LSD and creativity: taking a closer look

Psychedelic drug's effects on creativity are tested in the lab.

Back in the 1960s, trippy artworks and LSD-inspired music like the Beatles’ album Revolver highlighted psychedelic drugs as a creative tool. Now, scientists are taking a closer look.

In a University of Auckland study, volunteers go about their daily lives while taking sub-psychedelic doses of LSD (or, for control purposes, a placebo).

Daily questionnaires and periodic laboratory tests help the scientists to assess the drug’s effect on mood, creativity, focus and cognition. To assess creativity, a notoriously difficult task, the volunteers are asked to perform word tasks.

One tests “divergent thinking.” Think of brainstorming, where people try to generate novel and original ideas. Volunteers get two minutes to name as many possible uses for a household object such as a pencil. (Back scratcher? Bookmark? Weapon?)

In a test of “convergent thinking,” which is more rule based, people are asked to link three different words using a fourth. (“Top,” “multiplication” and “dinner” could be linked by “table.”)

In a final test, the volunteers use scissors, glue and five pieces of coloured paper to make a collage, an opportunity to come up with a novel assemblage.

Psychedelics may put people into “hyper-associative states,” free of the usual logical constraints, University of Auckland researchers including Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy and PhD student Robin Murphy wrote in their study protocol.

In the scientific literature, there’s some tentative support for psychedelics jumpstarting creativity. For example, psychedelic truffles seemed to boost convergent and divergent thinking at an event organized by the Dutch Psychedelic Society, according to a 2018 paper.

However, there are also examples of people feeling more creative but apparently not being so.

Now, with their randomised, controlled trial, the gold standard for research, the Auckland scientists hope to get a clearer picture. The study began in 2021 and the trial phase may end this month. 

Psychedelics offer potential for treating a wide range of mental health
problems and a separate University of Auckland study is investigating LSD
microdosing and talk therapy for cancer patients in palliative care.   

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Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
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