It is common knowledge that many artists have used drugs (alcohol, opiates, cannabis, LSD, ...) and that this account for part of their creativity. This common knowledge is usually opposed to people advocating rationality in sentences like "but with only your rationality, we wouldn't have much art", "you need chaos to make art" or even "the best artists were that great because they were irrational".

Eliezer partly addressed the issue in the lawful intelligence Sequence. While this Sequence is very interesting, I feel it didn't completely address the issue (unlike most of the Sequences). My hypothesis is that it's mostly focused on what's important to building a Friendly AI (which is a worthy goal, this should not be taken as a criticism), not so much as explaining creativity in actual humans. So I'm writing an article with my current thoughts on the topic, and I would welcome any additional argument, hypothesis, research paper, ... that anyone from the LW community can point me to. This article is not supposed to come to any definitive conclusion, but to show my current state of thinking on that issue. I hope to both give and receive in writing it.

Reasons for which it could be an illusion

Availability bias

The first question to ask about "it is a common knowledge that many artists were using drugs" is : is this common knowledge true, or not, and if not, why do so many people believe something which is false ?

Availability bias comes will full power on this issue : when we hear that a given artist (musician, writer, painter, ...) was taking drugs, we add a "drug addict" tag to him. Or more accurately we create a link between the "drug addict" node and his node in our belief network. When asked about artists who did take drugs, we can easily state many names : for example Hemingway, Van Gogh, the Beatles. When asked about artists who didn't take drugs... well, we usually don't have "did not take drug" node in our belief networks, and no easy way to say that Asimov or Bach didn't take drugs.

Even when doing specific research, we can know with almost absolute certainty that Hemingway was drinking a lot of alcohol, but not so confidently that Asimov didn't. It's easier to be sure of the existence of something, than to be sure of its non-existence.

Reverse causality

The second question, if even after considering the affect of availability bias, it still seems than artists take drugs more often than average, is to ask about which sens the causality flows. Statistical correlation points to a causality, but doesn't tell you which sense is the causality, nor if it's direct or indirect.

There can be many reasons for which the causality works backwards : someone is not a good artist because he takes drug, but he takes drugs because he is an artist.

The lifestyle of a professional artist is usually different from the lifestyle of most other people. They usually don't have to wake up at 7 to be at work at 8, since they can work at any time. They also tend to be either very poor (many artists were only praised and recognized after being dead) or very rich (for the few who reach success while they are still alive). And we know that very poor people tend to fall on alcohol more often, while very rich people tend to use more frequently some of the very expensive drugs like cocaine.

Being an artist also usually induces a higher uncertainty about the future than with most regular jobs, which may trigger the use of drugs to make the angst easier to withstand.

Common cause

Apart from direct causality one way or another, a statistical correlation can also indicate that is a hidden common cause between the two phenomenas. If artists take drugs more often, it could be because there is a common reason that pushes people to both by a great artist and to take drugs.

Many reasons can be invoked that way, due to superexponential hypothesis space. I'll risk to be privileging the hypothesis but I can name a few. For example someone with an overdevelop emotional sensitivity could be both great at writing art able to call to our emotions and be more tempted to use drugs as relief from over-experienced negative emotions. Or someone who happens to be an outcast can be more likely to perform art (since it is usually a solitary work, not a team work) and at the same time use more drugs to escape from the pain of being an outcast.

So, where do we stand now ?

When faced with a statement such as "artists take drugs more often than average, so drugs help creativity" we can emit 4 different classes of hypothesis :

  1. The initial statement is wrong, artists don't take more drugs than average.
  2. Artists take more drugs than average, but the causality is reverse (it's being an artist that make you take drugs, not the other way around).
  3. Artists take more drugs than average, but that's because of a common factor that increases likelihood of taking drugs and of making great art, not the drugs themselves increasing artistic creativity.
  4. This is true, for a reason or another, drugs help creativity.

