Psychedelics and creativity; myth or reality?

Last update: February 21, 2024
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Reading time: 5 minutes
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By Brain Matters

Creativity, convergent and divergent thinking

What is creativity? This is one of these words like ‘attention’, ‘personality’, or ‘intelligence' that everybody understands, but many encounter some struggles when it comes to defining them. These terms that are studied within psychology, are difficult to define because we know they exist, that is, we can sense that every individual can be placed on a spectrum regarding how creative for example this person is, but they are not tangible or material, and thus not directly observable. Rather, they are what we call a ‘construct’. With constructs and research in general, things are seldom black and white. It is difficult to say exactly what creativity is, but it is often defined as the ability or act of producing ideas that are at the same time novel (original, unique, inventive) and useful (appropriate, adaptive, valuable). Then, creativity is divided into convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking requires the identification of a single solution to a well-defined problem. A typical convergent thinking task could be to find a concept related to three other concepts. For instance, if we are given the words “bicycle," "car," and "bus”, the only correct and plausible answer emerging from them would be “mode of transportation”. High scores on these kinds of convergent thinking tasks are associated with persistence and the ability to focus exclusively on a specific question. 

On the other hand, divergent thinking requires the collection of multiple possible solutions to a loosely defined problem. An example of a divergent thinking task would be to list as many as possible ways an object, such as a brick, could be used; answers could be for throwing, as a weight, as a weapon, etc. A good performance on divergent thinking tasks underlies a better capacity for cognitive flexibility.

Psychedelics and creativity

With this perspective on creativity in mind, we will now discuss how psychedelic drugs could come into play. You may have noticed that in the last few years, prominent news organizations worldwide are covering the increasing trend of everyday individuals and professionals using small amounts of psychedelics - referred to as micro-dosing - such as magic mushrooms, peyote, or lsd, to enhance their performance and creativity in their respective endeavors. Those optimistic claims come, however, mostly from subjective reports. So let's have a look at what research out there can tell us about the effects of different doses of psychedelic compounds and their measurable effects on creativity.

Acute effects of micro-dosing 

In an article from Prochazkova and colleagues published in 2018, during a micro-dosing event organized by the Dutch Psychedelic Society, they measured the performance of participants on two tasks: the ‘Picture Concept Task’ (PCT) and the ‘Alternative Uses Task’ (AUT), assessing respectively convergent and divergent thinking. Each participant was tested at rest, before taking a small dose of psilocybin-containing truffles, which represented the baseline measure, and once again after microdosing. The results show that on average, participants scored better on both tasks while under the influence of small doses of truffles compared to when they were tested at ‘rest’. This data points to creativity-enhancing properties of truffles when ingested in low doses. Nonetheless, the main limitation to consider in this study is that the procedure did not include the blinding of the participants. Therefore, as subjects knew that they were getting the drug, the placebo or expectancy effect derived from this knowledge, could have mediated at least in part the improvement of performance. 

Acute effects of Ayahuasca

Another study led by Kuypers and colleagues in 2016 explored the effects of ayahuasca, a South American psychotropic plant tea, on convergent and divergent thinking. The underlying rationale of this experiment was that if ayahuasca increased divergent thinking, which is often associated with an enhancement of psychological flexibility, the psychedelic tea could be of therapeutic use for some psychopathologies characterized by a rigid mode of thinking, such as substance use disorders and depression. Consequently, the investigators went to two spiritual ayahuasca workshops and gave participants two creativity tests before (baseline) and during the active effects to see if ayahuasca could influence their performance on these tests. Creativity assessments comprised the "pattern/line meanings test" (PLMT) and the "picture concept test" (PCT), both capturing divergent thinking, with the latter also evaluating convergent thinking. Following ayahuasca consumption, they found no significant difference for the PLMT, but they recorded notable alterations on the Picture Concept Test (PCT) in both convergent and divergent thinking. Specifically, the participants were worse at finding the most appropriate concept emerging from a set of pictures displayed, underlying a decrease in convergent thinking in contrast with baseline measurements. Conversely, they could generate many different ideas or interpretations for a given picture compared to the reference measure, which means an increase in divergent thinking*. We can thus see that these results are aligned with the expectations of the researchers, but not completely similar to the previous experiment where convergent thinking was also improved.

Sub-acute effects of Psilocybin

The two studies presented hereinabove assessed how creativity was influenced by psychedelics during the acute phase. Yet, another paper from Mason, Kuypers, and colleagues from 2019 looked at whether these effects could outlast acute effects. Participants took part in a psilocybin retreat and filled out the Picture Concept Task (PCT), assessing both convergent and divergent thinking, on multiple occasions: first the evening before ingesting psilocybin (baseline), then the morning following the psychedelic experience, and finally seven days after ingesting psilocybin. They found elevated measures of divergent thinking the morning after the trip in comparison with the baseline, but this improved performance was not found at the last assessment, seven days later. Surprisingly, the results for the convergent thinking assessments were inverted; there was no significant difference with the baseline score the morning after the psilocybin experience, but there were enhancements in convergent thinking seven days later.

Conclusion

So, what can we say, can psychedelics increase creativity? Is it a myth or a reality? Well, we went through a fraction of articles covering the topic***, and as it is custom in science, some patterns made their way out, but no clear picture emerged from them. Indeed, although divergent thinking appears to be repeatedly enhanced during the acute phase of psychedelic action, it does not look like this increment can last for a sustained period of time. Regarding convergent thinking, the unfolding outlook is even more mixed, as the performance during the acute phase is once increased, once decreased, with yet some positive effects manifesting themselves one week after the psychedelic experience. Thus, regarding the debate around the concept of creativity and its relation to psychedelics, it would be worth exploring, in further investigations, the specific mechanisms underlying this topic in order to get a clearer understanding of this fascinating interaction. 

Author: Pablo de Chambrier

Ps: If you want to learn more about (1) how psychedelics affect your brain, (2) how psychedelics can be used to treat depression, or (3) tripping terrors, you may then be interested in these articles: 

  1. https://www.brainmatters.nl/en/what-happens-when-psychedelics-meet-your-brain/
  2. https://www.brainmatters.nl/en/unlearning-to-relearn-how-psychedelics-disrupt-depression/
  3. https://www.brainmatters.nl/en/tripping-terror-psychedelics-and-fear/

*Note1: One could come up with other ideas encompassing the three given concepts into one, such as a cyborg duck, or a flying submarine. However, we could probably agree that these kinds of options are less plausible than a hydroplane, and such propositions would precisely measure divergent thinking rather than convergent thinking as it requires cognitive flexibility.

     ** Note2: In this study, they also assessed fluid intelligence (the ability to think abstractly, reason quickly, and problem-solve independently of any previously acquired knowledge) with a short version of the Ravens Progressive Matrices (a typical task for assessing fluid intelligence), but they did not find any significant difference between baseline and active measures.

***Note3: It is good to keep in mind that this is obviously not an exhaustive review of the literature covering the interaction between psychedelics and creativity. Nonetheless, I chose these articles because, in my opinion, they reflect quite accurately the trends observed in the other articles I went through related to this topic.

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