I’ve never been much of a drugs guy. My friends told me I got mean when I smoked, and anything harder made the next day feel so much worse than being on the drugs had felt good the day before. But reading Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s new collection of essays, I was tempted to reconsider.
Imagine purports to be an advice guide for “reaching your creative potential,” and, for the most part, it’s full of self-help-for-the-smarter-set wisdom such as “get stumped,” “stick with it,” and “become an outsider.” That inspiration is a gift from the gods is a misconception, Lehrer explains, and if we study the processes in his book, we can achieve moments of heretofore-unimagined insight.
But hidden within so many of Lehrer’s examples and anecdotes are the scientific and real-world benefits of brain-altering chemicals. Lehrer’s use of “warm shower” as a stand-in for all relaxants is belied by the footnotes below: “Marijuana, by contrast, seems to make insights more likely. It not only leads to states of relaxation but also increases brain activity in the right hemisphere…This state of hyperpriming helps explain why cannabis has so often been used as a creative fuel: it seems to make the brain better at detecting the remote associations that define the insight process.”
And this is only the beginning. After cannabis, Lehrer moves on to extol caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, Benzedrine, amphetamines, and cocaine. Within Imagine is a book that could be entitled Creative Fuel, an instruction manual of what drugs to take in what circumstances.
Part of the appeal of Lehrer’s type of book is that it suggests our lives and problems are similar to those of W. H. Auden, Michael Eisner, and the guy who invented Post-It notes. The implication is that with a warm shower (or an 8-ball of cocaine), we might stumble into literary genius or corporate wealth. And though, admittedly, I opened Imagine with some skepticism, before I was halfway through, I was eager to try out all the advice.
Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a serious man. I teach middle school English. I’ve got a serious wife. We recently bought a serious house. I couldn’t go around buying and trying an assortment of street drugs. So for the sake of the experiment, I had to let booze substitute for the pot, and caffeine for the amphetamines. The complicated part would be figuring out when to try what. As Lehrer cautions, “Creativity isn’t just about relaxing showers and remote associations. That’s how Dylan wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ but that’s not the only way to make something new. The imagination, it turns out, is multifaceted. And so, when the right hemisphere has nothing to say, when distractions are just distractions, we need to rely on a very different circuit of cells. We can’t always wait for the insights to find us; sometimes, we have to search for them.” And it is in these circumstances when downers lead to too deep a daydream that the answer might be found in “caffeine tablets,” “Benzedrine,” or “amphetamines.”
I took the above paragraph to imply that downers should be tried first, so I sat at my desk with a bottle of Dewar’s and attempted to figure out what kind of problem I could solve. I took a shot of whiskey. My wife is the Director of Mobile Product for the New York Times and could probably implement Imagine as Lehrer intended. She could take a warm shower and daydream her way into the perfect New York Times reader-experience-enhancing iPad paywall. Or she could “become an outsider” and imagine what people who had never read the hard copy of a newspaper might want from a mobile news app. (I took another shot.) But my problems—like those of many teachers, waiters, dentists, real estate agents, investment bankers, drill sergeants, and baseball players—have less to do with artistic or inventive ingenuity and more to do with 1) coping with life’s larger, unanswerable questions such as aging parents and unfulfilling workdays, and 2) finding small-idea solutions to the hundreds of life’s daily riddles, such as how do I grade a stack of essays and watch the Knicks game on Sunday and still feel relaxed Monday morning; should I invite the friend no one likes over to dinner with the rest of our grad-school crowd; and how do I tell my wife that my cousin offered me that job teaching college in California, and I want to accept it and move?
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” It was a poem I was scheduled to teach, but now Jonah Lehrer was right because I couldn’t get it out of my head, and distractions were just distractions. My wife was out brunching and catching up with her mother. We’d talked before—typically when I was drunk—about moving or living separately for a short time, but I’d always buckled at the thought of life without her, and she reminded me that while I could write and teach anywhere, she had to stay in New York. In the future, once she’d made a name for herself, we could try life out west, but the time wasn’t right, yet—she’d just been promoted and didn’t want to have to stop the progress she was making, yet. There’d come a time, she said, but it just wasn’t yet.
The poem was about loss and the relationship between objects, love, and writing, and I’d had to memorize it, myself, when I’d been in eighth grade. “I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,/some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent./ I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” Like the Vampire Weekend songs my students played between classes, the poem was pinballing around in my head, and the more it ricocheted, the more I hated it.
I hadn’t gotten daytime drunk for months, hadn’t drunk this much in years, and, now, I wasn’t sure what my plan was. I had trouble focusing my eyes. I was at my desk in front of the computer, and what I wanted to do was call my wife selfish, to say that there would always be obstacles to everything. But that would be selfish of me. One of Lehrer’s scientists had warned: “You might solve a problem when you’re drunk, but you probably won’t notice the answer.” When my wife and mother-in-law came home from brunch, I was napping, and Jeremy Lin had totaled fifteen and seven at the half.
So I said nothing, waited until the following Sunday when they were out again, and made myself a triple espresso. I swallowed a No-Doze with a can of Red Bull while the coffee brewed. My hands went numb and I wanted to cry with happiness, because I’d never cried with happiness before. Discussing stimulants, Lehrer writes, “The drugs are a chemical shortcut. Because those dopamine neurons in the midbrain are so excited—they are suffused with the neurotransmitter—the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” I sipped my espresso. I felt my heart beat all over my body, which was my pulse, I guess, but I had never thought about it like that before. I tried to recall the last stanza of that poem—“Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/ I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident/ the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” —but I couldn’t.
I sat at my desk and drank another Red Bull and swallowed another No-Doze until I thought of a plan. Though Lehrer tells me I shouldn’t have experienced an epiphany on stimulants but merely been more focused and able to problem-solve, the answer hit me, as the saying goes, like a ton of bricks. Except, for the first time, I viscerally understood the cliché, and, my blood pumping aggressively, I imagined a black duffel bag—full of so many red bricks that it weighed two thousand pounds—crash into my chest. I typed up my revelation and was certain of its brilliance. I celebrated with a manic, triumphant run down Fulton Street, halfway through which my legs then lungs and heart malfunctioned. I had to take the subway back home.
When I arrived, my wife was, of course, sitting at our shared computer, reading what I’d left up on the screen. I felt dehydrated and dizzy. My wife hugged me and called me an idiot in the way I liked. The answer I’d come up with had been that wanting to move was just, itself, an answer to life’s larger, unanswerable questions. Typing that up had felt liberating; I had understood that all I would accomplish would be to replace my longing for a new shot at a career with my longing for her. But now, again, I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t have both.
“You can have both,” she said. “There’s no reason I can’t do my thing now and you do yours later. We have our whole lives together.” Though I wasn’t sure what that meant, either.
“Studies show that travel is one way to enhance creativity,” Lehrer writes, “because it encourages thinking outside of your normal self.”
My heart was beating hard—too hard—so I took a deep breath and tried to focus on everything I had.