We saw some possible reasons for 1., 2. and 3. Some of them seem to be very real to me, especially the availability bias, but I do not think they totally account for the facts.

As much as I would love to be able to stop here and say that drugs and chaos play no positive role in creativity, that creativity is purely lawful and rational, I fear that would be wishful thinking and refusing to attack my belief's weak points. To state it more lightly : my D&D alignment could very well be lawful-good (as my friends tease me it is), but that shouldn't prevent me from admitting that chaos play a positive role somewhere if it actually does.

Reasons for which it could be real

Chaos and optimization

Generating great art can be seen as an optimization process. The actual function that evaluate a piece of art may be very complex, partly depending of the recipient, and its formalization unknown, but it can still be considered an optimization process : generating a book, or a painting, or a song that scores very high in most people's evaluation function.

In general, chaos is not an optimization process. Adding chaos to an optimization process usually makes it worse. But there are known counter-examples, where an imperfect optimization process will gain from a slight controlled increase of chaos.

Lawfully controlled chaotic optimization

The first known example is the first optimization process ever : evolution. Evolution involves too part : mutations which are chaotic, done at random, and natural selection which is lawful and selects the few evolutions that happened to be positive. The Roger Zelazny picture of the universe being an equilibrium between Order and Chaos may come from that pattern. If you increase chaos too much in natural selection, the information will not be replicated enough from generation to generation, and not much optimization will occur. But if you don't have any mutation, if you remove all the chaos, the process will freeze too.

I remember an experiment from biology lessons in high school : take two small boxes of glass, put cotton with water and sugar at the bottom. Take some bacteria, and but the bacteria on side of the box. Take an antibiotics pill, and put it on the other side of the box. Put box A in safe storage. Put box B in safe storage too, but every day, expose it to a small amount of UV light. The bacteria of box A will quickly spread on the cotton, but will not go anywhere close the antibiotics pill. The bacteria of box B will start doing the same, but after two or three weeks, they conquer even the antibiotics area. After a longer time period, box A bacteria will also overcome the antibiotics, but it'll take them much longer. The UV light increased the mutation rate, and sped up the optimization process of evolution. But only a very small dose of UV light does that, overdose it, and the bacteria B will all die.

That's what I call "lawfully controlled chaotic optimization" : there is a lawful control process (here, natural selection) that selects randomly tried solutions. That's something that can directly apply to artists : the control process (be it the filter of editors/publishers, or the filter of public reaction) is, to a point, lawful, but the process that generate solutions could benefit from a slight increase in chaos. Or more exactly, the combined (generator + filter) algorithm could perform better with a slightly more chaotic generator. To retake Eliezer's definition of creativity, which was "the creative surprise is the idea that ranks high in your preference ordering but low in your search ordering", adding chaos to preference ordering would be pointless, but adding chaos to the search ordering can allow more creative surprise to happen in a given finite time.

There is still a major difference between the two processes described here (evolution and human creativity) : evolution uses a fully random generator, whereas the human brain has a great ability of generating non-random designs, allowing a much faster improvement rate. You'll never get a book of Hemingway or a painting of Van Gogh by randomly selecting letters or randomly putting paint on a canvas. The chance of that is too infinitesimally low. So the generator will have to stay mostly lawful. Hemingway used words and respected the rules of grammar. Van Gogh painted something which look very like real sunflowers. A fully chaotic process would never produce anything near their masterpieces even given billions of years. So artistic creativity must be mostly lawful, even for generating its hypothesis to select from.

As spotted by Vaniver in the comments, Hemingway himself said something very similar to that thesis : "Write drunk; edit sober."

Avoiding local minimal

One big problem of optimization processes is local minimal. Most of the naive optimization process, like a gradient descent, will get trapped into local minima. Let's have a look at that curve (burrowed from Wikipedia) :

Local and global maxima, from Wikipedia

If you start a naive optimization algorithm in the right part of the curve, you'll very likely end up in the local minimum, while the global minimum would rank much better in your preferences. Adding some form of controlled chaos to the algorithm is an easy way to increase the chance of reaching the global minimum, even in much more complex setups than this simple curve.

