Mescaline, Psilocybin, and Creative Artists
an excerpt from "The Psychedelic State, The Hypnotic Trance, and the Creative Act,"
a paper published in Altered States of Consciousness, edited by Charles T. Tart,
copyright 1969, 1972 by John Wiley & Sons.
A number of creative people claim to have benefited from
psychotherapy which utilized psychedelic drugs. Actor Cary Grant
attributed "a new assessment of life" to LSD (Gaines,
1963). Blues singer Ronnie Gilbert, in 1964, was mired in a deep
depressive state from which she found it impossible to break
free. In desperation, she entered LSD therapy and, during the
following six months, went through 20 psychedelic sessions.
Frequently, Miss Gilbert and her psychiatrist went for walks in
the park or visited art galleries and churches.
During one stroll through the park, Miss Gilbert felt a
"sense of life all around me; I looked at trees for the
first time, really looked at them." She recalled that
"everything seemed so rich and so intense." This
spontaneous experience (which was not chemically induced)
hastened her progress and therapy soon terminated. Several years
later she remarked, "I've been turned on to life and have
never been so happy."
Miss Gilbert's psychiatrist commented. "Ronnie was
lucky. She was one of the people who have been able to work
through lifelong problems in a few sessions, and there is no
reason why the good results shouldn't stick. Not everybody gets
as much out of the experience. She was also lucky because she
came into therapy before federal restrictions clamped down on
it" (Gaines, 1963).
Only five major research projects in the area of psychedelic
drugs and creative performance have been reported and most of
these have been described by the experimenters as "pilot
studies" rather than full-scale experiments with conclusive
results. L.M. Berlin et al., (1955) investigated the effects of
mescaline and LSD upon four graphic artists of national
prominence. There was an impairment of finger-tapping efficiency
and muscular steadiness among the four artists, but all were able
to complete paintings. A panel of art critics judged the
paintings as having "greater aesthetic value" than the
artists' usual work, noting that the lines were bolder and that
the use of color was more vivid. However, the technical execution
was somewhat impaired.
The artists themselves spoke of an increased richness of
imagery and of pleasurable sensory experiences. One said, "I
looked out of the window into the infinitely splendid universe of
a tiny mauve leaf performing a cosmic ballet." Another spoke
of "light falling on light."
Frank Barron (1963) administered psilocybin to a number of
highly creative individuals and recorded their impressions. One
of Barron's subjects stated, "I felt a communion with all
things." A composer wrote, "Every corner is alive in a
silent intimacy." Barron concluded, "What psilocybin
does is to... dissolve many definitions and... melt many
boundaries, permit greater intensities or more extreme values of
experience to occur in many dimensions."
Some of Barron's artists, however, were wildly enthusiastic
about their apparently increased sensitivity during the drug
experience only to discover, once the effects wore off, that the
production was without artistic merit. One painter recalled,
"I have seldom known such absolute identification with what
I was doingnor such a lack of concern with it
afterwards." This statement indicates that an artist is not
necessarily able to judge the value of his psychedelically
inspired work while he is under drug influence.
McGlothlin, Cohen, and McGlothlin (1967) made an intensive
study of 72 volunteer graduate students following a preliminary
study (1964) which involved 15 subjects. (In the preliminary
study, no significant changes in creativity were noted following
a 200 microgram LSD session; a number of creativity tests were
given before the session and one week after the session. However,
some significant changes were reported on anxiety and attitude
A large battery of psychological tests was administered prior
to a series of three 200 microgram LSD sessions, and again at
intervals of two weeks and six months following the third
session. Among the tests in the battery were three art scales, a
measure of artistic performance, a test of imaginativeness, a
test of originality, four tests of divergent thinking, and a test
of remote associations.
Three groups were created: an experimental group receiving
200 micrograms of LSD per session, a control group receiving 25
micrograms of LSD per session, and another control group
receiving 20 milligrams of an amphetamine per session. As there
were no systematic differences between the two control groups at
the end of the study, they were combined for purposes of
comparison with the experimental group.
