LSD activates symbolic thinking in creativity, says Unicamp


Look at the two pairs of drawings below. At the top are two figures created under the effect of LSD in an experiment at Unicamp, from a few lines offered for stimulation, such as two vertices, , for example. Below are the ones that the same participant produced after receiving a placebo (without knowing what, each time).

A conventional notion of creativity, which valued the aesthetic aspect, might indicate the inferior pair as a better result. This judgment would be in contradiction, therefore, with the idea that lysergic acid makes people more artistic.

But everything is right there, in the drawings below, literally inside the box: figurative strokes, referential colors (even in the somewhat clumsy attempt to innovate with an unknown marine organism) such as blue water and sky, descriptive and somewhat obvious titles such as “Chinese Landscape with Lakes and Rice Fields”.

In the pair above, the drawings already escape the four lines. Colors gain arbitrary use, the high school effort gives way to the comic vein, lines lean towards the geometric, the “descriptions” in the titles keep an open, ambiguous relationship, between enigmatic and ironic, with the graphics: “The Meaning of Blue”, ” Improbable traffic light”.

This is the biggest novelty of the exhaustive analysis of creativity under LSD undertaken by Luís Fernando Tófoli’s group at Unicamp: a derivation towards symbolic and abstract aspects of creative thinking under the acute effect of LSD. A result that is somewhat counter-intuitive, since in common sense the lysergic journey is usually associated less with symbols and abstractions and more with random, ineffable sensory explosions, difficult to put into words.

The article that appears now in the Journal of Psychopharmacology under the title “LSD and Creativity” is the third of the four that the German psychologist Isabel Wießner wrote as a result of her doctoral thesis, which she must defend in the coming months. The two papers published earlier were reported here (about “psychotic” components of the lysergic journey) and here (about the therapeutic window opened up by the drug).

The authors summarize their findings on creativity and LSD along three broad lines: 1) “pattern breaking”, which is reflected in increased novelty, surprise, originality and semantic distances; 2) diminished “organization”, reflected in reduced utility, convergent thinking and, marginally, elaboration; 3) “meaning”, with reflections such as symbolic thinking and ambiguity increased in the results obtained from the data analysis.

The trio of articles derives from the same study with 24 healthy volunteers who participated in two experimental sessions. In one of the meetings, the person was given 50 micrograms of LSD, and in the other, an innocuous solution. Wießner and psychiatrist Marcelo Falchi, present in the room with the volunteers for more than ten hours, also did not know whether it was a placebo or a psychedelic day.

The volunteers then answered verbal questions, scored the intensity of the mental changes experienced on scales and performed tests on a computer. For the analysis of creativity components, a battery with five types of tests was used.

One task involved coming up with creative interpretations for an abstract pattern of lines. Another asked to imagine alternative uses for everyday objects — such as a pencil (scratching your head, playing the drums, measuring a table, etc.) or a knife (separating nonsense from the important, and so on).

Participants were also asked to propose as many unusual associations as possible between dozens of figures grouped in 17 successive boards and to create a dozen poetic metaphors. Finally, they needed to make drawings from a few simple strokes, giving them creative titles (this last exercise is what resulted in the figures above).

The scores of each test, when they involved interpretation, were given by two independent trained evaluators. Statistical comparisons between assessments indicated a degree of consistency between excellent and moderate, with rare exceptions.

The multiplicity of quantitative tests, as well as the control allowed by the use of placebo, intended to remedy some deficiencies present in studies on lysergic creativity carried out since the 1950s/60s and allow comparisons with the few carried out with greater rigor in recent years. For Wießner, it is one of the most complete and systematic studies on the effect of LSD on creative ability.

“The most complete is certainly the long-term study of Oscar Janiger in the 50s/60s, which followed repeated LSD sessions with more than a thousand people over several years, including a group of artists who produced hundreds of analyzed drawings”, says the psychologist. “However, the results of this giant project were mostly reported anecdotally or subjectively, or had problems such as lack of [controle com] placebo.”