For a relatively broad class of problems, like selecting the best position of nodes to minimize the length of edges when doing a bitmap representation of a graph structure, an algorithm which works quite well and is simple to code is the simulated annealing algorithm, which works by doing local optimizations, but having a global temperature which adds chaos (the higher the temperature, the more random is the process). The temperature itself decreases with the process, and ultimately reaches 0 (pure lawful optimization).

Such methods are of course "dirty hacks", that are used only when the problem is too complicated and we don't have a purely lawful algorithm that gives the answer, or (most of the time) when we do have one, but with an exponential complexity, meaning we can't run it in real life.

The same idea applies to human creativity : chaos wouldn't be needed, nor useful, if we had a fully working algorithm to write the best books or songs or make the best paintings. But since we don't, using a purely lawful process has a risk (but yes, only a risk) of getting us stuck into a local minimum - improving the methods of the previous generation of artists, but not inventing brand new styles of art. This is a similar concept to the "jumping out of the system" described by Douglas Hofstadter and analyzed by Eliezer. JOOTSing is escaping a local minimum. It's escaping the safe warmth of the valley, climbing the cold and dangerous mountain top, to find another, more fertile valley on the other side. That requires to violate the rules of "staying into the safe and warm valley".

(Note : there is somehow an analogy between the use of drugs and the simulated annealing : drugs induce a state of high chaos, which then slowly goes down as the drug effects disappears. Or at least I was told so, since I never tried personally. But that seems a surface analogy to me, so I won't give it much credit).

Inhibitions and art

Or another way to consider it is to look at is inhibitions : the human mind contains a process that'll check your actions (painting and writing in that case, but applies more broadly) and sometimes say "no, don't do that, you'll look as a fool". Those inhibitions are usually here to protect us from botching in social situations. But they are (as most of the human brain) imperfectly calibrated, and will tend to repress anything that goes out of the current norm. Lowering those inhibitions increases the risk of botching - but also the chance of doing something awesome.

This points to much more general pattern, which applies when what matters is not improving your average gain, but your chance of being one of the few best. Consider you've a task to do, and two ways to achieve it. Way A is quite classical, and doesn't involve much risk. Way B is much less proven, and involves much risk of doing both better and worse. Being a role player, I usually use dice rolls to model those kinds of process. Let's say process A is 20d10. That means, rolling 20 times a 10-sided die, and doing the sum. This will give an expected value of 110, with only 1% of the rolls above 140. Now process B is 2d100 (rolling 2 times a 100-sided die and doing the sum). This will give a lower expected value, of 101 instead of 110. But with 18% of the rolls above 140. Here is a picture of the two process (way A in green, way B in red) generated with a quick Python script :

2d100 (red) vs 20d10 (green)

If what matters is doing your best in average (your score at the task will directly map to an amount of money between $2 and $200), then the best choice is to look only at the expected value of A and B, and select the one which has the best expected value, so A in this case, as you can see, the green curve peaks at a higher value.

But if what matters is not doing the best in average, but being the best : 100 people are performing the task, and the best will take the prize, the rest won't have anything. Then, you except one of the 100 to be above 140, even if they all use way A. So for yourself, if you use way A, you only have 1 chance in 100 to be above 140. If you use way B, you've 18 chances in 100 of beating the 140 mark. Looking at the curve, there is much bigger blob of the red curve that goes to very high values.

When looking at arts, we don't regard the average. Countless people write books or paint. Almost everyone at least tried once. What history remembers are the few best of their time. Not those who did better in average, but those who manage to do better than most of their peers. Those to the right of the picture, in which the amplitude of the green curve is nearly void, but the red curve still exists.

