Psychedelics May Offer Artists a Creative Boost

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Dec 21, 2018 6:53PM

Over the last 60 years or so, scientists have been reacting to anecdotal evidence coming from artists and musicians claiming that psychedelics may play some role in enhancing creativity. Artists like Adrian Piper and Yoko Ono are known to have used some form of LSD or psilocybin mushrooms and the resulting experiences influenced their work. And just as scientists of the past dug into the potential benefits of such substances, today’s scientists are responding to a new wave of interest.

This year, we’ve seen a resurgence of research on psychedelics, focused largely on the therapeutic potential of mescaline (peyote), psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD. Scientists have challenged popular assumptions on the dangers of psychedelics through new evidence of their efficacy within palliative care and in treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD. These studies have also given way to new findings on “microdosing”—the practice of taking a fractional dose of a psychedelic (small enough to avoid tripping) in order to increase brain function and creativity.

In turn, stories abound of working professionals (particularly in Silicon Valley, initially) ingesting tiny portions of acid along with their daily vitamins. And alongside the scientific interest in the effects of psychedelic drugs, artists have been experimenting in their own ways.

Recent Microdosing Research

Reuven Israel
Untitled Folding Object 55B, 2018
Braverman Gallery
Reuven Israel
Untitled Folding Object 8A, 2018
Braverman Gallery

In the past year, multiple studies have explored new terrain when it comes to the intersection of creativity and psychedelics. In June 2018, researchers at the Imperial College London published a study examining the effects of psilocybin mushrooms on patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression.

In the study, 20 patients were given weekly microdoses of the compound and tested for a range of personality traits. Among them was “openness,” which, according to the researchers, is at the crux of imagination, aesthetic appreciation, non-conformity, and creativity. Further, they wrote, psilocybin and two other psychedelics—DMT and LSD—are associated with increased openness, cognitive flexibility, and creative thinking. At the end of the three-month period of the study, results showed that the patients displayed a significant increase in “openness.” And researchers suspect that this effect could be a specific quality of psychedelic therapy.

Just months later, another study came out in response to popular claims that microdosing allegedly made users more creative by “promoting cognitive flexibility, crucial to creative thinking.” These researchers, working out of Leiden University, were able to to observe the effects of psychedelic truffles at a microdosing event organized by the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. Study participants completed two creative problem-solving tasks to measure both their divergent and convergent thinking skills (the ability to come up with as many different ideas in a short period of time, and the ability to come up with specific solutions to a problem, respectively).

Researchers found that the participants scored significantly higher in both convergent and divergent thinking tests after taking a microdose of mushrooms. They concluded that this study was “the first to quantitatively show that microdosing psychedelics could improve creative performance.” Further, they suggested that the reason for this may be that a minimal dose of psychedelics induces “a state of unconstrained thought.”

The first-ever trial to examine the effects of microdosing LSD was launched this past September, also at the Imperial College London. The placebo-controlled study works around the prohibitive costs and laws surrounding LSD by designing a “self-blinding” methodology. Participants are provided with capsules of microdoses as well as identical placebo capsules that don’t contain LSD; each participant takes the capsules at home (unaware of which capsules contain LSD and which are placebo) and completes a series of questionnaires and online games. English-speaking adults over the age of 18 who have previous experience with psychedelics can participate and all testing is administered over the internet.

Early Studies of Psychedelics and Creativity

These recent studies have an established precedent in the late 1950s and ’60s, around the same time that the famous psychologist and writer Timothy Leary hosted the likes of Allen Ginsberg (who eventually offered to introduce Leary to interested friends like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline) at his property in upstate New York. And while some went as far as to credit Leary for helping define creativity as we know it today, his ascent to become “the High Priest of LSD,” can at least be tied to a series of landmark studies.

In 1954, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger conducted research on the effects of LSD on creative output. He is believed to have given an unnamed artist a series of LSD doses, as well as some crayons, pencils, and paper to draw during the experience. Although the records of this study have been largely lost to time, his research involved over 100 professional artists and more than 250 artworks over the course of seven years.

Later, a pilot study from 1966 looked into possible links between psychedelics and creativity “based on the frequently reported similarities between creative and psychedelic experiences,” researchers wrote.

After 27 subjects were administered “a single psychedelic experience,” the study found that, if administered according to their specific regimen, “psychedelic agents seem to facilitate creative problem-solving.”

The Food and Drug Administration interrupted this study, however, when it declared a moratorium on psychedelics research using normal human subjects. The researchers, confident in the significance of their work and perhaps emboldened by the visibility of psychedelic culture, released their preliminary results and “quietly entered a third phase” of their research. A later study, “The Long Lasting Effects of LSD on Normals,” found that its subjects displayed no change in measures for creativity.

