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Why Do Dolphins Do Drugs?

Thanks to wildlife documentaries like Planet Earth we’ve become accustomed to witnessing spectacular scenes of animal behaviour. A polar bear fighting a walrus, snow leopards hunting, even an iguana being chased by snakes.

Yet of all the extraordinary scenes to have been filmed, perhaps none is as bizarre as this one, in which a pod of dolphins pursue intoxication by passing a puffer fish around …

And dolphins are not alone.

There are accounts of dogs licking cane toads, baboons gobbling iboga, sheep nibbling hallucinogenic lichen, elephants getting drunk on fermented fruit and many more besides.

A blissed out sheep

A blissed out sheep


The pursuit of intoxication in animals, as in humans, is a dangerous game. Once an animal is under the influence it is much more vulnerable than it would otherwise be — it’s more likely to become prey, or as in the recent case of a Swedish moose after one too many fermented apples, find itself stuck in a tree.

How is it that the hazardous and potentially lethal drive to get high has not yet been eradicated by evolution?

Well, one theory, advanced recently by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal in their book on creative flow, Stealing Fireis that it’s all to do with ‘depatterning’.

Over time animals get stuck in behavioural ruts. They repeat the same activities again and again, often with diminishing returns for their species. And consistency makes them vulnerable. If they come to rely on a single source of food or on a given feeding ground then should the crop fail, or access to the feeding ground be denied, they will go hungry.

By munching fly agaric mushrooms, or fermented fruit, or indeed inhaling just enough of the neurotoxin emitted by a panicked puffer fish, animals come to behave in atypical ways. They do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. They ‘depattern’.

While this may have negative consequences for an individual, as with our inebriated elk above, it could also lead to the discovery of a new breeding ground, more secure territory, or an entirely new source of food. And so in evolutionary terms the risk to the individual is outweighed by the potential boon to the species as a whole.

As creators, no matter what our medium, we too operate within a series of assumptions or behavioural patterns of which we are not consciously aware. Just like animals visiting the same feeding ground year after year, we return to the ways we’ve approached problems before, hoping they again bring success, without opening ourselves up to the possibility that there could be another way, a better way.

If I were to ask you what noise dogs make, what would you say?

As an English speaker you’d most likely say ‘woof, woof’. But if you’re Turkish it would be ‘hev, hev’; in Russian ‘gav, gav’; Korean ‘meong, meong’ or French ‘ouah, ouah’.

The truth of course is that the noise a dog makes is not ‘woof’, ‘meong’, ‘gav’, ‘hev’ or ‘ouah’. Whatever the received idea of barking is in the country we’re from is how we perceive it. We become incapable of hearing a dog as it actually sounds. We stop listening.

The more we think we know and the more concrete our assumptions, the more we limit our view.

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes …

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.’

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki


And so it is with creativity.

The more experienced you become the more familiar you are with the conventions of your medium, and the harder it is to break free of those conventions and create a truly original piece of work.

So next time you approach a project forget about the way you’ve tackled similar challenges before.

Throw off your prejudices and preconceptions.


Embrace the ‘not know’ mind.

And take a long slow hit on the puffer fish, dude.

richard holmanComment