Smoking and creativity: a few data points

Bruce Charlton recently posted on a possible link between smoking and creative accomplishment. In the comments, Dennis Mangan said that nicotine seemed especially helpful for writers and even asked, “Has there ever been a great writer who wasn’t a smoker?” Out of curiosity, I decided to check.

I took out Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, looked at the highest-ranking writers in his roster of significant figures in Western literature — those with a score of at least 25 on a scale from 1 (Joyce Cary, DuBose Heyward, and others of like stature) to 100 (Shakespeare) — and tried to find out who smoked and who didn’t. I had originally planned to check a larger number of writers, but sleuthing out the smoking habits of historical figures quickly becomes tedious. For whatever it’s worth, here’s what I found. If you have additional information about the smoking habits of any of these people, please leave a comment.

Smokers

  • Molière: “No matter what Aristotle and the Philosophers say, nothing is equal to tobacco; it’s the passion of the well-bred, and he who lives without tobacco lives a life not worth living.”
  • Lord Byron: “Sublime tobacco! which from east to west / Cheers the tar’s labor or the Turkman’s rest. / Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe / When tipp’d with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe; / Like other charmers, wooing the caress / More dazzlingly when daring in full dress; / Yet thy true lovers more admire by far / Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!”
  • Dostoevsky: a heavy smoker, rolled his own cigarettes
  • Schiller
  • Sir Walter Scott
  • T. S. Eliot: died of emphysema reportedly brought on by his heavy smoking
  • Milton: smoked a pipe every night before going to bed
  • Baudelaire
  • Pushkin: an occasional social smoker
  • Dickens
  • Keats

Smokers who quit

  • Tolstoy
  • Émile Zola: “Perfection is such a nuisance that I often regret having cured myself of using tobacco.”

Non-smokers by choice

These people lived at a time when tobacco was available but did not use it.

  • Goethe: “Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison. These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and [cross].”
  • Rousseau
  • Voltaire
  • Victor Hugo: hated smoking, refused to allow anyone to smoke around him

Non-smokers of necessity

These people lived and died before tobacco had been introduced into the Old World.

  • Dante
  • Virgil
  • Homer
  • Petrarch
  • Boccaccio
  • Euripides
  • Horace
  • Cicero
  • Ovid
  • Aeschylus
  • Sophocles

Unknown

I’ve been unable to find any definite information on these people’s smoking habits.

  • Shakespeare: never mentions tobacco in his writing, but that doesn’t prove anything
  • Jean Racine
  • Ibsen
  • Balzac
  • James Joyce
  • Cervantes
  • Gogol
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Rilke: a biography mentions that he at first considered tobacco smoke “vile” but later got used to the smell; implies that he was a non-smoker, though I suppose he may have taken up the habit later
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
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28 Comments

Filed under Drugs, Literature, Statistics

28 responses to “Smoking and creativity: a few data points

  1. Thanks for doing this. I’m not sure what to make of it, however!

    I suppose what would be helpful is a series of n=1 (on-off-on-off) studies – although the addictiveness of tobacco would no doubt be a problem (people are unlikely to be creative when suffering withdrawal symptoms).

    My guess at the role of tobacco would be that it is almost the opposite of alcohol – alcohol would increase associative (dreamlike) creativity, tobacco would increase alertness and the ability to focus and get work done. (Of course, a combination of these effects might well be helpful).

    The implication could be that tobacco would help a too-creative (too chaotically creative) person to focus, organize and get the worlk done.

    So tobacco could be valuable for a fluent ‘creative volcano’ type of person (Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Dickens)

    But if a person was *not* naturally highly creative (like TS Eliot, say) then tobacco might well tend further to diminish their creativity – especially when they did not drink alcohol.

    It would also be interesting to look at tea and coffee in the same way – since they would be expected to work more like tobacco (stimulants).

    Some writers have been heroic tea drinkers! CS Lewis, for example and Sam Johnson – similar characters in many ways; and both primarily productive intellectuals who not not especially creative or poetic.

    • I concur with this analysis.

      Tobacco acts as a filter for the raging nature of a mind with abundant energy. However, I disagree that it does not induce a dream-like state.

      Alcohol, as a depressant, is probably best for those who have trouble getting to the core of what they’re trying to write about. It distills (no pun intended) thoughts down to the bare minimum by removal.