The complexity of testing certain hypothesis

I emitted many hypothesis in this article, to try to explain the common knowledge that "so many great artists take drugs", and more generally to look into the reasons for which chaos can, in some cases, improve a result.

All those hypothesis seem totally plausible to me - and I would say that they all play a role in the process. But saying "everything plays a role" is not saying much, a graph with all possible edges contains as much informations as a graph with no edge. What would be require now is to consider how much each hypothesis contributes to the result - and then, probably one or two will account for most.

But how can we setup such a test ? In physics, doing experiments is relatively easy. It can costs a lot like building the LHC or sending the Hubble space telescope in orbit, but still, devising experiments is relatively easy. In social sciences, it's often much harder. Most social science experiments are done on a panel of test subjects (with a control group, ...). But right now we are speaking of the best artists. How can we build such a panel ? Defining who are the best artists is a very hard task. And then, getting them to participate in studies...

The simplest hypothesis to test, the availability bias, would require a procedure like (numbers can be adjusted) :

  1. Take 1000 people at random, from various ages, social classes and background.
  2. Ask for each of them to name the 10 artists they like the most (without of course mentioning the purpose of the experiment).
  3. For each artist nominated by at least 4 persons, look if that artist did take drugs.
  4. Compare with the average drug use.

But even that is not without troubles : for 3., how can you be sure an artist didn't take drug secretly, especially in time/places where drug use is prohibited or frown upon ? For 4., how do you ponder for the variation in drug use depending of the place/time ?

Does anyone know of such a study (I couldn't find any, but I'm not well versed in the art for looking for social science studies) ?

For the other hypothesis, testing them becomes even harder.


As Eliezer explained, pure chaos cannot lead to anything but static on a TV screen. Any optimization process, and art is one, requires a lawful part. But as I showed, for several reasons, an imperfect optimization process may perform better with a limited amount of added chaos. Since the human brain is an imperfect optimization process, it would not be surprising that in the purpose of creating awesome pieces of art in a limited time, some added chaos can help. But on the other hand, there are other reasons for which there could be a common knowledge that "artistic creativity requires some chaos" even if it were not true. And it is very hard to tell apart the various reasons.

But even if some amount of chaos can help in generating exceptionally awesome pieces of art, it should not shadow the fact that the lawful part of process is absolutely required, and even the most important one; nor that chaos can only be useful when the optimization is itself imperfect. Improving the quality of the optimization process (by, for example, raising the sanity waterline or understanding better the human brain) would lower the need of chaos to generate the same awesomeness.

PS : I post that to "Less Wrong discussion", for initial review and because it's half-way between a "real" article and a call for discussion on the topic. Depending of feedback, I hope to repost it to "main Less Wrong", hopefully improved from the feedback.


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35 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:19 AM

Your point about it sometimes being desirable to introduce some chaos, in order to shake people out of local maxima, is well taken. However, it irks me when people talk about "drugs" as though that were a natural category, and try to reason about it. You can't understand much of anything about drugs without zooming in and talking about specific substances, because they produce very different effects and are used in very different circumstances.

Sure, "drugs" is a way too generic term. But that's still what is said by many people "many great artists take drugs", so to be able to answer constructively to that kind of remarks, we have to consider it... I my article I used it as "drug = something that increases chaos in the brain", which is a broad approximation, but applies relatively well to alcohol, cannabis, opiate derivatives and LSD.

I my article I used it as "drug = something that increases chaos in the brain", which is a broad approximation, but applies relatively well to alcohol, cannabis, opiate derivatives and LSD.

A different way of expressing this notion which might be more useful to you is to consider the idea that most psychoactive substances -- by their very nature -- create nonlinearity in modes of thought as compared to the 'sober state'.

The ways in which they do this vary significantly from one to another (LSD by inducing hallucinations, alcohol by reducing inhibitions, methamphetamines/cocaine by inducing euphoric mania, etc... ), but that seems to be the notion you're after here.

