Spontaneous and deliberate creative cognition during and after psilocybin exposure

This double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects study (n=60) investigated the effects of psilocybin (11.9 mg/70kg) on creativity in healthy participants with respect to acute and persisting changes in convergent and divergent thinking in relation to restructuralization of Default Mode Network (DMN) connectivity. Although subjects felt more insightful under the acute psychedelic state, their ability to generate ideas and associations in a goal-directed manner was impaired. However, 7 days after psilocybin administration, participants generated a higher quantity of novel ideas for uses of an everyday object. Decreased integrity of the DMN under the acute state was the strongest predictor of subjective insightfulness, acute decrease in originality scores, and a long-term increase in the generation of novel ideas.


Introduction: Creativity is an essential cognitive ability linked to all areas of our everyday functioning. Thus, finding a way to enhance it is of broad interest. A large number of anecdotal reports suggest that the consumption of psychedelic drugs can enhance creative thinking; however, scientific evidence is lacking.

Methods: Following a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group design, we demonstrated that psilocybin (0.17 mg/kg) induced a time- and construct-related differentiation of effects on creative thinking.

Results: Acutely, psilocybin increased ratings of (spontaneous) creative insights, while decreasing (deliberate) task-based creativity. Seven days after psilocybin, number of novel ideas increased. Furthermore, we utilized an ultrahigh field multimodal brain imaging approach, and found that acute and persisting effects were predicted by within- and between-network connectivity of the default mode network.

Discussion: Findings add some support to historical claims that psychedelics can influence aspects of the creative process, potentially indicating them as a tool to investigate creativity and subsequent underlying neural mechanisms.”

Authors: Natasha L. Mason, Kim P. C. Kuypers, Johannes T. Reckweg, Felix Müller, D. H. Y. Tse, B. Da Rios, Stefan W. Toennes, Peter Stiers, Amanda Feilding & Johannes G. Ramaekers


The same participants (n=60) were also studied by Mason and colleagues (2020), who studied changes in glutamate in different areas of the brain.

The authors introduce the concept of creativity and build on the distinction between idea generation and evaluation, convergence and divergence, and the neuronal back-and-forth between the Default Mode Network (DMN) and the Frontoparietal Control Network (FPN). And that under psychedelics there is more unconstrained thought and neuronal flexibility. More about this can be found in Girn and colleagues (2020).

The present study looked at the acute effects of psilocybin (11.9mg/70kg) and persistent effects (7 days later). The main tests used were the alternate uses test (AUT, imagining different uses for an object, divergent creativity) and the picture concept test (PCT, used to evaluate both types of creativity). The subjective experience of creativity and altered states (5D-ASC) were also evaluated. Finally, fMRI measures were taken with the following hypothesis:

“… psilocybin would have an acute and persisting increase on outcome measures of [divergent thinking], which would be predicted by within-network [functional connectivity, FC] of the DMN. It was further hypothesized that psilocybin would decrease [convergent thinking] acutely, which would be predicted by alterations in between-network FC of the DMN and FPN.


During the experience, participants in the psilocybin group performed worse on the convergent creativity part of the PCT. This means that they were worse at selecting the right answer. The effect size found was large (d = 0.85). The same was found for the subscales of the divergent creativity par of the PCT. The participant scores lower on fluency (number of ideas, d = 0.84), and originality (novelty of ideas, d = 0.65). On the AUT, participants were less fluent (fewer ideas) during the experience (d = 0.80).

Seven days later, the effects on divergent creativity were not significantly different from the baseline, on the PCT test. They were still significantly lower on the measure of convergent creativity (d = 0.60). The novelty of the ideas on the AUT test, one week later, was significantly increased (d = 0.52).

The fMRI measured showed a decrease in communication within the DMN, but no significant changes within the FPN and salience network (SN). More communication/functional connectivity was found between the various parts of the brain observed (see figure 2).