The most frequently reported change in the experimental group
on a questionnaire filled out after six months was "a
greater appreciation of music"; 62 per cent of the subjects
made this assertion. The increase in number of records bought,
time spent in museums, and number of musical events attended in
the post-drug period was significantly greater for the
experimental group. However, the subjects' scores on the art
tests did not show a significant increase; the authors concluded
that the data "do not indicate that the increase in
aesthetic appreciation and activities is accompanied by an
increase in sensitivity and performance."
On the questionnaire filled out after six months, 25 per cent
of experimental Subjects felt that LSD experience had resulted in
enhanced creativity in their work. However, the creativity tests
showed no evidence to substantiate this subjective report for the
experimental group as a whole or for those claiming greater
The other tests in the battery produced provocative results
in regard to personality variables and the taking of LSD. The
authors reported that "persons who place strong emphasis on
structure and control generally have no taste for the experience
and tend to respond minimally if exposed. Those who respond
intensely tend to prefer a more unstructured, spontaneous,
inward-turning (though not socially introverted) life, and score
somewhat higher on tests of aesthetic sensitivity and
imaginativeness. They also tend to be less aggressive,
competitive, and conforming."
On the one measure of artistic performance used (the
Draw-A-Person Test), the LSD subjects showed a significant
decrease after six months.
Zegans, Pollard, and Brown (1967) investigated the effects of
LSD upon creativity test scores of 30 male subjects chosen from a
group of volunteer graduate students. Upon arrival, the first
battery of tests was given and certain physiological measures
(blood pressure and pulse rate) were taken. A dose of LSD equal
to 0.5 micrograms per kilogram body weight was added to the water
of 19 subjects randomly selected to receive the drug; the other 1
l subjects did not receive LSD. After ingestion (of the drug),
the subject was escorted to a lounge where he relaxed for two
hours. Immediately prior to the second half of the test battery
(which consisted of alternate forms of the same tests previously
given), the physiological measures were repeated. The battery of
tests included a measure of remote association, a test of
originality for word associations, a test for ability to create
an original design from tiles, a free association test, and a
measure involving the ability to perceive hidden figures in a
complicated line drawing. A tachistoscopic stimulation task was
also included; this determined speed of visual perception.
When the creativity test data were investigated, it was
discovered that the LSD group did significantly better than the
control group on the re-test for originality of word associations
(a modified form of the Rapaport Word Association Test). Although
most other comparisons favored the LSD group, no other results
were statistically significant. The authors concluded that
"the administration of LSD-25 to a relatively unselected
group of people for the purpose of enhancing their creative
ability is not likely to be successful."
A further analysis of the data demonstrated that the authors
were able to predict physiological reactions to a significant
degree of accuracy on the basis of previously administered
personality tests. It was also noted that the LSD subjects
(although doing significantly better than control subjects on the
word association test) made their poorest showing on those tests
requiring visual attention (e.g., the tachistoscopic task, the
tile design test, the hidden figures test). It was suggested that
LSD "may increase the accessibility of remote or unique
ideas and associations" while making it difficult for a
subject to narrow his attention upon a delimited perceptual
field. As a result "greater openness to remote or unique
ideas and associations would only be likely to enhance creative
thought in those individuals who were meaningfully engaged in
some specific interest or problem."
The Institute of Psychedelic Research of San Francisco State
College employed mescaline in an attempt to facilitate the
creative process (Fadiman et al., 1965; Harman et al., 1966). The
subjects were professional workers in various fields, who were
instructed to bring a professional problem requiring a creative
solution to their sessions. A number of them had worked for weeks
or months on their chosen problems without success. After some
psychological preparation, subjects worked individually on their
problem throughout their single mescaline session. Virtually all
subjects produced solutions judged highly creative and
satisfactory by practical standards.
Two of the five cited studies suggest that unselected
graduate students cannot expect an increase in creative ability
as a result of their participation in an LSD experiment. On the
other hand, creative workers in three studies utilizing
psychedelic drugs showed an enhancement of creative functioning.
