In the movie Limitless Bradley Cooper’s character takes the pill NZT-48 and is almost immediately blessed with an amazing array of cognitive abilities. His powers of logical reasoning, concentration, persuasion and yes, creativity all increases drastically at once.
In real life, things are not quite as simple. The human brain is incredibly complex. When we start to think about what exactly we mean by “smart” we realize that we are actually talking about a diverse range of different cognitive processes. Increasing one of our cognitive processes may inevitably limit another. Think for example of daydreaming. Daydreaming is a form creative thinking, yet it often occurs when we are most relaxed. It is in some ways the opposite of being highly focused.
This brings us to the issue of Modafinil and whether or not improves creativity. Modafinil is well recognized as a nootropic that can be used to improve concentration and focus. Modafinil allows us to delve deep into the subject without feeling bored or distracted. So far so good. But, do the positive benefits of taking Modafinil cause limits to our creativity. Or does Modafinil actually enhance our ability to produce creative output.
Let’s look at some of the evidence as to whether Modafinil has a positive or detrimental effect on creativity.
What is creativity?
Before we look at the impact of Modafinil on creativity, we need to first have a baseline of what creativity is. Creativity, like the concept of being smart, is actually harder to define than it seems. A common definition of creativity is that it is what occurs when something new and of value is created. Neuroscience research suggests that it is the frontal part of the cortex which is most involved in creativity.
When we talk about creativity, we are actually talking about two different types of processes – convergent and divergent thinking. With convergent thinking there is a single best solution to the problem that is trying to be solved. Common examples of convergent thinking are the type of tests any high school student is familiar with, such as multiple choice tests or math quizzes. Divergent thinking is where there are many different unique solutions that could be applied in order to solve a problem. Solving problems that require convergent thinking usually rely mostly on applying logical reasoning and less on creativity. Divergent thinking on the other hand is more open-ended problems which require a high level of creativity. When we are testing for Modafinil’s ability to improve creativity we are usually thinking about using it to solve problems which require divergent thinking.
Evidence that Modafinil positively affects creativity
Research suggests that our ability to produce creative outcomes is modulated by increased mesolimbic dopaminergic. There is evidence to suggest that there is a link between high levels of dopamine in this area and ability to perform creatively. Advocates of this hypothesis point to the fact that people who were classed as creative have higher dopamine levels compared to individuals who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease. People with Parkinson’s disease are severely limited in terms of their ability to think creatively. But when these people are treated with dopamine replacement therapies, their ability to think creatively can be normalized. There are a number of studies which indicate that the reason that Modafinil enhances cognitive ability is because it increases dopamine neurotransmitters in in the prefrontal cortex. As indicated earlier, it is this part of the brain which is involved with creative thought.
A 2009 placebo-controlled, double-blind study looked at the effects of Modafinil on dopamine neurotransmitters and dopamine transporter in healthy males. The study showed that after the participants in the study were administered 200 and 400 mg of Modafinil, there was a higher availability of dopamine in areas of the brain associated with creativity. The study suggests that there is a direct link between taking Modafinil and the ability to produce creative output. The participants who took Modafinil were also more likely to engage in novelty seeking behavior which is directly linked to creativity.
Evidence against Modafinil affecting creativity
One study from the University of Nottingham suggests that Modafinil may not improve levels of creativity for individuals with normal or above average levels of creativity to begin with. The study used the Hayling sentence completion test. The Hayling sentence completion test involves two sets of 15 question each. In the first 15 questions the test subject is provided with the sentence and needs to come up with the correct word to complete that sentence. In the second set of 15 questions, the participant is given a sentence and needs to think of our word which does not fit.
The second set of questions test the subject ability to suppress instant responses and to think creatively.The study did find that people who had below average levels of creativity prior to taking Modafinil brought their level of creativity back up to a normalized level. This suggests that people who are not traditionally considered creative could benefit from the addition of Modafinil. For participants who had average or above average levels of creativity prior to taking Modafinil, taking the nootropic had no positive effect on the results.
It is as important to keep in mind that the results from the study had a relatively small sample pool of 64 participants, half of which took a placebo and the other half, real Modafinil. The Hayling sentence completion test is a generally accepted testing methodology for creativity, but it is also a relatively short test and so may not be viewed as comprehensive. The test does suggest that more research is required into the exact effect of Modafinil on creativity on people with normal levels of creativity, before it can be shown that Modafinil definitively has a positive impact on creativity.
So does Modafinil improve creativity?
The answer is that there is currently mixed evidence as to whether Modafinil really improves creativity in healthy individuals with normal or above average levels of creativity. However, the link between increased levels of dopamine in the parts of the brain involved with creative output strongly suggests that Modafinil may have a positive impact on creativity. This is backed by anecdotal evidence from many Modafinil users who swear by Modafinil creativity boosting powers. While the evidence that Modafinil does improve creativity is not conclusive, many people are still enjoying the other amazing benefits of the drug.