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How Does Cannabis Affect Creativity?

Cannabis and creativity seem to go together like chocolate and peanut butter! Looking at the last hundred years in the U.S., how many social, artistic, or even business movements has cannabis played a role in?

When one thinks of early jazz, it’s hard not to think of legendary musicians Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday and not associate “reefer” with their respective creative genius. Present day, musicians from Snoop Dogg to Willie Nelson, have ascribed near mystical powers to cannabis and its influence on their work. Cannabis has been a part of major literary movements — think of The Beat Generation, a precursor to the 1960s counterculture movement, lead by legendary pot-smoking hipsters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Even Silicon Valley! Steve Jobs famously said that in his early days, he would often smoke cannabis or eat “pot brownies” to help him relax and let his creative juices flow. Billionaire Sean Parker (Napster, Facebook) has been funding legalization efforts in California.

The link between cannabis and creativity is undeniable. But what exactly is creativity? And, what does science say about cannabis and creativity? Does cannabis ignite that creative fire? Or, are creative people just drawn to cannabis?

What Is Creativity?

Let’s start by defining creativity. According to Linda Naiman, the founder of Creativity at Work: “Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.” What a great definition! Many of the most innovative and successful individuals in society and throughout history demonstrate an uncanny ability to look at things in unique ways, identify patterns, connect the dots, and develop breakthrough solutions. Nonetheless, creativity is subjective, making measuring it, a wee bit difficult.

What Does Science Say About Cannabis and Creativity?

Given the subjectivity of creativity, what does science say? To quantify creativity scientists have to come up with objective measures to compare data, so they create tests to measure different types of creativity: divergent, lateral (out-of-the-box), aesthetic thinking, etc. You can see why it would be difficult to measure creativity — not only is it subjective, there are so many kinds! Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been a huge number of studies examining the link between cannabis and creativity.

Of the few studies, many were done in 1970s — an era before dabbing, vaping, edibles of every variety, etc. Since the early studies, a growing number of researchers have opined that we need to revisit the cannabis and creativity link. In 2011, a group out of Australia decided to do just that. The researchers embarked on an empirical study — meaning it was observational. They recruited subjects from three distinct populations who self-identified as: cannabis users, ecstasy (MDMA) users, and non-drug users.

To recruit participants, they posted flyers at local pubs and by “snowballing.”  Snowballing sounds more fun than it is. The “snowball method” simply refers to a non-scientific sampling technique in which study subjects are recruited from current research subjects’ acquaintances. There are some shortcomings to these methods. Most notably, the pool of subjects is much more homogenous than if researchers conducted a totally random sample. Nonetheless, the study elicited some intriguing results — as they used both objective and subjective measurement tools. The researchers didn’t administer cannabis to the subjects; instead, they were looking at general associations, to see how people differed in creative capacity across these groups.

Some of their findings may surprise you — others may not:

Cannabis users are more creative: While there was no statistically significantly difference among the groups in terms of the raw number of “creative” ideas they each came up with, cannabis users came up on top for the most important measure: uniqueness. Cannabis users performed significantly better than other groups in terms of the number of genuinely unique creative ideas they produced.

Ecstasy users are not as creative as they think they are: Yep, you got that right! Ecstasy users tended to think of themselves (and their ideas) as highly creative, but they produced no more uniquely creative ideas than any other group.

Cannabis users are more humble: In contrast to ecstasy users, cannabis users didn’t think of their ideas as being particularly unique, however, objective analyses revealed that were, in fact, more creative.

So what does this tell us about cannabis and creativity? Well, it certainly scientifically confirms the link between the two. But, based on this study, we don’t know whether the regular use of cannabis enhances creative thinking — or, if creative types are just naturally more drawn to using it. Quite frankly, it could be a little of both.

Is Cannabis a Creative Elixir?

What about cannabis as a creative elixir? Scientifically, it’s plausible that cannabis would help the creative process, but the research hasn’t been able to provide much conclusive data. However, in spite of the limited data, in 2014, researchers conducted a comprehensive review of the scientific literature since the 1960s. Predictably, they concluded that based on the data, they could only partially verify expectations that using cannabis positively influenced creativity. They noted one study showing subjects who smoked joints with a low dose of THC (3 mg), performed significantly better on two “divergent” thinking tasks, than those who consumed high dose THC (6 mg) cannabis. Evidence consistent suggesting THC produces biphasic effects (desirable outcomes in low to moderate doses; undesirable in higher doses).

The researchers cite another study that compared oral consumption of a placebo (containing no active ingredients) to oral consumption of THC (at 7.5 and 15 mg), and found a dose-dependent effect on verbal fluency. And, those who consumed low to moderate doses of THC outperformed those who consumed the placebo.

Final Thoughts

Most “cannassuers” swear by cannabis for its mystical creativity enhancing powers. While limited research and variability in methodology from study to study has yielded inconsistent data, we see a number of patterns: First, cannabis users do tend to be more creative than other people. Duh! Second, the adage “less is more” rings true. If it’s creativity you’re seeking, lower doses seem to produce superior results to higher doses. (And, in fact, higher doses may stifle — not promote — creativity.)  

It’s probably safe to say — for most, but not all, people — the more potent the administration method (e.g. dabbing shatter), the more likely it is that you’re going to feel really high, but much less likely to be as creative as you may think you are being. (Sometimes those ideas that seemed so creative at the time — e.g. the “Jump to Conclusions” doormat you thought would be a runaway success — may not seem so creative later.) But, given THC’s psychotomimetic properties, cannabis probably enhances creativity by helping us connect seemingly unrelated concepts, an aspect of creative thinking considered essential. So it’s likely much more than folklore (or stoner mythology) that cannabis (in moderate amounts) promotes creativity.

Keep in mind, however, researchers haven’t really compared various consumption methods (e.g. vaping vs. smoking vs. edibles), nor have they considered the fact every strain is chemically unique. Could low dose chocolate edibles work better than say, taking a bong rip — or vice versa? What about cannabinoids beyond THC — how do they interact with each other while influencing outcomes? There’s no doubt: different cannabinoids and terpenoids produce different effects. Why do people report some strains help them unleash creativity, while other strains cause “couch lock?”

That being said, one thing we do know for sure, a cognitive effect of cannabis intoxication is that it’s harder to encode new memories. How many times have you used cannabis — thought of a seemingly brilliant idea — only to completely forget the idea the next day? So, if your goal is to stimulate the creative process (and capture these ideas), use a notepad (or your trusty iPhone) to write those ingenious ideas down, so you don’t lose them!

To make your next creative kush session a little bit more interesting — try pairing your favorite strain with meditation. Meditation is known to be an incredible way to boost creativity. Who knows? Perhaps coupling meditation and cannabis could produce a synergistic effect? Now, that would be a study that would be great to see! Mix it up a bit — see how chocolate edibles compare to tinctures, vaping to smoking, higher CBD strains to higher THC strains — you get the point. See if you notice any difference.

Do you use cannabis to stimulate the creative process? What have you found? Do you prefer a particular method? What strains do you find work best? Don’t be shy! Share your experiences in the comment section.

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