Dr Iain Smith, a consultant in addiction psychiatry at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow, was speaking at the International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Edinburgh.
He said that while many artists and writers, such as the 19th century French poet Baudelaire and American writer Ernest Hemingway, were well known for their use of intoxicating substances (cannabis and alcohol respectively), most produced their greatest works when they were sober.
Dr Smith said: “The reason that this myth is so powerful is the allure of the substances, and the fact many artists need drugs to cope with their emotions. Artists are, in general, more emotional people and the use of substances to deal with their emotions is more likely to happen.”
He added that drugs and alcohol are social substances and many creative people, such as Ernest Hemingway and the French artist Degas, spent a lot of time in Parisian cafes exchanging ideas and imbibing large quantities of absinthe and other types of alcohol.
Dr Smith said that American writers Tennessee Williams and Hemingway were both addicted to alcohol. He said poets Coleridge and Keats favoured opiates, as did writers Proust and Edgar Allan Poe, while Vincent van Gogh drank absinthe. American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill and William Faulkner were all recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and all were alcoholics.
Dr Smith told the Congress that the American writer Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: “I’d hate to advocate drugs, alcohol or insanity to anyone – but they’ve always worked for me”. Baudelaire also urged fellow poets “to be drunk always”.
But from reviewing the evidence, Dr Smith claims that many of these artists were most productive during times of sobriety. He said: “The idea that drugs and alcohol give artists unique insights and powerful experiences is an illusion. When you try and capture the experiences [triggered by drugs or alcohol], they are often nonsense.”
For example, the strong visual experiences triggered by hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, can be captured on canvas – but this is unlikely to happen in other fields such as music and writing. Dr Smith said: “These drugs often wipe your memory, so it’s hard to remember how you were in that state of mind.”
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International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Edinburgh, 21-24 June 2010.