Procrasination, Stimulants, and the Creative Process

Neuroscience of Writing




Why do we, as writers, procrastinate so damn much? Why do so many of us depend on caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants? And why are alcohol and other mind-altering drugs so often used as creative crutches? These questions don’t have definitive answers, but a look at the neurological element can give us some insights into some of these less-than-ideal patterns.

Let’s take each of these items in turn.

Wrtierly Procrastination

My girlfriend’s 14-year-old is a great kid: Creative, energetic, and enthusiastic. And despite the fact that he returns home with less than an hour of homework each day, he spends six or seven hours putting it off — making things harder for himself and for those of us trying to help get him through school.

I’m often aggravated beyond reason with this pattern, and I just want to scream: Why do you have to be so much like me?! Because this exact pattern defined much of my academic and writing life.

During my undergraduate studies, when I first took serious steps to face down my own pattern of procrastination, I ran into some interesting theories on the topic. Basically, there are two halves to procrastination.

The first is anxiety avoidance. When it comes to creative work, that anxiety avoidance can be self-perpetuating. When initially putting off the project, it may or may not be because of an actual “lock out” from the creative process (as described in the previous article in this series). However, when the project is delayed, the anxiety will increase to a point where that lock-out is incredibly likely.

This can easily continue until the second part of the process is reached: The adrenaline rush. When immediately against the deadline, a surge of chemical and hormonal responses give a surge of energy. Much of the time, this will overcome the anxiety hurdle and lead to the completion of the project. But because this rush feels good and leads to a relief of anxiety (and likely a dopamine surge), some psychologists theorize it can lead to adrenaline addiction, deeply ingraining the patterns of procrastination.

But why does this stimulant burst work to shut down anxiety and open up an opportunity for creativity?

Stimulants as a Creative Focus

Truthfully, I’ve been unable to find a full explanation of what’s happening at a neurological level when a stimulant interacts with anxiety. However, I have my own theory. First, that anxiety diminishes substantially once the project is started, and thus the real challenge is with overcoming that first hurdle (which I call the “intertial hurdle,” and will discuss in greater detail later on). And second, that several different effects of stimulants bolster one’s ability to leap said hurdle.

Which effects? Well, dopamine is triggered by any number of stimulants, and is known to have a positive effect on learning, memory, and creativity. This may be because dopamine — the “reward chemical” — has served the evolutionary purpose of telling the brain that it is safe and that long-term goals can be prioritized. Combine this dopamine burst with the extra energy and focus offered by cigarettes, caffeine, and the other “intellectual” drugs, and it’s not too hard to see how stimulants give a running start of sorts to those trying to break past that inertial barrier.

Of course, this dopamine burst creates a dependence. And, problematically, the benefits diminish over time even with the same use. That’s because the brain eventually “down-regulates” dopamine — which is a complicated process that I won’t go into here, but the short version is that the brain starts to need more dopamine for the same effect. For those who depend on stimulants over the long term, the health and psychological hazards are real.

Keep in mind, I say that as a perennial caffeine addict, fully aware that he has a problem. But I take some odd reassurance from recognizing that this stimulant-vs-anxiety pattern may be why so many of us picture writers as holding coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The Role of Other Drugs

To give an incredibly simplified version, the litany of other drugs — alcohol, marijuana, etc., etc. — are likely coming at anxiety from the other angle. Rather than trying to get a running start to overcome that intertial hurdle, they simply work to break that hurdle down in the brain.

The exact process here is fascinating and complex, and speaks to the old adage “Write drunk, edit sober.” I went into great detail on this topic in an article I wrote for LitReactor, which you can check out here.

When we start to get into adrenaline, dopamine, and the interplay of these various chemicals with the brain’s “access” to its neo-mammalian brain, things get complicated very quickly. With more time available, we could even branch out to questions of how these chemicals play into other common psychological trends, such as the high frequency of depression and anxiety disorders in writers. For this series, however, we will leave it at an examination of these major trends.

Remember, while dependence on manufactured or imbibed stimulants — or other mind-altering drugs — is a common trend, there are many associated risks. In just a couple of entries, we will be exploring the some alternatives.