Human Creativity — Imagination and Evolution

Imagination is about some alternative to present perception. It encompasses various mental activities such as imagining things that may or may not exist, counterfactual conjecture, daydreaming, fantasising, pretending, and simulating other minds. But why is imagination important in the context of the evolution of Homo sapiens, and what do psychedelics potentially have to do with it?

Alexandra Plesner
6 min readAug 18, 2023

In the realm of human cognition, the power of imagination sets Homo sapiens apart from other species. Yuval Noah Harari (2011) highlights that we can conceive of things that do not exist, construct myths, and share collective beliefs. This marked the dawn of the Cognitive Revolution, an era from approximately 70,000 to 30,000 years ago that witnessed the birth of art, religion, commerce, and social hierarchy.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.” — Yuval Noah Harari

Recent research has identified over 200 unique non-protein-coding genes in modern humans that regulate the co-expression of numerous protein-coding genes, which underpin our capacities for self-awareness, creativity, prosocial behaviour, and healthy longevity, distinct traits absent in chimpanzees or Neanderthals.

The study identified 267 genes that are found only in modern humans and likely play an important role in the evolution of the behavioural characteristics that set apart Homo sapiens, including creativity, self-awareness, cooperativeness, and healthy longevity. Data-driven methods allowed researchers to uncover networks of genes distinguishing the three major systems of modern human personality and adaptability: emotional reactivity, self-control, and self-awareness. These genes may have arisen by positive selection for the characteristics of human well-being and behavioural modernity, including creativity, prosocial behaviour, and healthy longevity. However, it is important to note that these genes are not the ones that make us creative; rather, they are part of a larger group of genes linked to personality.

Unravelling the origins of this explosive creative emergence remains a fundamental question about human nature. The “Stoned Ape Theory,” coined by Terrence and Dennis McKenna in the 1970s, posits that psilocybin, a psychoactive compound found in certain mushrooms, played a pivotal role in the rapid development of cognitive functions in Homo sapiens.

Arce and Winkelman (2021) further explore the intriguing connection between psychedelics and human evolution in their article “Psychedelics, Sociality, and Human Evolution.” They propose that the incidental ingestion of psilocybin-containing mushrooms over millions of years may have influenced hominin populations, enhancing stress-coping abilities and socio-cognitive dynamics.

Certainly, creativity and the ability to imagine fiction represent a defining and critical quality of human cognition. As we continue to delve into the mysterious origins of our creativity, the profound influence of psychedelics on human evolution stands as an enthralling perspective worth exploring.

Psilocybin mushrooms’ potential influence on human evolution

The influence of psilocybin mushrooms on human evolution is a subject of ongoing research and debate. While there is no definitive answer, some theories propose that psilocybin-containing mushrooms have shaped human evolution through their potential effects on cognition and behaviour.

The above-mentioned “Stoned Ape Theory”, popularised by Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis McKenna in the 1970s, suggests that the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms by early hominins may have led to significant cognitive advancements. According to this theory, ingesting these mushrooms could have expanded brain functions, including increased creativity, self-awareness, and problem-solving abilities. This cognitive boost, in turn, could have contributed to the development of language, social cooperation, and cultural advancements, potentially influencing the evolutionary trajectory of Homo sapiens.

Another perspective explored in recent research proposes that the incidental ingestion of psilocybin-containing mushrooms over millions of years could have impacted hominin populations. Arce and Winkelman suggest in their article “Psychedelics, Sociality, and Human Evolution” that these mushrooms have influenced stress-coping abilities and socio-cognitive dynamics, potentially contributing to the evolution of human sociality and cooperation.

It is essential to note that these theories are speculative and not widely accepted in the scientific community. More research is needed to understand better the potential influence of psilocybin mushrooms on human evolution.

Environmental factors and the expression of creative genes

Creativity, the cornerstone of innovation and artistic expression, is a multifaceted trait shaped by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences. Researchers have sought to unravel the intricate web of factors contributing to individual differences in creative achievement. Extensive studies have shed light on the significant roles of genetic factors and unique life experiences in manifesting creativity.

Empirical evidence has demonstrated that genetic factors play a substantial role in shaping creative potential. Our genetic makeup sets the stage for creativity, bestowing individuals with inherent capacities that influence their aptitude for imaginative thinking, problem-solving, and artistic expression. Research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors influence creativity. Studies have shown that genetic factors and unique individual experiences can largely explain individual differences in creative achievement and underline the environmental influence that is responsible for variance in applied creativity.

In light of recent advancements in molecular genetics, a burgeoning interest has emerged in investigating the genetic underpinnings of creativity and identifying specific genes associated with this intriguing trait. These developments have sparked a wave of studies dedicated to unravelling the intricate genetic correlates of creativity.

Beyond genetics, environmental factors emerge as potent agents in the development of creativity. The unique life experiences of individuals leave indelible imprints on their creative expression. The impact of diverse environments, encompassing family dynamics, educational opportunities, cultural exposure, and socio-economic backgrounds, becomes evident in different individuals’ myriad forms of creativity. Here we are talking about Epigenetics. Contrary to the common misconception that genes are set in stone, it is by now a known fact that experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off — and even whether some are expressed at all.

“Just like a single cell, the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life.” — Bruce H. Lipton

Karlic and Baurek write about the epigenetic regulation of artistic creativity by neurotransmitters and hormones; for example, some “data indicates an immediate impact of dopamine on artistic creativity (Kulisevsky et al. 2009)”. These processes act both as targets and mediators of neurotransmitters as well as steroid hormones, and thus, perception and production of art appear to be closely associated with epigenetic contributions to physical and mental health.

Positive experiences, such as exposure to rich learning opportunities, and negative influences, such as malnutrition or environmental toxins, can change the expression of genes. Variations in DNA sequences between individuals certainly influence the way in which genes are expressed. Therefore, genetic and environmental factors play a role in the expression of creative genes.

Understanding creativity necessitates adopting a holistic perspective that integrates both genetic and environmental influences. The intricate interplay of nature and nurture provides a comprehensive framework for comprehending various creative manifestations. Embracing this dualistic approach is essential in gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in creativity.

So, can psychedelics make me a better creative?

Research suggests that psychedelics may influence creativity in various ways. Some studies indicate they can enhance spontaneous creative insights while altering deliberate task-based creativity. However, other research suggests that psychedelics may not directly enhance overall creative thinking but rather mediate changes in specific aspects of creative thinking over time.

Moreover, psychedelics are known for “breaking the pattern” of thinking, creating exciting new patterns and new connections that may inspire novel perspectives.

Nevertheless, it is essential to acknowledge that the use of psychedelics for creative purposes remains controversial, and further research is required to fully understand their relationship with creativity. Therefore, while some evidence suggests the potential enhancement of creativity with psychedelics, approaching this subject with caution and seeking guidance from a medical professional before use is crucial for personal well-being and safety. Creativity is a multifaceted phenomenon, and individual approaches to nurturing creativity may vary.

This article was originally published on Psychedelics Design

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Alexandra Plesner

Strategic designer, primary based in London, working worldwide.