It is often claimed that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin – the active component in magic mushrooms – have the potential to bolster creative thinking, yet scientific evidence for this assumption is largely lacking. To resolve this uncertainty, researchers have now measured the effect of psilocybin on creativity, finding that the substance generates lasting changes in brain connectivity that result in a greater capacity to think outside the box one week later.
Reporting their findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the study authors explain how they set out to assess various different components of the creative thinking process. For instance, a distinction is made between deliberate creativity, which involves the conscious application of thought in order to complete a task or solve a problem, and spontaneous creativity, whereby novel ideas and insights arise with no intentional thought or effort.
Furthermore, deliberate creativity is thought to consist of two distinct components. The first of these is called divergent thinking, and is the “idea generation phase,” whereby a range of novel concepts are imagined. This then gives way to convergent thinking, which entails the narrowing down of these ideas in order to deduce the best possible solution to a problem.
To measure the impact of psilocybin on these creative processes, the researchers gave the drug to thirty volunteers, while another thirty received a placebo. To measure the divergent thinking capacities of participants under the influence of the drug, the researchers challenged them to come up with ideas for alternative uses for common household items. They were then asked to complete a convergent thinking task in which they had to find a link between a series of pictures.
Those who had received psilocybin performed significantly worse on both tasks than those who had taken a placebo, indicating how the acute effects of the drug impair both elements of deliberate creativity. Upon scanning participants’ brains, the researchers noted that this reduction in both divergent and convergent thinking was caused by the loosening of connectivity patterns within the default mode network (DMN), which regulates regular consciousness.
Conversely, greater flexibility within the DMN led to enhanced spontaneous creativity under the influence of psilocybin, with those who received the drug reporting higher subjective ratings of novel insights. For instance, they were considerably more likely to agree with statements such as “I had insights into connections that had previously puzzled me” and “I had very original thoughts”.
More intriguingly, when the divergent thinking test was repeated one week later, those who had received psilocybin outscored those in the placebo group. Thus, while the acute effects of psilocybin appear to impair deliberate creativity, the longer-lasting impacts of the drug may actually enhance certain aspects of the creative thinking process. Once more, these lasting improvements were correlated with persistent changes in connectivity within the DMN.
Proposing a practical application for this finding, the researchers suggest that the use of psilocybin could “[open] up a window of opportunity where therapeutic interventions could prove more effective. Namely, while under the influence of a psychedelic, rigid thought content could be decreased, while unguided, spontaneous thoughts may give rise to new insights and perspectives of previous events and current problems.”
Taking advantage of the lasting changes in creativity produced by such substances, the study authors claim that “patients may then be able to integrate these insights with a therapist, and come up with new, more effective strategies that facilitate adaptive interpretation and coping abilities.”