Many people who consume cannabis for a cognitive boost are seeking to enhance their creativity and their focus at the same time. Why does cannabis help some people focus? How does cannabis help with creativity? Jointly dives into the science of weed, focus, and creativity.
It could be a computer programmer who finds that consuming a 1:1 CBD-THC edible in the morning settles her nerves for the day and opens her mind up to new solutions; a 70-year-old triathlete who discovers that a few drops of a sativa tincture allows him to stay focused during grueling bike rides; or a PhD student who breaks up long hours in the lab with a few tokes from a high-CBD joint.
Is cannabis or CBD the right choice for you to enhance your focus and creativity? Jointly can help you find out, but first let’s review what is known about cannabis, focus, and creativity!
In the popular imagination, cannabis has a much closer link to creativity than it does to focus, but there is also a long tradition of cannabis being used to enhance focus, especially during prolonged physical activities.
Wrestlers in Northern India traditionally took bhang, a cannabis infused drink, “to ensure long term concentration during exhausting all day practice.” Similarly, a survey of adult athletes who use cannabis revealed that 46.3% of athletes who used cannabis in the hour prior to exercising did so to improve focus.
But there is far more scientific research into how cannabis affects creativity, possibly because the link between cannabis and creativity has existed in the popular imagination for at least 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.” Evidently, people have long used cannabis to spark creativity and enhance focus.
Due to federal prohibition on cannabis, there is not enough research into how cannabis impacts focus or creativity to state any firm conclusions.
The limited amount of research has focused far more on how cannabis affects creativity than if or how cannabis affects focus and attention. While focusing and creating are distinct mental states, both are complex cognitive processes that involve dopamine and the frontal cortex of the brain. Creativity is associated with the brain’s frontal lobes, and the prefrontal cortex governs focus and attention. 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.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate motor function, learning and emotional responses, but it also plays an important role in the neuroscience of creativity and focus. Experimental studies have shown that “dopamine helps to enhance attention, especially in the context of making sure that you pay attention and shift your focus in a flexible and appropriate manner.”
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 and focus. But is there any data that indicates that cannabis or CBD actually has a positive effect on creativity or focus?
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 focus or 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. 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 Focus & Create, because you will have to use your cognitive resources battling the high rather than focusing or creating.
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 or focus. Despite these findings, many people find that controlled doses of cannabis or CBD boost their creativity and enhance their focus. 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.”
Scientists have given much less attention to how cannabis impacts focus. People rarely ask the budtender at their local cannabis dispensary for products that help them focus better. However, many people note that a purposeful dose of cannabis or CBD helps them focus. Perhaps one of the ways that cannabis or CBD helps people focus is by muting distractions like mild anxiety, stress or chronic pain. For example, patients who get a prescription for anxiety or chronic pain from a cannabis doctor at a medical marijuana clinic often find that they can think more clearly after their first dose of cannabis. Additionally, cannabis interacts with the dopaminergic system, and depending on your unique physiology, it may interact with your brain in a beneficial way.
There is evidence that cannabis affects aging brains differently than young brains, so the focus-enhancing effects of cannabis or CBD may vary based on age, as well as various other factors like an individual’s stress levels or unique endocannabinoid system.
People who are chronically stressed may find more focus-enhancing benefits from anti-inflammatory cannabinoids like CBD than people with less stress. Chronic stress often results in chronic inflammation. Research published in November 2019 by Dr. Ali Mazaheri and colleagues at the University of Birmingham showed that “inflammation specifically affected brain activity related to staying alert.”
“These results show quite clearly that there’s a very specific part of the brain network that's affected by inflammation,” says Dr. Mazaheri. “This could explain ‘brain fog’.” People who find that CBD helps them focus may be benefiting from its anti-inflammatory effects.
Terpenes are another mechanism by which cannabis could potentially enhance focus. Linalool seems to have an anti-inflammatory effect similar to CBD, and could possibly provide similar cognitive benefits.
According to a High Times article, dabs high in pinene should be called “study dabs.” Pinene is a terpene that has been shown to strongly inhibit acetylcholinesterase. Acetylcholine is an important neurochemical in the brain that “enhances attentional focus by modulating neural activity,” and acetylcholinesterase is the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine.
Different cannabis strains have different ratios of terpenes, and perhaps this variation explains why Sativa strains are considered good for focusing and creating, while Indica strains are believed to be better for relaxing. But is there any evidence that one strain is better than another for focusing or creating? An Examine.com article reviewing whether cannabis affects creativity concluded, “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.” Jointly can help you experiment with different strains and keep track of how well they help you Focus & Create.
Want to find the best strains for productivity? Are Sativa strains better for focusing than Indica strains? For help choosing the best weed strain, check out our article Why Jointly is Better than a Strain Finder. In that article, you will learn what strain names really mean, how to find the best weed strains for productivity and creativity, and how to use Jointly to discover the most effective products in your area.
Looking for products to boost your focus and creativity? Brands and manufacturers have designed a vast range of legal cannabis and CBD products for this exact purpose: “study dabs” high in pinene; sativa tinctures; cannabis infused coffees; low THC, high CBD cartridges. But how do you know if these products actually work? Jointly’s Find Product feature allows you to look up legal, licensed cannabis and CBD products in your state based on your wellness goal. Select Focus or Create and see how other users like you rated a product on a scale from 1-10, based on how well it helped them Focus or Create. By reporting your cannabis and CBD consumption, you are contributing important data to the Jointly community and helping Jointly make better product and routine recommendations for you.
Have you started your cannabis wellness journey? Jointly is a new cannabis wellness app that helps you discover purposeful cannabis consumption so you can achieve your wellness goals with cannabis and CBD. On the Jointly app, you can find new cannabis products, rate products based on how well they helped you achieve your goals, and track and optimize 15 factors that can impact your cannabis experience. These 15 factors include your dose, the environment in which you consume cannabis, who you are with when you ingest, how hydrated you are, the quality of your diet, how much sleep you got last night, and more. Download the Jointly app on the App Store or the Google Play Store to get started on your cannabis wellness journey.