The association of art with altered states of consciousness goes back a long way. Archeological evidence of fermented beverages and some of the oldest musical instruments were found at the same 9,000-year-old site in China. (If the Lascaux painters had had six-packs, the caves would undoubtedly have been littered with them.) In modern times, it’s hard to imagine American culture without drugs — from the epic drinking of Hemingway and Fitzgerald to the reefer preferred by Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians. Do alcohol and marijuana improve creativity? How do they compare with each other?
Jason White is a successful Nashville songwriter who’s the first to admit he has often drunk too much. These days he plays it cool. “I make a point of trying not to drink before the cocktail hour, that’s just a line I don’t like to cross,” he says. “But most of my productivity occurs after the sun goes down. I will sit down on the porch and pour myself a glass of bourbon and that’s when the magic seems to happen.”
“What alcohol does to the brain is it inhibits brain activity. That would sound like maybe not a good thing for creativity,” notes Harvard neurologist Alice Flaherty. She studies the creative process and is the author of a book about writers block, The Midnight Disease. But creativity is complicated, and thinking doesn’t always help. As alcohol takes effect, it checks the inhibitions (as we know). “People start feeling a little euphoric or excited and they might be more active for a little while. That’s usually while your blood alcohol is rising.” However, “you can’t really keep that going.”
When it comes to writing about painful subjects, Flaherty believes, drinking to forget isn’t just a country-music cliché. “Memory and creativity have a complicated interaction. There are a few studies that say that decreasing your memory and shutting it off can be helpful.”
Jason White has written most of his songs while drinking to some degree, but his biggest hit was written under a different influence. He had a case of writer’s block when a friend left a marijuana bud on his coffee table. White wasn’t a pot smoker, but he lit up, and in 40 minutes came up with “Red Ragtop,” which became a huge hit for the singer Tim McGraw.
The scientific understanding of marijuana’s impact on creativity is limited, Flaherty says, but its calming properties probably help some people. “One of the important aspects of creative attention is that it’s fairly calm, people aren’t on edge or anxious. It’s often hyper-focused in certain ways, and yet you have to pay attention to relevant things that you are not expecting. Marijuana seems to help that focus.”
For artist Fred Tomaselli — whose work reflects the psychedelic influence of the 1960s — the characteristics of a marijuana high affect the work he makes. “This idea of repetitious or obsessive-compulsive mark making, that’s the hallmark of stoners and outsider artists — there is something marijuana does that allows that activity to come to the forefront. So I was making work that had a lot of repetitious patterns, that create visual rhythms for the mind.”
Flaherty is working on ways to stimulate creativity without toxic chemicals and side effects. As of now, though, this involves surgical implantation of electrodes in the brain. Most artists “are not that fond of creativity that they would be willing to mess with that.” Surely it’s just a matter of time. For now, though, most people will probably stick with bourbon and bongs.
→ Have you ever accomplished something creative as a result of using pot or alcohol? Tell us in a Comment below.
Fred Tomaselli at work in his studio. (Julia Barton)
Bourbon RainArtist: Jason White
Bourbon RainArtist: The Janglers
Red RagtopArtist: Tim McGrawAlbum: Tim McGraw and the Dancehall DoctorsLabel: Curb Records
Nagoya MarimbaArtist: Steve ReichAlbum: Works 1965-1995Label: Nonesuch
ElementalsArtist: HIMAlbum: Many in High Places Are Not WellLabel: Fat Cat UK
Tomorrow Never KnowsArtist: The BeatlesAlbum: RevolverLabel: EMI
Hits from the BongArtist: Cypress HillAlbum: Black SundayLabel: Sony