That is why the Unicamp group brought together a variety of established techniques (divergent thinking, a measure related, but not identical, to creativity) and others based on qualitative exploration of data (assessing novelty and usefulness, criteria for the definition of creativity) or on tools contemporary computing (semantic language analysis). It was with this variety of instruments that the finding on symbolic thought was arrived at.

Wießner draws attention, however, to an important component of creativity under LSD: disorganization. Greater flexibility of thought, which produces unexpected associations, seems to be correlated with a diminished ability to assess the outcome and work to improve it. It can be useful to generate new forms, not necessarily to organize them into a work that remains useful and understandable to others.

The most famous case of a useful flash thanks to LSD was the invention of the method of amplifying DNA samples known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction, better known today for its use in Covid tests) by Kary Mullis, which won him an Award Nobel Prize in 1993. But insight is not enough to make the process work, it has to be developed and put into practice by adding controls and supporting tests.

In other words, the transient psychic disorganization provided by acid can be beneficial for creative performance, but it doesn’t get very far without the systematic reconstruction that only the method can provide. What’s good for an improv session in music, like a jam session, doesn’t help much when studying music, ponders Wießner.

Psychedelics like LSD are now experiencing a renaissance for science and psychiatry thanks to their potential clinical use in disorders such as resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapeutic effect seems to be directly associated with this openness to novelty, to break the excess mental rigidity that leads to the rumination of negative thoughts.

Drawing a bold parallel, escaping rigidity was also what allowed Isabel Wießner to make a leap in her career after she decided to move to Brazil. Married to German musician Raphael Egel and mother of an 8-year-old boy, the former fencing and paragliding practitioner needed a paid research position after her master’s degree at the University of Jena, on hypnosis and brain waves.

The first invitations came from London and Prague, but the vacancies did not include scholarships. Already determined to study psychedelics, she received a doctoral proposal from Tófoli with a scholarship in Brazil, crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction to that of so many Brazilian talents heading to Europe.

When making the decision, it was almost unthinkable to undertake research on LSD in Germany (the scenario is different today, clinical trials are already starting there after the psychotherapeutic promise has become palpable). Her boss told her reproachfully, when she was still working as a research assistant in a work biopsychology group focused on the effects of stress, that she would hit a dead end.

Wießner already knew Brazil from previous trips and spoke Portuguese. He said he loved the climate, nature and culture. He also got along well with the contrast between Brazilian and German behavior in the face of difficulties:

“Here I experienced enormous flexibility. When the processes don’t work out, I can talk and arrange, not only with colleagues, but also with people higher up in the hierarchy and with the administration institutions – something impossible in Germany”.

“The big problem with that”, points out the German, “is that you can’t trust that things will be done. But when you use this flexibility in a smart way, you can achieve extraordinary things, and that’s the magic of Brazil – -when we strive in the right way, wonder happens.”

Since then, research on psychedelics has only exploded. There are more than a hundred clinical trials underway with psilocybin, MDMA, DMT and LSD. One of them takes place in Berlin and Mannheim, on the use of psilocybin for depression, with 150 volunteers.

The psychologist’s vocation, however, is in fundamental science, not clinical trials. “I love doing basic research, with healthy participants, to look in the most neutral and objective way possible at the effects of these substances on our perception, our cognition and our behavior”, he emphasizes.

“I believe that research of this type is critical, especially now that we are still at the beginning and we know very little. A deep and systematic foundation is critical to build on and better understand potential applications in the clinic, with vulnerable groups.”

Faced with the boss’s negative reaction to the plan a few years ago, Wießner thought about saying that the woman had no idea what was going on, but she shut up. “Today we are seeing investments and absurd bets from companies that want to win a piece of the pie [psicodélico]. This area is very popular and extremely trendy. I feel I have an advantage because I’m already advanced with a ‘Doctorate in LSD’.”

To learn more about the history and new developments of science in this area, including in Brazil, look for my book “Psiconautas – Travels with Brazilian Psychedelic Science”

Source: Folha

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