The biological predictors of creativity were then worked out through a canonical correlation analysis (a way to find and measure associations between two sets of variables). The authors found that “the strongest predictor of increasingly higher feelings of insight and (positive) changes in longterm novelty, were lower levels of within-network DMN FC acutely” and “the strongest predictor of larger (negative) changes in acute originality were lower levels of within-network posterior DMN FC.” and “the strongest predictor of larger (negative) changes in acute and long-term CT were higher levels of between-network FC between the DMN and the FPN.


The study found a decrease in divergent thinking/creativity during the psychedelic experience, which ran counter to their hypothesis. The participants themselves did rate the insightfulness of their ideas as higher, prompting the possibility that their evaluation of ideas was less well-calibrated. Still, divergent creativity was higher, as judged by the number of novel ideas (but not the total number), at the seven-day follow-up.

In line with earlier studies (e.g. Kuypers et al., 2016), this study found a decrease in some measures of divergent thinking/creativity. Here the authors also note the importance of having a placebo condition as both groups showed some learning effects on the PCT task.

So, do psychedelics increase creativity? The authors emphasize the difference between subjective and objective creative performance, and between spontaneous and deliberate creativity. The increase in ‘meaningfulness’ induced by psychedelics may be part of the explanation for the former. The latter argues that a goal-directed task (as used here) may not be the most suitable for the psychedelic state which lends it more to exploration, bizarre ideas, and defocused attention.

The decrease in the integrity of the DMN and its positive effects on subjective creativity/insightfulness is in line with earlier research (e.g. Girn et al., 2020). The authors also make a connection with our brain whilst dreaming as being very unconstraint.

Psychedelics can be a useful tool for understanding, and possibly enhancing, creativity. And on the other side of the creative coin lies rigid thinking, which is associated with mental health disorders such as depression. The decrease in convergent creativity could be one of the reasons why psychedelic therapy is being found to be effective in combination with therapy.


Researchers used a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group design to demonstrate that psilocybin increased ratings of spontaneous creative insights, while decreasing ratings of deliberate task-based creativity. Furthermore, psilocybin’s effects were predicted by within- and between-network connectivity of the default mode network.


Creativity is an essential cognitive ability linked to all areas of our everyday life. It has also been associated with psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and is thus of broad interest among multiple disciplines.

Several anecdotal reports have suggested that psychedelic drugs can enhance creativity, but the scientific literature is largely lacking. Instead, preliminary contemporary work suggests that psychedelics can affect creativity-related constructs, however direct, experimental evidence is lacking.

Psychedelics may be able to mediate changes in the creative process by interacting with the default mode network (DMN), the frontoparietal control network (FPN), and areas of the salience network (SN). This could be a potentially novel tool to investigate creative cognition. The authors suggest that the psychedelic state represents a state of unconstrained cognition, and that the effects of psychedelics persist long after the acute stage.

This study assessed the acute and persisting (7-day post-drug administration) effect of the classic psychedelic, psilocybin, on divergent and creative thinking, and assessed the relationship between cognitive and subjective ratings of creativity, within- and between-network connectivity of the DMN, FPN, and SN, and glutamate concentrations in the medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess RSN functional connectivity, and ultrahigh field proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy was used to assess glutamate concentrations in designated brain areas.

Materials and methods

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted at Maastricht University. Sixty healthy participants were allocated to a treatment condition (0.17 mg/kg psilocybin or placebo, p.o.)

Participants visited the lab on three separate occasions, the first being a familiarization visit, the second being a formal testing day, and the third being a follow-up visit.

This study was conducted according to the code of ethics on human experimentation, and all participants were fully informed of all procedures, possible adverse reactions, legal rights and responsibilities, expected benefits, and voluntary termination without consequences.

Picture concept task

The PCT was administered during peak drug effects (120 min post treatment) to assess both convergent and divergent thinking. Participants were asked to provide as many alternative answers as possible to calculate several parameters, including fluency, originality, and the ratio of both.

