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The Science Behind Cannabis and Creativity

During a government background check in 1988, Steve Jobs famously remarked:

“The best way I would describe the effect of the marijuana and the hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.”

So, was one of the most creative minds of our time onto something, or was he just a turtleneck-wearing stoner who happened to be a genius?

We work in a creative industry. Our success depends on our ability to generate exciting ideas and fresh campaigns, to adapt to various budgets, resources, and constraints. The best thing about our line of work is that, oftentimes, we can go as far as our imaginations will take us. That’s also the scariest thing.

That’s why we’re always looking for an edge. We’re always interested in what other creative people are doing to produce their best work, and you know what?

A lot of them are smoking weed.

I’m not suggesting we swap out our coffee machine for a vaporizer or turn the supply closet into a green room, but I do think it’s an interesting debate. Marijuana is more popular than ever with people of all ages. The legalization movement has gained a lot of traction over the past few years, and it may not be long until weed is completely legal across the country.

So, without debating the politics or the economics of the sticky icky—or even the moral implications—I want to explore the issue on a deeper level. Does marijuana help the creative process or not?

The Science and Neuroscience

We’re not the first ones to ask this question, obviously. The effects of marijuana on creativity have been studied extensively by everyone from prestigious PhDs in university laboratories to white kids with dreadlocks in their college dorms. The findings have been a bit of a mixed bag.

One of the keys to creativity is divergent thinking, meaning the ability to view things in a multitude of different ways. It’s what makes creative people creative. It’s what makes people, upon viewing your creation, say, “I’ve never thought of it that way,” or “Wow, what was he smoking?”

With that in mind, a 2010 study by Morgan, Rothwell, et al. showed that one of marijuana’s primary properties is its ability to increase hyper-priming, or your ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. It’s the cause behind those famous and well-parodied “Aha!” moments when a high person suddenly realizes a deep truth about himself after noticing something inconsequential like a dead worm on the sidewalk; or how a weed-fueled conversation can go from whether or not the guy from ABC’s “Nashville” was also in an episode of “Boy Meets World” (he was) to the pros and cons of Taco Bell quesadillas in no time flat.

Marijuana also causes your brain to release the neurochemical called dopamine, which gives users the signature calm, euphoric feeling. It also helps reduce your inhibitions and turn off your “inner-editor” while writing, drawing, or brainstorming. People high on marijuana often describe their thoughts and feelings as moving more freely, almost flowing through them.

Last, research suggests that cannabis blurs the lines between a person’s five senses, allowing for an increased capacity for wonder and awe. It enhances your ability to marvel at things, somehow allowing you to experience events in a profound, internal way.

But it’s not all cheese puffs and genius works of art for weed smokers. A study done in 2010 by Bourasa & Vaugeois claims that the supposed creative benefits of marijuana don’t hold up statistically. The study showed no positive effect from marijuana on divergent thinking and that it may even have a negative impact in this area.

So, how do we explain the disparity between studies? Maybe creativity is tougher to define than we’re led to believe. Maybe it’s more complicated than a series of tests or response times engineered by psychologists.

Even if we were to agree that divergent thinking is the most important aspect of creativity, it’s still only one aspect. Weed isn’t some magical substance that can turn any old schlub into Picasso. True creativity also requires intelligence and a whole lot of hard work.

The High and Creative

If science isn’t your thing, maybe anecdotal evidence will be more up your alley. Let’s put it this way; if weed were a brand, it’d have dozens of high profile celebs fighting over who gets the right to endorse it.

Kevin Smith, director, screenwriter, and actor, credits his discovery of marijuana with helping him climb out of a creative rut after a slew of film failures.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys claims that smoking weed helped him write the massively acclaimed album Pet Sounds.

Alanis Morissette smokes weed regularly when writing music. ALANIS MORISSETTE, PEOPLE.

Famous people have made their stance clear: marijuana is a heck of a way to jump-start your creative process. As Bill Hicks said:

“See, I think drugs have done some *good* things for us, I really do. And if you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a Favor: go home tonight and take all your albums, all your tapes, and all your CDs and burn ‘em. ‘Cause you know what? The musician’s who made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years… Rrrrrrrrrrrrreal —— high on drugs.”

The Argument Against

So, we should all go ahead and toke up so we can crank out the next great American novel, right? Not so fast.

For the time being, at least, marijuana is still illegal in most states, and there’s already been enough said about the potential health hazards of smoking on a regular basis. But even beyond that, there are some pretty serious drawbacks to getting high and creating that we need to consider.

