Absinthe: The Price of CreativityThe practice of serious art, whether it be painting, music or literature, requires originalities of perception. At a level of neurobiology what this usually means is that the nervous system must respond in new ways to old inputs. How can in individual induce these responses that are needed for creativity? If creativity is a behavior, can it be influenced by things that occur in the brain?
Some artists seem to be naturally endowed with the gift of creativity and the creation of these new responses to old information. Some artists seek to place themselves in ambient conditions in order to induce these new responses of the nervous system. And other artists seek out the help of drugs. Drugs can have a wide variety of effects, from mild physical effects to huge effects on personality and behavior. At the end of the 19th century there was an era of great creativity in Europe. Particularly in France, the Belle Epoch era brought with it a generation of artists that produced an enormous output of creativity. These artists survived in artistic circles which brought with them the notorious alcoholic drink called “absinthe”.
In 1910 to 1915 absinthe was recognized as a neurological poison throughout Europe, and it was also banned in the US. However, amongst the fans of absinthe we find some of the most creative minds of the era. These include; De Musset, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Zola, Oscar Wilde, Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gough, Hemmingway and Picasso. (5) Oscar Wilde said of absinthe: “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.” Although absinthe had become the national drink of France by the end of the 19th century, absinthe had a reputation for inducing “insane and criminal acts” as well as convulsions and other effects of toxicity (1)
Though absinthe contains a high volume of alcohol (usually 70%), it is not the ethyl alcohol that is the important neuro-active ingredient, but the terpenoid alpha-thujone. Thujone is derived from the oil of the plants, Artemisia absinthium (common names: bitter wormwood, wormseed, Wermutkraut, Asscnizio, Losna, Pelin) and Artemisia pontica (Roman Wormwood), both of the daisy family. The plant is described as a fragrant perennial herb about 1-4 feet tall with silver-green leaves, silky hairs on both sides of the leaves, and small yellowish-green flowers present during July-September (4).