Cannabis and Creativity
There is a common myth that cannabis makes people more creative, but this is a loaded statement with a complicated explanation. Let’s explore this topic further by understanding what the research is saying on cannabis and creativity.
What is Creativity?
Creativity is not a well-defined concept and scientists have trouble agreeing on how to measure or study it due to how subjective the process of ‘creativity’ is. However, two creative processes that have been used to study creativity are divergent and convergent thinking.1
Divergent thinking happens when someone tries to find as many solutions as possible to a loosely defined problem, also known as brainstorming. When a group of people get together to generate many different ideas, they are using divergent thinking. On the other hand, convergent thinking happens when someone takes various different ideas and tries to find a common link between them, or a single solution to a problem. An example of convergent thinking would be when someone is taking a multiple-choice test and trying to figure out which answer is correct.
Divergent and convergent thinking seem like opposites, but they actually work together. Divergent thinking is important in brainstorming, but convergent thinking is important in problem solving and helping a person select which idea is best.
What's the Link Between Creativity and Cannabis?
Research has found that creativity, specifically divergent thinking, is linked to an area of the brain called the frontal lobe. 2 When someone uses cannabis, THC enters the bloodstream and boosts blood flow to the frontal lobe. 3 This activates the frontal lobe and may boost divergent thinking, which is why some say cannabis makes people feel more creative. However, more research is needed to understand this relationship.
The relationship between cannabis and divergent thinking is complicated and seems to depend on many individual factors such as personality, genetics, neurochemistry and history of cannabis use. 4, 5
What is the impact of Cannabis on Divergent Thinking?
Let’s look at the results from two research studies that explored cannabis and divergent thinking.
The first study was conducted in 2014 in The Netherlands and included healthy adults that were regular cannabis users. 5 This study found that a high dose of THC (22 mg) actually weakened divergent thinking in regular cannabis users, compared to a low dose (5.5 mg). However, a low dose of cannabis did not improve divergent thinking in regular cannabis users either.
The second study was conducted in 2011 in the United Kingdom and included adult cannabis users. 3 Participants’ creativity was tested on two different days: (1) when they were not intoxicated and (2) when they were intoxicated after using their own cannabis (THC levels varied). Participants were tested while not intoxicated and intoxicated to understand their baseline creativity (whether they had low or high creative personalities) and the effect of cannabis on their creativity. The researchers assessed creativity through divergent thinking tasks, specifically verbal fluency and category fluency. To test verbal fluency, participants were asked to list as many words they could think of that linked to a letter of the alphabet, for example “M”. Category fluency was tested by asking participants to list as many words they could think of that linked to a specific category, for example “fruits”. The study found that cannabis slightly improved verbal fluency for the short-term among people who had low baseline creative personalities, but it did not affect category fluency.
In addition, cannabis had no effect on people who were considered to have high creative personalities at baseline. 3 The results from both of these studies might seem confusing, but both studies suggest there is no clear link between cannabis and divergent thinking. 3,5 Both types of thinking are important for creativity and work together. Divergent thinking helps with generating ideas, but convergent thinking is needed to make meaningful connections and select which idea is best. 2, 3
Therefore, it is important to consider how cannabis may affect convergent thinking as well. Since cannabis acts as a stimulant, it causes a boost in other areas of the brain too. This includes an area of the brain that activates convergent thinking. Convergent thinking requires concentration, problem solving and decision-making, and the research suggests that THC can weaken this type of thinking. 3
Haven't Famous People Used Cannabis for Creative Thinking?
It’s true that famous people, such as Jay-Z (rapper, songwriter, producer and businessman) and Steve Jobs (founder of Apple) used cannabis and claimed it made them feel creative. However, the research from these studies do not support the belief that people become more creative after using cannabis. There were no signs of increased creativity when researchers measured people’s actual performance after using cannabis. Based on these results, researchers believe that people who report feeling more creative after using cannabis are confusing the intoxicating feeling of cannabis with creativity. 4, 5
Overall, the research suggests that using cannabis, and the link to creativity, is a complex relationship and subjective matter with no simple or scientific answer.5 Alternative strategies to boost creative thinking include being physically active such as walking, 6 getting proper sleep, 7 and eating healthy (less added sugar and more dietary fibre). 8
- Guilford, J. P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. McGraw-Hill.
- Chermahini, S. A., & Hommel, B. (2010). The (b) link between creativity and dopamine: spontaneous eye blink rates predict and dissociate divergent and convergent thinking. Cognition, 115(3), 458-465.
- Schafer, G., Feilding, A., Morgan, C. J., Agathangelou, M., Freeman, T. P., & Curran, H. V. (2012). Investigating the interaction between schizotypy, divergent thinking and cannabis use. Consciousness and cognition, 21(1), 292-298.
- LaFrance, E. M., & Cuttler, C. (2017). Inspired by Mary Jane? Mechanisms underlying enhanced creativity in cannabis users. Consciousness and cognition, 56, 68-76.
- Kowal, M. A., Hazekamp, A., Colzato, L. S., van Steenbergen, H., van der Wee, N. J., Durieux, J., ... & Hommel, B. (2015). Cannabis and creativity: highly potent cannabis impairs divergent thinking in regular cannabis users. Psychopharmacology, 232(6), 1123-1134.
- Frith, E., Ryu, S., Kang, M., & Loprinzi, P. D. (2019). Systematic review of the proposed associations between physical exercise and creative thinking. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 15(4), 858-877.
- Lewis, P. A., Knoblich, G., & Poe, G. (2018). How memory replay in sleep boosts creative problem-solving. Trends in cognitive sciences, 22(6), 491-503.
- Hassevoort, K. M., Lin, A. S., Khan, N. A., Hillman, C. H., & Cohen, N. J. (2020). Added sugar and dietary fiber consumption are associated with creativity in preadolescent children. Nutritional neuroscience, 23(10), 791-802.