Gene Expression

Drugs & science & insight

I posted before on Why scientists should do drugs (if they choose), via Tyler Cowen, a Jonah Lehrer article in The New Yorker:

Many stimulants, like caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin, are taken to increase focus — one recent poll found that nearly twenty percent of scientists and researchers regularly took prescription drugs to “enhance concentration” — but, accordingly to Jung-Beeman and Kounios, drugs may actually make insights less like, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity. “There’s a good reason Google puts Ping-Pong tables in their headquarters,” Kounios said. “I you want to encourage insights, then you’ve got to also encourage people to relax.” Jung-Beeman’s latest paper investigates why people who are in a good mood are so much better at solving insight puzzles. (On average, they solve nearly twenty percent more C.R.A. problems.)

In other words, what may make a more efficient engineer may also dampen creativity in a theoretical physicist….


  1. #1 John Emerson
    July 23, 2008

    I recently talked to a friend who had worked in an ancillary way in psych research in a major research university. One of the therapeutic people in the department was a family friend of his, and at some point told he told my friend that as much as half the department had informally admitted to amphetamine use.

    On the other hand, there’s Erdos. Probably speed works best for very formalized disciplines where sheer brain power is the most important thing by far.

    When I see megalomaniacs in goovernment, I often ask if speed is a factor. Rumsfeld seemed like a speed freak to me.

  2. #2 agnostic
    July 23, 2008

    Speed will kill your creativity — that’s why no one thinks much of Erdos (he’s famous for being a weirdo). He was incredibly prolific, but he’s like… oh who’s a good analogy, Woody Allen, maybe?

    Like the article says, once you’ve got an insight, then uppers like caffeine can be useful in helping you pump stuff out — but they won’t provide with stuff to pump out in the first place.

  3. #3 bgc
    July 24, 2008

    Well, there are always trade-offs in life, with psychopharmacology as elsewhere. The question to ask is whether people _overall_ feel/ function better; but there will always be a downside.

    A lot depends on the personality disposition. There is a line of work going back to Pavlov and which was elaborated by Hans Eysenck which suggests that extraverts and introverts (even among dogs) respond differently to the same stimulus/ drug.

    I think it likely that there are some people who are innately ‘dopamine-deficient’ and others (in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease) who function – overall – better when this system is enhanced (which is sometimes difficult to do safely with present technology).

    Having said that, I think that ‘creativity’ is something that happens mainly during sleep, while long-term memories are organizing and elaborating. When we are awake the memories are ‘selected’ for their adaptiveness –

    So, psychostimulants which interfered with sleep would, on this basis, tend to diminish creativity.

  4. #4 Simfish InquilineKea
    July 24, 2008

    Optimally, a scientist would probably know when to use stimulants (e.g. when he realizes that the chances of his making creative insights are below average [relatively speaking] for a period of time) and when not to use them (e.g. when he realizes that the chances of making creative insights are above average [relatively speaking] for a period of time. Of course, these things can’t be predicted with certainty, but perhaps people are fairly good at guessing these things.

  5. #5 asdf
    July 25, 2008

    that’s why no one thinks much of Erdos

    Huh? Erdos is one of the most accomplished mathematicians of the 20th century. He’s a Wolf Prize Winner and made seminal contributions to dozens of areas, including random network theory.

    Until the establishment of the Abel Prize, the Wolf Prize was probably the closest equivalent of a “Nobel Prize in Mathematics”, since the more prestigious Fields Medal was only awarded every 4 years to mathematicians under 40.

  6. #6 John Emerson
    July 26, 2008

    Wiki: Erdős was one of the most prolific publishers of papers in mathematical history, second only to Leonhard Euler; Erdős published more papers, while Euler published more pages (Hoffman 1998)….In terms of mathematical style, Erdős was much more of a “problem solver” than a “theory developer”. (See The Two Cultures of Mathematics [in “Mathematics: Frontiers and Perspectives”, edited by V. I. Arnold, Michael Atiyah, Peter D. Lax and Barry Mazur, American Mathematical Society, 2000] by Timothy Gowers for an in-depth discussion of the two styles, and why problem solvers are perhaps less appreciated.)

    Nonetheless, most of us would be happy to be as mediocre as Erdos.

    Since I started thinking about this I’ve started looking at books I read with amphetamine in mind. There are authors in many fields who produce books which are energatically and ingeniously argued, but which have blind spots which make them seem unreal. Tunnel vision and unawareness of larger contexts seem to be the problem. Their books are often a breeze to read, because they whiz you through so smoothly on the rails of a central idea. And there are other books which you read much more slowly, because the author is always pointing out new aspects of the problem, or difficulties that he could have rushed past.

    In part this is intellectual style, with amphetamine only an abetting factor — though pharmacology makes this style more readily available. Voltaire and Bertrand Russell were naurally speedy — each of them could write a book in a week or less.

    They come from all different fields. One author who confessed to amphetamine reliance was Alan Watts, the New Age writer.

  7. #7 arosko
    July 29, 2008

    I didn’t notice this post on one of my favorite topics–I guess I don’t visit scienceblogs much.

    Anyway, it seems that there is a contradiction (for some people) in the paragraph from the New Yorker above. It is said that stimulants increase concentration, which can dampen creativity. On the other hand, it says that people who are in a good mood solve significantly more insight puzzles. For people like myself, for whom stimulants seem to be the most consistent mood-boosters, these would seem too work against each other.

    In some way, though, I have noticed what they are saying. Stimulants, including caffeine, and also states of excitement that are not chemically induced, for me do by far the most in terms of actually promoting creativity (as opposed to just making me FEEL more inspired, which they seem to do all the time) when I have already thought about a problem for a while, and am close to making an insight.

    Stimulation seems to decrease the threshold for making connections, such that it becomes easier to set off a mental domino effect that makes everything finally make sense. This is partly a cognitive phenomenon, and partly an emotional one–a state of stimulation makes the “click” of discovery much more rewarding, hence when I get close to an insight, I am sucked into it like a black hole.

    On the other hand, substances with nearly the opposite effect (e.g. THC) appear to facilitate brainstorming, but at an expense of intellectual (or even other) reward and enthusiasm. Random ideas are generated as if pulled out of a hat, but there is neither the drive nor the ability to make them fit together into anything.

    I have a feeling that potheads may beg to differ, though…

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