“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.” – Steve Jobs
Last month, I embarked on a journey to uncover the concept of Psychedelic Leadership and explore its many dimensions. I shared research and reflections on how psychedelic experiences can foster emotional empathy, a key aspect of conscious leadership. Missed the memo? You can catch up on last month’s newsletter here. This month, I’m delving deeper into this exploration through a fresh perspective.
A New Level of Thinking to Solve the World’s Biggest Problems
Conscious leadership is not a whisper; it’s a clarion call. It seeks young global leaders ready to brave the storm and command the helm in uncertain and tumultuous times. To navigate these challenges, creativity is essential. We must discover unexplored ways of working and embrace courage and conviction, for fear of failure can hinder our creative potential.
Albert Einstein once mused, “We cannot solve problems at the same level of thinking that created them.” Reframing this for today’s leadership, it’s a wake-up call for leaders to ascend to a vantage point of heightened cognitive states, to don an entirely fresh suit of cognitive modes.
Riding the waves of our minds, cognitive states mirror our mental climate, shifting with each task’s ebb and flow. Locked into a complex problem? You’re sharp, on point, a falcon diving for prey. Strolling leisurely? You’re laid-back, lost in reveries, a feather floating on the breeze. Now, enter cognitive modes – your personal, cognitive fingerprint. These are your go-to strategies, your unique patterns for thinking, perceiving, and tackling information. Whether you’re an analytical problem-crusher or an intuitive idea-weaver, your cognitive mode sets the stage for how you think, feel, and interact with the world around you.
Unleashing creativity demands we dance with different cognitive modes. Analytical thinking and logical reasoning – sure, they’re heavyweights in the ring of balance sheets, but they’re amateurs in the artistry of intuitive and blue-sky thinking, of the masterpiece that is creative problem-solving.
But reshaping our cognitive modes is no walk in the park. It’s a journey, a quest – demanding consistent practice, enduring effort, and deep self-awareness. Our cognitive habits, after all, are rooted deep within us, as resilient as ancient trees.
This is how psychedelics enter our narrative. So let’s explore how psychedelics impact our cognitive states and allow us to tap into that conscious creativity so necessary for today’s leaders.
The Four Stages of Creativity
Psychologist Graham Wallas outlined the creative process back in the 1920s, taking us through four distinct stages.
Stage 1: Preparation is all about soaking up knowledge – diving into deep thought, conducting research, and pooling together information.
Stage 2: Incubation is when your mind marinates the prepared ideas. Your conscious mind hits pause while your subconscious takes over, mixing and matching these ideas to birth something new.
Stage 3: Illumination is the much-anticipated Eureka moment – that sudden spark of insight. This burst of creative genius isn’t spontaneous, though; it’s the payoff from the groundwork laid in stages 1 and 2, often a years-long journey.
Stage 4: Verification has you fleshing out those illuminating ideas, implementing them, and broadcasting them to the world.
These stages may seem orderly, but creativity is anything but – expect a roller-coaster ride with plenty of leaps between steps. However, skipping the rigorous journey of learning and ideation means missing out on the illuminating payoff. As Thomas Edison once put it, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” To strike that Eureka moment, it takes a mountain of effort, followed by careful implementation and execution.
Interestingly, each stage of creativity triggers a different cognitive process. Preparation and verification call for linear, logical, methodical “convergent thinking.” Meanwhile, incubation and illumination break open the floodgates for expansive “divergent thinking.” And certain cognitive states can amplify these processes, much like a turbo boost.
Being open and emotionally engaged primes the pump for creativity, helping to generate a waterfall of ideas. But try to dive into creative exploration while anxious or upset, and you’re likely to hit a dry spell.
This is where psychedelics enter stage right. It’s important to note, though, that psychedelic research has been shrouded in stigma since the 1960s, with a breath of fresh air only blowing through in the past decade or so. Most of the exciting discoveries have emerged in just the last few years. The thrill of exploring psychedelics’ impact on leadership is unparalleled! Case in point, Psychedelic Science, the largest psychedelic conference in history, is taking place this week in Denver, CO, hosted by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
Let’s take a look at some of this exciting research.
Brain scientists from Imperial College London and McGill University found that psychedelics could induce a “flexible brain state,” or a state of “unconstrained cognition,” promising a huge boost to creative potential.
