Category Archives: Neurology

Destroying neurons, creating art

Originally published in the Collegian on December 10, 2008

Art and drugs have been linked since the beginning of history. Paintings dating to the Paleolithic have been found accompanied by hallucinogenic seeds like the morning glory and mescal bean. The ninth mandala of the Rigveda consists entirely of poetry devoted to — and possibly composed by authors on — Soma, a psychedelic compound many believe to be the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Manet, Oscar Wilde, Guy de Maupassant and many other artists of the late 19th century were aficionados of the alternately maligned and venerated absinthe. Kerouac supposedly wrote On the Road in twenty days while high on bennies, while Shakespeare’s drug of choice appears to have been Cannabis.

But why? Do artistic minds gravitate toward new experiences? Or is it the drugs that make the mind artistic? The answer, I believe, is rooted in abnormality. Put simply, there is no such thing as a normal artist.

Technique — be it a violinist’s speed and accuracy, a painter’s control over the brush, or a writer’s grammar — can be honed with practice, but technique alone merely allows one to create derivatives: cover versions of another’s music, kitsch, or, worse, the modern high fantasy. The ability to create something new is somewhat less easily obtained. In fact, creativity seems to be very strongly correlated with mental and neurological illnesses, from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to ADHD and epilepsy. No one is entirely sure why. Perhaps creativity is stifled by the ability to focus on the mundane, or perhaps art is the only way to communicate altered mental states.

In any case, aspiring artists who are unlucky enough to have a clean bill of health can create an abnormal brain through use of drugs. For example, psychedelics can cause a bizarre neurological effect called synesthesia. In synesthesia, the brain is unable to distinguish between two or more senses: music may begin to have colors, letters scents, or words tastes. Many people with organic synesthesia, such as Anne Salz and Carol Steen, become artists, and psychedelics seem to stimulate a similar artistic sense. Likewise, amphetamines mimic many of the effects of mania. Organic mania stimulated van Gogh’s creativity during his stay at the mental hospital in Saint Rémy de Provence, and artificial mania created by benzedrine helped bring about bebop by enhancing Charlie Parker’s artistic impulses.

On the other hand, artists who are “blessed” with mental or neurological illnesses may try to self-medicate. The illness that has been linked to creativity most definitively is bipolar disorder. People that suffer from bipolar will swing from highs — mania — to extreme lows — depression. While mania can be extraordinarily pleasurable and artistically productive (Starry Night and Les Miserables were both likely products of the state), the depressive side of the disorder is debilitating. Prior to the development of reliable treatments like lithium and valproate and now for those who remain undiagnosed, the only recourse was a drug that might numb the pain. Thus artists like James Taylor, Jack London and Eric Clapton self-medicated with the only things they had available — often heroin or alcohol.

Of course, mind altering substances are a double edge sword: numerous artists have destroyed themselves with them. Kerouac died of cirrhosis and Jack London met his end with an accidental overdose of morphine.Psychedelics can cause psychoses and amphetamines strain the heart beyond what it’s built to take. Do we, then, say that drugs are an evil because they destroy minds? Or do we say they are a blessing because they release minds? To this question I claim no answer; I only say that without mind-altering drugs the art world would be far poorer.