Can psychedelics make you more creative?

Psychedelic drugs like LSD and mushrooms are often associated with creativity, such as fueling artistic and musical composition in the 60s and 70s or the microdosing habits of many modern professionals. But, can psychedelics really make you more creative?

The short answer is that psychedelics can’t make you more creative, but they can show you how to be more creative.

To understand this, it’s worth taking a look at the results of a study that was going on before the U.S. Government halted psychedelic research in 1966. The researchers responsible for this study were interested in how psychedelics (mescaline and LSD) could affect the problem-solving abilities of highly skilled professionals, such as architects, engineers, designers, and scientists. Based on the results, they developed 11 categories of improvement that had to do with the subjects creative abilities, and I’ve provided snippets of each of those categories below. All of the following quotes from participants of the study are excerpted from The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by James Fadiman, PhD.

1. Low inhibition or anxiety

“There was no fear, no worry, no sense of reputation and competition, no envy, none of these things which in varying degrees have always been present in my work.”

2. The capacity to restructure problem in a larger context

“Looking at the same problem with [psychedelic] materials, I was able to consider it in a much more basic way, because I could form and keep in mind a much broader picture.”

“I could handle two or three different ideas at the same time and keep track of each.”

“Normally I would overlook many more trivial points for the sake of expediency, but under the drug, time seemed unimportant. I faced every possible questionable issue square in the face.”

3. Enhanced fluidity of ideation

“I began to work fast, almost feverishly, to keep up with the flow of ideas.”

“I began to draw …my senses could not keep up with my images …my hand was not fast enough …my eyes were not keen enough…. I was impatient to record the picture (it has not faded one particle). I worked at a pace I would not have thought I was capable of.”

“I was very impressed with the ease with which ideas appeared (it was virtually as if the world is made of ideas, and so it is only necessary to examine any part of the world to get an idea). I also got the feeling that creativity is an active process in which you limit yourself and have an objective, so there is a focus about which ideas can cluster and relate.”

“And the feeling during this period of profuse production was one of joy and exuberance…. It was the pure fun of doing, inventing, creating, and playing.”

4. Heightened capacity for visualization and fantasy

“Was able to move imaginary parts in relation to each other.”

“It was the non-specific fantasy that triggered the idea.”

“As soon as I began to visualize the problem, one possibility immediately occurred. A few problems with that concept occurred, which seemed to solve themselves rather quickly…. Visualizing the required cross section was instantaneous.”

5. Increased ability to concentrate

“Was able to shut out virtually all distracting influences.”

“I was easily able to follow a train of thought to a conclusion where normally I would have been distracted many times.”

“I was impressed with the intensity of concentration, the forcefulness and exuberance with which I could proceed toward the solution.”

“It is hard to estimate how long this problem might have taken without the psychedelic agent, but it was the type of problem that might never have been solved. It would have taken a great deal of effort and racking of the brains to arrive at what seemed to come more easily during the session.”

6. A greater sense of empathy with external processes and objects

“…the sense of the problem as a living thing that is growing toward its inherent solution.”

“First I somehow considered being the needle and being bounced around in the groove.”

“I spent a productive period …climbing down on my retina, walking around and thinking about certain problems relating to the mechanism of vision.”

“Ability to grasp the problem in its entirety, to ‘dive’ into it without reservations, almost like becoming the problem.”

7. A greater sense of empathy with people

“It was also felt that group performance was affected in …subtle ways. This may be evidence that some sort of group action was going on all the time.”

“Sometimes we even had the feeling of having the same thoughts or ideas.”

8. Subconscious data is more accessible

“…brought about almost total recall of a course that I had had in thermodynamics; something that I had never given any thought about in years.”

“I was in my early teens and wandering through the gardens where I actually grew up. I felt all my prior emotions in relation to my surroundings.”

9. Association of seemingly unrelated thoughts

“Most of the insights come by association.”

“It was the last idea that I thought was remarkable because of the way in which it developed. This idea was the result of a fantasy that occurred during Wagner…. [The participant had earlier listened to Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’] I put down a line which seemed to embody this…. I later made the handle which my sketches suggested and it had exactly the quality I was looking for…. I was very amused at the ease with which all of this was done.”

