If you work in any kind of creative field, and if you’ve at all ventured into the green fields of cannabis territory, you will have likely encountered the question: Does marijuana help to boost your creativity?
This is a daunting question, with lots of ifs, ands, buts, and maybes. We should break it down into pieces to better tackle it.
Objective Fact vs Subjective Experience
It’s important to try to nail something down with scientific fact, because this is a deceptively nuanced question. Every stoner knows the experience of taking a toke and then being seized by a funny idea, a flash of insight, or a madcap plan. The trouble is in staying objective during this time: Are you really having a burst of inspiration, or is the THC whacking you out to where everything seems funnier, cleverer, or more impressive?
We can also name many artists in one creative field or another, musicians to sculptors to poets, who claim that blazing a blunt helps their ideas flow freely. Trouble is, once again, that it’s tough to make an objective call. It’s entirely likely that artists are drawn to recreational chemical experimentation in the first place because they’re free to do that. Would they have the same ideas even without the influence of marijuana? Do they have the same ideas sober, but are simply more tuned-in to their creative channels when stoned?
One more problem with this question is that both the fields of neuroscience and mind-altering substances are fraught with misinformation. Back in the ’80s, there was a pop-science meme going around that the “right brain” had the creative impulses while the “left brain” was all spreadsheets and accounting. That’s garbage. Going back to the ’60s, everybody from mystic gurus to far-out hippies touted the benefits of “mind expansion.” That’s far too broad a term to apply to anything meaningful. You could argue that dropping a hammer on your toe is “mind-expanding” because you’ll experience a new kind of pain never felt before.
Well, we’re going to take an objective look at the facts so far…
Scientific Definition of Creativity
First we have to ask: “What is creativity and how do we measure it?”
This is one of the hardest tasks to do: Come up with a scientific measure for creativity. So far, we have one main metric. The frontal cortex of the brain is now thought to be the center of creativity. Albeit, other areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, are also thought to participate. Now how do we pin this down?
We have some established tests such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Even though creativity might be a slippery concept to measure, we do have some metrics which the test can quantify:
- divergent thinking – can you “think outside the box”?
- problem-solving skills – the real-world application of creativity
- fluency – do you have many applicable and relevant ideas?
- flexibility – the ability to adapt solution A to problem B
- originality – can you think of things never thunk before?
- elaboration – the ability to thoroughly explore and communicate an idea in detail
There’s several components to the Torrance Tests. These include exercises like being presented with an object and asking how many uses can you think of for the object beyond its intended purpose, being given a paper with a few sketched lines on it and asked to elaborate on the drawing, and so on.
Meanwhile, we have two ways to pin down what region of the brain is working during a creative effort:
- wiring up the subject’s scalp to monitor activity
- testing subjects with known brain damage to a region and seeing where they are deficient
There are other tests of a similar nature, but the Torrance Test is by far most popular.
So that’s how we know that the frontal cortex is important for creativity.
Scientific Studies of Cannabis and Creativity
So now that we know the frontal cortex is the important brain region, how do we know that cannabis targets it?
- Cannabis causes acute changes in blood flow to the frontal cortex, citation.
- Greater cerebral blood flow to the frontal cortex shows up in response to marijuana, citation.
However, there is also a limit to how much the marijuana helps. In a more recent study, small doses of cannabis were shown to be more helpful to tested subjects’ creativity, but higher doses got them back to being unimaginative drones again.
That study is of particular salience to our argument. Recall when your humble author argued that we need to stop thinking about cannabis as “just a drug” and start considering the range of effects from a hundred-odd cannabinoids and hundred-plus terpenes. Well, what happens when we screen THC (classic delta 9) from the equation? We don’t know yet; the vast body of cannabis research just takes the approach that it’s all the same weed.
Experience May Vary!
We need to explore beyond the regions of cannabis culture to find the few art culture media voices willing to frankly explore this topic. Artsy.net has an excellent piece on the link between cannabis and creativity. The findings are concurrent with scientific research, along with anecdotes from many an artist.
