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The Creative Spirit and Addiction – Are They Connected?

“Creativity takes courage.” ~ Henri Matisse Creativity isn’t a talent only a special few people are born with. It’s not an innate, genetic trait but something that is grown and cultivated in varying degrees within a person. Like any skill, a person can decide to put time and attention toward its development. According to Adobe’s 2012 global benchmark study “State of Create,” which gathered data on the global creativity gap in five of the world’s most successful economies, nearly ⅔ of respondents feel that creativity is valuable to society. However, only 1 in 4 people feel they are living up to their creative potential. Stress factors can inhibit any kind of growth, including creative growth. It can be conventional stresses we experience in our day-to-day lives, but it can also be something more acute – like an addiction. But what about all those celebrity addicts? So many have lost their lives due to their addictions. So that begs the question: Are creative spirit and addiction connected?

Creativity and the Brain

Neuroscientists have been hard at work for decades to get to the bottom of creativity and how the mind works during creative processes. No matter what stance scientists and artists take on the biomechanics of creativity, one thing is certain: it’s complicated. According to Scientific American’s Scott Barry Kaufman’s interview on the issue: “The latest findings from the real neuroscience of creativity suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction does not offer us the full picture of how creativity is implemented in the brain. Creativity does not involve a single brain region or a single side of the brain.” Social cognition, imagination, constructive reflection, motivation – all these things (and so much more) play into creative cognition. Brain imaging shows that creative cognition takes a lot of brainpower!

Addiction and Creativity

As we know, addiction can inhibit brainpower, yet creativity and addiction seem so connected. But are they really? The science seems to support the ideas that 1) everyone has creative potential, 2) the brain is responsible for creative cognition. Therefore, it would be logical to think that the human brain the throes of addiction may have a difficult time doing creative tasks. That’s obviously not true for everyone. We certainly have instances of famous artists being addicts while being creative and quite successful. There is also the fact that addiction is extremely heritable. Although there is no one gene that determines or predisposes addiction, it tends to run in families. Even though someone in a family may struggle with addiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was caused by genetics. What is becoming clear: this genetic predisposition seems to come with a low-functioning dopamine system.

How Addiction Changes the Brain

The brain is capable of so much, but drugs can inhibit necessary functions including dopamine levels. Even though there are many hypotheses among medical professionals and neuroscientists about the nature of addiction, there absolutely is a connection between dopamine levels. One study showed that more impulsive people often have fewer dopamine receptors. However, when provided an amphetamine, the more impulsive people released more dopamine than the less impulsive group as well as craving more of the drug after the study. To the brain, dopamine equals pleasure. The brain can experience this in a variety of ways:

  • Drugs
  • Fatty or sweet foods
  • Shopping
  • An excess of sexual activities

Over a long period of time, sustained high levels of dopamine from these sources can cause adverse side effects that include: anxiety, aggression, depression, delusions, gut and digestive issues, hallucinations, muscle tics, paranoia, etc. According to Mental Health Daily, “While a person is ‘high’ on drugs like cocaine, psychostimulants, and other drugs, dopamine levels are elevated. Although the dopamine levels become elevated while the person is high, they may decrease to a level below baseline such as with amphetamines. This leads a person to build up a tolerance to the drug and over time, their dopamine levels become depleted. It takes a substantial period of time for the person to remain drug-free for dopamine levels to increase back to baseline.” Dopamine isn’t all about “pleasure” though. Healthy ways to increase dopamine release:

  • Exercise
  • Nutritious diet
  • Sugar-free diet
  • Reducing caffeine intake
  • Taking on a new challenge
  • Doing CREATIVE activities

The result of these healthy activities? Better sleep, better motivation, and a better overall sense of well-being. It also means being in a better headspace for creative endeavors!

Famous Addicts and Artists

Whenever you think of “addiction,” you cannot help think of the famous, highly-publicized deaths and addiction stories of celebrities. From actors to painters, there seems to be a connection between addiction and those with a creative spirit. But is there really? Drew Barrymore – Addiction doesn’t often hit in those so young, but that wasn’t the case of Drew. Some say her foray into the drug world began as young as age 9. Although the road to recovery was long, Drew’s story is one of success. Lindsay Lohan – Her highly publicized journey through addiction and recovery began in 2007. Since 2013, Lindsay has been committed to a long-term recovery program. River Phoenix – A short life taken by addiction. The river began his drug use young, some friends say as early as 15 years old. He died tragically of a cocaine and heroin overdose in 1993 at the age of 23. Ernest Hemingway – Alcohol was Hemingway’s constant writing companion. Eventually, due to his alcoholism and depression, he took his own life. Amy Winehouse – An iconic songbird, Amy’s talent and openness about her addiction spoke to so many fans. Unfortunately, her addiction to alcohol eventually took her life at the age of 27. Again, is there a connection between creative spirit and addiction? David Linden of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says “No. I think the link is not between creativity and addiction per se.” It’s quite possible that the reason we think creativity and addiction are connected is due to the widely publicized nature of celebrity deaths. Also, due to their talent and productivity, people tend to forgive the bad behavior with the assumption that creativity and addiction are connected. Instead, we should view these famous addicts as highly productive and creative people with a definite need for intervention.

Tapping into Creativity While in Recovery

It might seem difficult or hopeless when in recovery to put attention toward a creative task. Brain fog, depression, and general fatigue can mean low to no motivation. Thankfully, doing small creative exercises can really get your brain and inner artist to come alive. Here are a few ways to get some creative juices flowing: Writing Exercises

  • Write a letter to your future self. What would you say? Where do you hope to be? What advice can you give?
  • “I remember…” start with this phrase and create a story based on a fond memory. This is a good exercise to practice gratitude.
  • Find a favorite photo or pick a random one from a magazine. Write a story that takes place within that photo. If it’s a photo of a person, describe what is happening to them in this moment.

Art Exercises

  • Pick up an adult coloring book! These new, popular coloring books are easy to do and can spark some creativity.
  • Make a stress painting. Take whatever drawing implements you have on hand (pens, pencils, crayons, paint) and whatever medium you have (canvas, paper, etc.) and draw your stresses. Lines, dots, splatters – anything that helps you release your stress.

Creativity and addiction only go together if you want it to. They exist independently of each other. One thing is certain, creative activities can be a therapeutic tool in drug rehab. Being healthy and drug-free isn’t a detriment to creativity, it’s just a new and exciting way of perceiving the world.