Study at Maastricht University, Netherlands shows evidence of Psilocybin and its immediate and persisting positive effects on creativity.
Creativity is an essential human tool linked to every part of daily life. It doesn’t only belong in the realm of artists, poets or musicians because if we weren’t generally creative as a species, it could be speculated that we would have died out a long time ago. So, what exactly is creativity, of what does it constitute, and why do we care about it so much?
Since Ancient Greece, the subject of creativity has been hotly debated. Aristotle, for example, didn’t find the painter’s skill sufficient, deeming it as merely ‘imitation’ and not creativity. This notion of ‘divine intervention’ as the only way of understanding creativity was very much the intellectual norm up until the Renaissance where, for the first time, the individual himself was considered the source of all creativity and intellect, not god. Towards the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, creativity came to be closely linked with imagination whereupon the notion of individual genius slowly came to take precedence and has continued to hold dominance till the present day.
Up until the end of the 20th
, we have quite closely associated ourselves with the notion of a select few individuals being geniuses and some not. The understanding of creative thought through this slowly falls into the trap of individualism. Many studies from the 20th and 21st centuries also have been focused in finding context through taking a multicultural understanding of creativity. For example, the Chinese view creativity more in terms of what the person contributes to society as a whole whereas in western cultures, the presence of individual taste, aesthetic choices and individual creations start taking precedence. There is however a persistent notion of creative individuals being revered in almost every society on the planet
It is no surprise then that the quest for creativity has involved many psychedelic ventures. The effects of psychedelics and entheogens have long been known to provide a deep sense of insightfulness. Creative personalities across the world have consumed psychedelics like LSD, Ayahuasca, Psilocybin and Mescaline in order to access previously unseen or unknown ways of perception that might help with different forms of creative processes. Famous examples of psychedelic affiliated creative breakthroughs span the fields of science, technology, and art; including Kary Mullis’ discovery of the polymerase chain reaction, the 1960s California-based computer industry, and the literary works of authors, such as Aldous Huxley and Ken Kesey.
Psilocybin has now been seeing a new push regarding its potential as an alternative form of engendering creativity and breaking old, fixed patterns of thought. In a world where we replicate an almost machine like presence, it can be important to break out of the post-industrialist process of bureaucratic and transactional thoughts. Psilocybin has been shown to provide immense benefits to people suffering from depression, obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), anxiety and addiction. Today Psilocybin has also become a part of the creative movement, with more and more people noticing the profound effects it can have on our practice of creativity as a species.
CONVERGENT AND DIVERGENT CREATIVITY
Even though the method of definition eludes the essence, the creative process has been viewed as a dynamic process, requiring shifting between different modes of thought in order to reach an end result. These modes include divergent thinking (DT), which consists of generating novel and original ideas, and convergent thinking (CT), the subsequent evaluation of generated ideas in regards to their usefulness and effectiveness. These concepts of convergent and divergent thinking were first introduced by J.P Guilford, an American psychologist.
Convergent thinking is when you deduce the best single answer using logic to a set problem. Divergent thinking on the other hand is the creative generation of multiple answers of a set problem generally leaning towards imaginative processes.
ABOUT THE STUDY
In one of the first studies of its kind, between July 2017 and June 2018, researchers at Maastricht University hypothesized that Psilocybin would have an acute and persisting increase on outcome measures of divergent thinking – DT.
They employed a balanced randomized placebo-controlled group design. Sixty healthy participants, with previous experience with a psychedelic drug but not within the past 3 months, were allocated to a treatment condition (0.17 mg/kg Psilocybin or placebo). Groups were matched for age, sex, and education level. From a total of 60 participants, 30 were administered the Psilocybin dose and 30 were administered a placebo.
Many previous phenomenological reports have suggested psychedelics induce a hyper-associative state of cognition. Pseudo-experimental studies have also found increases in DT or CT after consumption of a psychedelic in a naturalistic setting. For example, a 2019 study by M.V. Uthaug states, ‘A single inhalation of vapor from dried toad secretion containing (5-MeO-DMT) in a naturalistic setting is related to sustained enhancement of satisfaction with life, mindfulness-related capacities, and a decrement of psychopathological symptoms. There are several statements from multiple experiments around the world, however, the lack of direct, experimental evidence is very much the case–something which this new study begins to rectify.
