Creativity, consciousness and altered states …

Knowing which illegal drugs to take to enhance your creativity can be something of a minefield, so I’ve prepared this simple list to help you navigate narcosis. On the left are drugs which aid creativity; on the right those which hinder it.

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I’m joking.

While there is of course a long and colourful tradition of artists, writers, musicians and painters who felt that the only way to stimulate their muse was through the smoking, snorting, injection or ingestion of a proscribed substance, most of them were terrible at meeting deadlines, apart from the ultimate deadline awaiting us all, and they hit that too soon.

No. If you’re a professional creative, whose fortune depends upon the quality of the ideas you generate, then I’m not encouraging you to get high. I’m suggesting instead that you always create the time and the space within your creative process to change your consciousness, to alter states.

You know how it goes. The clock on the wall is ticking. The blank sheet before you remains resolutely blank. You have no idea when the next idea is going to arrive. But Christ, you need it to come. Surely the last thing you should be doing in the face of an imminent deadline is walking away from your desk?

This is exactly what you should be doing.

The ancient Greeks, who had a very enlightened view of creativity, did not believe that ideas come from within. The Greeks believed that ideas are bestowed upon us by the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus. If you want to receive inspiration then you must first put yourself in the right frame of mind. And that frame of mind is not desperately, against all hope, willing an idea into being; your brain like a constricted sphincter forcing some putrid, derivative, shred of a thought out onto the page. It’s being calm, cool, relaxed and at ease. The word ‘inspiration’ literally means take a deep breath.

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The Death Of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

In this painting Socrates is about to die. He’s been sentenced to death by drinking a cup of hemlock. All around him his followers mourn the imminent demise of their inspirational mentor. Yet Socrates, hand aloft, is still having ideas! So good is he at being in the right frame of mind to receive the Muses, that they continue to visit him on his deathbed.

A more contemporary take on this same principle is expressed with characteristic economy by advertising old timer John Hegarty: ‘I always do my best thinking when I’m not thinking.’

Neuroscientists have discovered that we have our best ideas when we are in a state they describe as ‘soft fascination’. We are affording a minimal amount of attention to gentle stimulus, allowing our minds to wander freely. We’ve taken our minds out of gear and we’re cruising in neutral, in control, yet totally at ease. We are very much not redlining the revs.

And it’s in this meditative state that we are most likely to have genuine bursts of inspiration. Einstein knew this. When faced with an intractable problem he would put down his pen, step away from his desk and pick up his violin. He referred to this as ‘combinatory play’. As soon as he stopped trying to solve the problem, the solution would come.

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Einstein engaging in ‘combinatory play’

For me, the most effective way to reach this highly creative yet relaxed state is through running. I have yet to go for a long distance run without returning with an idea I feel is worth deeper exploration, once I eventually get my breath back. Others meditate. The film maker David Lynch makes a compelling case here, that if we are to catch the big fish — the big ideas — then we must use transcendental meditation to dive into the deepest water.

Meditation. Running. Playing the violin. Juggling. Throwing darts. Knitting a scarf. Whatever. You must find your own way of disengaging your brain from the problem at hand. Once you do, sure enough, the solution will come.

As for narcotics, well, I’ll leave you with this quote from Hunter S Thompson …

‘I hate to advocate drugs, violence, alcohol or insanity but they’ve always worked for me.’

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Hunter S Thompson by Ralph Steadman

Written by

I write, think & speak about the creative process. For more inspiration go to or listen to my podcast The Wind Thieved Hat on iTunes.

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