You know the stereotypical pothead you see in movies and on television? The one that’s spacey, aloof, and has trouble forming intelligible sentences? Well, there’s the dark side of pot for you. Sure, it’s great to be able to make unique connections between ideas, but it also means you may have trouble focusing on and completing tasks.

For example, researchers at NASA conducted a study during which they gave various drugs to spiders and recorded their efforts at spinning webs before and after. The spiders on weed attempted to spin webs, but often gave up about halfway through. Classic pothead behavior. You might guess, then, that weed and deadlines don’t mix.

The portions of web that they did manage to complete were often significantly less precise than their sober counterparts, so it’s probably safe to say that surgeons and airplane pilots should go ahead and pass on the pipe, too.

Using marijuana to ignite creativity certainly isn’t for everyone. People that need to operate at a high intellectual level, or anyone that holds another person’s life or well-being in his hands, should abstain. The impairments that weed often inflicts just aren’t worth the potential creative boost.

Summary

The decision to use marijuana as a creative stimulant is a personal choice. The data suggests that, while there’s no guarantee you’ll smoke your way into a massive breakthrough, some users may find a little bud is just the thing their right-brain needs to get going.

We don’t endorse drug-use of any kind, but we’re not blind to the world we live in, either. It’s out there, and people are using it, so it’s important that we try to understand it.

We’ve laid out some of the pros and cons of smoking marijuana; how it can help you, how it can hurt you, what it can do for you, and what it can do to you. The facts are available. What you choose to do with them is up to you.

What’s your take on weed as a creative catalyst? For, against, or indifferent, we’d love to hear your opinion.

Comments

  1. January 07, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    […] surprise – cannabis can help you be more creative. There’s still some debate as to how or why this happens, but cannabis does inspire lateral and divergent thinking, an important mindset for […]

  2. January 10, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    I came across this article because I was trying to see if there was a way for me to feel motivated and creative without weed. I am a musician, have been for the last 20 years. I started writing music at the same time I started smoking pot. My music was more of an experiment with sound and how sound can alter your state of consciousness or emotional state. It has always been my process to smoke some weed and then mess around with sound. a few years after in life I tried psychedelics such as Mushrooms and LSD, all for the creation of art and music. I am a completely self taught musician, have never taken any lessons and feel I do not need to. I find it very difficult to get into music when I am sober, which is a problem I am dealing with right now. I lost my connections and have just had a really hard time getting any weed. The last time I did I got ripped off and was not in the right environment to work on songs and I wasted it. People can say what they want about smoking weed and doing psychedelics but it is pretty amazing how if I take acid and sit down in front of a synthesizer, how I can improvise an entire album of amazing psychedelic music off the top of my head. I usually never had the means to record it unfortunately but when I did and listened to it later, I still thought it sounded really good. Of course what is good and what is not especially when it come to music more so than visual art is very subjective and will always be a matter of one’s opinion. Anyway, when I try and play music while sober I just run through a bunch of typical scales and make boring piano stuff, it sounds good but is not near as good as the stuff I make when I am stoned. when I am stoned or especially on LSD I can make music that sounds unworldly, the music just flows through me like I am vessel, like the music is playing me. I thoughtlessly and effortlessly create very interesting, heavily layered and complex soundscapes and amaze anyone who is present to hear it. Recording it all has always been the biggest issue. One time on acid, my synthesizer became the flight control deck of a spaceship and I used the sounds to navigate through the universe. Those explorations have not only made me a better musician but have also guided my spiritual believes and understanding of science. I think music has spiritual properties and is like a drug itself, I believe that the right combination of rhythm and sound can unlock higher mind states, enlightenment and is the universal language of the soul and great divine. Music has magical properties, so it makes sense that my best material comes from when I am in different states of mind. The whole reason I started writing music in the first place was to explore different states of consciousness through sound and drugs. My tripping days are over, can’t do that around my girlfriend and her kids but I still like to smoke weed. It enhances everything, which can sometimes be bad, for example if I smoke and someone wants to lecture me about mundane shit, something tragic happens or I am in an awkward social situation. Some things are major buzz kills. When I listen to music while stoned I enjoy it more, I can look at art for hours while stoned, movies are more entertaining, everything seems more entertaining and colorful. I am calmer and generally more positive and collective, it keeps me from getting pissed off and frustrated. The big problem I have is when I can’t smoke weed. Not only can I not get into things and even when I do I think to myself “This would be so much cooler if I was high right now” and it is true. Because of that, I have movies and albums on my computer that I will not check out until I can get high again and I have songs that are near completion that I will not finish until I get some weed. So as long as I can’t find any pot my songs are sitting there collecting dust and I spend my free time just trying to bide my time. I play video games because it keeps my mind off of it. If my music is all about getting high, than writing songs while sober goes against the entire philosophy which results in me only being productive while on something. It has become such a thing that when I have weed I want everyone to leave me alone and just want to play my keyboard the entire time, for I feel I am wasting it if I am hanging out with people. I have become dependent on it for my creations. Lately I have not been creating near as much and it is starting to drive me crazy. Feeling like I am not living up to my fullest potential and am just wasting my time and talent all because it is illegal and so hard to find. Does anyone else understand where I am coming from or has had to go through this? Mean while, my girlfriend thinks of it as a bad habit and kind of discourages me from writing music in the first place because it is a process in which I isolate myself from others for hours on end and she thinks of me as being a drug addict and my music as being a waste of time, because I am not famous and it doesn’t pay the bills. I feel like my life is a waste if I don’t create music and that I am onto something really big and might possibly create the next biggest thing that could actually have a huge impact on humanity if I continue to explore the infinite possibilities and avenues of song writing or at least come up with something people would want to pay money to listen to and go see performed. It is really frustrating, right now she is gone and her kids are gone and I could totally work on my songs with no distractions but I am instead writing this wall of text on here because I don’t have any weed. How can I feel as creative without it? The only thing I have to drive me right now is my anger and frustration of feeling unaccomplished. Anyone else understand where I am coming from?

