People under the influence of psilocybin — the active component of magic mushrooms — report having more profound and original thoughts, but tend to score lower on cognitive tests of creative ability, according to new research published in Translational Psychiatry. But the findings indicate that the psychedelic substance can still boost creative ability in the long-term.
The study also collected functional magnetic resonance imaging and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy data, providing some new insights into the underlying neurobiological mechanisms associated with creative ability.
“Creativity is an essential cognitive ability linked to all areas of our everyday life, allowing us to adapt to an ever-changing environment and come up with ways to solve problems,” said lead researcher Natasha Mason (@NL_Mason), a PhD candidate at Maastricht University.
“Importantly, as well as being an essential process for everyday functioning, the (in)ability to think ‘outside of the box’ has also been associated with psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety. These individuals can get stuck in maladaptive thought patterns, which can facilitate habitual (negative) behaviors. Thus, finding a way to enhance creativity is of broad interest.”
Scientists had found some preliminary evidence in the 1960s that the psychedelic drug LSD could enhance creative problem-solving. There was also some evidence that the psychedelic state induced by LSD could harm creative ability. But the issue has received little scientific attention since then.
“Over the years, a number of anecdotal reports have accumulated suggesting that the consumption of psychedelic drugs, like LSD and psilocybin, can enhance creativity,” Mason said. “Famous examples of psychedelic-affiliated creative breakthroughs include Kary Mullis’ discovery of the polymerase chain reaction, the 1960’s California-based computer industry, and the literary works of authors, such as Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey. That said, although there are a large number of claims that psychedelics do this, no one has investigated this in a placebo-controlled experimental trial.”
In their study, the researchers examined two types of deliberate creativity — convergent thinking and divergent thinking. The former represents the ability to generate a single optimal solution to a problem, while the latter represents the ability to generate many solutions to a problem with several possible answers.
The study included 60 healthy participants, who had previous experience with a psychedelic drug but not within the past 3 months.
Mason and her colleagues found that both types of creativity appeared to be impaired during the psychedelic state. But psilocybin appeared to produce lasting improvements in divergent thinking, when not under the influence of the substance. A week after receiving psilocybin, participants tended to generate more novel ideas for uses of everyday objects compared to those who received placebo.
“We found that when under the influence, psychedelics do not enhance creativity per se. Instead, it seems a bit more complicated,” Mason told PsyPost. “We used classic measures of creativity, for example the alternate uses test, in which people have to come up with as many uses as possible for a brick. Here, we found that under the influence of a psychedelic, individuals performed worse than placebo (they came up with fewer uses for a brick, and the uses they did come up with were not any more original than during placebo).”
“However, individuals reported that they felt more creative throughout the day, in that they said they had more experiences of insight and were able to figure out solutions to their own, personal problems,” Mason explained. “This could mean one of two things – either under the influence of psychedelics, people’s idea generation and evaluation (creativity) is impaired, but their feelings of the quality of ideas is enhanced. Or we are seeing a difference in types of creativity – maybe psychedelics reduce individuals deliberate creativity (task–based, with an end goal), but increases spontaneous creativity (insight).”
“We also asked participants to come back 7 days later and repeat the tasks,” Mason said. “Here we see that after psilocybin, individuals performed better on one part of the task. Namely, they were able to come up with more novel responses. Thus we see that maybe psychedelics do increase aspects of deliberate creativity in the long-term.”
The researchers also found that psilocybin-induced changes in creativity were associated with connectivity patterns within the default mode network, a large-scale brain network involved with daydreaming, imagination, and spontaneous thinking, among other things. “We found changes in the brain that predicted both the acute and long-term changes in creative performance after psilocybin, so we can start to get an idea of how these drugs are working to enhance or impair creative thinking,” Mason said.
In particular, decreased integrity of the default mode network was associated with greater subjective feelings of insightfulness, as well as long-term increases in divergent thinking.
The findings are in line with previous research conducted by Mason and her colleagues, which took place at a psychedelic retreat. Unlike the current study, however, the past research was limited by its lack of a placebo condition.
But, despite the improved methodology, there is still a need for additional research. “We don’t know if under the influence of psychedelics, individuals just feel more creative or if these drugs are actually increasing the spontaneous side of creativity, so this needs to be further tested,” Mason explained.
“These distinctions are of particular importance, as psychedelics are currently being investigated to treat a number of mental health disorders, characterized by rigid, inflexible thought patterns (like anxiety and depression). Thus, it could be suggested that the ability of psilocybin to acutely alter different aspects of creative thinking could aid in the therapeutic process by opening up a window of opportunity where therapeutic interventions could prove more effective.”
“Namely, while under the influence of a psychedelic, rigid thought content could be decreased, while unguided, spontaneous thoughts may give rise to new insights and perspectives of previous events and current problems,” Mason added. “Subacutely, patients may then be able to integrate these insights with a therapist, and come up with new, more effective strategies that facilitate adaptive interpretation and coping abilities. Thus, future studies should be employed in clinical populations in order to assess this proposal, as well as the underlying neurobiological mechanisms.”
The study, “Spontaneous and deliberate creative cognition during and after psilocybin exposure“, was published April 8, 2021.