Do creativity and addiction go together like peanut butter and jelly? There is a common perception that people like Amy Winehouse and Ernest Hemingway, who are (or hope to) make a living as actors, writers or musicians, may at some point in their lives, struggle with addiction to either drugs or alcohol.
Most people can think of at least one famous person throughout history who was a “creative” whose life was cut short due to addiction. When these types of events happen, how and when the artist died is often remembered more than the creative work they did during their lifetime.
The tragedy of losing a creative mind too early only continues to foster the assumption that creativity and addiction are connected.
Is There a Link Between Creativity and Addiction?
We know that some people are genetically predisposed to be more creative than others.
The Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a study on 300,000 participants and their families which found that creativity may be inherited. It suggested there could be a “creativity gene” which can be nurtured and developed.
The study was conducted with members from five multigenerational families, as well as 172 people who were unrelated to each other. Study participants were chosen on the basis of their ability to improvise, compose and arrange music. They also needed to be able to judge pitch and timing. The results of the study found there may be a link between a number of genes, creativity and musical ability.
The actual structure of the brain may play a role in creativity as well.
Scientists at Cornell University conducted a study that discovered creative people tend to have a particular anomaly in their brain structure: a smaller corpus callosum. These are the bunch of nerve cells that hold the left and right hemispheres of the brain together.
The scientists explain this difference in brain structure among creatives in this manner: Creative people are known for their ability to think of different solutions, and the smaller level of connectivity between the right and left sides of the brain allows for each side to specialize. As a result, ideas flow more readily, and it is easier for the person to think creatively. This process is called an “incubation of ideas.”
David Shenk, author of the book, The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ, wrote that achievement is the result of “the combined consequence of early exposure, exceptional instruction, constant practice, family nurturance, and a child’s intense will to learn.” He goes on explain that like a recipe or a chemical formula, each of these elements must be present in just the right amounts, or the desired result will not be achieved.
Creative people also often have higher levels of serotonin in their brain.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is found throughout the body, with only a relatively small portion remaining in the brain. It is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means that it does not stimulate the brain. Serotonin regulates mood, carbohydrate cravings, digestion and pain control.
When other neurotransmitters that excite the brain (dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine) are overactive due to stress, caffeine or drug use, serotonin levels can become depleted.
What does it all mean? All of this information indicates that genetics may have a role to play in our creativity levels. Certain people may be more genetically predisposed for creativity than others, but there are many other factors that come into play as well including environment, opportunities available, etc.
Similarly, genetics may also play a role in how likely someone is to fall prey to an addiction. However, there are other factors that must be taken into account as well.
Genetics and Addiction
Addiction is a chronic disease. While the initial decision about whether to start using drugs or alcohol may have been a person’s free choice, once the disease takes hold, the person affected by it is no longer in control of their actions. At that point, they will go into withdrawal if they do not continue taking their drug of choice regularly, and they need help in order to stop.
Genetics account for approximately 40 percent of the equation when it comes to who is likely to become an addict, according to neuroscientist David Linden from Johns Hopkins University. In an interview with Scientific American Magazine, he mentioned the neurotransmitter dopamine and how it is linked with the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.
Linden goes on to state that people who become addicted don’t do so because they are feeling “pleasure strongly.” He says, rather, they are people who are not feeling pleasure and are using substances to try to achieve it. To Linden, the pleasure-seeking, addictive behavior is more of a compulsive risk-taking venture, and it may be a launching point for creativity.
The other 60 percent of the equation for who is at risk for addiction is made up of other factors. Environment plays a role, as does a person’s peer group, accessibility of drugs or alcohol and how well an individual deals with stress.
Stress and Addiction
Unresolved emotional pain and stress is cited as a cause of addiction. Some people turn to substances as a way to self-medicate when they don’t know how to deal with their emotional issues. They may also find that taking a drink or doing drugs makes them feel less anxious in social situations, eases feelings of depression or helps them sleep. Some people fall into addiction to prescription medications for pain — they may be stressed from being in pain and from emotional distress following an accident or a surgical procedure.
If some creative people do not see the world in the same way as their peers, that in itself could be a source of stress. They may be left feeling lonely and isolated, which could explain why some creative people end up having an addiction problem. It does not mean that there is a direct relationship between creativity and addiction.
Amy Winehouse and other Famous Creative People Who Struggled With Addiction
Several artists, actors and musicians have struggled with addiction over the years. Here are a few examples:
- Robert Downey, Jr. has spent time in rehabilitation facilities and jail but has been clean and sober for a number of years.
