What does science say about the connection between cannabis and creativity?
The late Steve Jobs said “the best way I would describe the effect of the marijuana and the hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.” He’s not the only one who has expressed this opinion. But is J0bs and others like him actually more creative? Or do they just perceive themselves to be more creative?
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The scholarly literature on the subject is inconclusive, but there is a body of scientific research that suggests a solid connection.
What Is Hyper-Priming?
One study conducted in 2010 demonstrated that the primary property of cannabis is it’s ability to increase hyper-priming. Put simply, hyper-priming is what occurs when your brain makes a connection between two items that are seemingly unrelated. When under the influence of THC, most people are capable of making these connections faster than those not under the influence. In other words, cannabis produces psychotomimetic symptoms, which leads to connecting disparate concepts, the type of divergent thinking that is considered primary to creative thinking.
Vaughan Bell, a British clinical psychologist who has studied the effect of cannabis and the creative mind, says:
“As cannabis certainly causes smokers to have freewheeling thoughts, the researchers decided to test whether stoned participants would show the ‘hyper-priming’ effect…[And indeed they found that]…volunteers who were under the influence of cannabis showed a definite “hyper-priming” tendency, where distant concepts were reacted to more quickly.”
Another report, this one from 2000, suggests that a drug-induced altered state of mind leads some to break free from traditional ways of thinking and increases the likelihood of generating out-of-the-box ideas. (Think again of Steve Jobs.)
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This is not a modern concept. In Creativity and Beyond: Cultures, Values, and Change, Robert Paul Weiner wrote:
“From American Indian use of peyote to Chinese people using plum wine, to Coleridge’s opium use, and Hemingway’s alcohol consumption, individuals have found that the exaggerated emotions and altered perspectives they’ve gained from drugs stimulated their creativity”
Not Everyone Agrees
But there are other studies that debunk the creativity claim. An oft-reported 2014 Dutch study suggested “the evidence is not conclusive.” The Leiden University study suggests that “cannabis with low potency does not have any impact on creativity, while highly potent cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking.”
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Dr. Lorenza Colzato, co-author of the study wrote:
“The improved creativity that they believe they experience is an illusion. 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.”
There certainly is an abundance of anecdotal evidence pointing to creative enhancement.
Carl Sagan said this of his consumption of cannabis:
“I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”
Sagan’s widow and longtime professional collaborator Ann Druyan, said:
“Marijuana made it possible for both of us to be far more creative. The things that people find distinctly unique about Carl’s work, and our work together, and my work since, were certainly influenced by the perspective that was made possible by knowing what it was like to be high.”
Nobody is suggesting that taking a few puffs of cannabis will turn you into a creative genius. But what science suggests is that marijuana allows the mind to be more open to different pathways of information. For most of us, that leads us to a more creative mindset.