Sep 07, 2016 11:46AM ● Published by Leland Rucker
“Cannabis helps my creativity.”
How many times have I heard this over the last four decades? Big thinkers like Carl Sagan and Steve Jobs are on the record as a scientist and CEO, respectively, who used cannabis. Musicians from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Willie Nelson and Nicki Minaj swear by it. I have never said that cannabis causes me to be creative, but I have argued, like the painter on Sanjay Gupta’s first CNN Weed special, that “it’s my favorite way to work.”
But is there anything to this? Is there really a connection between using cannabis and being creative, and if so, what is it? Does it actually stimulate people to be more inspired, imaginative, inventive, or artistic?
There are no easy answers, as is the case with much we are still learning about cannabis. It is generally believed and understood that cannabis and THC stimulate activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is where dopamines (sensitive neurons generally associated with reward, attention span, and short-term memory) are located. Beyond that, trying to even quantify creativity is a sticky wicket. Psychology researchers can’t define it. Is creativity the end product of creative work, or is it reflected in the personality of the person?
More interesting is whether creativity might have something to do with the differences between convergent thinking, which is the ability to follow logical steps to a conclusion, and divergent thinking, which centers around a less linear process to come up with answers.
Most research on the subject relies on tests, generally done against time constraints, to measure “creativity.” One, for example, asked the subject to name as many words as they could in 30 seconds. Though that might be an appropriate scientific way to approach it, I’m unsure that it helps us understand anything about the process.
And some of the research seems biased. A 2012 study admitted that little is known about how drugs affect the mind, but suggested that cannabis use might stimulate the sections of the brain (i.e. the frontal lobe) that lead to divergent thinking. A different test two years later denied those conclusions vehemently. “The improved creativity that they believe they experience is an illusion,” Dr. Lorenza Colzato of the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University said about his study. “If you want to overcome writer’s block or any other creative gap, lighting up a joint isn’t the best solution. Smoking several joints one after the other can even be counterproductive to creative thinking.”
Those methods don’t even hint at what’s going on when I write under the influence, especially since I’m never being asked to come up with as many words as I can to describe something in 30 seconds to test my creativity. And they do nothing to explain why so many creative people still use cannabis to produce outstanding, innovative work.
So I began to talk to cannabis users to find out what they see as the link between cannabis and creativity. Most find it hard to accurately describe their experience, but all mentioned some variation on the “divergent thinking” concept.
“I like a ton of input and jam it into my brain,” says Sebastian Vidali, founder of Arcana, Inc, a cannabis-focused brand development group. “Smoke allows an almost Tony Stark thing, or that’s the way it feels, anyway. It connects things together in a fluid way and
helps create a new picture. I feel less held back by other factors. I’m always running multiple strains of thoughts, and it feels to me that I can dive into one thread and make connections. It clears the noise in a way.”
“It’s hard to explain, but it opens up the creative river, gets those creative juices going,” says Patrick McGregor, a painter and muralist who works in a lot of different media. “I’ll be uninspired, take a lunch break, smoke a little, and it’ll bring me back into the painting.” Neil Haverstick is a master at almost any stringed instrument. He says cannabis is more common than you might imagine in the music biz. “I would say I’ve know many hundreds of musicians who smoke pot; in fact, I’ve only known a few that haven’t. Of course, I’ve also seen a lotta alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and cocaine sniffing over the years in my field, but fortunately, not much usage of heroin.”
He doesn’t really like playing live while elevated, but cannabis is an important part of his writing process. “When I start to play my guitar (or oud), I find that I often start doing things that I have never done before. I have ideas that take me beyond the things I usually play—different melodies, rhythms, concepts,” he says. “I surprise myself. Sometimes, I think, ‘Where did that come from? Never played that before.’ And that is the keyword: Surprise. I am often able to create new shapes, patterns, something that did not previously exist.”
Everybody I talked with says is that cannabis makes them see and think things in a different way. Sebastian Marincolo is a neuroscientist who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, who has studied the positive potential of cannabis for the last decade. His most recent book, What Hashish Did to Walter Benjamin: Mind Altering Essays on Cannabis, looks into how cannabis was used positively by historical figures like Sagan, Rudyard Kipling, and Miles Davis, among many others, and tries to explain how judicious use of the marijuana high helped them and can help others.
Marincolo began looking into the connections between cannabis and creativity while working on his doctorate in philosophy and neuroscience. His roommate was studying toxicity, and they began to research marijuana as it related to mind enhancement. They weren’t interested in the medical aspects. “We started looking into how it can help cognitive enhancement of episodic memories,” Marincolo says. “People have reported, and I have experienced, an enhanced episodic memory—like for instance, you remember events from childhood in greater detail.”
Another fundamental element they found was a hyperfocus of attention. “Whatever you tend to be thinking about is more in focus,” Marincolo says. “Because of that you have an intensification of experience. Things seem to be more detailed and intense because you’re more focused and have the ability to imagine things. Imagination is crucial for creativity. And it’s not just images, it’s also important for people who compose music or for a chef who is imagining a taste for a dessert.”
He says that many people experience a mind acceleration that is generally associated with a slowdown in time perception. Haverstick mentioned “new shapes and patterns,” and Marincolo corroborated that musicians seem to be especially tuned to this. Using Miles Davis as an example, Marincolo says some artists “can see patterns and similarities between patterns and better understand musical patterns.”
Marincolo also found that many users experience an enhancement of body perception. “Some describe how they can feel cold water going down their throats, or that they have better touch or sex experiences.”
Users report the ability to understand and connect better with the emotions and moods of friends, children, and partners. “They see patterns in the behavior of other people and understand them better. There can be an enhancement of language understanding, to get into the flow of other languages.”
Nobody I spoke with seemed to be of the opinion that you just hit the bong, and boom, the creativity gong hits you in the head. “My conclusion is that I think there is abuse in countries with prohibition, where people have access only to poor quality, black-market product, and they can abuse it as a form of escapism,” says Marincolo, who offers online classes that include hands-on advice for personal growth, introspection, and dealing with personal relationships and sex. The classes emphasize how strains, terpenes, and ingestion methods can influence your creativity. “We all have different needs, and cannabis has a lot to offer—especially now that we are learning about the cannabinoid system and how different terpenes have different chemical profiles. We need to have this knowledge.”
I think we’ll be waiting a long time for science to catch up with the connection between cannabis and creativity. Until then, Marincolo’s studies and my discussions with other users make sense to me in ways that traditional methods and research don’t. First, of course, cannabis has to be decriminalized, legalized, and destigmatized throughout the country and around the world. “It’s a cliché of sorts that musicians use ‘drugs,’ but I don’t think of marijuana as a drug,” Haverstick says. “I believe it has many useful properties, and now that it’s becoming legalized for both medical and recreational usage, we’re starting to see just how helpful it can be in a wide variety of situations.”
“We need to consider it as a tool,” Marincolo says. “But only if you know how to use it.”