      Tobacco on the other hand appears to stimulate thought enough to bring the rest of the mind up to parity with the overexcited section.

      THC is like a distortion pedal; it increases everything beyond thresholds, and so only the overlap seems to come through, like harmonics in distortion. This is why it’s popular with musicians but less so with writers, I’d wager.

  2. When I have the time, I’d like to collect similar information for other drugs — particularly alcohol and caffeine, but also opium, cocaine, etc. — and see if any interesting patterns emerge. It might also be worthwhile to look at artists and musicians as well as writers.

    Voltaire, though a non-smoker, was a truly prodigious coffee drinker — reportedly drinking four to six dozen cups of the stuff every day — and, like the tea-drinkers you cite, he was not a particularly creative person.

  3. If you do decide to try this – before you do so it would be worth setting out the ‘prior’ hypotheses.

    Mine would be that dopaminergic stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, amphetamine, cocaine) would be related to productivity and order.

    Intoxicants like alcohol and opium would be related to primary creativity – the trance states, visions, dreams that provide the primary material upon which intelligence and reason can do their work.

    Another aspect is that drug use may be compensatory, pushing against the natural disposition – a naturally moderately creative person may seek to enhance primary creativity with intoxicants; while a highly creative person might try to boost their organization mplishment and productivity with stimulants.

    And, of course, the person may (often does) become addicted and ill, and wreck their creative intelligence temporarily or permanently ; so the response may be phasic – first enhancement then decline.

    Then there are between-person variations in drug responsiveness…

    Altogether a complicated matter!

    But suppose that a primarily create person like Dylan Thomas had, instead of becoming a hopelessly disorganized alcoholic (almost deliberately, from a childish notion of how poets ‘ought’ to behave) had instead stopped drinking alcohol and focused himself with stimulants. I think he would perhaps have been a better and more productive writer! – probably in prose (what little he did do in prose is often marvellous stuff).

  4. Suzanna Russeau

    My father did the very first oxygen uptake tests on smokers at Oregon State to test the effects of long term smoking on lung capacity at low exercise levels for his disertation. It was 1968, My sisters and I; 11, 9 and 6 years old, will never forget to this day, (And it has been a few!) watching all of those poor people gasping for every single breath as they tried to run–it wasn’t even a block. Not one of us who watched this ever smoked or drank. We are all pretty creative, educated–thank-you Dr. Johnson. Best education you cound ever give your kids.

  5. Suzanna, there’s no doubt that smoking is very bad for the lungs, but what I’m interested in here is its effect on the brain. I certainly have no intention of inhaling toxic smoke in hopes of boosting my creativity, nor am I suggesting that others do so. If nicotine is good for creativity — and that has hardly been demonstrated — there are, as Dr. Charlton mentions, plenty of ways nowadays to get nicotine without actually smoking.

    *

    Bruce, I’ve been thinking about how to make these data more useful, and I’ve decided that instead of looking at only the very most accomplished writers in the whole history of Western literature, I should choose a narrower population (say, 19th-century Englishmen) and consider the minor writers from that period as well as the major. This should reduce the number of confounding variables (knowing that Dostoevsky smoked but Ovid did not is useless, since there are so many other glaring differences between the two men and their worlds), and the minor writers can serve as a control group of sorts. This same basic framework can be used to study other aspects of how highly-creative people live (other drugs, marriage, religious practice, etc.).

    Your hypotheses about intoxicants and stimulants affecting primary creativity and productivity, respectively, are interesting, but, at least where historical figures are concerned, it’s awfully hard to measure those things with any degree of objectivity. I’ve read little Pushkin and no Chernyshevsky, but Mr. Murray’s data allow me to say with some confidence that the former was a more accomplished writer. If you asked me to estimate which of the two was more “productive” or “visionary,” though, I’d be at a loss; even for writers whose life and work I know intimately, it would still be a judgment call. I suppose productivity could be measured by volume — number of words published per year — but what about primary creativity?

  6. Bruce Charlton

    WmJas – I was sent this link today

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3642112/Is-this-the-end-of-English-literature.html

    The author (AN Wilson) is extremely knowledgeable about the sweep of English Literature (although I find him a very dislike-able person!) – so his views carry some authority.

    About creativity etc. Of course, at best, nicotine could only enhance that which was already there, perhaps turning a very good writer into a great one.

    My conceptualization of creativity is in terms of process, rather than achievement. To discover this it would be necessary to understand something of the working methods of a writer.