The results must be regarded as tentative until additional work
has been done in this field and until a greater control is
exerted over the many variables present. (footnote)
During 1967, in an attempt to discover the types of
psychedelic drugs being used illegally by artists, as well as the
subjective opinions of the users, Krippner (1967) surveyed 9l
artists who were reputed to have had one or more
"psychedelic experiences." Among the 91 were an
award-winning film-maker, a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, and a
recipient of Ford, Fulbright, and Rockefeller study grants in
A remarkably large number of the artists surveyed (93 per
cent) agreed with a broad definition of the "psychedelic
artist" and 8I per cent felt that the term could be applied
to them personally. It was concluded that the "psychedelic
artist" is one whose work shows the effects of psychedelic
experienceusually, but not necessarily, chemically induced.
The work may have been produced as a result of psychedelic
experience, during psychedelic experience, or in attempt to
induce a psychedelic experience. In addition, the work may remind
someone of a previous psychedelic experience or it may be used to
facilitate psychedelic experience brought about by something
other than the work of art.
Of the 91 artists in the survey, 100 per cent reported having
had at least one psychedelic experience. When asked if they had
ever taken a psychedelic substance, 96 per cent answered
"yes" while 4 per cent answered "no."
Of the chemical substances, LSD was mentioned by more artists
than any other drug, followed by marijuana, DMT, peyote,
mescaline, morning glory seeds, psilocybin, hashish, DET, and
yage. A few artists had tried Kava-Kava, ibogaine, bufotenin,
Ditran, the amanita muscaria mushroom, and the Hawaiian wood
rose. One artist reported experimenting with STP, a powerful and
long-lasting drug manufactured by an "underground
chemist" in California while several others had toasted and
smoked the inside of banana skins, usually with extremely mild
and inconsequential results. A few artists claimed to have
obtained psychedelic effects from substances generally not
considered psychedelicbenzedrine (an amphetamine or psychic
energizer), opium (a narcotic), ritalin, kinotrine, amyl nitrate,
and nitrous oxide.
The artists surveyed were asked if their psychedelic
experiences (chemically as well as non-chemically induced) were
generally pleasant. An unqualified "yes" response was
given by 91 per cent of the group while 5 per cent gave a
qualified "yes" response. In the latter cases, it was
stated that some of their initial "trips" were
unpleasant but that their later experiences were pleasurable. One
artist answered this question negatively and three others did not
When the artists were asked, "How have your psychedelic
experiences influenced your art}" none of them felt that
their work had suffered as a result of psychedelic experience,
although some admitted that their friends might disagree with
this judgment. Three per cent of the artists stated that their
psychedelic experiences had not influenced their work one way or
the other, The others cited a number of effects which fell into
three broad categories: content, technique, and approach. In most
cases, the artists reported effects that fell into more than one
Seventy per cent of the group stated that psychedelic
experience had affected the content of their work, the most
frequently cited example being their use of eidetic imagery as
Fifty-four per cent of the artists surveyed said there had
been a noticeable improvement in their artistic technique
resulting from their psychedelic sessions; a greater ability to
use color was the example mentioned most frequently.
Fifty-two per cent of the artists attributed a change in
their creative approach to the psychedelics. Frequently made was
the claim that psychedelic experience had eliminated
superficiality from the artists' work and had given them greater
depth as people and as creators. Some referred to their first
psychedelic experience as a "peak experience," as a
turning point in their lives. "My dormant interest in music
became an active one," said a musician, "after a few
sessions with peyote and DMT." Another said that a
psilocybin experience "caused me to enjoy the art of drawing
for the first time in my life."
The impact of psychedelic experience upon an individual was
illustrated in the case of Isaac Abrams, one of Krippner's
subjects. In an interview, the artist stated that
"psychedelic experience has deeply influenced all aspects of
my life. It was an experience of self-recognition, under LSD,
which opened my eyes to drawing and painting as the means of
self-expression for which I had always been seeking. During
subsequent experiences, many difficulties, personal and artistic,
were resolved. When the personal difficulties were solved, energy
was released for the benefit of my art."
