Dr. David Pompei, PharmD, MS
Many people consume cannabis to enhance their creativity. In this article, Jointly explores the science of cannabis and creativity. We will answer questions like: does weed make you more creative? What is creativity and how do scientists measure creativity? What is the best weed for creative thinking?
In the popular imagination, there has been a close link between cannabis and creativity for more than 160 years. In 1860, Charles Baudelaire, the French poet who is credited with coining the term “modernity,” wrote a book called Artificial Paradise in which he describes his experiences with hashish:
“The simplest words, the most trivial ideas, take on a strange and new physiognomy. You are surprised at yourself for having up to now found them so simple…interminable puns, comic sketches, spout eternally from your brain.”
More recent artists and thinkers also tout marijuana’s creativity-enhancing benefits. Steve Jobs once said, “The best way I could describe the effect of the marijuana and hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.”
Due to federal prohibition on cannabis, there is not enough research into how cannabis impacts creativity to state any firm conclusions.
However, it is likely that cannabis affects creativity through the dopaminergic system. Creativity is “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is formed.” Creating is a complex cognitive state that involves dopamine and the frontal cortex of the brain. Creativity is associated with the brain’s frontal lobes, and cannabis has been demonstrated to increase blood flow to the frontal lobes.
According to Dr. Alice Flaherty from the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, people with high creativity demonstrate “high baseline frontal lobe activity and greater frontal increase while performing creative tasks.” This observation has led Dr. Flaherty to conclude that in the short term cannabis may boost creative output: “Marijuana is a stimulant. And most stimulants, in the short term anyway, boost output of all kinds.”
Dr. Flaherty explains that cannabis may affect creativity by boosting cerebral blood flow to the frontal lobes, which serves as the control center for “divergent creative thinking.” While creativity is hard to objectively measure, scientists have teased out two cognitive processes that are thought to play a significant role in creative thinking: divergent thinking and convergent thinking.
Brainstorming is divergent thinking, or “being able to explore options through loose associations to generate novel ideas.” Convergent thinking is the opposite: you take various different ideas and find a common thread between them. Now that we understand how scientists measure creativity, let’s explore what they have discovered about cannabis and creativity.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate motor function, learning and emotional responses, but it also plays an important role in creativity. Authors of a 2010 study exploring the relationship between dopamine and creativity stated, “human creativity has been claimed to rely on the neurotransmitter dopamine, but evidence is still sparse.”
The study found that “dopamine has a negative linear correlation with convergent thinking, whereas an ‘inverted U’ shape correlation with at least one aspect of divergent thinking, where too much or too little [dopamine] harms it, but a middle amount is just right.”
THC is known to stimulate dopamine release in the striatum, which is a part of the brain involved in creative activities. However, chronic marijuana use may lead to decreased dopamine activity in the brain. This data suggests that in long-term cannabis users with depressed dopamine activity, inhaling THC could temporarily improve their divergent thinking. But convergent thinking is “negatively correlated with dopamine activity, so inhaling marijuana should hamper this aspect of creative thinking in anyone.”
Cannabis affects cerebral blood flow and the dopaminergic system, so there are various mechanisms by which cannabis could impact creativity. But is there any data that indicates that cannabis or CBD actually has a positive effect on creativity?
A 2003 survey revealed that 50% of cannabis users believe cannabis heightens their creativity. Of course, self-reported surveys are not exactly objective. An early clinical trial from 1975 looked at the effect of marijuana on convergent and divergent thinking, and found that a 3mg joint of THC improved divergent thinking, but a 6mg joint worsened it. If your goal is to create, it is probably best to start with a small dose.
In 2011, Dr. Gráinne Schafer and colleagues at the University College London reviewed literature “suggesting that the effects of cannabis on creativity have not been extensively studied nor are the mechanisms by which it stimulates creativity well understood.” In 2012, Schafer et al. published a study demonstrating that people with low creativity demonstrate improved verbal fluency after consuming cannabis. However, people with high creativity were unaffected by consuming cannabis.