10. Heightened motivation

“Had tremendous desire to obtain an elegant solution (the most for the least).”

“All known constraints about the problem were simultaneously imposed as I hunted for possible solutions. It was like an analog computer whose output could not deviate from what was desired and whose input was continually perturbed with the inclination toward achieving the output.”

“In what seemed like ten minutes, I had completed the problem, having what I considered (and still consider) a classic solution.”

11. Visualizing completed solutions

“I looked at the paper I was to draw on. I was completely blank. I knew that I would work with a property three hundred feet square. I drew the property lines (at a scale of one inch to forty feet), and I looked at the outlines. I was blank…. Suddenly I saw the finished project. [The project was a shopping center specializing in arts and crafts.] I did some quick calculations …it would fit on the property and not only that …it would meet the cost and income requirements …it would park enough cars …it met all the requirements. It was contemporary architecture with the richness of a cultural heritage … it used history and experience but did not copy it.”

“I visualized the result I wanted and subsequently brought the variables into play which could bring that result about. I had great visual (mental) perceptibility; I could imagine what was wanted, needed, or not possible with almost no effort. I was amazed at my idealism, my visual perception, and the rapidity with which I could operate.”

At first glance, these reports may seem to suggest that the LSD or mescaline used was giving the participants higher capacities of this or that and making them more creative in general. It’s important to realize that all of these capacities were present in each of the participants’ minds… the psychedelic is only helping them access it. If they truly weren’t able to visualize beautiful, completed projects, models, and theories incredibly rapidly and seemingly out of nowhere, no amount of psychedelics would allow them to do it. Psychedelics can’t make you more creative, (only you can make you more creative) but they can show you a fuller potential of your own creativity.

As modern people functioning in society, we tend to get very rigid and develop pretty low standards for ourselves. As we get older, we tend to dream less and, instead, limit our potential to the things we see around us – we tend to be “safe” when it comes to ideas. This is the opposite of thinking outside the box, and it’s so easy to slip into. Psychedelics can show us what it’s really like outside of the box, and that is so freeing, liberating, and amazing. It makes us want more. It makes us come alive as we realize how creative we really have the capacity to be.

When you take a step back from the exhilaration of tripping, the thing you realize is that, while the exceptional state of creativity psychedelics allow you to enter is wonderful, you have no idea how to get there without them. It’s like putting a blindfold on, getting in the backseat of a limo, and being taken to paradise. After about 8 hours, you’re blindfolded again and taken back home. Instead of taking this blindfolded car ride over and over so that, each time, you can experience a morsel of paradise, why not learn how to get there yourself? You truly can become wildly creative without having to use substances.

This presents some problems, of course, because finding out how to get there is hard. It takes time, work, and discipline, but it’s worth it. This is the true lesson of psychedelics: they show you a glimpse of paradise so that you know what to work for and then promptly send you back to reality, saying, “Now figure out how to get here for yourself.” When you just keep trying to take joyrides to paradise, that’s asking for a slap in the face (aka a bad trip).

How to become more psychedelically creative

Let’s take another look at those categories of improvement from the research study and transform them into clues for tapping into your true creative capacity. Then, if you want to work on becoming creative, you can use it as a sort of guide.

