Recreational drug use is not generally regarded as a benchmark of intelligence; but maybe it should be. In addition to your everyday intellectuals, many notable, brilliant minds in science and technology have experimented with all sorts of illicit drugs – from marijuana to psychedelics, and even amphetamines. But what is the reason behind this? Do drugs breed intelligence, or are already intelligent people more likely to use drugs? Let’s dive deeper into this phenomenon, as well as explore a short list of famous geniuses who were very open about their love of psychoactive substances.
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Drugs and the mind
According to a 1970 British Cohort Study that reviewed data on nearly 8,000 people, there is a link (however indirect) between intelligence and recreational drug use. Verbatim, the results of their research stated that: “High childhood IQ may increase the risk of illegal drug use in adolescence and adulthood”. To reach this conclusion, the sample population had their intelligence quotient (IQ) tested at ages 5 and 10, then again at ages 16, and once more at 30.
As per the results, the individuals with the highest IQ scores were more likely to use cannabis, cocaine and other stimulants, alcohol, psychedelics, ecstasy, or a combination of some or all of the above. This was especially true for female participants. When it came to women, those with IQ scores in the top 33% were more than twice as likely to have tried various drugs than those in the bottom 33%. Other studies over the years echoed these results, like this one from 2009.
In addition to an obvious correlation between intelligence and drug experimentation, other studies have found that drugs and creativity are also connected. Creativity is often thought of as artistic only, but inventive and scientific innovation also falls under the umbrella of creativity; and one of the bedrocks of creativity is divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is a key factor in the ability to take creative thoughts and apply them practically, outside the mind. A handful of studies (although each of them small), paired with decades of anecdotal evidence, suggest that numerous different drugs can improve divergent thinking such as cannabis, LSD, ayahuasca, psilocybin, and cocaine.
The next logical question, is whether there is a connection between intelligence and creativity, since both have a link to higher risk of drug use. The answer: yes, but only to a certain degree. Psychologist J.P. Guilford mentions that, “A high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, personality traits that promote divergent thinking are more important. Divergent thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.”
The general consensus is that IQ and creativity correlate positively up to a score of around 120, after which point that seems to level out. Meaning, a person with an IQ of 110 might be more creative than someone with an IQ of 90, whereas a person with an IQ of 130 or above would likely exhibit similar levels of creativity to someone with a slightly lower IQ, in the 110-120 range. As a hypothesis, I would suggest that those with higher IQs tend to see more possibilities, therefore increasing their odds of producing something original and useful (i.e., creative). But people with extremely high and genius level IQs are often thinking more analytically (convergent thinking).
The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis
There aren’t too many theories as to why this is, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the Savanna-IQ interaction hypothesis. Savanah-IQ was introduced by psychologist and writer, Satoshi Kanazawa. His ideas are based on natural evolutionary adaptations. All life evolves to become better adapted to certain environments, this is true in humans and animals and it’s what has helped us not only survive, but thrive, for thousands of years.
The Savanna hypothesis maintains that intelligence evolved as an adaptation to solve new and unfamiliar issues related to survival. While this is still incredibly beneficial to us, we don’t need to use our problem-solving skills in the same way our ancestors did. This leaves the people with higher intelligence and creativity with a need to generate their own novel intellectual and sensory experiences, and one of the easiest ways to do this is with drugs.
According to Kanazawa, “Humans who leave their ‘savanna’ – or their natural environment, would be both intelligent and inclined to try new things, like alcohol and drugs. This link and hypothesis would be the reason why intelligent people do drugs; the mere fact that drugs are unhealthy would be less relevant than the fact that drugs are a more novel scenario for which we have a hard-wired response to want to try.”
LSD and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double-helix DNA structure
Francis Crick (along with James Watson) was responsible for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953; and he claims to have made this discovery while under the influence of LSD. He told numerous friends and colleagues about his experimentation with psychedelics, and said that during one trip he spent hours working to “determine the molecular structure that houses all of life’s information.”
During a 2004 Daily Mail interview between Gerrod Harker and Dick Kemp, a close friend of Crick’s, Kemp mentioned that many of Cambridge University’s researchers at the time were using “small doses” of LSD as a “thinking tool”. He also stated that he is one of the friends Crick confided in about his double-helix discovery while using the drug.
