Creativity and Psychoactive Substance Use: A Systematic Review

This systematic review (2017) examines 14 empirical studies and 5 case studies that investigated the relationship between artistic creativity and psychoactive substance use. The nature of this relationship is not clearly established, given that most studies had a very small sample size, unrepresentative samples, overreliance on self-report, non-standardized assessment tools, and speculative research questions. Results indicate that psychoactive substances may change the quality of artistic work even amongst ordinary individuals by modifying functions related to creativity (enhancing experiences and sensitivity and loosening conscious processes), but the correlation of increased psychoactive substance use amongst artists may alternatively be a form of self-medication which stabilizes an unstable mode of functioning that is related to their creativity.


Introduction: The role of psychoactive substance use in the research of artistic creation and creativity is a long-standing topic. Ever since the discovery of LSD, researchers have examined the relationship between the effects of chemical substances and the artistic creative process.

Methods: The goal of the present study was to systematically review all published empirical publications and case reports in refereed journals that focus on the relationship between psychoactive substances and creativity/creative artistic process. A total of 19 studies were identified that met the inclusion and exclusion criteria.

Results were difficult to summarize because of the different study questions asked, the diverse methods used, the different samples applied, and the various substances examined. The general results suggest that there is an association between creativity and substance use. However, the studies were unable to show that substance use directly contributed to the growth of creativity or facilitated creative artistic process.

Discussion: It is concluded that specific skills may be subject to change as a consequence of substance use, and consequently may have an effect on the style of creation.”

Authors: Fruzsina Iszáj, Mark D. Griffiths & Zsolt Demetrovics


The relationship between psychoactive substance use and creativity/creative artistic process is a long-standing topic. The results of 19 studies suggest that there is an association between creativity and substance use, but no direct evidence that substance use facilitates creative artistic process.

Kris (1962) asserted that creative work can be interpreted as a process containing two phases, the first being Binspirational, where the artist is passively present in the process.

The artist’s inspiration phase is composed of passively receiving stimuli, reconstructing them in the second phase, and making them understandable to others. The artist’s inspiration phase can either follow each other linearly or alternate or combine with the problem solving phase.

Jung considered artistic creation to be an autonomous action that lives in the person independently from consciousness. The collective unconscious is also a source of art, and the artist appears as a collective person and goes beyond their personal experiences and feelings.

The line between healthy and pathological artistic creation is very narrow, and artists’ higher sensitivity is essential for fulfilling their work.

The humanistic approach stresses the protective potential of creativity, and Maslow (2011 ) discusses the relationship between self-actualization and creativity. Forgeard and Elstein (2014 ) share these views, and believe that creative thinking might help to improve psychological flexibility.

To handle the emotional fluctuations that can be a part of working with both conscious and unconscious material, artists might use psychoactive substances. These substances might help them achieve experiences of depersonalization and derealization, and provoke unusual modes of cognition. In a study analyzing the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the use of psychoactive substances was suggested as an enhanced risk factor regarding psychoactive substance use.

Search Strategy

To search for studies on the relationship between psychoactive substance use and creativity, the following databases were used: PsycINFO, MEDLINE, PubMed, Science Direct, Web of Science, and EBSCO. A manual search was supplemented by an electronic search.


After the electronic search, 327 studies were identified, of which 179 dealt with other meanings than artistic procedure. Furthermore, 97 papers dealt with other aspects than the focus of our study, and 22 studies did not contain any original empirical results.

Publication Date and Geographical Location of the Studies

Five of the 19 studies were published during the 1960s and 1970s, but only three were published in the following 20 years. Since 2003, a further 10 studies have been published (seven empirical papers and three case studies).

Types of Substances

Seven empirical papers and two case studies examined the relationship between various psychoactive substances and artistic creation.


All studies comprised adults, with the exception of one study on adolescents. More non-clinical samples were found than clinical ones, including a case study on a creative writer with depressive symptoms.