    Writers who kept regular hours and worked long hours around the calendar are less likely to be creative, in this sense – people like Anthony Trollope, Bernard Shaw or indeed CS Lewis had this kind of machine-like ‘churning it out’ productivity which is not characteristic of primary creativity (of course, they could be creative in flashes, but it is not characteristic).

    Primary creativity goes with Eysenck’s ‘psychoticism’ – if you want to know about it (and it is a slippery concept, easily misunderstood) then you might read the Eysenck Refs given here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoticism (but the Wki article is no use really).

    A primary creative writer would write – I think – in a trance-like state of altered consciousness, carried away in the process. They would try to achieve this state before they wrote (by learning how they work best, trying self manipulation by exposing themselves to dreaming, alcohol, drugs, particular places and people), would engineer their lives around their writing (rather than fitting their writing into their lives). They would be concerned by matters such as inspiration, imagination etc (Coleridge springs to mind – and many of the Romantics).

    Indeed, the distinction could roughly be conceptualized in terms of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian split, Classical and Romantic etc – but in terms of psychological disposition and methods rather than the final product or output.

  7. Claire Taylor-Shepherd

    This chimes with me, but the only support I can lend your hypothesis is anecdotal.
    I used to find writing easy, and would have no trouble with knocking out a short story (say 3000 words) in an afternoon- so I tended to leave everything until the deadline. This was because when I wrote, I clicked in to a different sort of consciousness (if that makes sense to you) during which I could see the story happening, or the characters would tell me their story in my head. All I had to do was type it as it was happening. My habot was to smoke one cigarette before I began, have one half way through, and one when I finished by way of reward; each was accompanied by a cup of strong coffee. I did not smoke at other times.
    I gave up smoking altogether 18 months ago. Now I’m lucky to squeeze out 300 words in a day. A good day is one where I manage 1000. And quite honestly, my writing now is forced and lifeless. The characters don’t speak to me any more. None of my work during this time is good enough for publication, and most of it isn’t even worth keeping. I’ve been seriously considering taking up smoking again, as I assumed I’d made a psychological link between the acts of smoking and writing, but your suggestion that it could be linked to the effects of nicotine on the brain is helping me to stay off the tobacco a little longer… maybe I’ll try patches instead. Thanks!

  8. Bruce Charlton

    @C T-S – I’d be very interested to hear of your experience with nicotine patches.

    I predict that they will work better than smoking because of fewer side-effects from rapid rise and excessive peak levels that you get with smoking. Patches therefore ought to provide the drive and focus of smoking, but without the elements of acute euphoria/ dizziness.

    You might need to experiment with dosages – and also to recognize that patches take about 2 hours to begin working and about 6 hours before they reach a peak effect.

  9. Claire, do you still drink coffee when you write? I’m wondering if other stimulants (caffeine) have a similar effect, or if it’s specifically nicotine that helps.

  10. Pingback: Tobacco use among 18th-century writers | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  11. museofmystery

    It’s interesting, but in spite of how horrible tobacco is for the body, nicotine by itself actually has more positive than negative effects on the brain. Sure, it might be addictive, but in addition to raising levels of dopamine, it also raises the levels of acetylcholine, which is the neurotransmitter primarily responsible for memory and concentration, and which is believed to be linked to creative thought (in addition to dopamine). But I personally think that creativity is something that’s more genetic than anything, though I’m sure environment plays a part, too. There was an interesting article I read not long ago showing a lot of similarities between the brains of people with schizophrenia and highly creative people, at least in terms of neurotransmitters, so that’s more food for thought.

  12. Pingback: Smoking and Creativity | The Creative Mind

  13. Don’t forget Joni Mitchell, an unrepentent smoker of organic tobacco! 🙂

  14. I was very pleased to find this article, and googled the question myself that was influenced by a similar experience. I am a 1/2 pack to pack a day smoker, and English student, who writes many papers. I have noticed through my studies the mention of tobacco or the fictional smoking habit in an author’s work. You could use a psychoanalytical analysis to argue the work of an author as proof of his or her smoking habit. However, that is just theory and not fact. The question of how many famous authors smoked, came up a couple years ago more subtly, and the idea of a beneficial relationship really spiked my interest more recently.