Upon graduation from college, Abrams got married, toured
Europe, and went to work selling furniture. "I had been
taught," he said, "that the most important things in
life were to look neat, act nice, and make money. Yet, I knew
that something was missing. There was something to do that I
wasn't doing. I had a sense of mission but no idea what the
mission might be."
Abrams was offered mescaline by a friend but turned it down.
Several years later, in 1962, he was offered psilocybin and
decided to give it a try. On Washington's birthday, Abrams and
his wife took psilocybin. Abrams watched the ceiling whirl,
turned off the lights, and realized for the first time that
during all the years of his life he had been behaving "like
a person who had no mind."
Abrams enjoyed his psilocybin experience and a few months
later had another opportunity to try mescaline. "We took it
in the country and it was beautiful." His next psychedelic
experiences were with marijuana; once again, these were pleasant
and positive in nature.
The inner life having been opened up by these episodes,
Abrams thought that he might discover his "life's
mission." The search was in vain. He sold more furniture. He
wrote a play. He entered graduate school, but this was not for
him and he dropped out.
Early in 1965, Abrams took LSD. During his session, he began
to draw. "As I worked," he recalled, "I
experienced a process of selfrealization concerning the drawing.
When the drug wore off, I kept on drawing. I did at least one ink
drawing every few weeks."
Abrams attended art classes to learn about technique and
materials. His wife went to different classes, took notes, and
passed on the information to her husband. The skills developed
quickly and he began to paint.
Abrams entered psychoanalysis with a well-known psychoanalyst
who specialized in the creative process. The artist mused,
"Analysis helps me to mobilize the psychedelic experience
and externalize it. I think any individual can go just so far on
his own. At some point he needs a spiritual teacher or guru. A
good psychoanalyst can be a guru.
"For me," Abrams continued, "the psychedelic
experience basically has been one of turning on to the life
process, to the dance of life with all of its motion and change.
Before 1962, my behavior was based on logical, rational, and
linear experience. Due to the psychedelics, I also became
influenced by experiences that were illogical, irrational, and
non-linear. But this, too, is a part of life. This aspect is
needed if life is to become interrelated and harmonious.
"Psychedelic drugs give me a sense of harmony and
beauty. For the first time in my life, I can take pleasure in the
beauty of a leaf; I can find meaning in the processes of nature.
For me to paint an ugly picture would be a lie. It would be a
violation of what I have learned through psychedelic
Abrams continued, "I have found that I can flow through
my pen and brush; everything I do becomes a part of
myselfan exchange of energy. The canvas becomes a part of
my brain. With the psychedelics, you learn to think outside of
your head. My art attempts to express or reproduce my inner
state." Abrams concluded, "Psychedelic experience
emphasizes the unity of things, the infinite dance. You are the
wave, but you are also the ocean."
Krippner noted that he rarely had found artists among the
casualties of illegal drug usage, suggesting that an artist must
stand somewhat apart from his culture in order to create.
"To invent something new," Krippner concluded,
"one cannot be completely conditioned or imprinted. Perhaps
it is this type of an individualthe person who will not be
alarmed at what he perceives or conceptualizes during a
psychedelic sessionwho can most benefit from these altered
states of consciousness."
Cohen (1964) summarized the research data on creativity and
the psychedelics by stating, "Whether LSD does or does not
increase creativity remains an open question. No systematic
research is available to help in finding an answer. All that can
be said at this time about the effect of LSD on the creative
process is that a strong subjective feeling of creativeness
accompanies many of the experiences."
(footnote) An additional study
(Janinger, personal communication, 1967) is being evaluated at
the present time. Fifty prominent artists painted a picture of a
standard object (an American Indian doll) before ingesting LSD.
During their psychedelic sessions, they again painted the doll.
The 100 paintings are being evaluated on the basis of several
artistic criteria in an attempt to determine what type of change
took place as well as the artistic merit (or lack of merit)
reflected by the change. (back)