Apple founder and tech visionary Steve Jobs died on Wednesday. Jobs was heavily influenced by 1960s counterculture, and once told a reporter that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things” he did in his life. Can LSD really make you more creative?
Possibly. Psychology researchers conducted a lot of studies in the 1950s and ‘60s on the relationship between psychedelic drugs and creativity. Their methodology was inconsistent, though, and the results were somewhat scattered. Taken as a whole, the studies suggested that people who are creative to begin with may experience a slight increase in inspiration or insight during and after an acid trip. That's not true for non-artistic types, although psychologists did find that most participants thought they got more creative on LSD, regardless of what the tests actually showed.
Oscar Janiger of UC-Irvine conducted the most famous study of how LSD affects artistic expression. In the late-1950s, he asked around 100 artists, writers, and musicians to make two paintings of Hopi kachina dolls, one before and one during an acid trip. An art historian later examined both sets, and noted that the acid-influenced pieces were “more abstract, symbolic, brighter, more emotional and aesthetically adventuresome, and non-representational, and they tended to use all available space on the canvas.”
Psychiatrist Louis Berlin conducted a much smaller study in 1955, administering acid to four graphic artists. Fellow artists found the work they produced on the drug to be more creative than their sober work. (Berlin had a hard time getting them to work at the peak of the trip, though.) Many other researchers conducted studies with similar results.
Most of the tests on ordinary people—if that’s a fair term for graduate students—disappointed psychedelic drug advocates. Two studies published in 1967 showed no statistically significant improvement on creativity tests either during or after an LSD trip. The studies measured creativity with a battery of games. Subjects were given three unrelated words, and the researcher asked for the fourth word that connected them. (Sort of like the The $10,000 Pyramid.) Participants were also asked to perceive a hidden image in a complicated set of lines, and make a design out of a set of colored tiles. In one of the studies, subjects had to list alternative uses for a household item. For example, an iron could be used to press a shirt, bludgeon an intruder, or grill a cheese sandwich. Many of the participants told the researchers that they were more creative at work during the six months that followed their acid trip, even though their test scores were unchanged.
It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the LSD and creativity research. The dosages varied between studies, and the setting of the trip seemed to affect the outcome. (Many reports went into some detail on the surroundings: “The drug sessions were held in a large, tastefully decorated room specially designed to enhance the drug experience. It contained couches, rugs, flowers, pictures, books, an aquarium, and art objects. Music was played during most of the session.”) It’s also extremely difficult to measure creativity. Modern researchers’ preferred tool, the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, gained wide acceptance just as the LSD studies were winding down. That test requires subjects to imagine the causes and effects of a picture, conceive of improvements to a toy, and play a game called “just suppose,” in which the researchers present a peculiar hypothetical and the participant monologues about its potential implications (e.g., What if people no longer had to sleep?).
Despite the relative paucity of rigorous scientific data, Steve Jobs—who once suggested that Microsoft products would be better if Bill Gates “had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger"—is far from alone in his belief. Francis Crick reportedly claimed to have envisioned the structure of DNA during an acid trip. John Lennon attributed the Beatles’ album Revolver to the group’s acid use.
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Explainer thanks Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and Stanley Krippner and Steve Pritzker of Saybrook University.