Thomas Edison and his cocaine elixirs
Edison is best known for his inventions in fields such as electric power generation, mass communication, sound recording, and motion pictures. Less known is the fact that he enjoyed nightly cocaine elixirs to help him unwind. Now, let’s backtrack a little bit. In 1863, French chemist Angelo Mariani invented a drink that he aptly named “Vin Mariani”. The drink consisted of a Bordeaux wine infused with coca leaves. The ethanol from the wine would extract cocaine from the leaves in concentrations of roughly 7 mg per fluid ounce.
Edison, who, aside from being a prolific inventor, was also a notorious insomniac – claiming to sleep no more than 4 hours per night. Knowing that he consumed Vin Mariani on a regular basis, it’s not hard to see why he suffered from lack of sleep. Edison claims the cocaine wine gave him energy and helped him focus.
Therapeutics and cocaine, Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies in the psyche through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Freud used cocaine regularly, and not just for recreational aims – he believed it was a legitimate miracle drug that could be used for many things.
In a letter he wrote to his then-fiancee Martha, Freud stated: “If all goes well, I will write an essay [on cocaine] and I expect it will win its place in therapeutics by the side of morphine and superior to it … I take very small doses of it regularly against depression and against indigestion and with the most brilliant of success.”
And he went on to do just that. In 1884, he published a review titled “Uber Coca”, which suggested the used of cocaine as a drug substitute in therapeutic treatment for morphine addicts. While now know that methodology can be problematic, his ideas of drug substitution therapies are still used to this day.
Paul Erdös: Mathematics and amphetamines
Erdös, who was born in Hungary, was perhaps one of the most well-known mathematicians who ever lived. He had a reputation for being a hyperactive insomniac who worked 19-hour days and would show up unannounced at his friends’ and colleagues’ doorsteps telling them to “open their minds” to mathematical concepts.
According to him, the secret to his success was amphetamines, which he claims to have used on a regular basis. Nothing really explains his relationship with drugs better than the following excerpt from a book published in 1998 by Erdös’ biographer, science writer Paul Hoffman, titled “The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth”
“Like all of Erdös’s friends, [fellow mathematician Ronald Graham] was concerned about his drug-taking. In 1979, Graham bet Erdös $500 that he couldn’t stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdös accepted the challenge, and went cold turkey for thirty days. After Graham paid up — and wrote the $500 off as a business expense — Erdös said, ‘You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.’ He promptly resumed taking pills, and mathematics was the better for it.”
Carl Sagan on cannabis, creativity, and space
Carl Sagan – astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator – was also a somewhat well-known proponent of cannabis use. He claimed that he smoked it regularly and that it helped substantially in his intellectual endeavors. He even contributed to an essay that was published in the 1971 book “Marijuana Reconsidered” in which he highlighted some of cannabis’ many attributes under the pseudonym, Mr. X.
In his essay, Sagan wrote: “[T]he illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
LSD was a “big deal” for Steve Jobs
On numerous different occasions, Steve Jobs has mentioned how significant LSD was to him. As a matter of fact, he claims that experimenting with LSD in the 1960s was one of the “two or three most important things he has done in his life”. Interestingly, he added that he often kept these experiences to himself because he feared that many of his friends, who weren’t experienced with psychedelics, simply would not understand.
This sentiment is highlighted in his recent biography, in which Jobs even claims that Bill Gates’ lack of imagination is likely due to not having experimented with psychedelics. “Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas,” Jobs says about Gates. “He’d be a broader guy, if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”
The connection between drugs and intelligence is still poorly understand, but one thing is proving relatively consistent: intelligent people are more likely to experiment with recreational drugs than those with below average intelligence. In addition to the people on this list, plenty of other well-known thinkers are reported to have used drugs throughout their lives and careers including Kary Mullis, Richard Feynman, and Albert Einstein (although I could not find any solid sources to back up the latter).
It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason for this, and there could be many, but overall it seems related to the fact that intelligent individuals tend to get restless with mundane, day-to-day situations. The yearning for new and unorthodox experiences is very human, and one of the most convenient (and honestly, one of the safest, if done correctly… big “if” there) ways to do this is by experimenting with drugs.
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