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Cannabis and Creativity

Cannabis and music

For many musicians, writers, and artists of all sorts, cannabis provides an extra boost to creativity… or does it? The image of a stoned genius (think Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, or The Beatles) is deeply engrained in society’s collective psyche, but it contrasts sharply against the lazy, unmotivated pothead stereotype that others have been perpetuating for decades. So, does cannabis enhance creativity or inhibit it? The answer is a complicated “yes, but only sometimes.” This article will evaluate what science has to say.  

Studies & Findings

Studies conducted all the way back in the 70s have shown that regular users of marijuana report having more original thoughts while under the influence. A study published in 2003 showed that up to 50% of cannabis users believe that the herb enhances their creativity. However, more recent studies seem to suggest that those users’ beliefs may have been inaccurate. 

Creativity is a very broad topic, and there’s no universal definition for it. As such, it’s difficult or impossible for any scientific study to measure this attribute with perfect accuracy. That’s why the most recent studies into marijuana and creativity focus on participants’ performance on two different creative processes, rather than creativity itself. These two processes are: divergent thinking, in which the participant is tasked with coming up with several different solutions to a single, broadly defined problem (also known as brainstorming) and convergent thinking, in which participants attempt to find the best possible solution to a more clearly defined problem.

In 2012, London’s University College conducted a study to analyze the difference in divergent thinking between two groups who had been graded on a scale of created attributes and then classified as “low” or “high” creatives. This study’s participants were regular (15 times a month, on average) users of cannabis. Researchers instructed the participants to perform a cognitive thinking assessment at home, once while sober and once while under the influence.

The study found that under the influence of cannabis, the low creativity group scored as highly as the high creativity group, despite performing much worse when they took the test sober. Meanwhile, the high creativity group showed very little difference between the two tests that they took. In other words, if you aren’t usually creative, cannabis might help. If you’re already creative, marijuana might not do much. 

Another study conducted in 2015 in the Netherlands showed that cannabis increased divergent thinking, but only up to a certain point. Study participants were given either a low dose (5.5mg of 19% THC) or a high dose (22mg of the same concentration). The participants – once again, regular users of marijuana – exhibited an increase in divergent thinking attributes such as fluency, flexibility, and originality on the lower dose. Participants given the higher dose showed a much stronger, completely opposite effect, demonstrating a level of divergent thinking that had decreased to below the control group’s score.

Limitations

Cannabis and painting

Both of these studies show that in the right circumstances, cannabis can increase creativity, but they don’t paint a complete picture. Both studies have significant limitations that need to be taken into account. 

For starters, there’s the fact that these studies only used participants who were regular users of cannabis. Cannabis’ ability to increase divergent thinking at low doses, but decrease it at high doses is related to how much dopamine is presently available in the brain. This can be represented by an “inverted U” shape on a graph – too much or too little dopamine is bad for divergent thinking, but the middle is just right. Frequent, heavy users of cannabis can have dopamine deficiencies, so the “right amount” of marijuana to consume for maximum creativity is likely different for infrequent users.

There are dozens of variables that these studies don’t account for. For example, different strains of cannabis have very different mixes of cannabinoids and terpenes, which all combine to create an entourage effect. Different levels of CBD vs. THC, or different combinations of other compounds within a strain might change the way that a particular strain influences creativity. 

Perhaps the biggest issue with these studies is their narrow definition of creativity. Creativity is a complex topic, and marijuana has a complex effect on the brain. Dosage is key in determining how your divergent thinking is effected, but what about other aspects of creative thinking? For example, other research has shown that oral THC increased verbal fluency, even in high doses. If you look at a list of “successful stoners,” you’ll notice that a disproportionate number of them are musicians – so perhaps the music-making parts of the brain are affected differently than the problem solving parts. At this point, all we know for sure is that more research is needed.

Cannabis effect

The Chicken, or the Egg?

From Carl Sagan to Snoop Dogg, there is a long list of vocal advocates for cannabis’ ability to increase creativity. There is evidence both for and against this idea… but, it’s also possible that there is a correlation between cannabis and creativity rather than a causation. Consciousness and Cognition published a study in which researchers used the “Big 5” personality model to measure 979 undergrad students’ personalities. 

This study divided the group into two: those who smoked marijuana, and those who did not. Both groups were tested while sober, and it was found that there was no difference in performance on a divergent thinking test, but that the marijuana users outperformed the non-users on a test that measured convergent thinking. The study concluded that the higher creativity in one group was likely due to that group’s higher scores in certain personality traits – namely, openness to experience, which is characterized by an active imagination, intellectual curiosity, and a preference for variety. Perhaps individuals with this trait are more likely to be interested in trying marijuana, in addition to being more naturally creative.

The Truth

So, what’s the verdict? There are a handful of conflicting studies, but by piecing them together we can see that yes – in some cases, an appropriate dose of cannabis can increase creativity. However, this can change depending on who you are, what type of creative endeavor you are pursuing, and how much cannabis you take. It may also matter what strain you use, and what phase of a project you’re working on. For example, you may generate ideas more easily with some herb in your system, but you may find that your execution is better sober. 

Cannabis affects the body and mind in a complex way, and science is still working on unraveling all of its mechanisms. Pay attention to your body and consume conscientiously, and perhaps you can use it to unlock your true creative potential. 

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