Methodological Approaches

Three different methodological approaches were identified in the studies on cannabis and creativity. The most frequently used assessment measure was the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) in three cases, the Verbal Imagination subscale of the German Berliner Intelligenz Struktur Test in another case, and the Remote Association Test.

In some studies, artwork was analyzed in normal and altered conscious states. In another study, writing by two participants created during psilocybin intoxication were compared to Walt Whitman’s writings.

In some studies, participants’ normal and altered states of consciousness caused by LSD were compared. In other studies, participants’ altered states of consciousness were facilitated by cannabis use.

Results of the Empirical Studies

Three groups of studies were identified according to the types of psychoactive substance effect on creativity: psychedelic substances, cannabis, and studies that did not make a distinction.

Psychedelic Substances

Psychedelic substances enhanced creative problem solving ability among 27 male participants, especially during ingestion. Higher levels of creative achievement remained at least a few weeks after the session.

Two studies examined the effects of LSD on creativity. Janiger’s large human subject LSD experiment carried out in the 1960s (N = 930) showed that artists created more intense and curvilinear lines, and tended to focus on specific parts rather than the whole work. Korngold (1963) examined two aspects of the LSD experience, including esthetic experience and creative originality. The study has several methodological problems.

One study examined the effect of psilocybin on creativity, while another study examined the effect of ayahuasca on creativity. Both studies found that the effect was highly dependent on individual differences.


Schäfer et al. (2012) studied 160 cannabis users on two separate days and found that the low creative group improved significantly on the intoxicated day, suggesting an improvement in divergent thinking.

Various Psychoactive Substances

Seven studies examined the relationship between various substances and the artistic creative process. Lowe (1995) found a low, but significantly positive correlation between creativity and substance use, while Plucker et al. (2009) found no significant correlation.

Psychoactive substance users were examined by Edwards (1993 ) and Jones et al. (2009 ). The results showed that chronic cannabis users gave more ‘rare-creative’ responses than the control group, although no significant difference was found among the ecstasy/MDMA users.

Preti and Vellante’s study suggested that artists’ enhanced substance use might partly be responsible for their higher score on the Delusions Inventory.

Kerr et al. (1991) investigated the association between psychoactive substance use and specific genres of art. They found no significant differences in the use of narcotics, psychedelics, and tranquilizers.

In a study by Fink et al. (2012 ), actors showed higher originality regarding creativity and possessed decreased latent inhibition compared with two clinical populations of alcohol and polydrug dependent individuals.

Steffenhagen et al. (1976) found that male non-clinical substance users scored higher on both creativity tests and the Masculinity-Femininity scale than male non-users.

Psychedelic Substances

Richards and Berendes (1977 ) reported the case of a depressed female writer that underwent LSD-assisted psychotherapy, Jones (2007 ) presented the case of the cartoon illustrator Robert Crumb, and Landon and Fischer (1970 ) reported the differences in word use under the influence of psilocybin.

Various Substances

Musicians were the focus of two case studies. Belli (2009 ) wrote a psycho-biographical report about Brian Wilson, and found that cannabis and LSD influenced his creativity.

Holm-Hadulla and Bertolino (2014 ) examined Jim Morrison’s drug use and related it to his creativity. They found that Morrison’s heavy alcohol and drug intake hindered his creativity and relationships.


In this systematic review, 14 empirical studies and five case studies were identified examining the relationship between creativity and psychoactive substance use. The findings show limited convergence, and it is hard to draw a clear conclusion.

Most studies confirm some sort of association between creativity and psychoactive substance use, but the nature of this relationship is not clearly established. It is probable that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process.

Specific functions associated with creativity appear to be modified and enhanced in case of ordinary individuals due to psychoactive substance use. However, these changes will not result in creative production.

The studies reviewed here differed in their objectives, methodology, and quality, and the total number of empirical studies was very few. However, the topic is highly relevant to understand the high level of substance use in artists and to clarify the validity of the association present in public opinion.

Study details

Topics studied

Study characteristics
Meta-Analysis Literature Review