When asked whether cannabis enhances creativity, Dr. Alice Weaver Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, responds that the answer isn’t black and white. Her studies also find that marijuana use increases blood flow to certain regions of the brain, but also cautions that “marijuana is a stimulant; most stimulants boost outputs of all kinds.”
Is it all just a simple matter of increasing brain blood flow? If so, what else besides cannabis does the trick? Here’s a small list of things you could be using instead:
- Water! Drinking ordinary water also helps with brain blood flow.
- Exercise! Go for a jog. The answer to everything is always exercise.
- Dark chocolate – mmm, no arguments there.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – as they say, fish is brain food.
- Listening to music – Shrug, OK.
So we see that there is no end of ways to fudge with your brain mechanics. Even rotten ordinary sunlight has an effect on your brain blood flow too.
Further explorations of the link between cannabis and creativity also suggest the following variables:
- highly creative people tend to stay creative no matter if they’re using any drugs or not
- minimally creative people may get the most boost
- any creativity enhancement from marijuana could still be caused by other marijuana effects, such as reducing anxiety, increasing engagement, enhancing mood, etc.
For just one more subjective opinion, 34th Street magazine boldly proclaims: “…taking a drag from a joint might lead our brains to connect unrelated concepts, which shifts our perception of reality and occasionally increases creative tendencies. This explains why getting high breaks us free from ordinary thinking patterns and increases the chances of creating novel ideas and unconventional art.”
Could a Little Go a Long Way?
Circling back, I mentioned the salient point that a little cannabis seems to enhance creativity, but too much stops the fun. Subjectively, your humble author has observed something worth looking into:
First, I am an established creator. I’ve been blogging and indulging in various forms of multimedia artistry from webcomics to video production, for a full on 20 years. Just Google me, I’m all over the web. It’s been my main living for this entire century do far.
And in my subjective experience, full-on marijuana as we used to know it was a work-killer for me. When it comes to writing, my writing ability would drop like a rock in direct proportion to ow recently I’d blazed a bowl. Cannabis, at least before the 2000s, left me as creative as a rock. It didn’t seem to enhance my skills at anything.
BUT all that changed the day I discovered delta-8 THC! Classic delta-9 cannabis left me foggy, dopey, and dumb. Delta 8, “weed lite,” got me just high enough to elevate my mental state, but I could still work on it! That has been an epiphany for me. Since getting into delta 8, I have found that not only am I just as productive on it as off of it, but by golly I do seem to squeeze out an extra loopy idea or two on the stuff.
However, there may once again be other factors coming into play:
- Maybe when cannabis was illegal everywhere, I was too paranoid about getting busted to enjoy its creative enhancement.
- Maybe cannabis simply relaxes me and I can focus on more work.
- Maybe cannabis works to dis-inhibit me, so that I reject fewer ideas and see through more of the less-promising ideas successfully.
- Maybe all I’m getting out of it is the stimulant effect, perking me up enough to see a project through.
- Maybe I want to believe the cannabis helps me, so I’m just using Dumbo’s magic feather.
In addition, the reason I wouldn’t work so well on delta-9 cannabis wasn’t necessarily for lack of creative inspiration. It was instead the fact that classic marijuana tends to leave me unfocused and foggy, unable to put ideas into action. There’s no real bearing on whether I’m having ideas or not in the first place.
UPDATE: On the heels of publishing this piece, I asked the creative round-table of Reddit whether they find cannabis to help get the creative juices flowing. Like my conclusion, the consensus is that it does help, but moderation is called for.
Conclusions: We Need More Studies!
Readers, especially creative readers, let’s hear your experience. Do you find that any cannabis-derived product helps your creativity? Are there specific ways that it works, such as helping you stay more focused, think in more divergent ways, or stay relaxed enough to pursue inspirations? Tell us in the comments or join our forum to talk it over in depth.