Are Creative People More Likely to Become Addicted?

Artist's hands over canvas

Jana van der Linde June 29, 2020

There’s a long list of creative geniuses who also battled addiction. Think Beethoven, Baudelaire, Balzac, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Berlioz, Hemingway, Stravinsky, and Faulkner. Add on Bob Marley, Louis Armstong, Frida Kahlo, and the members of the 27 Club — to name only a few. 

How did the historic connection between creativity and addiction come about? Is there actually a connection and, if so, does it help or hinder a person’s creative output? And why are stereotypes related to addiction and creativity so prevalent? 

Nineteenth-century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote: “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” Let’s unpack the connection between creativity and addiction, exploring whether Nietzsche was on point, or not.

Addiction/Creativity: Connections Explained

Contrary to popular belief, creative types are no more likely to become addicts than people who don’t have creative traits. Research shows addiction susceptibility is primarily determined by a combination of genetics and stress factors. However, with so many famous creative types suffering from addiction, the likelihood of a link between creativity and addiction calls for further exploration. 

Connections between creativity and addiction can be explained through causal similarities in the genetics of the brain and tendencies among creative people to regulate forceful feelings with substances.

Similar Genetics

Strands of DNA

Low-functioning neuroreceptors are primarily a result of genetics and specifically, weakened dopamine receptors, play a contributory role in developing an addiction. Put simply, genetics influence a person’s brain chemistry and abnormalities in a person’s brain chemistry – like weak dopamine receptors – can cause addiction.  

Neuroscientists found that people with weak dopamine receptors typically exhibit risk-taking and novelty-seeking personality traits. These characteristics are precursors to creativity and creative types generally possess these traits. 

This suggests the genetic brain chemistry making a person prone to addiction is similar to what makes a person creative, offering an explanation of the addiction-creativity link, but doesn’t imply all creatively-inclined personalities will develop an addiction. 

Another possible reason creative people are often stereotyped as addicts is because many artists abuse alcohol and drugs to deal with the emotional difficulties contributing to their creative brilliance.

Regulating Forceful Feelings 

Alongside risk-taking and novelty-seeking behavior, creative types usually also have a sensitive nature, keen artistic perception, and expressive abilities. 

These aspects of creative personalities leave a person vulnerable to the exhaustive effects of experiencing life with intense emotion, and an incessant desire to creatively express these emotions. In an effort to regulate these powerful feelings, creative people often turn to mood-altering substances. This speaks to the stereotype of the unstable or tortured artist.

So, if creativity is linked to addiction through similar brain chemistries as well as tendencies among creative types to propel towards addiction for emotional respite, one has to wonder if there’s something about addiction that enhances creative capabilities? 

Does Drug Use Enhance Creativity?

Drugs don’t increase an artist’s creative capabilities.

Arguing addiction increases creativity is to confuse coincidence with cause. And psychology research supports this argument. A study aimed at reviewing all the findings of research focused on the connection between mind-altering substances and creativity concluded that there’s no evidence supporting theories of psychoactive substances enhancing creativity. In short, drugs don’t increase an artist’s creative capabilities.

The research findings mentioned that the link between addiction and creativity is, at best, based on the “loosening” or disinhibition effect drugs have on a person’s inherent creative cognitive processes. 

Does this mean people with a knack for creative thinking or expression, are unable to put forth their best work without the help of mind-altering substances? For example, if Jean-Michel Basquiat or Kurt Cobain weren’t addicted to drugs, would their creative genius have been dulled? Most likely not. 

As mentioned earlier, creative capabilities aren’t elevated through drug or alcohol use. In fact, modern neuroscience hypothesizes that getting enough sleep can have the same “loosening” effect on a person’s cognitive activity (and it comes without the destructive side-effects). 

Healthy Habits Boost Creativity

Neuroscientific research suggests that when we get enough sleep, our brain teams-up the two main components of sleep, called REM and non-REM sleep, to draw previously unrecognized connections between concepts. Drawing these original connections between seemingly dissimilar concepts is the root of creative thinking, problem-solving, and expression. This means that tapping into the most creative version of ourselves likely revolves more around healthy sleep habits than drug use.

Do these neuroscientific findings nullify Nietzsche’s famous remark on the addiction-creativity connection? Is boosting creativity in postmodern times perhaps as simple as prioritizing sleep? Will artists with a well-rested image attract the same amount of fame and public admiration as for example, Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse? 

While these questions make for interesting food for (creative) thought, answers are best demonstrated by looking at some well-known creative artists whose post-addiction work is some of their best.

Successful Creative Types Who Are Sober

Elton John in 2019
Photo by Greg Gorman

Here’s a list of artists and actors who recovered from addiction, and went on to enjoy career success. 

  • David Bowie released his much-acclaimed albums “Low” and “Heroes” after kicking his cocaine addiction.
  • Bob Dylan released his famous album “Highway 61 Revisited” in recovery from heroin addiction.
  • Elton John will soon celebrate three decades of sobriety alongside a hugely successful music career. 
  • Writers like Raymond Carver and Jim Carrol drew inspiration from their recovery and wrote some of their most celebrated pieces.
  • Anthony Hopkins and Drew Barrymore enjoyed enormous acting success after addiction. 
  • Robert Downey, Jr. brought Iron Man’s Tony Stark to life after making one of the biggest addiction comebacks in Hollywood history.  

The key takeaway? Addiction is not a prerequisite for creative stardom. However, it is a destructive illness that with professional help, can be treated.

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