In 2021, a group of trailblazing researchers put psilocybin – the active compound in psychedelic mushrooms – under the microscope. Using a robust, double-blind, placebo-controlled design (the gold standard in research), they found psilocybin’s impact on creativity was a mixed bag, depending on the type of creativity gauged. While psilocybin ramped up spontaneous creative insights, it put the brakes on task-based creativity. This intriguing finding ties in neatly with the four-stage model of creativity I mentioned earlier – suggesting psilocybin acts as a catalyst for the incubation and illumination stages (stages 2 and 3) but doesn’t play ball during preparation and verification (stages 1 and 4).
The researchers then took it up a notch, using advanced brain imaging techniques to map out the neural activity associated with psilocybin’s creative influence. They found that connectivity within and between networks of the default mode network (the brain’s daydreaming and self-reflecting hub) predicted the creativity-enhancing effects of psilocybin. The conclusion? Under the influence of psychedelics, rigid thought patterns (convergent thinking) take a backseat, paving the way for unguided, spontaneous thoughts (divergent thinking) to spring forth and shed fresh light on past events and present hurdles.
See the resources below to dig into the research.
It’s exciting to see science finally turning the pages of the centuries-old psychedelic narrative. These tales are woven through cultures, from the ancient Greeks to indigenous tribes, and highlight the impact of psychedelics across diverse realms, such as science, technology, and art.
Consider Kary Mullis, who attributed his groundbreaking discovery of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique fundamental to modern genetics, to his LSD experiences. He once mused, “What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR? I don’t know. I seriously doubt it.”
Or think of Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the personal computing revolution, who didn’t shy away from acknowledging the role of psychedelic experiences in his creative journey.
The recently published book by Dr. Richard Louis Miller, “Psychedelic Wisdom: The Astonishing Rewards of Mind-Altering Substances,” goes a step further. It uncovers the psychedelic transformations of several key players in the psychedelic movement, shining a light on their deeply creative and transformative experiences.
In essence, the dance between psychedelics and creativity isn’t a new tune. It’s a melody that has echoed through time, and science is only now beginning to join the chorus.
Note: Advocacy for Psychedelic Leadership does not constitute an endorsement of illegal drug use. Rather, it acknowledges the profound insights these experiences can yield when responsibly and legally engaged under the supervision of trained professionals. But, the legal framework is changing rapidly.
Disclaimer: Psychedelics are illegal in many regions of the world and carry serious psychological and physical risks. This article neither endorses nor encourages illegal activities or the use of substances without proper medical supervision and a comprehensive understanding of the potential risks involved. Always consult with a healthcare professional.
- Mason, N. L., Kuypers, K. P. C., Reckweg, J. T., Müller, F., Tse, D. H. Y., Da Rios, B., Toennes, S. W., Stiers, P., Feilding, A., & Ramaekers, J. G. (2021). Spontaneous and deliberate creative cognition during and after psilocybin exposure. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 8565. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-021-01335-5
- Girn, M., Mills, C., Roseman, L., Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Christoff, K. (2020). Updating the dynamic framework of thought: Creativity and psychedelics. NeuroImage, 213, 116726. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32160951/
- Carhart-Harris, R. L. et al. The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8 (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3909994/
- Carhart-Harris, R. L. & Friston, K. J. REBUS and the anarchic brain: toward a unified model of the brain action of psychedelics. Pharmacol. Rev. 71, 316–344 (2019). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31221820/
- Carhart-Harris, R. L. et al. The paradoxical psychological effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Psychol. Med. 46, 1379–1390 (2016). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26847689/
- Mason, N. L., Mischler, E., Uthaug, M. V., & Kuypers, K. P. C. (2019). Sub-Acute Effects of Psilocybin on Empathy, Creative Thinking, and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 51(2), 123-134. https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2019.1580804
- Harman, W. W., Mckim, R. H., Mogar, R. E., Fadiman, J., & Stolaroff, M. J. (1966). Psychedelic agents in creative problem-solving: A pilot study. Psychological Reports, 19(1), 211–227. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.19184.108.40.206
- Hartogsohn, I. (2018). The Meaning-Enhancing Properties of Psychedelics and Their Mediator Role in Psychedelic Therapy, Spirituality, and Creativity. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12, 129. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00129
- Baggott, M. J. (2015). Psychedelics and creativity: A review of the quantitative literature. PeerJ PrePrints, 3, e1202v1. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.1202v1