The reason why I would introduce this notion of "nonlinearity in modes of thought"? Because it is more 'predictively useful' to an instrumental rationalist than the vague notion of "chaos". "Thinking sideways" is a powerful and important tool to the instrumental rationalist; by expanding the range of available solutionspace to a given problem, we make ourselves more effective optimizers / problem-solvers.

There is this notion of the rigidly disciplined logician -- the 'Straw Vulcan [WARNING: link!]' -- which plagues impressions of those who espouse / embody instrumental rationality.

Now, in truth, that is a false iconography; but it is a 'natural' one. Very often we work very hard to achieve a level of rigor and discipline in our ways of thinking: we seek to identify when we are indulging in cognitive biases; we develop heuristics for decision making and attempt to purge 'irrationality' from our individual mindspaces. And this is seen as eliminating the ability to "think irrationally", which is then seen as a positive tool for coming to useful ideas, conclusions, or inspirations that are not available to we instrumental rationalists. The easy way to combat this notion is to demonstrate how instrumentality dictates that we learn how to be creative; that we in fact become superior imaginers and train ourselves to broaden our mindsets to a more effective degree of nonlinearity than others can achieve without the use of psychoactive substances.

But that's my take on this situation.

Focusing on technical writing aspects:

There are a number of grammatical and spelling errors throughout the post. Ones I saw included: "advocation" -> "advocating", "generator. While" -> "generator, whereas", "JOOST" -> "JOOTS". There are a number of passages that are awkwardly explained (like the paragraph preceding the python visualization of the difference between 2d100 and 20d10).

I would replace "do" with "would" in the title.

The conclusion starting with "As Eliezer explained" makes me cringe. Are you an acolyte or are you explaining your own thoughts?

Overall: I felt the post was somewhat jumbled. It looks like you wanted to argue against the idea that deviation from straight-laced rationality could ever be useful, and ended up grudgingly admitting that, okay, maybe randomness helps with some optimization processes.

But, as far as I can tell, you haven't consulted any creative types while researching or writing this post. Did Hemingway say anything about whether or not his drinking contributed to his creativity? If you don't know how, when, and why he drank, can you really use him as an example?

As it turns out, Hemingway, the master of brevity, wrote in four words more than you did in this post: "Write drunk; edit sober."

So, I think this post is useful as "I disagreed with a meme for suspect reasons, and so analyzed my disagreement, and think I have found out why the meme exists, and thus have improved my map." But I don't think this post is useful at discussing creativity, or at demonstrating scholarship.

Sorry for the grammatical/spelling errors, I'm not a native english speaker, I'm doing my best but writing in a foreign language isn't that easy (at least for me). I fixed the error you pointed at, thanks.

For the conclusion, your comment seems unfair. The first sentence starts with "As Eliezer explained", yes, but the second starts with "But as I showed". So I'm retaking some parts of Eliezer's thesis, while criticizing some points of it, that's not what can be called "being an acolyte". This article was partly motivated as an answer (and a plead for a deeper analysis) to the "lawful creativity" theme of Eliezer, so referring to him in the conclusion is quite natural.

As for Hemingway, I didn't want to take too deeply any given example since I wanted more to think generally, but your quote is indeed very relevant, and completely to my "lawfully controlled chaotic optimization" hypothesis. I added the Hemingway quote in it, thanks.

I'm not a native english speaker

That was immediately apparent from your first sentence:

There is a common knowledge that many artists were using drugs

While not strictly ungrammatical, this sounds extremely awkward and "foreign-accented". Replace with:

It is common knowledge that many artists have used drugs

(Note the absence of the indefinite article; it is very rare to speak of "a knowledge". "Knowledge" is an unquantifiable noun, like "stuff".)


It is commonly known that many artists have used drugs

(Also note that in replacing the inappropriate verb tense "were using" with "have used", I have also changed the meaning slightly to reflect the fact that there are still artists in existence today. If you had been speaking of a group of people that is no longer extant, you would have needed to say, for example,

It is commonly known that many ancient Romans used drugs. (Not "have used".)

