Consuming weed, like consuming alcohol, leaves many of us in good moods. Suddenly, we love everything and everyone. But, what happens when the high wears off? Does cannabis influence our ability to connect with our fellow human beings? Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that it might: Mary Jane may reduce our levels of empathy. This, of course, doesn’t mean that you’ll take a hit and suddenly turn into Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (though, surely, there’s a propagandist article somewhere that suggests you will). It merely means that cannabis might not be a way to cultivate empathy. Don’t worry, though, there are lots of other ways.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the awareness of feelings and emotions of other people. It’s a factor in emotional intelligent: it’s difficult to have high emotional intelligence without empathy. It’s not the same as sympathy: with empathy, we don’t feel for someone; we also feel what it is like to be them.
Cannabis and Empathy
A study conducted at Colorado State University found that cannabis does affect the ability of a person to recognize and process the emotions of others, reducing their lack of empathy too. But it wasn’t all bad news: the brain can counter these effects based on whether these emotions are recognized explicitly or implicitly. Using an EEG, which measures brain activity, the researchers asked 70 volunteers (who were either chronic smokers, moderate smokers, or non-smokers), to view faces that depicted four emotions: neutral, happy, angry, and afraid.
The results found that cannabis users were better able to identify negative emotions; they were particularly good at knowing when someone was mad. But, they did not respond to the positive emotions as well. When asked to “explicitly” identify the emotion, the cannabis users were no different than the non-users. However, when asked later to “implicitly” identify emotions by studying gender and face, cannabis users scored much lower. The researchers concluded that cannabis interfered with the ability to empathize with emotions, at least when those emotions were not as obvious.
Another study found that regular smoking (as in every day) shrunk the orbitofrontal cortex region of the brain, a region that dictates mental processing and decision making. It also influences how people respond to awards and adversity. It’s highly linked to empathy too. Of course, this could be a reason cannabis is effective as treatment for anxiety; anxiety is often linked to higher levels of empathy. If cannabis brings down the empathy, it’s fair to argue that it would bring down the anxiety with it.
You don’t need to choose between empathy and cannabis. According to Great Good Magazine, there are many ways to cultivate empathy and make it a broader part of your life (yep, even if you’re a pothead). These include:
Cultivate curiosity about strangers: Ask people about themselves and learn what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities: While people come in all kinds of varieties, we have endless commonalities. We will always be more alike than we are unalike.
Try another person’s life: Going outside of your comfort zone and trying something new for you is a great way to embrace a new perspective.
Listen hard and open up: Listening is more than just waiting for your time to talk. And “opening up” is more than just talking about your accomplishments. Vulnerability builds connections.
Inspire mass action and social change: Being empathetic on an individual level is important. But being empathetic as a people can result in needed change.
Develop an ambitious imagination: It’s much easier to be empathetic towards people who are suffering or marginalized that it is towards the person who seems to have the world at their feet. But everyone has a cross to bear. In the words of Scottish author Ian Maclaren (or Plato, depending on who you’re asking): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”