We've all heard about weed calming us down and making us laugh till our stomachs hurt. We've even heard about how it can potentially improve your job performance, but we often come across cannabis users explaining how they feel like their creative thinking literally reaches an all-time high when they're under the influence of marijuana. The sedative mode that the psychoactive substance puts you under pushes your creativity to higher levels, as acknowledged by several cannabis consumers. But to what extent is this true? Can the vivid daydream-like effect on your mind really boost your creative process? Let's find out.
Smoking cannabis is considered a way of opening up your mind to new realms. In fact, in India, it is believed that the Hindu God, Lord Shiva loved smoking weed, and his devotees do the same in a way to respect the deity. So you can say that it is even culturally agreed that consuming cannabis involves some serious mind-altering process that may be the reason for your creativity really coming to the surface.
While these benefits of marijuana are slowly and gradually becoming known to the wider population, people are mostly under the awe of its apparent ability to boost creative thinking. Most people want to try consuming weed to quench their curiosity about this dream-like state that apparently enhances creativity, often spoken about by regular cannabis users. To find out more on this subject, Mic turned to an expert in the science of cannabis, Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
"There's a lot of literature on this actually, but the data are fairly mixed," Nelson tells Mic. To simply put it, the consensus is that not-so-creative people tend to get a little more creative when they consume a small dose of cannabis as compared to people who are already creative. Nelson explains that "There's kind of a plateau of creativity." As a result, non-creative people are better poised to make steep gains while stoned than creative people who have already made them.
Although creativity may seem like a subjective and intangible quality to measure objectively, scientists have found a way to measure it in various ways. For instance, measuring the number of solutions someone came up with to a problem, which is a reflection of their level of divergent thinking, often associated with creativity. He also adds that we need to interpret the findings with the limitations that anyone can alter the data to show anything you want, based on how you frame the study question and run the statistics. If you wanted to show that cannabis doesn't enhance creativity, you could give participants weed containing a high dose of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that gets you lifted and dazed. "I can assure you that people who get a very high dose of THC won't be creative," Nelson says. "They'll be very sleepy and very paranoid." Indeed, he points out that "it makes sense that low-dose cannabis in the right population"- that is, not-so-creative people - "would increase creativity."
Nelson states that generally, a low dose of cannabis could increase creativity if you're not that creative to begin with. And for now, we can say it may do so in the short term, meaning while you're using it. In studies that looked at whether routine weed use could enhance creativity long term, even when participants weren't imbibing, it's hard to tease apart whether cannabis made people more creative, or whether creative people were more likely to use cannabis, Nelson says. Much like in the case of people indulging in any psychoactive substance, Nelson says that your headspace, your surroundings, your setting and mood could also alter the creative process. A certain dose might've enhanced your creativity yesterday, but didn't do the trick today because you're feeling more anxious, for instance. "It is a very complicated morass to really understand what's going on in any instance," he says.
On a biological level, Nelson explains that it increases blood flow to brain regions associated with creativity, including the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in reward; the amygdala, involved in feelings of happiness and euphoria; and the frontal cortex, involved in emotional regulation and executive functioning. But cannabis is also capable of heightening blood flow to areas associated with paranoia and other negative emotional states.
Substantial research has revealed that creativity is associated with the brain's frontal lobe, and that cannabis consumption increases cerebral blood flow (CBF) to this area, which makes it more active. A report on the experiments done in 1992 by the Berkeley Medical Journal, found that CBF increased after cannabis consumption. These findings were then confirmed by further research done in 2002. In the report, Talise spoke with Alice Flaherty from the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, who spoke about CBF saying, "When subjects with high and low creativity are compared, the former has both higher baseline frontal lobe activity and greater frontal increase while performing creative tasks." Such activity stimulates creative output in two ways. Firstly, it activates the area near the brain's nucleus accumbens, which Flaherty found correlates to high creativity. Secondly, the frontal lobe serves as the headquarters for something called "creative divergent thinking."
This 'divergent thinking' is a common scientific measure of creativity. Explained by Leafly, it is a type of thinking that explores as many possible solutions and typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, non-linear manner. Put in other words, divergent thinking employs methods like brainstorming, creative thinking, and free writing to come up with what we call outside-the-box ideas. In day-to-day life, divergent thinking is commonly employed whenever you list numerous possibilities to come up with innovative options. On a broader spectrum, you use divergent thinking whenever you're working to open your mind in various directions and to new potential solutions.
According to a study conducted by Leafly in 2014, when it comes to cannabis and creativity, dosage is key. The study concluded that in low doses, approximately 5.5 mg THC, cannabis slightly improved two aspects of divergent thinking - fluency (the number of responses provided), and flexibility (or the variation in answers). Of course, the scores were significantly raised for originality or the uniqueness of responses. However, when the dose was increased to 22 mg of THC, scores were markedly lower in most categories. Elaboration, or the amount of detail provided in explaining a response, was low all around.
Another study conducted in 2012 divided participants into high creativity and low creativity groups, then tested them both sober as well as under the effect of cannabis. It was found that cannabis had minimal effect on the high creativity group, but after partaking, the scores of the low creativity group were actually boosted compared to those of the high creatives. The study concluded that if you're not already creatively skilled, then cannabis might help you to get creating. And if you're already creative, this study says cannabis isn't going to affect your creativity very much.
To conclude, it can be said that cannabis may strike for high creativity in some cases, but only under certain conditions and for certain people. And even then, its effects on the mind can vary or change in a split second.