It would be certainly interesting, and possibly useful, if marijuana were found to expand creativity acutely or even in the long term. Creativity is a trait which is largely desired and beneficial within Western culture. Being considered creative or even considering oneself to have done creative things fuels the ego, gives one a sense of individuality, and ultimately creates pleasure within humans. It is also commercially useful as one must produce unique products in order to stand oneself out within the market and increase profits. So, any potential to increase creativity, either for a short time or in the long run, is very sought after.
A substantial amount of evidence has arisen attempting to either uncover or disprove any relationship between marijuana usage and creativity. The founding research on this topic was done in the 1970s, primarily by researchers Russell Eisenman, Jan Carl Grossman, and Ronald Goldstein. In 1971, Grossman, Goldstein, and Eisenman (1971) took measurements from three undergraduate groups who differed in marijuana usage. They examined a positive, dose-respondent relationship between marijuana and creativity, i.e. people who used marijuana more were also more creative. Additionally, the same was shown for adventuresomeness (risk-taking) and a negative relationship was found with marijuana usage and political authoritarianism.
The team went on to confirm these findings within other datasets. Eisenman, Grossman, and Goldstein (1980) did the same sort of study and included five novelty-seeking scales. Marijuana usage was, again, found to be positively correlated with creativity and adventuresomeness. The relationship between marijuana and novelty seeking was not as strong, however. Only one scale was significantly correlated to frequency of marijuana usage, this scale being internal sensation seeking, which is not as related to creativity as some of the other scales included.
A sample of 984 undergraduates was gathered by Victor, Grossman, and Eisenman (1973) in order to, once again, examine the relationship between creativity and marijuana usage. Once again, they found a positive relationship between marijuana usage and creativity. None of the Grossman et al. studies confirmed any causal relationship from marijuana to creativity. In fact, the research largely just proves that more creative people are more likely to use marijuana. As Victor et al. (1973) writes:
|Instead of producing scores similar to the other nonusers in the sample, as predicted, these nonusers appeared more on the level of the moderate users in the four personality scales mentioned. This “before the fact” phenomenon lends support to the belief that the possession of certain personality characteristics, namely, creativity, adventuresomeness, nonauthoritarianism, and a desire for internal stimulation, tend to make an individual more open to the marijuana experience|
Tart’s (1971) sample1 of 150 undergraduates smoking marijuana showed multiple common effects which would imply an increase in creativity. These are all anonymously, subjectively reported by regular marijuana users, so they are not perfect evidence, but an interesting starting point. Tart (1970) summarized the common effects below; an asterisk after the effect means it was reported so frequently that it is characteristic or essential of the marijuana high and the number at the end of each item is the percentage which replied they felt the effect sometimes, very often, or usually.
|Visual effects: (1) I can see patterns, form, figures, meaningful designs in visual material that does not have any particular form when I’m straight, that is just a meaningless series of lines of shapes when I’m straight, 85*. (2) If I try to visualize something . . . I see it in my mind’s eye more sharply . . ., 81*. (3) When looking at pictures that may acquire an element of visual depth, a third dimensional aspect . . . , 72. (4) Things seen are seen more sharply in that their edges, contours stand out more sharply against the background, 72. (5) I can see new colours or more subtle shades of colour . . . , 70. (5) I can see new colours or more subtle shades of colour . . . , 70. […]|
Auditory effects: (1) I can hear more subtle changes in sounds, for example, the notes of music are purer and more distinct, the rhythm stands out more, 99*. (2) I can understand the words of songs which are not clear when straight, 85*. (3) When listening to stereo music or live music, the spatial separation between the various instruments sounds greater as if they were physically further apart, 82*. (4) If I try to have an auditory image . . . it is more vivid . . . , 73. (5) With my eyes closed and just listening to sounds, the space around me becomes an auditory space, a space where things are arranged according to their sound characteristics instead of visual, geometrical characteristics, 65. […]
(7) When stoned with others I play “childish” games, that is, we interact with each other in ways which are very enjoyable but which people would ordinarily consider “childish”, 80. (8) I feel the things I say in conversation are more profound and appropriate to the conversation, more interesting, 79. […]
Thought processes: (1) I appreciate very subtle humour in what my companions say, and say quite subtly funny thing myself, 91*. (2) Commonplace sayings of conversations seem to have new meanings, more significance, 87. (3) I give little or no thought to the future, I am completely in the here-and-now, 87*. (4) Spontaneously, insights about myself, my personality, the games I play, come to mind when stoned and seem very meaningful, 86*. (5) The ideas that come to my mind are much more original, 83. (6) I find it difficult to read, 80*. (7) I think about things in ways that seem intuitively correct, but which do not follow the rules of logic, 78. (8) . . . I think much more in (visual) images instead of just abstract thought, 75. […] (10) If I deliberately work on it, I can have important insights about myself, my personality, the games I play, 73. (11) I learn a great deal about psychological processes . . . general knowledge about how the mind works (as opposed to specific insights about yourself), 71. (12) I get so wound up in thoughts or fantasies that I won’t notice what’s going on around me . . . , 69. […] (14) I have more imagery that usual while reading; images of the scene I’m reading about just pop up vividly, 67. […] (20) In thinking about a problem of the sort that normally requires a series of steps to solve, I can get the answer without going through some of the usual intermediate steps . . . , 53.