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I changed the sentence.

Creativity and mental illness are linked (see Miller's Spent, earlier results in ); to the extent a drug reduces inhibition, one would expect that too. (I say 'a drug' because it's easy to think of drugs which might increase inhibition and reduce creativity: Adderall and amphetamines are frequently accused of destroying original thinking and promoting a pernicious focus. One wonders what benefit Erdos realized from amphetamines - did he have plenty of good ideas but simply didn't work them out without amphetamines?)

Insanity in mathematicians seems likely to be overrated - even in the most prominent, where one would expect mental illness to be most prominent based on the average/extreme model, the rates seems quite reasonable and fairly similar to the general population:

EDIT: One sequence of images that always interested me was - the drawings degenerate as the LSD takes hold, but some of them struck me as much more interesting and attractive than the first one, like

Larry Niven, writing about drugs:

Marijuana is death on writers. I’ve seen several go that route. Typical behavior for a long time marijuana user is as follows. He gets a story idea. He tells his friends about it, and they think it’s wonderful. He then feels as if he’s written it, published it, cashed the check and collected the awards. So he never bothers to write it down.

Alcohol can have the same effect.

(Incidentally, I've posted this particular quote before.)

[-][anonymous]11y 4

Could say the same about daydreaming. I mean feeling like having cashed the check and collected the awards.

Points for trying to consider alternative hypotheses, but I think you missed the obvious. Why treat sobriety as the pinnacle of (narrowly instrumental) rationality for a potentially disturbed artist?

Spider Robinson, who may have some past experience with drug use, has one of his characters say the following about opiates and

a Ray Charles or a James Taylor. Someone, that is, who was already that talented before they ever got high.The average human in the best of circumstances spends a hell of a lot of attention and energy on monitoring the body's thousand and one aches and pains and twinges and other sudden small alarms. At least as much energy and time goes into constantly combing the environment for immediate dangers or enemies. And as much again is spent on impending or chronic problems, the struggle to stay afloat, the need to be loved, and the underlying awareness of mortality.

A man on a morphine high has none of these worries.

(I assume I don't have to give his disclaimers here.)

Meanwhile, Aleister Crowley - whose experience would probably make a good discussion post - has a great deal to say on the subject of hashish. He distinguishes three main effects of the drug and goes on to describe many other experiences (ie, data points for self-analysis and material for the imagination to work on) that hashish might help one produce (if only by showing that novel states of consciousness can exist). His effect #1 might or might not fit one of your hypotheses:

This, the first evanescent symptom, gives the "thrill" described by Ludlow, as of a new pulse of power pervading one. Psychologically, the result is that one is thrown into an absolutely perfect state of introspection. One perceives one's thoughts and nothing but one's thoughts, and it is as thoughts that one perceives them. Material objects are only perceived as thoughts; in other words, in this respect, one possesses the direct consciousness of Berkeleyan idealism. The Ego and the Will are not involved; there is introspection of an almost if not quite purely impersonal type; that, and nothing more.

I am not to be understood as asserting that the results of this introspection are psychologically valid.

In other writings he implies that Hemingway's "edit sober" has relevance here. Perhaps the two states of consciousness could mitigate each others' flaws.

...I think one should add that these results of my introspection are almost certainly due to my own training in philosophy and magic, and that nothing but the intensification of the introspective faculty is due to the hashish. Probably, too, this effect...would be suppressed or unnoticed in a subject who had never developed his introspection at all.

I feel that the approach taken here is rather lacking.

Firstly, any attempt to understand drug use in humans is going to be greatly hindered if one has not had a decent amount of experience with the drug(or similar drugs) in question.

Secondly, this article doesn't seem to significantly differentiate between the effects, reasons and motivations for use and harms encountered of different kinds of drug use. There is obviously a huge difference between the art and drug use of Alex Grey or Simon Posford ( ayahuasca, DMT, various other extremely powerful tryptamines) and, say, a talented punk rocker who enjoys alcohol and cannabis primarily.

