Drinking and Smoking: Do They Make You More Creative?

Feature

Friday, April 18, 2014

Alcohol and marijuana (terekhov igor/grigiomedio/Shutterstock)

The association of art with altered states of consciousness goes back a long way. Archeological evidence of fermented beverages and some of the oldest musical instruments were found at the same 9,000-year-old site in China. (If the Lascaux painters had had six-packs, the caves would undoubtedly have been littered with them.) In modern times, it’s hard to imagine American culture without drugs — from the epic drinking of Hemingway and Fitzgerald to the reefer preferred by Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians. Do alcohol and marijuana improve creativity? How do they compare with each other? 

Jason White is a successful Nashville songwriter who’s the first to admit he has often drunk too much. These days he plays it cool. “I make a point of trying not to drink before the cocktail hour, that’s just a line I don’t like to cross,” he says. “But most of my productivity occurs after the sun goes down. I will sit down on the porch and pour myself a glass of bourbon and that’s when the magic seems to happen.”

“What alcohol does to the brain is it inhibits brain activity. That would sound like maybe not a good thing for creativity,” notes Harvard neurologist Alice Flaherty. She studies the creative process and is the author of a book about writers block, The Midnight Disease. But creativity is complicated, and thinking doesn’t always help. As alcohol takes effect, it checks the inhibitions (as we know). “People start feeling a little euphoric or excited and they might be more active for a little while. That’s usually while your blood alcohol is rising.” However, “you can’t really keep that going.” 

When it comes to writing about painful subjects, Flaherty believes, drinking to forget isn’t just a country-music cliché. “Memory and creativity have a complicated interaction. There are a few studies that say that decreasing your memory and shutting it off can be helpful.” 

Jason White has written most of his songs while drinking to some degree, but his biggest hit was written under a different influence. He had a case of writer’s block when a friend left a marijuana bud on his coffee table. White wasn’t a pot smoker, but he lit up, and in 40 minutes came up with “Red Ragtop,” which became a huge hit for the singer Tim McGraw.

The scientific understanding of marijuana’s impact on creativity is limited, Flaherty says, but its calming properties probably help some people. “One of the important aspects of creative attention is that it’s fairly calm, people aren’t on edge or anxious. It’s often hyper-focused in certain ways, and yet you have to pay attention to relevant things that you are not expecting. Marijuana seems to help that focus.”

For artist Fred Tomaselli — whose work reflects the psychedelic influence of the 1960s — the characteristics of a marijuana high affect the work he makes. “This idea of repetitious or obsessive-compulsive mark making, that’s the hallmark of stoners and outsider artists — there is something marijuana does that allows that activity to come to the forefront. So I was making work that had a lot of repetitious patterns, that create visual rhythms for the mind.”

Flaherty is working on ways to stimulate creativity without toxic chemicals and side effects. As of now, though, this involves surgical implantation of electrodes in the brain. Most artists “are not that fond of creativity that they would be willing to mess with that.” Surely it’s just a matter of time.  For now, though, most people will probably stick with bourbon and bongs.

→ Have you ever accomplished something creative as a result of using pot or alcohol? Tell us in a Comment below.

Fred Tomaselli at work in his studio. (Julia Barton)

    Music Playlist
  1. Bourbon Rain
    Artist: Jason White

    Recorded Live

  2. Bourbon Rain
    Artist: The Janglers

    Live Recording

  3. Red Ragtop
    Artist: Tim McGraw
    Album: Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors
    Label: Curb Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  4. Nagoya Marimba
    Artist: Steve Reich
    Album: Works 1965-1995
    Label: Nonesuch
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. Elementals
    Artist: HIM
    Album: Many in High Places Are Not Well
    Label: Fat Cat UK
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. Tomorrow Never Knows
    Artist: The Beatles
    Album: Revolver
    Label: EMI
    Purchase: Amazon
  7. Hits from the Bong
    Artist: Cypress Hill
    Album: Black Sunday
    Label: Sony
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Michael May

Comments [11]

Justin from Washington

For programmers there's the myth of the "Ballmer Peak". Basically it's the idea that after a few drinks a programmer will realize super-human programming skills. But those skills drop off dramatically after one too many. It's named after Microsoft founder Steve Ballmer and is a play on Balmer Lines from physics. XKCD creator Randall Munroe created a comic describing the tumultuous phenomenon. https://xkcd.com/323/

Apr. 22 2014 12:02 PM
Jamie from Atlanta, GA USA

I'll preface by saying there isn't much I haven't done. I don't really think you have to be high, or have a few, but more that it does open your mind to all sorts of thoughts you may not have had otherwise. Also, once your mind is 'open', you don't have to keep using to reap any benefits, in my opinion of course. If creating is having a new or different thought, feeling, or view of a subject and art is manifesting that thought, feeling or personal point of view into reality - then it is quite hard to argue that using a mind altering substance wouldn't have an impact in your creativity and art. Just like any viewer of art, if it makes the final product better or worse is up to the viewer's interpretation. Great show as always. -Jamie ( Writer, painter and coder at nerdart.co )

