How Psychedelics Can Support Your Creative Process

The cultural conversation around creativity is shifting. Exploring the importance of creativity is no longer the designated territory of outcast artists and eclectics, but is now taking center stage in the business world. 

According to the World Economic Forum, creativity was recently listed as one of the “Top 10 Skills” needed for business leaders in 2020 and beyond. Creativity is one of the single most essential skill sets for entrepreneurs, visionaries, and change-makers who want to step into leadership positions amidst this dynamic and rapidly changing world, to find solutions to new challenges we collectively face. 

Most of us were educated in schooling systems that tried to stamp out every ounce of creativity within us; we are wise to find alternative ways to retrain our minds to think more creatively. 

It is no coincidence that as we collectively face crises––on multiple fronts––that desperately need creative solutions, we’re also witnessing an incredible renaissance in the psychedelic movement. Thousands of anecdotal reports paint a promising picture that psychedelics, sacred plant medicines, and even microdosing can help unlock hidden depths of our creative capacity.

These anecdotal reports point to the similarities between cognitive processes that underlie both the creative process and the psychedelic experience. Psychedelic research is now studying this connection. In this article, we explore the question: “Can Psychedelics Help Support the Creative Process?” and look at what the latest psychedelic research has to say. 

Pinning Down Creativity 

While creativity is hard to define, it’s even harder to measure. One of the reasons we can’t pin down creativity is that it’s a process that contains various stages. Several different models are often used to outline the different steps of the creative process. Although keep in mind, the creative process is rarely ever linear as following a set of sequential steps.

However, these models can be used as conceptual frameworks to help us better understand the creative process, whether looking at creative problem solving, or coming up with novel ideas to implement, both of which are crucial components of any business endeavor. 

Most models typically outline four to five different stages of creativity. One model frequently referred to, created by James Taylor, an award-winning creativity expert and entrepreneur, outlines five critical stages of the creative process, including:

  1. Preparation (also sometimes referred to as discovery or ideation): This stage is all about gathering and exploring information. 
  2. Incubation: This is part of the process where you step back and digest all the information through subconscious processes like daydreaming or mind-wandering.  
  3. Illumination: This is the “Aha” moment when insight strikes. Mind-wandering during the previous incubation phase allows insights to arise. That’s why we often get our best ideas in the shower, driving home from work or hiking in the woods. 
  4. Evaluation: Now, it’s time to evaluate the different options and various paths forward. Is this an original and novel idea that also serves a useful function? Will it be commercially viable?
  5. Implementation: At this final phase of the creative process, you create a plan or strategy to anchor the idea into manifest reality. 

“Creativity is the ability to make your ideas manifest in the world.” Chase Jarvis 

Different Phases of Creativity Require Different Cognitive Processes

What’s important to recognize here is that the different stages of the creative process require varying and dynamic cognitive states. Being a “creative”, or fostering creative thinking skill sets isn’t about acquiring a fixed or singular mental state. Instead, the creative process points to a dynamic form of varying mental states, and psychedelics just so happen to support the specific kind of cognitive flexibility beneficial to the creative process. 

Creativity is supported by fluid movement between multiple states of mind, including mind-wandering, rumination, focused goal-directed thinking, as well as convergent and divergent thinking. Some of these mental states are more constrained (focused), while other cognitive processes like daydreaming or mind-wander are enhanced by becoming untethered from the anchors of our mental constraints. 

Creativity and creative thinking are a range of cognitive processes that can best be described as a dynamic, fluid movement between multiple states of mind. 

In this fascinating research paper titled Updating the Dynamic Framework of Thought: Creativity and Psychedelics, researchers Manesh Girn and Robin Carhart Harris explore the dynamic nature of various neurocognitive processes that underlie creative thinking and identify how psychedelics can be valuable tools in supporting creative cognitive processes.

The paper concludes that the psychedelic state lends itself towards unconstrained cognition. This is especially important during the phase of “creative generation” (associated with phases two and three––incubation and illumination––of the 5 step model above) and enhances one’s capacity to discover highly novel and original ideas. 

In another study that dates back to the ’60s, twenty-seven professionally employed male scientists and engineers working on career-related problems were invited to trip on psychedelics within the context of a carefully structured problem-solving session. 

The study concluded that “psychedelic agents seem to facilitate creative problem-solving, particularly in the illumination phase.”

The study also pointed to a noticeable increase in creative ability that persisted for the group of professionals for several weeks after the psychedelic problem-solving session.

Of course, it would be beneficial to see these older psychedelic studies exploring creativity similar to this one, replicated again today. 

Psychedelics Open the Mind to Different Cognitive States

Usually, during waking consciousness, we unknowingly fall into more rigid mental patterns. If a far-flung idea pops up in your mind, you have a strong predisposed tendency to dismiss and ignore it, and instead grasp for the next thought that brings with it the comfort of familiarity. 

It can be hard to shake ourselves out of the well-worn neural grooves carved by repetitive thought patterns, especially when we know that humans tend to think an average of 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day–90% of them a repeat from the day before. 

“Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality” – Arthur Koestler 

This is where psychedelics become so helpful, because just like shaking a snowglobe (an analogy that psychedelic researcher David Nutt refers to), psychedelics can help shake up those well-worn neurological grooves. So instead of reaching for that same familiar thought, under the influence of hallucinogens, you might be more inclined to have a new thought–a downright bizarre thought–one that you may never have contemplated before, that sparks a novel idea. That’s the beauty of psychedelics, bizarre as it might seem, and one of the ways they can directly support the creative process. 

The Unconstrained Mind

Robin Carhart-Harris and his team at Imperial College London uncovered the underlying neurological mechanisms that underpin the psychedelic experience. 

They discovered that psychedelics lead to increased entropy in the brain, a state of the mind that becomes less highly ordered than in “ordinary” waking consciousness. This is actually good news and bodes well for the creative process, because in a sense, the mind becomes less constrained or less highly organized within its previously rigid patterns. 

It also means different parts of the brain that previously weren’t speaking to each other start communicating in new, more connected ways. This may play a central role in fundamentally changing the dynamics of our thought processes. For example, Rather than endorsing a single stable view or perception, individuals who take psychedelics often report a tendency to see “multiple viewpoints of a problem” (Sessa, 2008).

This means that psychedelics can support an opening or expansion of our mental landscapes so that we may pay attention, explore, and even pursue new thoughts we previously would have quickly dismissed. This state of unconstrained cognition enhances associative thinking, changes the meaning we attribute to stimuli (both within ourselves, and in our environment), and broadens our mental landscape to unfold into a larger, more dynamic playing field. 

Creativity and Connecting the Dots 

The underlying neurological mechanisms that psychedelics support make your mental landscape ripe territory for creating new connections between seemingly unrelated concepts; connecting dots we previously couldn’t see. 

And therein lies the heart of what creativity is all about: making new connections between old ideas and recognizing new relationships between old, seemingly unrelated familiar concepts. 

As Steve Jobs said: “Creativity is about connecting the dots.”

This is how psychedelics directly support the various stages crucial to the creative process, like the incubation and illumination phases, that are significantly enhanced through unconstrained cognitive states like mind-wandering. 

Divergent and Convergent Thinking 

There’s one more particular way that psychedelics can lend themselves specifically to the creative process that I want to discuss here. And that relates to the divergent and convergent thought processes. 

Divergent thinking is a cognitive process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. By asking you to imagine as many creative ways you can think of to use a paperclip (a button for clothing, pick a lock, clean your fingernails, etc.), you’re flexing your capacity to think divergently. This is a cognitive process that benefits from unconstrained thinking. 

Convergent thinking, on the other hand, ignores all possibilities to focus in on one, single-best solution (hold paper together). This mode of problem-solving is more focused and constrained, emphasizing speed, accuracy, and logic.

Divergent thinking is often a more accurate predictor of creativity since it’s this mode of thinking that leads to original and novel ideas. 

Yet, when we look at the 5-step creative process model above, you’ll see the benefits of fluidly moving between both convergent and divergent cognitive processes, bringing with it the advantages of cognitive flexibility. Learning how to cultivate the delicate balance between both of these methods of thinking becomes essential within the creative process. 

However, our schooling systems are primarily designed to foster convergent (single-solution answers) over divergent thinking. As a result, many of us have cognitive processes that overemphasize narrow-focused, convergent thinking, so most of us can use a little divergent cognitive boost. 

There have been several studies demonstrating that psychedelics support and specifically enhance divergent thinking.

One study conducted creativity tests with 26 ayahuasca participants before the ceremony, and while participants were experiencing the acute effects of ayahuasca and found that ayahuasca does indeed enhance creative divergent thinking.

This is not only beneficial for creativity but also enhances psychological flexibility, which is becoming more crucial than ever before. It supports emotional resilience because it directly enhances our capacity to generate new and effective cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies so we can more effectively adapt to these times of rapid change.    

Another study with more than 50 subjects, led by researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, explored the relationship between psilocybin (the primary active ingredient in the hallucinogenic “magic mushroom”) and creativity. Participants were given creativity tests the morning after they received a dose of psilocybin. Results indicated that psilocybin enhanced divergent thinking, as well as emotional empathy, the morning after use.

Divergent thinking is more than just learning how to think outside of the box; it’s about ditching the box altogether––at least for a while (or at least during an 8-hour trip on psychedelics.)

After the psychedelic experience, we can then circle back around and look at various ideas from a different cognitive standpoint. We can use a convergent mindset to implement more structure in our thinking and move into the evaluation phases of the creative process to identify the viability of our ideas.

See related article: “This Amazing Idea Came to Me While On Psychedelics! Should I Act On It?”

The creative process can be enhanced by fostering a balance between both divergent and convergent thinking, and one of the creative benefits of psychedelics helps us to strengthen our capacity to foster, flex and toggle between these multiple states of mind, helping to support cognitive flexibility. 

Keep in mind that psychedelics are only one of many powerful tools in our creative toolbelt. Getting adequate REM sleep every night, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, managing stress levels, as well as engaging in other creativity-boosting mind-wandering activities like going for daily walks can undoubtedly help your creative process. 

If you want to work with psychedelics, please understand the risks and read my disclaimer. Either be sure to vet your shaman, or follow these guidelines to ensure a safe psychedelic journey at home.  

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