- Oprah Winfrey has revealed she was dependent on crack cocaine during the early stage of her career. She talked about her drug problem during a 1995 broadcast of her show.
- Fergie went public with how she developed an addiction to ecstasy while with the group, Wild Orchid. The ecstasy addiction turned into one for crystal meth. She has said quitting that drug was the “hardest thing she has ever done.”
- Zac Efron entered a treatment facility in 2013 for alcohol and substance abuse. The exact reason for his stay was not made public, but it was rumored he was addicted to cocaine.
- Actor Cory Monteith had sought help for his addiction to heroin. He died of an overdose in 2013.
- Elton John sought treatment for his cocaine addiction in 1990. He stated in 2012 he believed that if he had not gotten help, he would be dead.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman had been sober for several years. He relapsed in 2014 and died from a mixture of drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
- Steven Tyler gave an interview to Billboard magazine in 2014 where he said he was a drug addict and an alcoholic. He also said he had gotten sober through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Stephen King had an issue with alcohol addiction. His family staged an intervention in the late 1980s, and he has been sober ever since.
- Leonard Nimoy admitted he was an alcoholic and that his drinking became an issue while working on Star Trek. He went to rehab in the late 1980s.
- Ernest Hemingway was an example of a functioning alcoholic. He was able to control his drinking enough so he could stop when he was working. The Nobel-prize winner took his own life on July 2, 1961.
- Playwright Tennessee Williams struggled with an addiction to alcohol and drugs in the 1960s. His brother had him hospitalized for treatment in 1969. Williams died in a New York hotel room in 1983, “surrounded by bottles of wine and pills.”
- Sid Vicious is infamous for having stabbed his girlfriend and manager, Nancy Spungeon, to death with a knife in the early morning of October 12, 1978. Vicious was addicted to barbiturates, heroin and a synthetic type of morphine at the time. He tried to commit suicide after being released on bail. Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose on February 1, 1979 after being released from jail on an unrelated charge.
- In 2006, Amy Winehouse had developed a drug and alcohol problem and was showing up at performances too inebriated to sing. Her management company suggested that she go to rehab to get treatment for her addictions. Winehouse decided to change companies instead.
She overdosed on a combination of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine, whisky and vodka in August 2007 and released a statement that she was working with doctors to deal with her health issues. Her health continued to deteriorate, and Amy Winehouse died from accidental alcohol poisoning on July 13, 2011.
Are Creative People More at Risk for Addiction?
The short answer to this question is no. Creative people tend to have the type of mind that sees several possibilities when looking at a situation or a problem. This “outside-the-box” thinking may make them feel less stressed than someone who is a more rigid thinker.
Less Stress. We do know one of the risk factors for addiction is stress, and people who are looking for ways to zone out or escape for a time are the ones who are most likely to turn to substances. A person with a creative mind, who has a good imagination or who can use their creativity to write, paint, draw or make music, may actually be more adept at managing their stress levels than the person next to them who has not developed these abilities.
Another factor to keep in mind is the type of behavior more likely to be associated with an addiction is that of someone who is a risk-taker. You might associate these actions with someone who is an entrepreneur or a high-ranking executive in a company, rather than someone who is considered a creative person. Picture the person who is looking for the thrill of the “high.”
Addiction is also a disease, and it’s a complicated one. There is a hereditary factor at play which determines who is likely to become an addict, but that is only part of the story. Many factors contribute, and there have been a number of creative people who have become embroiled in its clutches over the years — but so has a host of other people in a variety of demographics.
Addiction has no preferences as to whether you are rich or poor, tall or short, creative or not creative. While there are some factors that increase a particular person’s risk of developing an addiction, it’s possible for anyone to become addicted.
Get Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
The bottom line is if you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction, you need to get help. As a leading drug and alcohol treatment center, JourneyPure Emerald Coast offers inpatient and outpatient treatment. We provide a holistic approach that addresses healing on all levels — physical, mental and spiritual.
A holistic treatment method is the perfect method to address the needs of each individuals specific challenges. The holistic approach has a variety of components so the client does not become bored with the elements within the plan, and each one of the elements is highly effective. Our holistic treatment at JourneyPure Emerald Coast includes the following:
- Art therapy
- Energy healing
- Spiritual counseling
- Diet and nutritional counseling
- Life goals
When a new client comes to us, we take the time to develop a individualized treatment plan based on each person’s goals and objectives. We understand there is no single approach that is going to work best for everyone. For this reason, we feel an individualized method is the best way for our clients to achieve their goal of long-term sobriety.
Contact us today to find out more about our programs for yourself or your loved one.