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.
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.