Psilocybin For Creativity: How A Hero’s Dose Helped Overcome Writer’s Block For My Latest Book
Does psilocybin help with creativity, and could it help with writer’s block? Anecdotal experiences, including my own, suggest the answer could be ‘yes’, although there’s no way to know for sure whether or not improved creativity is the result of the placebo effect.
Anyone who has taken on a daunting creative endeavor like writing a book knows that sometimes one’s creative flow can get interrupted or blocked by forces that seem outside of our control.
For me, personally, writer’s block arises out of fear. More specifically, out of a limiting belief that I sometimes have about myself: “I don’t have what it takes to finish this, and even if I do, no one will care to read it.”
My specific limiting belief fits Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term, writer’s block, “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece,” and with some of the earliest psychiatric investigations into the (very real) phenomenon.
In the 1940s, psychiatrist Edmund Bergler began working with writers who suffered from what he described as “neurotic inhibitions of creativity.” He eventually spent two decades studying the impediments to their creative processes. Bergler concluded that the only way to relieve writers of their blockages was through therapy.
Research carried out by psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios at Yale University in the 1970s and 1980s discovered something interesting. They believed that people who suffered from writer’s block were unhappy, often depressed and suffering from anxiety, steeping in self-criticism, and experiencing reduced excitement and pride for their work.
They wrote that “symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, such as repetition, self-doubt, procrastination, and perfectionism, also appeared, as did feelings of helplessness and ‘aversion to solitude’ — a major problem, since writing usually requires time alone.”
When Writer’s Block Strikes
In July 2021, I was halfway through the process of writing my second book, just six weeks away from my deadline. I was in no position for a creative slowdown when writer’s block set in hard.
I had plans to finish the book the following month in a remote cabin in the woods, and worried that I’d arrive in early August feeling the same way I felt at home: weary, lonely, and desperate to be finished. I was suffering from tremendous self-doubt, an overwhelming sense of perfectionism, and simultaneously feeling the need to procrastinate. These match the symptoms noted by Bergler, Singer, and Barrios that I just couldn’t shake.
In the months prior, I had worked with a therapist in preparation, and we had uncovered the root of my writer’s block. I explained how I battled debilitating feelings of unworthiness towards any success that might result from my work, and a simultaneous fear that I would complete the task at hand, only to experience public failure. We worked on these issues extensively, and I developed some tools to keep the feelings at bay.
On good days, I could wake up early, examine my fear and unworthiness, and imagine storing them in jars on a shelf in my bedroom before sitting down in front of my computer to write. Most days, I got through my page quota and felt good about what I was writing. Other days, though, I forgot about the contents of the imaginary jars entirely.
By the time mid-July hit, it was as if those make-believe jars were about to burst. This overwhelming sense of fear was taking over my creative process.
In the past, when the tools I learned in therapy failed to work, I’d found relief from writer’s block with cannabis. The drug took me away from my neurotic inhibitions, giving me the perspective I needed to see my work through.
This time, relief was only temporary. I knew that, to complete the book, I required something more powerful to work through the rigid thinking I couldn’t seem to break out of.
Psilocybin For Creativity
When psychedelic drugs like LSD and mescaline were introduced to psychiatrists in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it wasn’t long before they were studied for their effects on creativity, most notably by Dr. Oscar Janiger.
His book, LSD, Spirituality, And The Creative Process details one of the longest clinical studies of the powerful classic psychedelic, which took place between 1954 and 1962.
As part of the study, Janiger gave LSD to artists and instructed them to create paintings and drawings at various points throughout their trips. As it turns out, LSD had quite an effect on their artwork.
In the book, his co-author Marlene Dobkin de Rios writes that, “all of the artists who participated in Janiger’s project said that LSD not only radically changed their style but also gave them new depths to understand the use of color, form, light, or the way these things are viewed in a frame of reference. Their art, they claimed, changed its essential character as a consequence of their experiences.”
Overall, LSD had a lasting impact on their creative process.
A more recent study on using psilocybin for creativity found that participants who were given the compound experienced acute positive changes to their creative thinking. These include greater spontaneous creative insights, and less focus on convergent thinking.
One week after taking psilocybin mushrooms, data showed that participants experienced a greater number of novel ideas than they had before the experience.
Using Psilocybin For Creativity Rid Me Of Rigid Thinking
Based on what I had learned about using psychedelics for creativity in my research, I felt called to explore my blocks more deeply with psilocybin mushrooms. I eventually settled on a dose of seven grams (to match the number of psychedelic drugs I explored in the book).
I called my friend Wendy and asked if she was available the following Saturday to trip-sit. She emphatically agreed to support me through the experience.
Given the dose I was about to consume, I had prepared myself for a tough trip, expecting to spend four to six hours laid out on my couch, processing my fear of failure and exploring the unworthiness I felt around success. Naturally, I expected some discomfort and lots of tears.
After about 45 minutes, I was pleasantly surprised by overwhelming feelings of joy, and began expressing it through another form of creative expression: dance.
Through movement, I was able to get out of my head, where my fears were holding my words hostage, and into my body, where words weren’t needed. I felt immense gratitude for the people and plants who had inspired the words I’d written thus far. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself at the end of the book, typing the final keystrokes of the afterword in my cabin in the woods.
As I experienced this vision, my friend Wendy uttered the words, “This book chose you, and people are going to read it.”
Though they terrified me, I played the last six words she said over and over in my head until tears streamed down my face. I collapsed to the ground. My fear of failure rose to the surface and was now pouring out of my eyeballs.
“People are going to read it. People are going to read it. Yes, people are going to read it,” I whispered to myself.
Was I still afraid? Absolutely. But it was as if my fear had transformed into something entirely different: I had a newfound, healthy fear of what might happen if I didn’t finish the book. I knew in an instant that given the insight I’d just received, not completing it wasn’t an option.
Psychedelics: Not A Panacea For Creativity
Not only did my experience using psilocybin for creativity allow me to move past the blocks that were preventing me from finishing the book; it allowed me to embrace the process with a newfound sense of confidence in myself. Likewise, an even greater appreciation for the substances I was writing about.
This is not to say that psilocybin “cured” my writer’s block. I still have days when I sit at my computer and grapple with feelings of fear and unworthiness. In fact, readers will probably appreciate that I experienced some hesitation towards writing this piece, for many of the same reasons I was afraid to finish my book.
Instead, using psilocybin for creativity showed me that my conscious (and often neurotic) mind tends to limit the number of possibilities I see for myself. Now and then, I still require the occasional reminder.