Can You Hack Into Your Creativity?

What science says about using LSD and psilocybin–as well as drug-free ways — to expand your imagination

Creativity is one of humanity’s greatest allures — and mysteries. Plato wrote of creation as divine inspiration, or the muse “breathing into” the creator. Schopenhauer saw creativity as an artist’s ability to “lose themselves” in their work. Nietzsche believed that creativity required a hint of madness — but also deep focus.

Creativity is largely viewed in the same way today. People talk about “flow,” “inspiration,” and even the elusive “muse.” But the new cultural contention is that creativity is something to be “hacked” into, as if your mind is a locked account and all you need is the password — in the form of psychedelics, dreaming, meditation, smart drugs, etc. — to crack it open.

But is creativity really something you can unlock? And beyond that, do people even know enough about creativity to know how to unlock it?

“Creativity, according to our understanding, is not one thing, but consists of many different phases and steps,” says Bernhard Hommel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Leiden University in The Netherlands, whose research focuses on creativity and cognitive enhancement. “And if there are 500 people that all say, ‘I want to be more creative,’ my expectation would be that everyone has a different meaning of that.”

There are two basic modes of thinking associated with creativity: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is characterized as the ability to come up with as many solutions to a problem as possible and convergent thinking is the ability to solve problems with a single, correct solution. Each one serves an important purpose: divergent thinking, for example, is associated with “big, out-of-the-box ideas,” according to Hommel, and convergent thinking is responsible for choosing an idea you can actually run with and then getting you across the finish line. While divergent thinking could be the source of Plato’s muse, you also need convergent thinking to give you Nietzsche’s focus. But people are often better at one type of thinking or the other. “The problem is, if you find a drug that makes you better on A, it may very well make you worse on B,” Hommel says.

There are other practices that stimulate the parts of brains associated with creativity. And those practices don’t involve drugs.

Drug Hacks for Creativity

When it comes to using psychedelics for creative enhancement, this effect (improving one type of creativity while degrading the other) is largely proven. A study from 2016 found that a full dose of the psychedelic ayahuasca can enhance divergent thinking while suppressing convergent thinking. Another study looked at the relationship between LSD and language, and found that the drug prompted a variety of word-image associations that also hint at an expansion of divergent thinking but a decrease in convergent.

However, a 2018 study from Hommel and other researchers at Leiden University found one psychedelic practice that bucks the trend: micro-dosing psilocybin, the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms and truffles, which grow underground. While magic mushrooms are illegal in Holland, truffles are not, so Hommel and his colleagues used truffles.

Over the last few years, a swell of anecdotal reports touting micro-dosing’s power to boost creativity and focus have filtered out of Silicon Valley, but research hasn’t caught up to the hype. While Hommel’s study is preliminary and didn’t have a control group, it did support the claims.

The researchers tested 36 participants on their divergent and convergent thinking before and after ingesting .035 grams of pre-measured dried truffles (a full dose is usually about 3.5 grams) and found that it improved both types of thinking.

“That’s different than what’s been found before,” says Hommel. “If convergent and divergent thinking are different, and previous findings suggest that people who are good at one are not necessarily good at the other, then that particular outcome is surprising.”

Non-Drug Hacks

There are other practices that stimulate the parts of the brain associated with creativity that don’t involve drugs. According to Darya L. Zabelina, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas and head of the Mechanisms of Cognition and Attention (MoCA) Lab, research shows that particularly creative people have higher levels of alpha activity, the brain waves that are associated with a relaxed and “ready for anything” state of mind. And how can you encourage this alpha activity? Meditation.

“Having people experience just a short duration of some sort of meditative activity enhances their creative elaboration,” Zabelina says. “People draw more, they write more, and they add more details or become more elaborate in their ideas.”

A 2014 study from Hommel and his fellow Leiden researchers supports Zabelina’s statement — it found that just 25 minutes of meditation improved participants’ divergent thinking, even if they had never meditated before. It also found that only certain types of meditation enhance creativity. While participants practicing open-monitoring meditation (or being receptive to every thought and sensation) saw an improvement, those practicing focused attention meditation (or focusing on a particular thought or object) didn’t.

By hacking into your dreamscape, your waking life could be eminently more creative.

There are other easy ways to influence creativity. Zabelina and researchers at the MoCA lab recently completed a not-yet-published study that focuses on caffeine. The controlled study gave participants either a caffeinated tablet comparable to one cup of coffee or a placebo tablet, then had them perform both a convergent and divergent thinking task. Those who took the caffeinated tablet solved more convergent thinking problems, but their divergent thinking was unchanged. “That just says that when you have a problem to solve that requires focus, caffeine helps,” Zabelina says. “It’s intuitive but it hadn’t been shown empirically.”

Other brain boosters on the convergent side of the pendulum could include nootropics — the pills, supplements, and substances meant to improve cognition. Known as “smart drugs,” nootropics is a growing but largely unresearched field. Through combinations of compounds like omega-3s, ginseng, B-vitamins, and more, nootropic supplements, which can be bought in stores and online, claim to boost creativity, memory, decision-making, focus, and more. Two studies from 2015 looked at nootropics: One found that certain substances could boost some cognitive function, but the other found no compelling evidence to support the use of smart drugs — for creativity or otherwise.

Then there’s the potential power of dreams. Researchers at MIT’s Dream Lab are working on technology to record and interact with the sights, sounds, and even smells of your dreams, in hopes of “augmenting creativity by allowing access to fluid thinking present in interstitial semi-consciousness.” In other words, by hacking into your dreamscape, your waking life could be eminently more creative.

All Rights Reserved for Tessa Love

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