Thursday 10 March 2011

Smoking and creative accomplishment


Smoking cigarettes very probably causes lung cancer (although I am not so sure about arterial and heart disease - the effect size is so small that it could easily be due to incomplete control of confounders), shortens life expectancy, and I personally find it aesthetically unpleasant - and I have never smoked regularly.

The supposed dangers of passive smoking are almost entirely invented (dishonestly and/ or incompetently) - other-peoples' smoke is very unpleasant, but the only real health danger of other-peoples' smoke is the acute one of people who have for example asthma which is triggered by smoke.

But maybe smoking - specifically nicotine - has psychological benefits for some people - maybe it boosts creative accomplishment?


Take a look at this video about the design team who built the Mosquito - probably the best aircraft of the 1939-45 World War

In every shot there is one or more of these conservatively-dressed design-genius chaps smoking-away like mad, on pipes and cigarettes.

Many of the most creative intellectuals were not just smokers, but heavy smokers - CS Lewis and the Inklings spring to mind, Crick and Watson's RNA Tie Club, Einstein and his pipe, and of course Gandalf and Saruman.

If we were to compare a collection of creative intellectuals 70 years ago and now the main difference would probably be that around 1941 they would have been surrounded by a dense cloud of tobacco smoke.


Smoking (especially cigarettes, because they deliver nicotine so rapidly) is of course addictive; but was smoking among intellectuals entirely a matter of addiction?

Unlikely, because nicotine is an indirect psychostimulant which probably has significant effects on boosting drive and energy and perhaps clarity of thinking - via both direct cholinergic (nicotinic) and indirect dopaminergic routes.

There is strong evidence that nictotine both prevents and treats Parkinson's disease, and perhaps also Alzheimer's disease.

Indeed, the mind sharpening effect of nicotine is very obvious, and is similar to but different from that of caffeine.


Could it be that the decline of smoking among creative intellectuals may have contributed to the decline of genius?

Could it be that we have sacrificed a human accomplishment for a longer life span?


If so, it is probably now possible to get the benefits of smoking - i.e. the nicotine - without the carcinogenic harm - i.e. the smoke.


NOTE: Thanks to WmJas, who has found some data on smoking and creative writers posted at:



Alex said...

Cigarette smoking (but not pipe smoking) seems to have been indispensable to the image of post-war French intellectuals No picture of Camus, Sartre, Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, would be authentic without the smoke drifting from their their Gauloises. Moreover, unless they expatiated from inside an impenetrable cloud of smoke, could we ever have been convinced that such apparently insignificant folk were so brainy? Even Proust smoked 'responsibly' - i.e. only medicated cigarettes for his asthma.

Other considerations apply to the image projected by the Hollywood 'tough guy'. Humphrey Bogart without a cigarette is somehow a diminished man - almost a nonentity. Women smoke cigarettes, or used to, in order to appear 'sophisticated'.

Smoking is not only an addiction, it's also instrumental in the creation of images - especially 'iconic images'.

There's a Ph.D thesis in this curious enquiry if one had the time and patience to pursue it.

Mike Kenny said...

patri friedman has been experimenting with nicotine as a stimulant:

Dennis Mangan said...

Could it be that we have sacrificed a human accomplishment for a longer life span?

Yes, absolutely. Nicotine is, as you say, a strong psychostimulant and seems especially useful in writing. Has there ever been a great writer who wasn't a smoker? Maybe Tolstoy (I'm not sure), or Jane Austen.

Maybe creative people today are more into ritalin.

Bruce Charlton said...

Dennis - by the sound of this

Seems like Tolstoy smoked when young, and became anti-smoking later in life.

But he was wrong to conflate the effects of alcohol and tobacco - they are quite different, in many respects almost opposite.

Anonymous said...

I gather from his Venetian Epigrams, where tobacco smoke is listed as one of the four things he hates (the others are bugs, garlic, and †), that Goethe was not a smoker.


Tobacco is an American plant, so one possible approach to this question would be to look at European history and see if there was an increase in creativity after tobacco was introduced. (The introduction of tobacco into English society, for example, coincides almost exactly with the beginning of Shakespeare's career. Coincidence?)

Bruce Charlton said...

Goethe is a very powerful counter-example!

If nicotine really did have a beneficial effect on creative accomplishment it would likely be in the marginal cases - rather as amphetamines were for Paul Erdos (not a genius, but certainly well above average - especially in productivity!):

TE said...

I've read something else Tolstoy wrote about smoking but can't remember where it was; anyways, he smoked very heavily when younger but later came to regard it as a vice. Quitting was extremely difficult for him and he had many failed attempts at quitting before he finally succeeded.

Brett Stevens said...

Intellectuals -- true thinkers, not the poseurs who blight East Coast colleges these days -- tend to be intellectual hedonists who get excited by fast thought, intense thought and other powers of the mind.

This is why they tend to be more prone to use and/or abuse nicotine, alcohol, you name it.

It seems to me the point that thinkers no longer take risks is the big one. They are now invested in selling into the system, or writing Malcolm Gladwell style "don't worry, be happy" tomes for the wine-drinking classes.

The result is calcification of the most subtle and thus devastating kind.

Bruce Charlton said...

Brett - agreed. Actually, even if there were/ are creative intellectuals of the type which used to re-shape society - they would nowadays not get anywhere near a position where they might have influence; and if they did get influence they would probably not last long.

Steve Nicoloso said...

If so, it is probably now possible to get the benefits of smoking - i.e. the nictotine - without the carcinogenic harm - i.e. the smoke.

There's chewing or dipping tobacco, which, while perhaps not perfectly non-carcinogenic, is certainly safer than cigarettes. And then there's nicotine gum, which comes in various flavors... although it is quite expensive.

I've dipped snuff for over 30 years and found it (as well as about 20-30 oz. coffee/day) indispensable for normal functioning. For most of those years, I dipped (US Tobacco Co.) Copenhagen. A year or two ago, oddly enough, it was Dennis Mangan who alerted me to the existence of (Swedish) General Snus, which I then tried. I found General Loose to be not only a substitute for Copehagen, but far superior in flavor and mouth feel. It's cheaper to boot, but it is much harder to find.

KJJ said...

I've wondered whether smoking among women was subtly encouraged / rewarded in feminist societies because its voice-deepening effects make them more androgynous.

Bruce Charlton said...

@KJJ - maybe, but I suspect that it is mostly the fact that smoking is an effective weight loss drug. All women know this.

Chris said...

I've found nicotine gum to be not equivalent to tobacco smoke in effects.

"This is why they tend to be more prone to use and/or abuse nicotine, alcohol, you name it."

Saw somewhere recently an article about research showing that people with higher IQs were more likely to get drunk and more likely to get more drunk than others. Can't find it now...

Bruce Charlton said...

"I've found nicotine gum to be not equivalent to tobacco smoke in effects."

A major difference is that tobacco smoke is absorbed almost instantly - which gives a high and makes it more addictive; but of course tobacco smoke contains more than just nicotine.

I expect you mean that recent paper by Satoshi Kanazawa - it is suggestive but not conclusive. 'Needs further study'.

R. Jones said...

It appears that one reason smoking has such different effects from nicotine gum is that "tobacco contains naturally-occurring MAOI compounds in addition to the nicotine."