The Creative Process and the Psychedelic Experience
Frank Barron, Ph.D.
Explorations magazine, Berkeley California, June-July 1965
COMPARISONS BETWEEN the psychedelic experience and the findings
of creativity research were discussed by Frank Barron, Ph. D.,
in a lecture presented May 9, 1964 as part of a symposium entitled
"LSD: Basic Problems and Potentialities" held at San
Jose State College.
Dr. Barron is Research Psychologist at the University of California
Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (Berkeley) and
author of Creativity and Psychological Health. Describing
the work done by himself and his colleagues on creativity, Dr.
"We began with the approach that creativity is probably a
general process throughout all nature and that psychic creativity
is a special instance of it. We looked for persons who manifested
creativity to a high degreebut not with the idea that they
alone possessed this attribute. On the contrary, it seems evident
that the creative process is inherent in everyone. We participate
in it simply by thinking. And any time we think a thought which
is new for usor have a feeling which is new for usthe process
that's happening within us is probably the same as whatever occurs
when highly creative people produce strikingly novel or powerful
"So we decided to ask people in different fields to tell
us who were the individuals in that field who were highly original,
or highly creative, who had produced work which other people had
recognized as having these qualities. We gatheredfrom a variety
of fields, such as mathematics, the physical sciences, architecture,
and creative writinga large group of individuals who were outstanding
in this regard, and we compared them with individuals from the
same fields who did not possess those attributes in the same degreethe
idea being that if we could find differences between these two
groups, we might get an inkling of what the underlying process
"Our first finding, which was surprising to many of us, was
that creativityas thus definedhad not very much relationship
with conventional IQintelligence as measured by intelligence
"The thing that was important was something that might
be called a cosmological commitment. It was a powerful motive
to create meaning and to leave a testament of the meaning which
that individual found in the world, and in himself in relation
to the world. This motive emerged in many ways, but we came across
it over and over again when we compared highly creative individuals
with those of equal intellectual ability as measured by the IQ
tests, but of less actual creative ability. The intense motivation
having to do with this making of meaningor finding meaning
and communicating it in one form or anotherwas the most important
difference between our criterion and control groups.
"The second differencewhich was so marked that we began
doubting our statisticswas the emphasis on intuition which
was present in the creative subjects.
"We used one test, based on the Jungian typology, which classified
individuals in terms of extroversion-introversion, thinking-feeling,
sensing-intuiting, and so on.
"If this test is given to subjects drawn from the general
population, only about 20% will be classified as intuitive. We
found, however, that 90% of our creative subjects were intuitive.
"There was also some tendency for them to be introverted
rather than extroverted. This wasn't marked, but it was still
very definite. So our finding was that intuition, linked with
some degree of introversion, was related to creativity.
"We also found marked differences in the preference of creative
individuals for rather complex phenomenal displaysall the way
from art products to problems that prove challenging. This seemed
to be linked to an effort to make the most complex possible synthesis
in the finding of meaning and the communicating of it. In other
words, our creative subjects were not challenged by what was very
simple; instead, they sought to find a way to take something quite
complex and, in it, find a simple order. This is something like
the definition of elegance in mathematical explanation. Mathematicians
say an explanation is most elegant when, with a minimum of postulates,
it can embrace a maximum of implications. And the same applies
to a scientific theory. And the same, I think, probably applies
to a work of art. So that frequently the final product or explanation
is amazingly simple but is based on an extremely complex substrate
of empirical or individual observations.
"Another finding came f r o m one of the tests we administered
which was a commonly used psychiatric diagnostic instrument. Fairly
much across all samples, the creative individuals were more troubled
psychologically as measured by that test. In one sample, the creative
subjects were placed close to the top 5% of the general population
in schizoid tendencies. Of course, it wasn't true schizophrenia;
it was something that was involved in whatever that scale was
"Now, this particular scale that measures schizophrenia is
very highly negatively correlated with another scale which measures
strength of the ego. This negative correlation appears when the
test is given to subjects drawn from the general population.
"But among our creative subjects we found persons with quite
high ego strength who also had elevations on the scale that indicated
psychological problems. In other words, they admitted to much
more inner turmoil or psychological imbalance than the general
population, while at the same time having greater strength of
"Another marked difference was the exceptional independence
of judgment displayed by our creative subjects when they were
placed in a situation where they were under pressure to conform
to a false consensus. We set up an experiment so that the subject
thought that other people held a certain opinionan opinion
which in fact was in error. Under these circumstances the creative
subjects maintained their independence and expressed the correct
opinion, rejecting the consensus.