  3. January 23, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    […] surprise – cannabis can help you be more creative. There’s still some debate as to how or why this happens, but cannabis does inspire lateral and divergent thinking, an important mindset for […]

  4. January 26, 2016 @ 1:24 am
    Robert says:

    I prefer to smoke cannabis when I am writing music, working on things for work, and doing other tasks, Like Steve Jobs says, it does make you more creative and relaxed… for me at least. I know it does effect people differently, though. Some tend to get sleepy or experience paranoia.

  5. January 29, 2016 @ 11:36 pm

    […] surprise – cannabis can help you be more creative. There’s still some debate as to how or why this happens, but cannabis does inspire lateral and divergent thinking, an important mindset for […]

  6. February 15, 2016 @ 8:19 am
    Kenny says:

    Great stuff man! I feel like marijuana helps me to hyperprime as well! The tradeoff is a little short term memory loss but the connections and insights are amazing! It is good for getting through the stresses of business building!

  7. February 21, 2016 @ 1:26 pm
    BD says:

    As with any drug, food, etc, the difference in the chemical composition of people will decide the effects of what they consume. I myself am an avid user of Cannabis and find that it makes me more focused in my tasks and helps me with the creative process. I have an above normal IQ and am a professional artist and I can say without hesitation that using MJ on a regular basis has not caused any mental or physical degradation to my body. However, I know some people who have very mentally adverse reactions to using MJ and agree that they should abstain from using it. It all boils down to what your frequency is and how it resonates with whatever else you’re adding into it. Cannabis is an amazing species and with all of the health and environmental benefits that it harnesses and even without the added benefit of ‘mind expansion’ to some users, it should be utilized to all its magnificent applications and stop being wrongfully tarnished in the media with incorrect truths about its harms.

  8. March 14, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    […] The Science Behind Cannabis and Creativity – We take a look at the research behind cannabis and producing creative work. Does marijuana help or hurt the creative process? […]

  9. March 17, 2016 @ 11:42 pm

    […] Science says so too. […]

  10. April 25, 2016 @ 10:47 am

    […] surprise – cannabis can help you be more creative. There’s still some debate as to how or why this happens, but cannabis does inspire lateral and divergent thinking, an important mindset for […]

  11. June 10, 2016 @ 8:25 am
    Sim says:

    I agree, for performance it’s not recommended. I use it for the opposite, when I need to take the mouse off the wheel in my head, after 12 hours of mental work, a small bong bowl and I immediately feel all my body relax and the energy go from my about to explode brain to every blood cell everywhere. So if anyone else out there has that need for head silence, who can’t seem to be able to turn that radio station of thoughs at max volume, try a lil THC with sum TLC and you’ll see =)

  12. July 30, 2016 @ 3:11 am

    Almost all of what you say happens to be supprisingly precise and it makes me ponder why I had not looked at this in this light previously. Your piece truly did switch the light on for me as far as this specific topic goes. Nonetheless there is actually just one factor I am not too comfy with so whilst I try to reconcile that with the core idea of your issue, allow me see exactly what all the rest of your visitors have to point out.Very well done.

  13. August 14, 2016 @ 10:40 pm
    Blue Jeans says:

    I always smoke when I write. Not a lot. Just a hit or two of something good, and ideas come. This study does not surprise me.