Apr. 21 2014 11:21 PM
Rich from Philadelphia

I had an experience where, high on marijuana, I had a creative thought that led to a kind of artistic achievement. I had dug up the grass on a portion of my lawn that was sloped, and I planned to make a rock garden in this spot. In the course of digging, I had unearthed some nice rocks, the kind the sparkle with layers of quartz. So, when I quit for the day, there was a bare slope, and a pile of rocks... That night, I was sitting on the patio, smoking pot--something I rarely did at that time in my life--and the pot started my brain working. And I guess I started to mull over my gardening activities of a few hours before and--BAM!--it came to me, in a kind of thought-vision--the entire garden, where all the rocks should go, how deep they should be buried, the kinds of plants that should grow around them, even the two trees that should anchor the garden on each side--one lilac and one dwarf Alberta spruce, the whole thing. So I jumped up and sketched it out. The next day I started in on it. It's still out there, twenty-five years later, embodying the same essential marijuana-induced design.

Apr. 21 2014 02:14 PM
Al Luna from Bronx, NY

ahhh...I hate to say this, but a well placed nap does wonders! let the fingers fly!

Apr. 21 2014 12:16 PM
tripp shealy from NC

I can certainly relate to Fred and the "making work that had a lot of repetitious patterns, that create visual rhythms for the mind” is very similar to what I do.... Ive been known to smoke and drink a bit.... Ive been solely an artist by trade for 16 years. Check out my art at www.trippsprints.com

Apr. 21 2014 09:22 AM
ARo from NYC

Yes. Definitely. Marijuana has helped me write many songs. And has calmed me down when I was angry, and assisted in the composition of many scripts of apology and reconciliation.

It has not helped me accomplish cleaning, long homework projects, or an early-morning routine.

That said, in stopping my use of weed, though I have managed to stay on top of those latter things, my songwriting has decreased dramatically. I sit down to write... and nothing comes. Maybe it's just a phase, but it is true that one sees a different side of the world through marijuana-tinted lenses, so to speak, as opposed to the world one sees when one is sober.

Apr. 20 2014 05:59 PM
stainedglassmary

My 40 yr. career has been designing and making big stained glass windows for churches, businesses, resorts. MUch of the design work has been done while smoking-- somehow pot loosens and connects me at the same time. On the other hand for the fabrication part, no way will I smoke. Cutting glass is too dangerous, like driving a train full of people, buzzed. Ultimately we just have to hope good common sense prevails most of the time.

On the medicinal front, I also found that for me, pot was as effective for post operative pain as the oxycodon they wanted me to take.

Often among conventional friends I'll have a couple of puffs while they sip their glasses of wine.

Apr. 19 2014 06:10 PM
Alex Shaver

I successfully charted undergraduate and graduate school for physics while occasionally using cannabis. It may not be creativity in the artistic sense, but I doubt we'd disagree there isn't a creative component to the hard sciences either.

But I'm lucky too that I was never caught using it, because we, for whatever reason, automatically exclude people with drug convictions from receiving assistance with their college degrees. It's a backward and illogical policy. And it's one that can truly damage people's lives far more than the drug itself would.

I no longer use, since employment requires me not to, but I'd love to be able to, as I've found it always made for a much more enjoyable evening (and following morning) than drinking ever did.

Apr. 19 2014 02:46 PM
izzie

Neither pot nor alcohol or any other drug made me more creative. However, in those days before giving everything up I had no motivation or creativity to do anything. A couple of pills or drinks would reduce my inhibition to the point where I could at least try to something. Without the substances I had a total lack of motivation probably based on a total lack of self-esteem. The substances opened the door and allowed me to at least try. As with substances for someone like me, they totally stopped working and I had to learn to function and be creative and garner self-motivation sober. Now, almost 29 years later I couldn't imagine using substances to create. Time has made an enormous change on my body chemistry.

Apr. 19 2014 07:53 AM
Joel Traylor from Washington DC

Have I ever accomplished something creative as a result of using pot or alcohol?

Yes. The experience has forged my life. While I could have chosen a real job after college in the 1990's I became a full time painter. Pot and alcohol have been prominent in my development as an artist. It has not been without cost, however.

My paintings can be seen at www.joeltraylor.com.

Thank you for creating such a thoughtful listening experience. I love your show.

Cheers!

Joel

Apr. 18 2014 08:11 PM
Scoutetsu from New Mexico

Some of my best thinking has come from marijuana. In fact, with the sister stories presented in this episode, I wish I were ready to come out of the "pot closet" as well. The fact that this plant has been stigmatized so harshly in our modern society is a complete travesty. Oh well, until it's legal, I will sip bourbon...at least in the open anyway.

Apr. 17 2014 11:10 PM

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