Alternative uses task

The AUT was administered to assess DT at 130 min post treatment, and consisted of listing as many possible uses for two common household items. Novelty was assessed by asking participants if they had given any responses that were completely new to them.

Subjective state

A retrospective measure of drug effects was administered 360 min after drug administration. The insightfulness subscale was used to assess spontaneous creative thinking.

Image acquisition

Participants underwent structural MRI, single-voxel proton MRS in the mPFC and hippocampus, and rsfMRI during peak subjective drug effects. They were instructed to look at a black cross on a white background and lay as still as possible.

MRS was performed on the mPFC and hippocampus with stimulated echo acquisition mode59 sequence (TE = 6.0 ms, TR = 5.0 s, 64 averages).

CONN toolbox 18.b was used to analyze the data, which was then normalized, segmented into gray and white matter and cerebrospinal fluid, and smoothed with a 6 mm full-width at half-maximum Gaussian kernel.

Sample size calculation

This study is part of a larger trial assessing effects of psilocybin on creativity, cognitive flexibility, brain connectivity, and glutamate concentrations. The study included 60 participants to ensure sufficient power to detect subtler effects.

Statistical analysis

To assess interrater reliability, intra-class correlation coefficients were calculated based on a mean-rating (k = 2), consistency, two-way random-effects model for relevant PCT- and AUT-dependent variables.

Baseline-change scores of the AUT and PCT outcome measures followed normal distributions, and variances between groups were assumed to be similar. ANOVAs were conducted with psilocybin and placebo as factors, and time and construct as within-subject factors.

For the assessment of within-network FC, ICA component images were compared between placebo and drug conditions, and between-network FC was assessed by comparing the time courses between all RSNs.

Canonical correlations were used to evaluate the association between changes in variables that showed a significant treatment effect, including outcome measures of the PCT and AUT, ratings of the 5D-ASC dimension, insightfulness, and within- and between-network resting-state FC.

Demographic information, mean psilocin blood serum concentrations, ratings on the 5D-ASC, and relative glutamate concentrations are all previously published51 and briefly summarized here. Psilocybin administration was associated with increased ratings on all (sub)dimensions of the 5D-ASC, including the dimension of interest for this study, “insightfulness”.

Picture concept test

Psilocybin decreased CT and measures of DT including fluency, auseinander, and originality in a time- and construct-dependent manner.

Alternative uses test

Psilocybin decreased fluency and increased novelty compared to placebo in a time- and construct-dependent manner.

Independent component analysis

The components identified in our analysis agree well with the templates provided by Smith, et al.62. The anterior SN was identified via the component of Shirer et al.70.

Assessing biological predictors of creativity

A canonical correlation analysis was conducted using eight biological variables as predictors of eight creativity outcome measures. The analysis yielded seven functions, with the first three functions explaining 55.3%, 48.3%, and 16.5% of the variance, respectively.

Table 2 shows that the strongest predictor of higher ratings of insight and positive changes in long-term novelty were lower levels of within-network DMN FC acutely.

Function 3 indicated that the strongest predictor of larger acute and long-term CT changes was FC between the DMN and the FPN.


The present study demonstrates that psilocybin induces a time- and construct-related differentiation of effects on creative thinking, with acute alterations in RSFC predicting both higher scores in spontaneous creative thinking and long-term increases in novelty of generated ideas.

Acute and persisting effects of psilocybin on divergent thinking

Results indicate that aspects of the creative process are impaired during the acute psychedelic state, including idea generation and association, and originality. However, individuals under the influence of psilocybin reported higher ratings of insightfulness.

Results indicate that aspects of DT persist after the acute drug effects have worn off. This is in line with other studies that have found persisting changes in aspects related to DT.

In line with previous studies suggesting that psychedelics decrease conventional, logical thinking, we found that psilocybin decreased CT when compared to placebo, and that the psilocybin group performed significantly worse compared to placebo at follow-up. However, when looking within groups, there was an increase in performance in the placebo group.