Drugs are a very, very deep subject and I don't think it's possible, at least with our current understanding of the brain, to productively speculate on creativity and drug use without 1) first hand knowledge of drugs and artistic creation 2) knowledge of academic literature regarding creative states, artistic talent, etc.

In the book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide the 9th chapter extensively discusses the enhancement of creative capacities in people on LSD. The chapter contains an explanation of methodology, tabular data, and subjective user reports. The subjects were 26 professional men, including 16 engineers and a few mathematicians.

Edit: I found an appropriate article, an essay by the renowned visionary artist Alex Grey where he discusses entheogens(psychedelic compounds used in a particular way) and creativity. I suspect this article has more insight on drugs and the creative process than the contents of this LW discussion.


[-][anonymous]11y 3

One of the core assumptions you make is that drugs==chaos. That may be, but I see no evidence presented, and it is not intuitive that that would be the case. Drugs make very consistent psychological changes.

The working definition of good creativity seems to be high preference, low search order. Any sample of art produced by a different search ordering that retains your preference order is going to appear statistically more creative. If a given drug is a search-order-in-a-pill, artists using that drug will create more creative art. The drug may have been discovered by random testing, but its effect is lawful and the brain under its influence may well still be lawful. No chaos hypothesis required for artists to perform better on drugs.

Also, you say that you have not used drugs. Be very careful talking about drugs if you have not used them. Straight-edge folk tend to have irrational ideas about drugs for some reason. I'd recommend doing some psychedelics before you finish this article. Empiricism and all that.

[-][anonymous]11y 3


Those great artists who were or are known to be mentally ill or drug users make for interesting news stories and articles. That probably creates the impression that it's more common than it is. Also, the life style of successful artists some times encourages drug use. In some cases the artist might be great despite the use of drugs rather than with the help of drugs.

Jimrandomh makes a good point about not lumping all drugs together. That is, also, true of mental illness. Take bipolar disorder, for example. Van Gogh is thought to have had it. He probably produced large quantities of work during manic phases, but then he took his own life in a depressive phase. Those who suffer from severe depression or anxiety probably are not very productive.

Well, when I think of "artists suffering from severe depression," I immediately think of Sylvia Plath, but one specimen doesn't make a representative sample.

The canonical work on the subject of drugs and artistic creativity may be the three volume set by Dale Pendell:

Pharmako/ Poeia Pharmako/Dynamis Pharmako/Gnosis.

The most relevant point in all three books is that great modern writers in the English language are very often alcoholics. He says on page 78 of Pharmako / Poeia:

"Opium was the drug of choice for the romantics, but for the moderns, the poets and writers of the first half or two-thirds of the twentieth century, the overwhelming preferred poison was alcohol. Donald W. Goodwin, in Alcohol and the Writer, writes: 'six Americans had won the Nobel Prize in literature and four were alcoholic. (A fifth drank heavily and the sixth was Pearl Buck, who probably didn't deserve the prize.)' Goodwin concludes that, as a vocation, writers are over-represented in the population of alcohol addicts. Sinclair Lewis, an alcoholic himself, once quipped: 'Can you name five American writers since Poe who did not die of alcoholism?' Certainly enough of a problem that, for a writer alcoholism should be considered an occupational hazard."

One anecdotal data point against increased creativity is that drug users tend to exhibit stereotypical behaviour. It's usually possible to tell if someone has been using cocaine or marijuana or MDMA or LSD after only a few minutes of interacting with them and with limited experience of the drug in question. The behaviour is also typically unimpressive. I don't recall ever encountering somebody using any of the aforementioned drugs doing anything atypically creative.

Reverse phrasing of the question: "Why would we assume that the mental states and processes evolved to deal with the ancestral environment are the optimal ones for creating art?"