    The majority of writing that I do as a student is required, and carries the mind-set of forced. I use a similar reward system as mentioned above, I smoke one cigarette upon the completion of a page of an essay or something of equivalent work. I use the cigarette as motivation as well as a mental break or brainstorming session. I don’t typically stop at exactly a page or when I reach the next page, but when I get to a good stopping point to ensure full expression of ideas or just simply not sure which direction I would like to take my writing. In reflection of my writing experiences, I can recall often interrupting inspirations during a sort of meditating smoking break. Even now as I am writing this comment, I “breaked” to determine the words to correctly express my thoughts, and must immediately type out my thoughts with one and a half hands. My index and middle fingers being burdened with my vice.

    Virginia Woolf was also a smoker, was she not? I cannot remember the source of what lead me to that impression, but I believe she was. This was a topic that interested me and wondered if there was any correlation to the coincidence crossover of smokers and writers. This article brought upon my next direction of research, the history of tobacco. The pre-existence of tobacco had not crossed my mind, because I always thought of the act of smoking as being one of the oldest practices.

  15. Thanks for your comments, Celeste.

    Smoking is indeed a very old practice — but only among the American Indians. Tobacco is an American plant and was not available in Europe until after Columbus. Walter Raleigh (another writer!) was the first to popularize it in England — hence the Beatles lyric “Although I’m so tired, I’ll have another cigarette / and curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get.”

  16. Dudka Souza

    Do you have any proof tha Eliot had his emphisema by smoking ? This is stupid nonsense. Had you a brain you would read this book: http://www.lcolby.com/

    • Um, no, I don’t have any proof. This post is based on information collected from a variety of sources, and I simply assumed said information was true unless I had some good reason to suspect it. At any rate, the etiology of Eliot’s illness is irrelevant to the point of this post, which is simply to classify eminent writers according to their smoking habits as a way of evaluating the hypothesis that smoking is associated with increased creativity. Eliot, being both a very eminent writer and a very heavy smoker, weighs in on the pro-smoking side.

      I have inserted the word reportedly into the phrase about Eliot’s death, which I hope will be of some service in assuaging your offended sensibilities. By the way, my source for the cause of Eliot’s death was Wikipedia, s.v. “T. S. Eliot.” Since Wikipedia has roughly a gazillion times as many readers as this blog, and since anyone can edit it, I suggest that doing so might be a more effective way of fighting the “myth” of Eliot’s smoking-related death than commenting here.

  17. Sylvia

    As a young art student I smoked a pack a day and drank a lot of coffee. I also wrote poetry often sitting in cafes with a feeling a completed piece already existed for me and all I had to do was write it down. Before I graduated I was already offered an international grant. Then I quit smoking. This was followed by a decade in which I did not produced anything creatively. I did however, acquire a well paid job and live a comfortably “normal” life. But is this enough for anyone who is a creative individual?

    I recently started to dabble at writing again and show more promise than I did in my younger years but the words don’t come as they used to. I compared the differences in my present and former lifestyle which lead me to this article. Luckily it is nearly 2014 and things have changed quite a bit. I just learned we now have e-cigarettes which can deliver nicotine without the carcinogen and chemicals found in traditional tobacco.

    • Sylvia, if you should decide to try e-cigarettes, I would be very interested in hearing what effect, if any, they have on your creativity.

      I’d also like to ask you the same question I asked Claire Taylor-Shepherd: Do you still drink a lot of coffee? And does the caffeine have any creativity-enhancing effect comparable to that of nicotine?

  18. matrox

    I never can understand how anyone can not smoke it deprives a man of the best part of life. With a good cigar in his mouth a man is perfectly safe, nothing can touch him, literally.

    Thomas Mann

  19. smileybat

    Thanks for the post and I wonder if there are any alternatives to nicotine which are not harmful for keeping the creativity flowing. By the way, as a scientist and a chemist I am highly skeptical about the safety of e-cigarette. I wrote my masters and doctoral thesis followed by numerous publications all fueled by smoking. I gave up smoking (cold turkey) about 10 months ago, and shortly after that I went through really difficult life changes (grief, job loss, life…). I am now a full time writer while I am on a break for a year. I begun writing my first fiction book. I miss smoking. It was a ritual to think and escape. However, I will never go back to smoking, I wonder if you know of any living and modern authors who quit smoking and how did they cope?