THE BASIS OF DMN AND FPN Before we get into the study, it can be useful to understand how the creative process is broken down in our brains and what kind of neural networks enable us to think creatively.
In regards to creative cognition, previous research has highlighted the coordination of three networks when it comes to creativity – The default mode network (DMN), which supports idea generation, the frontoparietal control network (FPN), which supports idea evaluation, and areas of the salience network (SN) which mediates between the first two. Although the DMN and FPN are intrinsically opposing neural processes, they have been found to interact during creative cognition displaying the presence of a dynamic relationship which allows for a fruitful mediation.
In the final experiment, the participants, after having been administered the Psilocybin or the placebo, were subjected to two different kinds of evaluation. The first one was the ‘Picture Concept Task’ and the second one was ‘The Alternative Uses Task’.
PICTURE CONCEPT TASK (PCT)
The picture concept task was administered during the peak effects of the administered dose of Psilocybin.
In brief, the PCT consisted of 17 stimuli, each containing between 4 and 12 color pictures. Participants were given 30 seconds per stimulus to find an association between one of the pictures in each row. Specifically, they were asked first to provide the correct solution, as there was only one correct answer. The number of correct answers served as the dependent measure of CT. In order to assess DT, participants were then asked to provide as many alternative answers as possible, which was then used to calculate several parameters—i.e., fluency, originality, and the ratio of both. Fluency is defined as the number of alternative associations; originality is calculated by evaluating the originality of the alternative association relative to those provided by all other participants in a session. The final ratio score was then calculated by originality/fluency.
ALTERNATIVE USES TASK (AUT)
The AUT was administered 10 minutes after the Picture Concept Task as an assessment for divergent thinking. Participants were asked to list as many possible uses for two common household items and given 3 minutes per item to do so. The outcome parameter was the same as with the PCT, with an addition of the dimension “novelty”. Novelty was assessed in order to separate newly generated ideas from recollection of old ideas from memory, and was done so by asking participants after the ideation process to indicate if they had given any responses that were completely new to them (i.e., they had never thought of this use before, had never seen it in a movie, etc.)
SUBJECTIVE STATE ANALYSIS
Interestingly, a subjective analysis was also undertaken 4 hours after the administered doses with a focus on the 5 dimensions of altered consciousness. The researchers were particularly interested in feelings of insightfulness. “I felt very profound”, “I had insights into connections that had previously puzzled me”, and “I had very original thoughts” were some of the phrases that held interest to the researchers.
RESULTS OF THE RESEARCH
After assessing the results of this experiment, the researchers found their hypothesis to stand true in a variety of aspects. In respect to the state of being during the psychedelic state CT and aspects of DT were shown to decrease. However, an aspect of DT was shown to increase 7 days later compared to placebo allowing for a more creative and accepting thought process that individuals reported to have ‘opened their horizons’ to new ways of thinking. This persisting effect of having new types of neural pathways can prove to be one of the most important factors in creative problem solving.
Individuals under the influence of Psilocybin also reported significantly higher ratings of “insightfulness”, a construct conceptually related to spontaneous creative thinking (e.g., “I had insights into connections that had previously puzzled me” and “I had very original thoughts”. This is a particularly important part of the research findings, as a lot of our daily thought processes are usually tried and tested neural pathways that tend to solidify themselves after being successfully executed once. The possibility of allowing for new neural pathways to be formed is a crucial part in creative thinking.
Another exciting result was the persistent effects of Psilocybin on divergent thinking. Participants generated a higher quantity of novel ideas for uses of an everyday object on the Alternative Uses Task when compared to participants administered a placebo.
An interesting find was decreased glutamate in the hippocampus that was a predictor in increased ratings of insight. This involvement of the hippocampus in creative cognition also began an interesting speculation, as it has been found that past knowledge about a problem can actually be detrimental to solving it, constraining potential ideas to what is already known, and thus can be a disadvantage of the deliberate mode of creative cognition, and an advantage of the spontaneous mode.
Overall, the study is just the beginning of a long series of investigations. It has already proved with great scientific clarity, the immediate and persisting effects of Psilocybin on creative processes through various networks like the divergent and convergent ways of thinking. What was earlier a widely accepted belief has now slowly been seeing a scientific backing that is crediting this extremely special compound with a more normalized and widespread acceptance.
This blog post is a synopsis of the study in Translational Psychiatry, “Spontaneous and deliberatate creative cognition during and after Psilocybin exposure.”