometric tests performed by the researchers during this problem-solving session. Around half of the participants also self-reported feeling that their creative ability to solve professional problems was enhanced, and that they accomplished more than on a typical workday.
A total of six solutions that had been generated during the experiment were accepted for production or construction, the participants revealed at a follow-up, with a further 10 partial solutions in development and 20 new avenues for investigation opened up.
This study came with some important caveats – for example, the lack of double-blinding or any control group – but it was a seminal work in demonstrating that psychedelics may, even just subjectively, enhance scientific creativity in experts who were fully engaged with a problem.
Psychedelics and the brain
Biologically, there are some mechanisms that might explain psychedelics’ proposed effect on creativity.
A recent study on LSD and creativity found that the drug could decrease convergent thinking while increasing divergent thinking and other measures of creativity, such as novelty or surprise, when working on tasks. Psilocybin microdosing trials have also pointed towards improvements in originality and fluency of thinking.
“Psychedelics appear to act by altering activity of the thalamus in the brain, which has been implicated in sensory gating both internal and external information entering the cortex, so the brain’s ability to filter or inhibit information is impaired,” the review authors wrote.
“This reduced thalamic censorship may provide a rich ground for new insights and perspectives, allowing greater access to unconscious material that is more unprocessed, uncensored and unconstrained.”
Another defining characteristic of psychedelics is the increased global connectivity between brain networks. Notably, other research has indicated that individuals possessing high levels of scientific and artistic creativity already tend to express higher levels of whole-brain functional connectivity. This enhanced connectivity could help to support less rigid thinking and enable shifts in perspective that might make a person more amenable to creative insights, and this could be one explanation for the observed effects of psychedelics on scientific creativity.
The review authors suggest that there are potentially several synergistic effects occurring that might contribute to psychedelics’ effect on creativity, and these may be hard to capture using traditional psychometric battery testing.
In a way, modern psychedelics research could benefit from picking up where it was left off in the 1960s, they suggest. Similar to the 1966 study, future studies could aim to recruit scientific creatives who are actively invested in solving professional tasks, but should also be careful to have external experts on hand to assess the creativity of the solutions proposed during these sessions. Such tests could investigate the differences between different dosages and psychedelic drugs, and possibly generate more insights on how these drugs affect the brain.