  • Low inhibition or anxiety. In this context, it doesn’t mean lowering your inhibitions about doing unwise or dangerous things. Instead, it means worrying less about what people will think of you, whether or not your work is good or bad, or whether or not you will fail. The psychedelics allowed these professionals to let go and create without any of that kind of fear, thereby allowing them to reach amazing solutions very quickly.
    • In your life, try being less self-conscious, limiting and quick to discount ideas you have. Work on your ideas, projects, and goals without constantly worrying that you might fail, not be good enough, or be judged by others. 
  • The capacity to restructure problem in a larger context. Participants of the study said that they were able to see the problem entirely differently. They looked at both the tiniest details as well as the enormous, 20,000 ft view. Doing so allowed them to see many more aspects to the problems than they usually would have,  helping them to create better, more informed solutions.
    • When you’re faced with a task, project, or problem, try to look at it from many different levels and perspectives – consider things from perspectives that wouldn’t normally occur to you. This can help you arrive at a wildly different solution that is better and more universal. 
  • Enhanced fluidity of ideation. While using psychedelics, the participants found that their thoughts and ideas came faster than they even thought was possible, and their physical body struggled to keep up with recording those thoughts.
    • Try rapid brainstorming techniques in which you set a timer and put as many sketches or ideas down on paper as you can before time is up. Also, start believing that your mind can work so rapidly that you’ll hardly be able to keep up, because it can. 
  • Heightened capacity for visualization and fantasy. The participants were easily able to see entire buildings or pieces of furniture as if they were seeing it with their eyes open. This helped them to speed up the process of creation and truly experience their ideas.
    • Practice visualization and daydreaming. Close your eyes and work on vividly seeing a color or simple object. When that becomes easy, work on seeing every single detail of your bedroom as if you are looking around at it with your eyes open. While this may come more easily for some than others, everyone has the ability to visualize. Practice! 
  • Increased ability to concentrate. Everyone knows that, as a society, our attention span is rapidly diminishing, but the research participants were able to concentrate on one thing continuously without distraction. This is an experience I’ve had on psychedelics as well.
    • Work on increasing your attention span. A good way to do this is clearing your mind: close your eyes and focus on the dark emptiness behind your eyelids. If any thoughts come to you, lovingly dismiss them and refocus yourself on the void. Try to keep your mind as empty as possible for as long as possible (this takes practice, but once you get good at it, interesting things start to happen!). Another way to work on increasing your attention span is to pick one object, such as a flower, and look at it – continue to notice new things about it and keep your focus there for as long as you can.  
  • A greater sense of empathy with external processes and objects. The participants felt as though they could connect to the perspective and feelings of inanimate objects, such as machine parts or the problem they were dealing with itself.
    • When you work on a project or problem, try viewing it as an old friend who is playing a game with you. If the project involves materials, such as paintbrushes or a guitar, put yourself in the shoes of those materials. Try to imagine the problem from their perspective as well as your own. 
  • A greater sense of empathy with people. One of the most common effects of psychedelics is that they give the sense of being connected to all beings and people. This was certainly the case for the participants.
    • Go through life with the mentality that all people, no matter who they are, are connected to you. Try to put yourself in their shoes, show compassion towards them, and consider problems and challenges from their points of view. 
  • Subconscious data is more accessible. The participants found that they could recall things from many years ago, which had long been placed in their subconscious mind and were not usually accessible to them.
    • Work on increasing your memory and connectedness to your subconscious mind. One way to do this is to pick a certain memory that you do have and to try to push the limits of what you remember. Look at old photographs and try to remember details about the way your life was and how you felt during those times. Another wonderful way to get more connected to your subconscious is to write down and work on trying to understand your dreams. 
  • Association of seemingly unrelated thoughts. The participants found solutions to their problems not necessarily by thinking about them directly. Often, the solution came by chance when they were thinking about other things.
    • Understand that everything in this world is connected to everything else, and try to see those connections more thoroughly. If you have two interests that seem to not have anything to do with one another, such as horseback riding and painting, try to discover all the ways they do connect. As you go through life in general, try to see everything as having a point or something to teach you, and you’ll start to notice more of the connections between things. 
  • Heightened motivation. These days, it seems that people are either extremely motivated or totally demotivated, but understand that true progress only comes with true motivation. The participants saw this: on psychedelics, their intense motivation shined brightly and helped them to rapidly work towards solutions.
    • Find something, anything, that gets you motivated to work hard. It could be working out, drawing, reading, or getting really good at a certain sport or video game. Dedicate yourself to working on something without giving up, and you’ll always be glad you did. 
  • Visualizing completed solutions. Similar to the above point about visualization and fantasy, the participants found it easy to see their completed projects.
    • Practice seeing the result of what you’re working on. For example, if you’re trying to get fit, visualize exactly what you want to look like. You can start by finding pictures online, but work towards ultimately being able to see a vivid picture in your mind. 

In this society, when things are hard, we tend to look for an easy way out or “magic pill,” but always remember that the real, lasting results are the ones you work hard to get.

You really can become more creative, and all the work you put in will pay off.

Hope this helps,