Painters have awoken surreal dreamscapes in its name, musicians have composed ballads to this muse, and writers have spun enthralling stories within its influence. But connecting the dots between creative inspiration and weed aren’t quite as simple as taking an artist’s word for it. Research into the effects of marijuana on the brain is sadly lacking, as is the case with all cannabis-related research thanks to frustratingly dated alarmist scheduling courtesy of the DEA. While studies have probed the impact of smoking weed on creative thinking, they are often conflicting and much less often conclusive. Yet, by reviewing snapshots of the research thus far and juxtaposing them with universal anecdotes, we may at least attempt to glean some answer as to whether marijuana use stokes or stifles creativity.
Your Brain on Weed
Before we even delve into the research, it’s important to understand how creativity works with the human brain on a scientific level and how weed chemically interacts with that process. Neurons stationed in your brain communicate through messengers called neurotransmitters. While most drugs would throw a wrench into the gears of this system, marijuana uses its cannabinoids to bond to receptors so that it can work within the process. But it’s not quite business as usual in the ol’ brain. Rather, the cannabis is overriding naturally occurring intermissions between firing neurons. These intermissions serve the purpose of allowing your brain to properly digest all of your thoughts while the cannabis-influenced brain finds itself flooded with a deluge of ideas and contemplations, many of which may not have had the chance to form if interrupted by a break. Remember Jefferson Airplane’s stoner anthem “White Rabbit” and the repeated final line of “feed your head”? Weed is actually treating your brain to an all-you-can-eat buffet.
New Perspectives Through Cannabis
If you’ve thrived (or at the very least survived) in a corporate environment, you’ve probably been prodded to “think outside of the box.” It’s doubtful that your managers were passing you a joint while demanding this cliché but maybe they should have been. According to Robert Weiner in his book Creativity & Beyond
, a puff of pot might awaken your own magic dragon, flying you to new ideas and perspectives, untethered to the earthy associations that kept you in that box your managers hated so much. Hell, I should be smoking weed while writing this (note to my managers: I’m not). But bridging new associations is how a myriad of creative ideas and opportunities come into play so you can imagine the potential importance of pot in creative thinking when contemplating the effects of marijuana on the brain. We actually tackled this subject before when a handful of open-minded companies began allowing their employees marijuana breaks at work
But if we’re going to look at this scientifically, we can begin by turning to the 2011 research conducted by Schafer and associates that, though ultimately inconclusive, found parallels between increased divergent thinking and decreased frontal cortical inhibition resulting from marijuana use
. Divergent thinking is largely responsible in accessing those altered perspectives and new associations that form the crux of creative thinking. Supporting this is another study conducted jointly between Johns Hopkins University and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría Ramón de la Fuente that found increased frontal lobe activity in reaction to marijuana use. Researchers theorized that such effects of marijuana on the brain indicate that weed may play a significant role in boosting one’s creativity.
The Ganja Groover
When I was studying art in college, I would experience highly prolific periods and then suddenly find myself smacked up against an invisible wall, completely uninspired. When I’d find myself in this funk, I’d often reach for my trusty glass pipe and smoke some of nature’s finest. Within moments, the roadblocks were melting away and I’d get lost in my drawings for hours. Now, let me clarify that I don’t think it’s good to rely on anything as a creative aid for too long. Artists need to keep flexing their creative muscles. But for the most tenacious of snags, weed always seemed to pull me to the next plateau where I could get excited about my work again. Perhaps this is due to the increased dopamine in the brain, creating a relaxing euphoria in a void left by self-doubt. A critical eye is helpful to artists, but when that criticism loses balance, it can shackle creative productivity. In dulling that filter a bit, marijuana helped me to move beyond my reservations and embrace the void.
The Effects of Marijuana on the Brain as a Hindrance to Creativity
Of course, inconclusive evidence often leads room to opposing views. Research into marijuana positively impacting creative thinking is often met by an equal amount of research claiming cannabis has no effect on creativity and, in some studies, is found to hinder it. The most cited among such studies was one conducted in the Netherlands in 2014 in which it was speculatively concluded that vaping a bit of weed would not impact creative thinking at all while vaping too much weed
would actually hinder creative thought. The researchers theorized that the feeling of creativity that cannabis seemed to imbue in the stoned subjects was a delusion with no chemical support.
The Bud Blocker
Enter the “bud blocker.” I knew a girl (we’ll call her “Mildred” because she sort of looked like a Mildred) who had been admittedly wary about weed her whole life, despite the fact that both her father and sister were stoners. Her father, with whom she was quite close, was enjoying a career as a successful painter. Showing some concern for Mildred’s perceived lack of creativity when compared to the rest of the family, her father suggested she try smoking weed to relax her mind a bit before attempting art. While art is subjective, it was almost unanimously agreed that Mildred’s attempts at art were atrocious. Yet the marijuana did nothing for her. She confided in me that when she smoked weed, her mind would remain as blank as her canvas. Of course, this could come down to what variety of strain her father was giving her but I’m assuming it was a strain that had worked for him. What worked for Mildred’s father and me had quite the opposite effect on her.
The Memory Hurdle
But all of the studies above specifically focused on positive and negative influence on divergent thinking. The truth is that a brilliant idea doesn’t matter much if you can’t remember it and marijuana’s effects on short term thinking are thus problematic. It’s no secret that cannabis hinders short term memory and the science is there to back it but in the modern age of technology, this isn’t as much of a handicap as it used to be. Musicians can record ideas in real time directly onto laptop computers, writers can dictate sparks of creativity into their smartphones, and all manner of artists can always go old school with a notebook and pen. There’s really no excuse to let these moments of brilliance drift off into the ether, regardless of short term memory inhibition.
The Slowed Down Spliffer
I’m reminded of the “slowed down spliffer”, an ex-girlfriend who I’ll call “Vera” even though she looked nothing like a Vera. Part of the reason our relationship suffered is that she was constantly communicating an endless deluge of ideas at me. Being around her, I found myself flooded by a dictionary of words I’d never heard and philosophies I couldn’t quite grasp. Vera was frankly more intelligent than me but she had a unique problem in that she couldn’t quite keep up with her own ideas or properly communicate them. That all changed when she’d have a hit of pot. She would even sneak into an abandoned wing of the university, smoke weed, and write her ideas down in the dark. According to her, joints and spliffs were the only way she could get her thoughts to slow down enough for her to properly articulate them. Vera wasn’t a stoner by any stretch of the imagination but had found a way to manipulate the effects of marijuana on the brain for her own design. And so, as I mentioned in the very beginning, the sparse amounts of research into marijuana’s impact on creativity have produced inconclusive results. When the DEA eventually reschedules cannabis and the floodgates banning research come crashing down, perhaps we’ll get some hard scientific evidence on the effects of marijuana on the brain and, more specifically, creative thinking. But I can attest that a well-timed kiss from the glass pipe helped me through some daunting creative barricades just as I can tell you it raised those barriers even higher for poor Mildred. So, in the end, no study will ever be as accurate to your situation as the study of yourself.