Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving: A Pilot Study

This is the first known study (1966, n=27) in which creativity under influence of psychedelics (mescaline, 200mg) was being studied in professionals and within a very positive/guiding setting.


“Based on the frequently reported similarities between creative and psychedelic (drug-induced, consciousness-expansion) experiences, a preliminary study was conducted to explore the effects of psychedelic agents (LSD-25, mescaline) on creative problem-solving ability. Twenty-seven professionally employed males were given a single psychedelic experience in 1 of 7 small groups (ns = 3 or 4) following extensive selection and preparatory procedures. This drug-induced problem-solving session was carefully structured with particular focus on establishing Ss’ expectancies and a psychosocial milieu conducive to creative activity. Tentative findings based on tests of creativity, on subjective reports and self ratings, and on the utility of problem solutions suggested that, if given according to this carefully structured regimen, psychedelic agents seem to facilitate creative problem-solving, particularly in the “illumination phase.” The results also suggest that various degrees of increased creative ability may continue for at least some weeks subsequent to a psychedelic problem-solving session.”

Authors: Willis W. Harman, Robert H. McKim, Robert E. Mogar, James Fadiman & Myron J. Stolaroff

See more on this study in Chapter 9 of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by Fadiman.

The study used 200mg mescaline, which they equate to 100ug LSD (a moderately high dosage).

Krippner’s 1985 reviews mentions that in this study the participants were given methylphenidate (Ritalin) twice (at the start and in the afternoon), but this isn’t mentioned in the paper. (footnote 7 does encourage others to ask for the exact procedures, but still, it seems weird to not mention it)

What they do identify is the following that may now be seen as set and setting and a hint at the diverse effects of psychedelics “There are no specific psychological reactions to these drugs; there are, rather, various reactions depending upon such variables as expectancies of S[ubjects] and E[xperiment], S’s degree of trust, the over-all setting, S’s personality characteristics, etc.”


In recent years, psychedelic drugs such as LSD-25, mescaline, and psilocybin have been used in the treatment of a variery of emotional disorders. Researchers have noted similarities between the drug-induced state and certain phases of the creative process.

Rogers’ conditions for fostering creativity (1957) suggests that psychedelic agents can enhance creativity temporarily in the presence of ideal external conditions, and long-term changes can occur if ideal external conditions are permanently altered.

Psychedelic drugs may enhance creativity by increasing spontaneity of emotional expression, reducing depression and anxiety, increasing openness to experience, increasing aesthetic appreciation, and increasing sense of meaning and purpose in life.

To maximize the creativity-fostering potential of psychedelic agents, it is essential to recognize the crucial importance of expectations of all persons involved in the session, and of the psychosocial milieu in which the session is conducted.

The preliminary findings of this exploratory study suggest that performance impairment may be attributed at least partially to an nnxieq-provoking setting and/or the negative expectations of S and E.

The psychedelic experience can be facilitated by cultivating the facilitating characteristics and hindering characteristics, and maintaining an appropriate set in S, both prior to and during the psychedelic problem-solving session.

The exploratory study reported here attempts to obtain data relevant to three empirical questions: (1) Does the psychedelic experience enhance creativity? (2) Does it result in demonstrable long-term personality changes?

One further point requires elucidation: this study compares an S’s performance during a problem-solving session with the S’s performance at other times and under “normal” or no-drug conditions.

The aim of this research was to devise a way of using drugs to optimize conditions for creative problem-solving by humans. The research did not establish the psychological effects of psychedelic agents, but rather how performance can be enhanced when all factors are optimized.

The question of whether the various elements of this procedure have an additive effect is valid, but it is not under study here.

Selection of subject^

27 males were selected from local industries and academic institutions. They were psychologically normal with stable life circumstances, and adequately motivated to discover, verify, and apply problem-solutions within their industrial or academic work capacity.

Ss were instructed to select one or more problems of professional interest that required a creative solution. They were given pre-session interviews and a detailed agenda for the session, which included information on how to cope with various exigencies that might arise.

A group of four people used mescaline sulfate to enhance creativity. The group was advised to “turn off” their analytic faculties, to relax and accept whatever form of experience came their way, and to refrain from attempting to control the sequence or nature of the events.

After the initial qciet period, participants were tested psychologically and spent 3 to 4 hours solving the problem they had previously chosen. They often shared experiences and sometimes worked together on a problem brought in by one of the participants.

Assessment P~ocedtcres

Each participant was asked to submit a subjective report of his experience within several days after his experimental session, and to answer a questionnaire concerning various aspects of the experience.

This exploratory study evaluated the effects of a psychedelic agent on creative performance in three ways: (1) change scores on tests of creative ability (2) content analysis of subjective reports (3) pragmatic test of endorsement.

Psychomet~ic Daias

Three objective tests of creativity were administered several days prior to and again during the acute drug phase of the problem-solving sessions. The results indicate no significant effects of thac practice.

The Purdue Creativity Test.-S measured fluency of ideas under time pressure and flexibility of solutions. The test showed significant change in fluency for 13 of 18 males and not statistically significant change in flexibility for 10 of 18 males.

Approximately half of the subjects reported that the alternate form taken during the psychedelic session seemed easier and averaged about half the time taken for the earlier testing.

Every S but one male improved on the Witkin Embedded Figures Test. This indicates that scores on a stable test can shift dramatically upward under the drug condition and second, that performance enhancement is significant.

The literature on creativity includes analytical description of the compor-ents of creative experience, the personal characteristics of creative individuals, and the distinguishing featlres of creative solutions. From the participants’ reports it was possible to extract 11 strategies for creative problem-solving, or experiential modes related to creativity.

The Gestalt position views creativity as the reorganization of the total stimulus field, and the behavioristic concept of creativity emphasizes the associativc hierarchy of elements and the ability to bring remote ideas into contiguity to form creative matrices.

Guilford (1959) considered fluency and flexibility of thinking as crucial attributes of creativity.

The psychedelic experience is associated with creativity since man’s earliest history. It is not surprising then that the psychoanalytic view formalizes the importance of retaining the child’s capacity for fresh, free-flowing perception and thought.

The importance of sustained focus of attention has been particularly emphasized in behavioristic formulations, and the existential position also emphasizes the importance of prolonged concentration.

According to Schachtel and Lowenfeld, creativity occurs when allocentric perception is dominant, and the person is highly sensitive to his environment. Murphy refers to this attribute as combinatory skill, and emphasizes that the more mutually remote the elements of the new combination, the more creative the process.

The extensive work on problem solving by the Gestalters led to the concept of closure. This principle emphasizes the passion for excellence characteristic of original thinkers.

Bertrand Russell remarked that Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity began with a mystical or poetical insight into the truth, and the Gestalt view conceives creativity as an action which produces a new idea full-formed.

The practical value of obtained solutions is a check against subjective reports of accomplishment which might be attributable to temporary euphoria.

The 44 problems attempted were divided into 20 new avenues for investigation, 1 developnental model for the solution, 2 working models, 6 accepted solutions, and 4 no solutions.

Pending more objective, systematic confirmation, these tentative findings suggest that creative abilities tend to persist after a single psychedelic experience.

Study details

Topics studied

Study characteristics
Open-Label Interviews