You don’t have to be a seasoned smoker to know that getting high can open up the mind. It can feel as though you have access to a free-flowing stream of consciousness, with fleeting thoughts that seem so meaningful and inspiring that you can’t help but jot them down.
The creative influence of cannabis is reflected in countless pieces of art and music, and even in one of the prevailing stoner stereotypes: the free-spirited, artistic innovator. It certainly seems as though cannabis gives us a creativity boost, but is this really the case? Spoiler alert – it’s complicated.
How cannabis has influenced creative history
Since the ‘60s, countless creatives have credited much of their artistic success to psychoactive drugs. Cannabis, in particular, has been touted by artists, writers, and musicians alike for its ability to help birth creative ideas.
Some of the world’s greatest musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Madonna to Snoop Dogg, have all expressed an appreciation for the creative influence that cannabis has had on their work. Many artists claim that smoking or consuming weed has helped them to create authentic, visionary music. As even Lady Gaga has revealed, “I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.”
Many influential authors have too shared how cannabis influenced their writing. Dr Carl Sagan, an American astronomer and science writer, was also an anonymous advocator for the legalisation of cannabis. In an essay published in Marihuana Reconsidered in 1971, Sagan detailed – under the pseudonym “Mr X” – how his experiences with cannabis benefited his work.
“One idea led to another,” Sagan wrote, “and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics.”
But even for the cannabis users among us who aren’t artistically inclined, you’re still likely to have had some stoned creative breakthroughs at some point. That inventive food combo you put together whilst really, really high, that’s definitely an indicator of heightened imagination.
Though, as scientists have made it abundantly clear, anecdotes are not a substitute for hard data. Society might seem to agree that this link between cannabis and creativity exists, but does science?
Cannabis for creativity: the how and why
Researchers have endeavoured to make sense of the creative brain but, to do this, they first needed to clarify: what exactly is creativity?
By definition, creativity is the use of our imagination to generate ideas. Being both subjective and situational, it’s a pretty hard thing to quantify, which makes it even more difficult to investigate experimentally. However, two particular cognitive processes have been defined that make it easier to gauge creativity levels in a lab: divergent and convergent thinking.
Divergent thinking, as the name suggests, involves generating multiple solutions to a problem. It’s the type of thinking that best describes brainstorming, our ability to create lots of ideas from a single starting point. Convergent thinking, however, involves finding a common thread between loosely-connected ideas – or, finding a single solution.
Based on the anecdotal reports, it has been theorised that cannabis has the ability to enhance both convergent and divergent thinking – but we’ll get to the (rather surprising) evidence later.
Exactly how cannabis might improve creativity is not yet known. According to Dr Alice Weaver Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, it could have something to do with the impact of cannabis on anxiety. “A very anxious creative person may get some benefit from cannabis. In calming them down, it could help their creativity,” Flaherty told Artsy. “But for someone who’s already in the zone, and who’s not too anxious to work, it might push them into a place of being too laid back.”
Early research suggests there’s an even more direct neurological link. One study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology in 2002, found that smoking cannabis significantly increases blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobes, regions highly involved in cognitive processes, including creative thinking.
Flaherty’s own research found that people with a higher creative ability exhibit greater frontal lobe activity, demonstrating that this region of the brain acts as a hub for divergent thinking. These findings further support the idea that cannabis, by increasing cerebral blood flow, increases creativity – but how reliable is this evidence?
What does the science say?
The most recent investigation into the effects of cannabis and creativity was published in Consciousness and Cognition in 2017. The study found that cannabis users reported higher levels of creativity and convergent thinking than non-users, but this only highlights a correlation between cannabis and creativity, not a causative link. It could be that creative people are simply more inclined to try cannabis in the first place, which would explain these findings.
To assess just this, the study also investigated the effect of Big 5 personality types on the results. They found that cannabis users also demonstrated greater “openness to experience” which, when controlled for, resulted in the user and non-user groups showing no difference in creativity levels. So, according to this study, cannabis doesn’t increase creativity; creatives are just more likely to use cannabis!
It’s also important to consider that this study relied on self-reported data – meaning, it may be that cannabis only changes our perception of creativity. After all, perception doesn’t always mirror reality; as most cannabis users will know, the mind-blowing ideas you tend to have whilst high aren’t usually all that inspiring to your sober self.
Truth be told, even leading cannabis researchers can’t say for certain how it impacts creativity. Dr Gráinne Schafer, a clinical psychologist, says her team’s research suggests that “cannabis produces effects that can help a person connect seemingly unrelated concepts together, and that might help some people in their creative pursuits,” but it seems that these effects are hugely dependant on the individual.
Schafer’s study was published in Consciousness and Cognition in 2012. Her team of researchers investigated the effects of cannabis on participants with schizotypy, who exhibit mild symptoms of schizophrenia and high levels of creativity.
Participants were split into higher and lower creativity groups. They completed divergent thinking tests both before and after using cannabis. The study found that cannabis only enhanced divergent thinking in the low creativity group, but had very little effect on the high creativity group.
These findings suggest that cannabis is unlikely to inspire people who are already creative but could help to unleash the imagination of those who aren’t otherwise very creative. As explained by Lewis Nelson, chief of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, “there’s kind of a plateau of creativity,” which is why the effects of cannabis can differ so much from person to person.
Cannabis can actually stunt creativity
As we have just seen, weed affects everyone differently. Cannabis might help one person overcome writer’s block, for instance, but have no impact on another’s creativity. For some people, it could even cloud their thoughts and, in turn, actually hinder their creative ability.
As shown in one study, published in Psychopharmacology in 2014, high doses of THC – the mind-altering molecule in cannabis – significantly lowered creativity levels. Researchers administered either a low (5.5 mg) or high (22 mg) dose of THC or a placebo to participants and assessed their performance in creative tasks.
Although the low THC dose did slightly improve divergent thinking, these differences were not statistically different to the placebo. The high dose of THC, however, was notably detrimental to creativity. Whilst it may be that small amounts of cannabis can promote creative thoughts and ideas (in not-so-creative people, remember), it’s also likely that higher doses have too much of a sedative effect for us to actually execute them.
The general consensus is that cannabis may help certain people to be more creative under certain conditions, which isn’t a hugely useful conclusion. But one thing is clear: feeling creative and being creative are very different things. Cannabis may make us feel more imaginative and, in turn, help to awaken dormant ideas, but there is currently no clinical evidence of it boosting creativity.
Still, the anecdotes are in abundance, and if a little cannabis is enough to get your creative juices to flow then so be it. Keep creating.