  20. Smileybat, I haven’t collected any information about the smoking habits of living writers, so I can’t help you there. The most prominent modern writer I know of who quit was Tolstoy. He quit smoking (as well as drinking and meat-eating) in 1884, having been a heavy smoker up to that point. His magna opera, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, were both written when he was a smoker — but he did still write masterpieces after quitting, most notably The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

  21. c.taylor_shepherd@btinternet.com

    Hi,
    I’m sorry I didn’t get back and reply to your question earlier… the answer is yes, I continued drinking coffee in the same kind of amounts as before.
    A while after my initial post, I started smoking again… at first just two or three a week on the days when I was playing blues harmonica (in my mind, you can’t play the blues without some smoke or a drink). That crept up, and I found my writing productivity increasing with it. I also got more involved in visual art, and had a number of requests for work.
    This month, I’ve stopped smoking again, and guess what? No writing, incredibly half-arsed blues licks, and the worst painting I’ve done in ages (I can’t even seem to mix colours properly).
    I’d prefer not to smoke again really, so I’ll persevere a while longer this time and see if my brain adjusts. It could be that I’ve become so used to nicotine providing stimulus that my brain struggles to compensate now that it’s missing. Maybe, given time, I’ll start to provide my own stimuli.
    I analysed what else I get from smoking that helps the creative process, so I’ll share those in case it adds anything to your research.
    First; rolling a cigarette. That physical act seems to work as a signal to tell my mind that it’s about to be given a hit. That, in itself, calms and focuses my mind and puts it in a receptive frame.
    Second; the type of breathing involved. Deep, slow, satisfying breaths, with the exhalation blown rather than just let out. This corresponds closely to the type of breathing associated with meditation… deep, slow inhalation, then a slow, more forceful but still-controlled exhalation. Again, this calms the mind and makes it ready to receive impressions and ideas.
    Third; watching the smoke. The lazy way the smoke curls into the air, watched against the backdrop of the sky, is hypnotic. It encourages your mind to drift along avenues it doesn’t normally get to explore, as we normally have to focus fairly rigidly on tasks and obligations.
    Fourth; taking five minutes. Part of the appeal of smoking, for me, is that it is time during which I usually have to go and stand in the garden away from the house and just be by myself.

    So… it could well be that a possible answer is to sit outside and meditate with some incense… taking five, breathing deeply, watching the smoke and maybe fiddling with some prayer beads! I’ll just have to put up with my family calling me a hippy. I’ve been called much worse.

    I’ll try that for a bit, and then if that doesn’t seem to help, I’ll do patches or e-cigs. I’ll try to pop back sometime and let you know how my experiments go.
    Cheers 🙂

  22. smileybat

    Thanks for the comments again and I think this blog post is very important in highlighting the link between smoking and creativity. I left a comment (smileybat) about a year ago, and I am really struggling finding alternatives to smoking that are safe but would help me focus and write again. I have not given in to smoking or drinking (gave up 8 years ago, been a vegan for 5 years), at the cost of suffering from depression and no significant output. I will find a way though. I dont think that replacing smoking with snacks, ecigs etc., is the answer, as proposed by numerous self help groups and books. Surely creativity cannot entirely be fueled by smoking. The blogpost and the comments highlight how complex and intriguing human creativity is. Many thanks for this valuable post!

  23. Smileybat, have you tried tea, coffee, or yerba matte? As a stimulant, caffeine is broadly similar in effect to nicotine. But perhaps you don’t want to be dependent on any drug for your creativity.

  24. Maria

    I found this through a web search for smoking and creativity. Recently watched a video on YouTube about development of US ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) program in late 1950s. Noticed as I have with old NASA moon shot footage, that there were many ashtrays, and imagine a lot of second-hand smoke, even for non-smokers. Made me speculate whether nicotine plays a role/how much of a role in these cutting edge engineering feats that demand creative problem solving, extreme persistence, and focus.

  25. For some reason the germ of an idea formed in my mind that that wondered if there was a relationship between both smoking and creativity – which lead me here. I was going to quit for New Year’s… but didn’t perhaps more because I felt like I should over actually wanting to (if THAT makes any sense). I was curious if it’s not so much the nicotine that holds any appeal but merely having the opportunity to sit (or stand…) and indulge oneself in reflection.

    I have my last load of tobacco (I roll my own) with no filters left and I’m going to try and go cold turkey and see how that goes. I am now playing some stop smoking hypnosis thing on YouTube on repeat…

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