Do psychedelics enhance creative thinking?

Results suggest that psychedelics do not enhance creative thinking per se, but rather mediate changes in particular constructs of creative thinking.

Psilocybin acutely impairs the idea generation and evaluation phase of creative thinking, while enhancing the feelings of quality of generated ideas, despite lack of objective evidence. However, 1 week later, the subjective sense of enhanced creativity was found to match the objective quality.

The difference between acute increases in feelings of insight and decreased number of ideas could be explained by the difference between two processing modes of creative cognition, deliberate vs spontaneous. This could explain the relationship between acute increases in spontaneous creativity and long-term increases in idea generation.

Biological predictors of creative thinking

Psychedelics can mediate changes in particular constructs of creative thinking, suggesting they may be a novel tool for investigating underlying neural mechanisms of the creative process.

The DMN was found to be the strongest predictor of acute subjective spontaneous creative thinking, and this is in line with previous work that has implicated the DMN in subjective effects representing unconstrained cognition during the psychedelic state, as well as the spontaneous processing mode in creative cognition. We found that decreased glutamate in the hippocampus was a secondary predictor in increased ratings of insight, and that MTL activity is a crucial driver of the DMN29. This relationship could underlie the desynchronization observed in psychedelic states.

Deliberate, task-based creative thinking is predicted by decreased within-network DMN FC. This finding supports the suggestion that the DMN underlies the idea generation process of DT, and also supports the idea that psychedelics increase DMN integrity subacutely.

Acute connectivity between the DMN and the FPN was found to inversely predict CT performance. This finding is consistent with previous work implicating the DMN and FPN in the idea evaluation phase of the creative process, and with findings suggesting that increased FPN – DMN dynamics correlate with poorer attention.

Psychedelics may impair executive functions by disrupting the DMN-FPN connectivity at rest, and this could explain how psilocybin blocked the suggested CT learning effect.

Although the mPFC has been strongly highlighted in creative cognition, glutamate concentrations in this area did not play a significant role in the canonical model. Furthermore, the connectivity between the DMN and the SN did not strongly predict any outcome measures of creative thinking.


Psilocybin induces a time- and construct-related differentiation of effects on creative thinking, suggesting that psychedelics could be a novel tool to investigate underlying neural mechanisms of the creative process, and could aid in the therapeutic process by opening up a window of opportunity where therapeutic interventions could prove more effective.

Study details

Topics studied

Study characteristics
Placebo-Controlled Double-Blind Randomized

60 Humans


Authors associated with this publication with profiles on Blossom

Felix Müller
Felix Müller is a researcher at the University of Basel. He is leading the research project on psychedelics at the Department of Psychiatry.

Kim Kuypers
Kim Kuypers is a researcher at Maastricht University. Her work is concerned with understanding the neurobiology underlying flexible cognition, empathy, and well-being. One of the main ways she does is with the use of psychedelics.

Natasha Mason
Natasha Mason is interested in elucidating the neurobiological and cognitive mechanisms of (psychedelic) drugs by utilizing multimodal study designs, with a particular focus on substances that may hold therapeutic value.

Johannes Ramaekers
Johannes Ramaekers is a professor at Maastricht University his work focuses on behavioral toxicology of drugs and combines methods from psychopharmacology, forensic toxicology and neuroscience to determine drug-induced changes in human performance. Some of this research is done with DMT.

Amanda Feilding
Amanda is the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation. She's called the 'hidden hand' behind the renaissance of psychedelic science, and her contribution to global drug policy reform has also been pivotal and widely acknowledged.


Institutes associated with this publication

Maastricht University
Maastricht University is host to the psychopharmacology department (Psychopharmacology in Maastricht) where various researchers are investigating the effects of psychedelics.

Compound Details

The psychedelics given at which dose and how many times

Placebo 12 mg

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