As a freelance writer, coming up with new ideas all the time kind of sucks. Like any human being, I find inspiration comes in phases. Sometimes I feel the creative juices flowing and other times I'm grinding my teeth and coming up with nothing.
I recently noticed the ideas come just before another phase of my month-especially just a few days before. So I've wondered if maybe there's a link. And if so, is my pill—the common contraceptive Estelle—helping or numbing the effect?
I got in touch with Dr. Jayashri Kulkarni, who is the director of the Monash Alfred Psychiatry research center in Melbourne. She's responsible for a 2007 study suggesting the pill has the potential to alter mood, with some brands even linked to a higher likelihood of depression. The next phase of her research is under review and links the contraceptive pill with cognition.
By Dr. Kulkarni's definition, cognition is a direct link to creativity. "What you're tapping into is that capacity for abstract thinking and to extend the thought processes out of the box," she explained.
Dr. Kulkarni has found that cognitive performance for women on the pill is dependent on their dosage of estrogen. "Higher estrogen tends to be associated with better cognition," she explained. "Participants using progesterone-only contraception have a limited capacity for abstract thinking."
This would seem to suggest that flushing my body with synthetic estrogen boosts my creative process, which is consistent with other evidence in the area. A study published in 2012 from the National Autonomous University of Mexico also suggests a correlation between sexual hormones and creative performance, while another, slightly older piece of research from Germany's Medical University of Lübeck discovered that creativity among participants during the follicular phase (just before menstruation) was increased when compared to those not taking the pill.
The challenge with linking the pill and creativity, however, is that creativity isn't consistently defined. Whether it's the physical act of building something or the innovation required for high-level thinking, creativity encompasses a broad range of skills. Some studies such as at University of Lübeck test "divergent" thinking, whereas Jayashri's study tests cognition through reactions, attention span, and visual memory.
The link between the pill and creativity is also an area of interest outside traditional medicine. Lisa Lister is a UK-based menstrual health practitioner. She has published several self-help books for teens and adults, and looks to ancient times, the phases of the moon, and other spiritual practices for guidance. According to her however, any medication that disconnects the body from its evolutionary settings will have an overall negative affect. "Using your menstrual flow as a way to understand your creative flow is key. If you take the pill, you numb that whole experience," she said.
For Lisa, the contraceptive pill is a way of trying to "keep up" in a masculine world. "Keep doing, keep achieving, keep succeeding… we're not allowing for that ebb and flow which we're experiencing in our body every single month."
Lisa often works with clients to better understand their creative impulses by charting their cycle. Patterns start to develop each month, giving women a better understanding of what kinds of projects to focus on during each phase.
I was curious to speak to someone who uses their menstrual cycle to holistically schedule creativity, so I got in touch with Emina Ashman, who is a 23-year-old poet, actress, and theater-maker. "The pill didn't work well with my body," she explained. "I felt a bit like I was manipulating my own cycle and not being as sensitive to my body."
On the pill, Emina experienced the common side-effect of weight gain, and subsequent insecurity. "It was my second year at the Victorian College of the Arts. We were encouraged to make a lot of theater at the time. The ideas that I was promoting or trying to get people on board with didn't resonate with me. I found myself not really making anything that had my trademark. I had a bit of a block," she explained.
It's been two years since Emina stopped taking the contraceptive pill Yasemin. Instead she now keeps a lunar and seasonal diary to track her cycle and says she feels more attuned to the relationship between her menstrual cycle and creativity. "From the start of my menstrual cycle to the ovulation period, I now find myself really activating projects—encouraging me to put myself out there a bit more and apply for artistic festivals. It's a lot of energy expulsion. From the ovulation phase to the end of the cycle it's a lot more reflective and that's when I start writing about what I've been holding in and what I've been experiencing."
Emina described coming off the pill as a "feminist awakening," and a way to experience a new wave of inner confidence. "I've really learned to love my cycle and feel empowered by it."
The trends in creativity Emina says she experiences via her menstrual cycle are similar to those observed by Lisa Lister through her work. Every woman is different, but the "just do it" phase tends to occur during menstruation and the follicular phase, with introspection becoming easier during ovulation and the luteal phase.
So what did this mean for me? While scientific research linking the pill with creativity is still underway, it seemed there's absolutely a correlation with female hormones. For that reason, tracking the ebbs and flows of creativity in a diary might help, if only so I could relax when I know ideas won't come.
Like many, convenience and good skin has stopped me from going off the pill completely. But I'm going to keep a close watch on Estelle, because I need all the creativity I can get.
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