There has been a long-running notion in popular culture that using drugs fosters creativity, notably amongst musicians. Some believe that a benefit of using depressants such as alcohol, stimulants including Adderall and cocaine, and hallucinogens like psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, is a boost to one’s creative abilities. The science-backed research and first-hand accounts, however, tell a different story than the typical rock star biopic or mid-2000s music video.
How the Brain Works to Create Music
There is a lot of action going on inside the brain when tapping into creative thinking skills.
The process of playing music has been described by researchers as a “full-body workout” for the brain. When someone plays an instrument, whether it be a harp, guitar, or even the use of their own voice, they are simultaneously pulling on brain signals and information from both hemispheres which control the visual, auditory, and motor skills.
So then, what exactly happens to that process when drugs are added into the mix?
The Effect Drugs Have on Creativity
It has been well established by medical scientists that drug use has a direct effect on the inner workings of the brain. When it comes to making music, where there is a large and complex volume of neurological signals and information flowing, drug use significantly impairs a person’s ability to process melodic concepts and creative ideas.
Japanese researchers published a study on LSD’s impact on creativity, and their results found that psychedelic drugs do indeed impair one’s ability to use their brain’s novel sensory perceptions to craft original ideas, like writing a poem, designing a sculpture, or singing a song. Dutch scientists also studied the effects of cannabis on creativity by giving varying doses of THC to human test subjects. The results of their study showed the more THC that participants ingested, the more it diminished their ability to generate creative thoughts.
When an outside chemical is added, the body’s natural rhythm will change, usually not for the better. In fact, the higher the dose, the more that natural rhythm will be affected. What is especially dangerous is when an emotional desire to strengthen creativity evolves into an addiction.
How Psychological And Physical Dependency Develops
The feelings of euphoria and relaxation that come from using a drug may seem like a helpful assistant for boosting creativity at first. Becoming too comfortable with using drugs as an aid for reaching one’s creative potential, however, opens the very real possibility of becoming psychologically or even physically dependent on that specific substance as time goes on.
The overuse of an outside substance to enhance the creative process could ultimately reach the point where an artist believes it is now a necessary part of their routine, even if that was not their intention. Healthline defines one of the key symptoms of psychological dependence related to drug use as the belief that one needs the substance to do certain things. Psychological dependency on a drug does not always evolve into a physical addiction, but musicians are walking along a slippery slope when they start to feel too comfortable relying on a substance to make better music.
Developing a dependency on a drug, whether that be emotional or physical, is a scenario that musicians should try to avoid. For creatives, falling into that kind of destructive habit risks eventually stoppering their natural abilities to perform at full potential.
The Consequences Drugs Have on Group Collaboration
Music is not always a solo endeavor. Great performances often rely on team collaboration. Whether it is two friends playing songs together at home, professional musicians writing new material in a recording studio, or entire orchestras performing live in front of an audience of thousands, musical collaboration requires participating players to be in sync.
Drug use is proven to have a negative effect on behaviors that impact personal relationships and group dynamics. Musicians under the influence of drugs or alcohol are likely to be less responsible and miss practice, performances, or important media appearances. Those who perform intoxicated often leave fans disappointed, damaging the group’s image and reputation. Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann explained how cocaine greatly hurt his band’s creative dynamic during a 2015 interview stating, “The drugs were the catalyst for bad personalities, particularly cocaine. It’s not a good drug whatsoever and it’s definitely bad for music. It made us all individuals, it made us all self-centered, it made us not listen to [the] music when we were all playing together.”
Not all musicians who become dependent on using drugs to boost creativity remain stuck there. A number of prominent musicians have overcome addiction and have found new, healthier strategies to channel their creative potential while in recovery.
How Artists Have Reclaimed Their Creativity in Sobriety
There are plenty of positive examples of well-respected musicians who have overcome their dependency on drugs, and have even gone on to achieve more success following treatment for their addictions.
Trey Anastasio of Phish has found peace throughout his recovery journey which he began in 2007 after developing an addiction to opiates. Anastasio told GQ in 2019, “When I first got sober, someone said, ‘Is this going to be hard for you to go back, without the rock ’n’ roll excess?’ And I said, ‘No, because for the first 15 years, there was none of that.’ We played chess a lot, and Tetris.”
“All the magic that you thought worked when you were high comes out when you get sober,” Aerosmith singer-songwriter Steven Tyler told GQ about overcoming the fear of not being able to channel his musical creativity in recovery. “You realize it was always there, and your fear goes away.”
Trusting In Natural Creative Abilities
The use of drugs for the purpose of strengthening one’s creativity could result in a diminished brain function, substance dependency, or even the complete dissolution of one’s musical abilities. The brain muscles used when processing creative thoughts should be exercised without the influence of harmful chemicals.
There are real-world consequences that come with the decision to use drugs. Professional musicians like Trey Anastasio, Elton John, Lana Del Rey, and Jason Isbell know that all too well, and realized they are even more productive having removed harmful substances out of their lives. Their first-hand experiences should be seen as a useful inspiration for future generations of creatives.
Enjoy music performed by some of the above-mentioned artists in recovery and more in the Creativity In Recovery Mountainside Spotify playlist below.
Creativity In Recovery Spotify Playlist