While this is an interesting lens through which to view the original question, it is not quite a rephrasing. Suboptimality of our typical mental states for art (or any given task) provides the possibility of improvement, doesn't tell us whether any given drug* will move us to somewhere more optimal.

(*or even any hypothetical drug - it could conceivably take radical rewiring to improve on our typical performance, although I would find this result surprising.)

You seem to mix up left and right in a couple of places.

Oh... you're... right ! Shame on me. Thanks, and fixed !

I've been wanting to ask this here for a while: is there any (active or dead) discussion thread or article or something on the (rational :D) use of psychoactive substances? I've been very cautiously experimenting myself, and this is the only online community that I respect and whose goals seem to be inline with my own. There seem to be several exceedingly good reasons to partake, while all of the negative ones can be significantly mitigated with knowledge and precaution.

I'm a chaotic good, compsci undergrad doing research. Psychoactives haven't increased my research or programming productivity (yet); though the xkcd comic suggesting that alcohol may do so ( seems to be true. It is very hard to ride that peak though.

I can make a small anecdotal contribution. Nothing in my life has had as profound an impact on my conscientiousness (i.e. fighting akrasia) as some of my more intensely positive drug induced experiences. This effect is typically profound for several days afterwards, and noticable for weeks. This is significant, for me at least, because akrasia seems to be much more limiting than my creativity or intelligence.

Regarding "peak experiences": May I suggest that, if you feel pretty comfortable with tryptamines already, you experiment with 1) smoked tryptamines and/or 2) using the harmala alkaloids.

I also encourage you to read 1) The Entheogen Review 2) The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 3) advanced drug discussion subforum of

There is a severe methodological problem here. The appropriate point of comparison is not between artists and the general population, but between artists and others whose social standing is not negatively impacted by drug use. The latter group, which includes much of the poor but also plenty of upper-middle class people in California, seem to have much higher rates of drug use than American Average Person.

That would likely explain the entire problem. As to historically significant alcoholics, my impression has been that drinking problems were more severe (much more) in the past.

I am unpersuaded as to the value of chaos. You talk about evolution, and mutation being valuable, and surely exploring the search space at random is better than not exploring it at all. But you can explore the search space non-randomly; I know a little about genetic algorithms, and some permute the genomes in a way that is clearly deterministic, while others use a programmatic random-number-generator, which it should be noted is only pseudorandom.

The idea of a pseudorandom number generator is important here. In a properly functioning deterministic system you can explore the search space in a way that has all the positive qualities of a chaotic search. The human brain may be broken enough that it can't, and the solution to that may be to break it further, but that is a quirk of human psychology. You should not mistake it for an argument against the futility of chaos in general.

I would not consider a PRNG as "not chaos" is that context. The human brain is fully determined by the law of physics, forgetting the quantum effects, there is no "true random". The randomness of a PRNG is very comparable to the randomness of thermodynamical noise, or the one induced by drug.

"artists take drugs more often than average, so drugs help creativity"

Well, I think the real question is whether drugs help creativity or not -- whether artists use more drugs than, say, bricklayers seems not what the article is about., or? Also, I would focus on trying to establish the actual relation between drug use and creativity -- ie. specifically what happens when creating art under the influence of drugs; drug use outside the creative process seems less interesting in this respect.

When looking at arts, we don't regard the average. Countless people write books or paint. Almost everyone at least tried once. What history remembers are the few best of their time. Not those who did better in average, but those who manage to do better than most of their peers. Those to the left of the picture, in which the amplitude of the green curve is nearly void, but the red curve still exists.

I think the red curve picture may be incomplete; it doesn't look like it yields a Lotka curve.

The red curve/green curve used the very simple model of 20d10 vs 2d100, it doesn't claim to reflect precisely the process of art creation.

The red curve does correctly depict 2d100, his model of creative risk-taking. I agree with you that 2d100 seems like a worse model to use than a power law or exponential.