Almost anyone taking psychedelics, whether rookie or veteran, reports feelings of enhanced creativity. Defining creativity is a slippery slope and these reports are especially subjective, but many artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and the Beatles speak reverently about the effects that psychedelics had on their ability to create music. A lesser known, but equally important area of interest is using psychedelics to increase creativity in quantitative or academic problem solving. These substances have a tendency to reveal insights to the user, which is especially intriguing for those looking for a particular ‘Aha!’ moment.
Even with the legal status discouraging public discussions of psychedelics, several major scientific and technological discoveries have been attributed to breakthroughs from experiences with these substances, in particular LSD. Kary Mullis, inventor of the Polymerase Chain Reaction technique for amplifying specific DNA sequences, also credits his experiences with LSD in the 1960s and 1970s in helping with his development of the reaction. Steve Jobs spoke about the profundity of his LSD experiences in framing the vision for Apple. There is also the (tragically apocryphal) story of Francis Crick, who discovered the double helix structure of DNA with James Watson in 1953, having first envisioned the double helix on LSD. While Crick definitely experimented with LSD during his life, his biographer Matt Ridley believes that Crick’s LSD use occurred after his major discovery.
These accounts are encouraging but far from scientific. They show the importance of psychedelics in some of the most groundbreaking work of the 20th century, yet these anecdotes obviously lack the rigour of the scientific method. However, scientifically testing the ‘psychedelic problem solving’ hypothesis isn’t a completely novel idea.
In 1966, a team of researchers (including famed psychedelic advocates like James Fadiman and Myron Stolaroff) at the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park, California, undertook the ‘Psychedelics in Problem-Solving’ experiment. Twenty-seven participants, ranging from engineers and mathematicians, to architects and artists, to management personnel, were selected for participation based on the criteria of having (a) a professional problem that they had spent at least three months trying to solve, and (b) a desire to solve it. More than two-thirds of the group had no psychedelic experience whatsoever, before taking 200mg of mescaline in this research setting.
By using problem solving as the testing arena for psychedelic creativity, researchers were able to produce a quantifiable, if not purely scientific, metric: actual solutions to problems! Similar to what has been described during the current investigations into how MDMA can be used for patients with treatment-resistant forms of PTSD, the mescaline opened many of these ‘solution-resistant’ problems up for fresh interaction by the participants. Many accounts of the mescaline-backed problem solving attempts are incredibly vivid, such as an architect who claimed to have walked around in the building he was going to design in his mind, before sketching out the plans after the experience. This design was accepted by the client, who had previously rejected several others.
All in all, the IFAS administered psychedelics to over 350 professional participants across several creativity studies, leading to many breakthroughs. From the above study alone, these breakthroughs included mathematical theorems, a new conceptual model for the photon, and designs for many buildings, tools, products, and experiments.
If nothing else, we should be inspired by the potential shown in the results of this single experiment. Problem solving is so often fueled by ‘Aha!’ moments of insight that occur unconsciously, while the mind is focused elsewhere. Psychedelics could provide a kind of interface between the conscious and unconscious, allowing these moments to be more easily induced, rather than waiting for them to randomly occur. Like so many areas of psychedelic research, we are trying to speculate about a forest from a single, withered, broken branch, unaware of the true scope of the possibilities. The effects of psychedelics on creativity and problem solving ability is especially intriguing as a breakthrough in our understanding here could lead to a sort of ‘discovery engine,’ fuelling advances and dismantling roadblocks in wide-ranging fields and disciplines.
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- Staff, W. (2017, June 04). LSD: The Geek’s Wonder Drug? Retrieved September 21, 2018, from https://www.wired.com/2006/01/lsd-the-geeks-wonder-drug/
- Markoff, J. (2006). What The Dormouse Said: How the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry. New York: Penguin Books.
- Ridley, M. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved September 21, 2018, from http://www.mattridley.co.uk/books/francis-crick-discoverer-of-the-genetic-code/
- Harman, W. W., McKim, R. H., Mogar, R. E., Fadiman, J., & Stolaroff, M. J. (1966). Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving: A Pilot Study. Psychological Reports, 19(1), 211–227. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1922.214.171.124