Around the same time, President Nixon pegged Leary as the “Most Dangerous Man in America.” In 1971, LSD was listed by the United States as a Schedule 1 drug, which it still is; the designation asserts its medicinal use is not accepted, users are prone to abuse it, and that it could cause psychological or physical dependence. The negative short-term effects of psychedelics, however, are limited to nausea and increased heart rate. Long-term use has on rare occasions led to Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, and persistent psychosis. But according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the long-term effects of psychedelics are largely “unknown” and remain “poorly understood.”

In the ’90s, Terence McKenna emerged as the new touring-and-lecturing Timothy Leary. When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor he asked doctors if his use of psychedelics could have been to blame. The doctors said no. (They even told him that recent studies suggested that cannabis might actually be able to shrink tumors, to which McKenna replied: “If cannabis shrinks tumors, we would not be having this conversation.”) Still, a widespread fear of psychedelics persisted.

Thanks to a national PSA in the late 1980s, a generation of Americans will forever associate drugs with the thought of their brains sizzling like eggs on a frying pan. The popularity and societal acceptance of psychedelics waxes and wanes with our society’s moral tides. McKenna once told Wired that his real function was to give people permission, to say, “Go ahead, you’ll live through it, get loaded, you don’t have to be afraid.”

Some suspect that the recent surge in microdosing is born out of the fear and misinformation around the potential dangers of psychedelics. It may be an attempt at negotiating the social implications of “dropping out” at work; in other words, if it’s only a fraction of a dose, maybe it’s a fraction of the taboo, too.

How Artists Have Been Inspired by Psychedelic Experiences

Brooklyn-based artist Maya Hayuk, who experiments with a range of psychedelic experiences to create vivid paintings, prefers the the idea of “self-dosing” to microdosing. “In other words, using the amount of recreational fuel or medicine that I need, and then adding more if so desired,” she explained. She doesn’t consume psychedelics while making art, she explained, but emphasized the importance of starting slowly, and seeing how the brain and body respond.

Hayuk relies on a long list of creativity-boosting methods to supplement her practice. These include sleep deprivation, meditation, music, movies, hot yoga, food poisoning, getting lost in the woods, and sometimes, psychedelics. They all induce what the artist calls inspiring “shifts of perception.” Like mushrooms and LSD, sleep deprivation can “make for some excellent visuals when my eyes are later closed,” she said.

Her relationship to psychedelic experience can be compared to that of legendary artists who came before her. The beloved cartoonist R. Crumb, for example, has openly discussed the effects of LSD on his practice. “It changed the whole direction of my artwork,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Paris Review, noting that psychedelic experiences led him to his signature style. “I got flung back into this cruder forties style, that suddenly became very powerful to me.”

Yayoi Kusama, famed for her mirrored infinity rooms and polka-dotted Self-Obliteration performances, was known to surround herself with LSD users in the ’60s. And though it’s not known whether the artist herself ever took the drug, the concept certainly inspired some of her work from that time.

Beginning in the 1970s, a distinct subset of artists began seeking to illustrate the creative and spiritual worlds they’ve imagined during psychedelic experiences. Alex and Allyson Grey, who met on an acid trip in 1976, have spearheaded the Visionary Art movement, which is based on the premise that art is a manifestation of the divine within. It “encourages the development of our inner sight,” Alex Grey has written. “To find the visionary realm, we use the intuitive inner eye: The eye of contemplation; the eye of the soul. All the inspiring ideas we have as artists originate here.”

This past summer, the Greys began construction on the Entheon—a sanctuary of visionary art soon to be erected in upstate New York. The building’s façade was conceived to look like an infinite chain of pearlescent faces and the roof will be covered in a kaleidoscope of eyes.

For other artists, though, psychedelic experiences remain a means to unlock creativity. Hayuk, for example, was inspired to forego a traditional career path and to experiment with new media after her first meaningful experience with LSD: “The colors were bright that night,” she remembered, “and I could see beyond patterns and flatnesses that went into layers of infinity. I realized I knew absolutely nothing.” It inspired her to take a break from painting and begin creating performance and activist art, as well as sound sculptures.

Sculptor Reuven Israel—who creates wooden sculptures that experiment with the mutability of geometric shapes—let his curiosity regarding psychedelics lead him to a shamanic experience that guided him through a series of “visions.” He saw that “everything is in constant geometry” and in a constant state of flux—reducing and expanding, multiplying and unifying.

This experience became another tool for creating his work. “It opened up another layer to the world. It opened up a completely different way of me looking at my own art even,” he said.

“I didn’t feel anything mystical or out-of-body,” Israel added. “It was more the opposite. It’s like the most body you will ever be.”

Michelle Santiago Cortés