The authors speculated that the low creativity group experienced “dopamine release in the mesolimbic pathway which includes the frontal cortex,” while the high creativity group may have already had “some sort of disinhibition of frontal cortex functions.” So there is some evidence that cannabis can boost creativity, but how it affects you seems to vary based on your specific neurochemistry, genetics or personality.
Another study from 2014 looked at the effect of vaporized cannabis on creative thinking in 54 Dutch men and women who regularly used cannabis. The study tested convergent and divergent thinking in three groups: no THC, low THC and high THC.
Convergent thinking was not affected in any of the three groups. The no THC group and the low THC group performed equally well on divergent thinking tasks, but the high THC group performed significantly worse than they did at baseline. This study provides some evidence that cannabis can negatively affect creative thinking.
However, this study has some significant limitations. Creativity was measured using word associations, which may not relate to creativity in other domains such as dance, music or creative problem solving. Additionally, all the subjects were regular marijuana users, so it is unknown if these results would be mirrored in the general population.
And the researchers note that they may have given their high THC group too high of a dose, as this group experienced more negative subjective effects than the other groups, leading the researchers to suggest “maybe the participants had to spend their cognitive resources dealing with the bad feelings rather than the task at hand, which fits with the ‘ego depletion’ model of cognitive control.”
This detail is worth singling out: too much THC may negatively impact your creativity, because you will have to use your cognitive resources battling the high rather than thinking creatively.
As for why the no THC and low THC groups performed equally well on the divergent thinking tasks, the researchers suggested that possibly the low THC dose was too low. Or the no THC dose may have contained enough THC or other active ingredients to exert an effect on the subjects. Alternately, the smell and taste of the no THC cannabis could have triggered a strong placebo effect “simply based on expectation.” The authors did not provide a possible explanation for why convergent thinking did not differ between groups.
So there is some evidence that low doses of cannabis might stimulate creative thinking, but higher doses seem to have a negative impact on creativity. Despite these findings, many people find that controlled doses of cannabis or CBD boost their creativity. Why might that be?
One of the reasons cannabis might enhance creativity is simply because it is psychoactive. As Robert Weiner wrote in his tome Creativity & Beyond: Cultures, Values and Change, many people “have found that the exaggerated emotions and altered perspectives they’ve gained from drugs stimulate their creativity.”
Schafer et al. suggested, “Cannabis produces psychotomimetic symptoms, which in turn might lead to connecting seemingly unrelated concepts.” Of course, while this state may be beneficial for generating new ideas and connections, these ideas should be reviewed and edited the next day. As Gina Beavers, a painter who makes surreal, abstract pieces emphasizes, “A few times, I’ve been mulling over how to solve some issue and weed will give me ideas, but not always the ones I go with. I have to wait and look at the solutions in the light of day.”
Looking for cannabis strains to boost your creativity? Is there any evidence that one strain is better than another for enhancing creativity? Well, an Examine.com article reviewing whether cannabis affects creativity concludes, “the question of whether or not one strain is ‘better’ than another for a given purpose (such as creative thinking) requires more direct testing, or, on the consumer side, some experimentation.”
Experts agree that some trial-and-error is necessary to find the right cannabis products for you. If you want to find products that work without breaking the bank, use Jointly to get matched with top-rated cannabis products, try them out, and record your experiences on the Jointly app. Before you know it you will have a treasure trove of valuable information about how different cannabis products or strains affect your creativity.
Brands and manufacturers have designed a vast range of legal cannabis and CBD products to help you get into a creative flow. However, each person’s endocannabinoid system is different. Additionally, there are 15 Factors that can impact your cannabis experience, such as the quality of your diet, when you last consumed cannabis, and your dose. The same product can give you a different experience when these 15 Factors are different.
Jointly is a cannabis discovery app that makes it easy to find and match with the best cannabis and CBD products for your goals. Your matches are calculated from the real product ratings and experiences of hundreds of thousands of people using the Jointly app.
With Jointly, match with top-rated products, and build lists of your favorites to save, share, and bring to your local dispensary to help guide your shopping experience.
Jointly also helps you track your cannabis experiences through reflections that help you understand what’s working, and what’s not. In fact, the quality of your diet, how much you slept, who you’re with, and the time of day are just some of the factors that can impact your experiences.