"In one of our experiments, the subjectsa group of creative
writerswere asked to judge which of two circles was the larger.
The circles were of identical area. Under control conditions,
where there is no attempt by the experimenter to influence opinion,
people split 50-50 on it, as might be expected. When the experimenter
introduces a false consensus, about 75% of ordinary subjects will
agree with the false consensus. When we tried to establish this
false consensus among the creative writersthat the circle on
the left was the larger82% of them said the circle on the right
"There were two other attributes which were more subtle and
for which we have no supporting experimental evidence of the kind
stated above. We had the impression that our creative subjects
had more adventurousness and, perhaps, more courage to commit
themselves at some point which was important in their lives. At
some point they made a decision, often at some cost to themselves,
but which, in existential terms, was the authentic thing for them
"We also had the impression that creative individuals were
able to entertain many opposites in psychic life simultaneouslyopposites
which, for most people, entailed the sacrifice of one to the other.
I have in mind such common antitheses as discipline and freedom.
We found creative people to be highly disciplined, yet quite free,
so that the freedom was not the sort based upon simply a wholesale
rejection of pedantic authority, for example, without a corresponding
ability to do just as well as the pedantic authority at its own
"Other dichotomies, too, such as masculine and feminine,
were able to be combined by the creative subjects. For example,
creative m e n sometimes exhibit a sublimated femininity which
is combined with a strong tendency towards a sort of seminal cognitive
activity. When these are integrated in one personality, the individual
could almost be described as 'procreative'self-fecundating,
Turning to the phenomena observed in the psychedelic experience,
Dr. Barron said:
"I think there's an increase in complexity and openness,
simply as a result of the perception of a wider range of stimuli
in quite common sensory modalities. Here I'm thinking of such
things as increased vividness of color, enhanced perception of
detail, greater acuteness in listening to music. A number of 'perceptual
constancies' are upset or altered.
"Upsetting such adaptive perceptual habits is not always
a good thing, of course; at times it may produce undesirable psychological
imbalance, and for this reason the psychedelic drugs must be used
with caution. It is advisable always to have a skilled psychotherapist
present and a physician on call.
"As you know, the human being is a walking bundle of adaptations
and repressions, most of them necessary and effective. The only
way we can exist is not to think about a lot of things. For example,
we repress perceptions of the functioning of our own body most
of the time. This kind of thing is an adaptive perceptual constancy
which serves to maintain an integral self-image.
"In the course of the psychedelic experience, a number of
these constancies are temporarily abrogated. And these constancies
are the stuff of which the ego is made, so that in a technical
sense the psychedelic experience is at first ego-enervating.
"The interesting thing about this is that the e g o then
re-integrates, and it may do so in a more complex fashion by virtue
of having had these ordinarily repressed or excluded experiences.
So one might expect an increase in complexity in an individual
who has had such an experience.
"In the course of trying to express what this perception
involvesin trying to sum it upone becomes aware that there's
a great deal more to one's own nature than one had previously
thought. The phrase I came up with to describe the relationship
of the egothe individual selfto the total human potentiality
which is inherent in our nature was this: 'In that vast room,
we build the tiny hut of self.'
"I was seeking to express the fact that the self is a construction
and it's a construction within a much greater area of potentiality.
And sometimes it's unnecessarily tiny.
"The second thing I would like to discuss is the increase
in intuition that occurs in the psychedelic experiencesometimes
a frightening increase. This hasn't been mentioned by many psychotherapists
so far, but I think probably they've all had the experience that
if they aren't acting straightforwardly with a patient who has
taken a psychedelic drug, he'll pick that up immediately.
"There's a tremendous increase in that sort of intuition
as well as in intuition in being able to look at something as
it is now and see in it those immanent forces which will make
it something different in the futureand also in perceiving
what that future might be. There's a sort of cutting through conventional
posturesincluding one's own.
"A final pointwhich refers to motivation in terms of cosmological
commitment: I think that as a result of the psychedelic experience
there's a heightened sense of the drama of life, including its
brevity, and a realization both of the importance of one's individual
life and of the fact that a sacred task has been given to the
individual in the development of the self.
"As a result of this, there's a dropping away of many superficial
motivations. This can be very distressing to people close to the
individual if they themselves have not also had the psychedelic
experience. We all count on other people to have at least some
superficial motivations. If they don't, we must relate to them
in a new way.
"Following this dropping away of the superficial, there may
be a period when things are just too trifling to bother abouta
kind of loftiness developsbut in the best cases, what eventually
happens is a sort of return to the ordinarybut seeing it in
its place without being prepossessed by it."