Smart drugs and Creativity (the Missing Link in Human Genius)

brainondrugsfinal1I’m writing a book about creativity and drugs. It isn’t finished, but given a popular and title-loaded article I’ve seen circulating this week (“Will smart drugs really make us smarter, or just ruin lives”) I thought I’d share my basic introduction to the topic.

My book is called “The Creative Brain on Drugs: Smart pills, nootropics and other mental stimulants in art, history and your life“.

The foundations of this book are two-fold

The first is that the past 5 years have seen a flurry of publications on creativity and productivity – due to the outsourcing of blue collar work and the unstable job market in a shaky economy, the myth of getting a job and saving for retirement – the American Dream – has largely failed to inspire.

Instead the only way to preserve your value and earning ability is to be an “ideas-man”; to be creative; to produce your own content or start your own businesses. If you aren’t creating (not only value but innovation and novelty), you’re easily replaceable.

As such there are scores of books rushing to market with promises of improving your lateral thinking, creativity or innovation. Scientists are writing about brain chemistry and artists are writing about the creative lifestyle. Our cultural heroes are the great artistic geniuses of old; the mad scientist; the emotional painter; the rebels and non-conformists. We romanticize these creative producers and their biographies and highlight their frustrations and inabilities to be “normal.”

But at the same time society largely perpetuates the false stereotype that creativity necessarily verges on madness. “Peer into the abyss and the abyss peers back at you” (Nietzsche). The Faustian dilemma of “going too far” and straining against natural limitations is read as a cautionary tale rather than a practical primer (Faust was an early story of drug fueled creative discovery).

What is conveniently forgotten, even hidden and disguised, is that the creative output of the greatest minds in the history of civilization was mostly drug induced. The ancient philosophers were all initiates of secret mysteries, in which some form of psychoactive substance brought about novel experiences. The Enlightenment thinkers had the newly introduced foreign substances of tobacco, sugar and coffee.

Van Gogh, the impressionists and other modernists had Absinthe, hashish and opium; Edison and Freud used cocaine; Einstein and other mathematicians used speed/meth (if you doubt any of these claims, you’ll have to read the book for my arguments). Kerouac and the other beat poets used Benzedrine.

It isn’t merely that, in the history of mankind, some artists and writers used drugs: I will argue that drug use is nearly unanimous, and that the history of art and literature coincides neatly with the history of what mind-altering substances were cheap, legal and widely available.

Humanity has been flirting with prohibition and state legislation of illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals for just over a century, and despite an outpouring of research from all fields proving prohibition leads to increased violence, crime, dependency and addiction, policy remains largely in force. But there are cracks: millions in jail for possession of marijuana as Colorado and Washington introduce full legalization, without prescription.

Voices previously silenced by a restrictive, conservative religious elements which targeted dissenters and free thinkers as “Communists” during the Red Scare and then “Satanists” during the hippie movement have begun to reemerge, pointing to the long and deep history of social philosophy and political theory which warns of the dangers of a police state regulating citizens states of mind.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

For decades, housewives have been prescribed barbiturates and other mood regulators, and students have been taking speed or other uppers to keep up with school (often on the recommendation of the family doctor). Today, a wave of restless young graduates with dim career opportunities rush into startup and entrepreneurial communities and compare their daily “stacks” of productivity boosting meds, supplements and vitamins to increase their competitive edge.

The subReddit board for Nootropics features incredibly precise and calculated dosages, cutting edge scientific research, and personal experiences with various new chemicals being made in Russia or China and ordered online. These are no kids getting stoned in the basement; these are health and brain-conscious individuals pushing the limits of human cognition with self-experimentation.

As someone who works in both publishing and fine art, I receive dozens of emails every day from creative people trying to start businesses, not sure what they should paint or write about, not sure how to be more productive or more successful. It’s a shame that many of the most significant creativity boosters known to man remain largely unrecognized for their contributions to civilization, progress and science, art, literature and music. And not only unrecognized, but viewed with disdain, skepticism or mistrust, as “dangerous” or “evil.” Decades of anti-drug propaganda have convinced the general public that such drugs lead to violence, crime, psychosis and ruined lives.

Even though the greatest creators, artists and musicians in history – those most deserving of the term “creativity” – were moderate to heavy users of novel and foreign substances that greatly altered thinking, sensation and awareness; we tend to assume their creative genius was a gift so strong they could access it despite the drugs, or that they were using the drugs to bolster their natural genius or mental activity. We think “what a pity nobody appreciated their genius and they had to turn to drugs to comfort themselves” even when they’re telling us  openly and without hesitation, that drugs were integral to their creative process and output.

If you’ve never been high on any drugs (substances) you literally have never been in the same “state of mind” or had a shared mental experience with 99% of the greatest writers of all time. On the other hand, if you drink coffee in the morning and Camomile tea at night, you’re already familiar with self-medicating and controlling your mood, energy and productivity levels.

Given then, the current obsession with creativity boosting, and a not unconnected rise in the interest of “smart drugs” or “cognitive enhancers” to maximize productivity, a proper research into the subject is warranted.

How this book is organized


Part One: The history of boosting creativity with deliberate drug and substance use.

Part Two: What is creativity? Who needs it? What’s it good for? How can we get more of it?

Part Three: A practical and personal guide to the available substances and how to use them for creative success.

I hope by the first section to prove that a great many iconic creative thinkers and artists were quite literally experiencing states of mind that can only be replicated with similar mind-altering substances.

We cannot envy them their creativity while refusing to experiment with the same mental states. Aspiring to their levels of creativity with only coffee, fish oil and moderate exercise is doomed to be a frustrated ambition.

The Definition of Crazy

You’ve heard it before. Crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Let’s say you want to finish the book, or start that business, or quit your job. You’ve been thinking about it for years. But you’re stuck in a routine. You’re missing that “Big” idea. So you just keep doing the same thing and hoping, somehow, things will change.

But “big ideas” don’t just strike out of the blue, and you won’t get them by using your brain the same way you always do. Your thinking follows the well worn paths of brain pathways. To get them to jump off that highway and go somewhere new, and make new connections, your brain needs to be used in novel and unprecedented ways.

This book will be your guide.


About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me

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