Does Cannabis Boost Creativity?
New scientific studies suggest that getting high on marijuana can genuinely make you more creative.
For many years, numerous highly-acclaimed artists, scientists, writers, musicians, and creative people of all sorts have claimed that marijuana holds enormous potential to enhance creativity and inspire the imagination.
Now, new scientific studies are beginning to confirm these claims, and researchers are starting to understand the psychological mechanisms behind how cannabis can improve the creative process.
There’s a common myth, perpetuated by the mainstream media, that people often mistakenly think that they’re brilliant and creative while under the influence of cannabis, only to find that their creations are worthless, or that their insights are meaningless nonsense, upon returning to normal everyday consciousness.
Let’s dispel this pervasive myth about cannabis right now, by taking the many anecdotal reports to heart, and looking at what the scientific studies have to say.
From Charles Baudelaire to George Carlin, Shakespeare to Carl Sagan, Louis Armstrong to Paul McCartney, Norman Mailer to Jack Nicholson, the list of accomplished creative people who have claimed a positive influence from their use of cannabis is truly impressive.
I’ve personally spoken with many accomplished people who made claims about how essential cannabis was for their creative process. For example, when I interviewed the late comedian George Carlin, he told me:
“Pot...changed my thinking. It fostered offbeat thinking...Then it changed my comedy....I became more myself. The comedy became more personal, therefore more political, and therefore more successful...So, suddenly, I also became materially successful. People started buying albums. I had four Gold albums in a row.”
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said to Rolling Stone magazine that “marijuana helped” him “write Pet Sounds,” which was ranked by the magazine as the second greatest album of all time.
Anecdotes about cannabis and creativity abound, but what does the scientific research say?
The Beckley Foundation — a nonprofit organization in England that supports pioneering, multidisciplinary research with cannabis and psychedelic drugs — is presently funding a two-part study on cannabis and creativity, that is being conducted by neuroscience researchers Valerie Curran and Celia Morgan at the University College London.
Curran and Morgan are currently testing the effects of cannabis use on creativity in 400 subjects, and are then using neuroimaging technology to observe the neurobiological changes in the participants that are associated with creativity, while they are under the influence of cannabis.
Although this study is still in progress, according to Beckley Foundation founder Amanda Feilding, the results so far indicate that cannabis is having a positive influence on the subject’s creative performance.
This new research builds upon a previous study by Celia Morgan, and her colleagues at University College London, that looked at how cannabis intoxication enhanced the effects of “semantic priming,” in which the activation of one word allows people to react more quickly to related words.
One way that creativity can be described is the ability to find novel connections between different concepts. In psychological terms, the ability to see connections between words is called “semantic priming.” This 2010 study found that subjects linked distantly-related words and concepts significantly quicker when they were high than when they weren’t.
This “hyper-priming,” as the researchers called it, is evidence that the flow of loose associations that cannabis users report is indeed real, and not an illusion, as some skeptics have claimed.
Additionally, research by Xia Zhang and colleagues at Saskatchewan University has demonstrated that THC — the primary psychoactive component of the cannabis plant--can spur neurogenesis, or new brain cell formation. We now know that the brain is continually rewiring itself, and that it’s always possible to grow new brain cells and learn new skills, which may play a role in creative thinking.
Cannabis has the effect of slightly increasing alpha-wave activity in the brain, and increasing blood flow into the right hemisphere, which is associated with holistic, nonlinear thought. Alpha waves, and right-brain thinking, are generally associated with meditative and relaxed states of consciousness, which are, in turn, often associated with creativity.
Television talk show host Jason Silva summed up how the neurological effects of cannabis effect us psychologically by saying,“Essentially, marijuana can extend the range of our free-associative capacities. It increases the novel ways in which we find connections between ideas, and it also extends the range of ideas that we might somehow relate to one another.”
So the next time you spark up a doobie before watching the sunset, be sure to bring along a pen and notebook to write down any novel ideas or interesting thoughts that you may have. Those fleeting intoxicated insights just may lead to the next Nobel Prize-winning discovery or bestselling novel.
To learn more about cannabis and creativity, be sure to check out the upcoming Summer issue of High Times Medical Marijuana magazine, where fellow Patch writer Maria Grusauskas and I wrote a feature article together on the subject.
Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on Santa Cruz Patch.