Many of the changes in thought processes indicate a possible increase in creativity. However, some show that it can be simply a placebo effect from the marijuana. For example,
|(17) If I work on a problem, I work less accurately as judged by later real-world evaluation, 63. […] (19) If I try to solve a problem it feels as if my mind is much less efficient . . . , 65.|
Additionally, there is the problem that marijuana users might face increases in creativity but forget their idea too fast to make anything of it. This is indicated by the common, subjective effects of marijuana on memory. 89 percent of participants reported that they would forget what conversations are about before finishing them, 71 percent reported they couldn’t think clearly and that thoughts would slip away before they can grasp or do anything with them, 68 percent reported said their memory span for conversation was shortened so that they would forget the start of a sentence before finishing it. On the contrary, 72 percent reported that they can continue an intelligent conversation despite the exact memory problem. The problem of memory loss and cognitive decline is also partially elaborated on by Holt and Kaufman (2010).
Since the effects reported by Tart’s sample are entirely subjective, one should compare them with laboratory results to try and uncover the truth about the marijuana experience. A study was done where participants were given a learning and memory task and then describe the images they used. Judges than rated the reports from marijuana users and non-users. Judges rated intoxicated people’s descriptions as less vivid than non-users’ (Block and Wittenborn, 1984). This data would indicate that marijuana users are not as capable of describing images vividly, contrary to what Tart’s participants reported. It could either indicate a decrease in imagination or creativity on the part of marijuana or decrease in ability to articulate what the user is imagining. Either way, however, it would be a loss for the argument that marijuana is helpful for creativity.
In order to prove marijuana usage increases creativity, the best route is to do a randomized double-blind placebo trial. This consists of one group being given an edible or joint of marijuana and another group being given something that looks the same, but contains no THC, telling both groups they are being given marijuana, and then giving a creativity inventory in order to measure the effect that marijuana has on creativity, rid of placebo effects (additionally, one can have a group which is not given anything). This has been done in some studies.
Tinklenberg et al. (1978) used a sample of n=16 males from ages 18-35 who used marijuana semi-regularly (“not more than twice/week”). The sample was asked to not use any drugs throughout the week before the experiment. Participants were tested for the novelty of their reactions to stimuli one day before going through the experiment. The next day, eight were given a cookie with marijuana in it, the other eight were given a regular cookie which they were told had marijuana in it. Table 1 reports the means in each scale:
As can be seen, there is no statistically significant difference in creativity between the two groups. The main problem with this study is it uses a total sample of 16 people, 8 in each group. This sample is likely not large enough to detect large differences between groups, which Cohen (1990) puts at 25 per group. Regardless, this evidence at least begins to show that marijuana does not have an impact on creativity.
Bourassa and Vaugeois (2001) used a sample of n=120 21-30 year-olds. The sample was split equally into two groups: 60 participants were people who had never used any sort psychoactive drugs, the other 60 were people who smoked marijuana more than three times per week for six months. Within these two groups, a third was not given marijuana, a third was given a placebo, and a third was told not to take anything. Those with marijuana were asked to smoke one marijuana cigarette containing 10 mg of Δ9-THC, then to lay down for twenty minutes and finally complete a creativity questionnaire. The same was done for the other groups, except with placebo or nothing. This study found that marijuana did not increase creativity, and that it may have decreased it. The novice participants faced no increase in creativity, either in the experimental or in the placebo group. Within regular users of marijuana, the placebo did seem to increase creativity, whereas the group who smoked it experienced a decrease in creativity. These results would indicate that regular marijuana users believe that marijuana increases their creativity when it actually decreases it.
Kowal et al. (2014) investigated the claim that marijuana might increase creativity. They took three groups of n=18, one of which received a placebo, one received a low dose of marijuana, and another received a large dose of marijuana. This method is interesting as it can also show a dose-response relationship if there were a relationship between marijuana and creativity. Unfortunately, when given a divergent thinking questionnaire in order to measure creativity, the results are not pleasing. There was a decrease in creativity within the high dose group. There was no change within the low-dose group. These results were also partially shown in another older study. Weckowicz et al. (1975) used a sample of n=84 male, undergraduate students, split into four groups. The first group received a “high dose”2 of 6mg of Δ9-THC, the second group received a low dose of 3mg, the third group received a placebo, and the fourth group received nothing. The low-dose group did the best on divergent thinking tasks, contra Kowal et al., but the high group was still impaired on divergent thinking tasks. They hypothesize marijuana may act as a stimulant at lower doses.
Curran et al. (2002) found mixed effects of marijuana on verbal fluency, an important aspect of divergent thinking, i.e. creativity. The sample consisted of 15 males, ages 18-30 who had used marijuana, but were not regular users and did not use other drugs. The participants were given higher doses of the drug (7.5mg and 15mg) compared to other studies. The participants were tested at various times: 0 hours, 2 hours, and 6 hours. The results are shown in Table 2 below. Results show at 2 hours, the moderate dose group did the best in words generated, but the high dose group did the worst. At 6 hours, after the marijuana had mostly worn off, the high dose group did the best, and the moderate dose group did the worst. These results are very odd within this context.
Block, Farinpour, and Braverman (1992) used a sample of 48 adult male volunteers, split into a placebo group and an experimental group. The experimental group was given a larger amount of marijuana to smoke: approximately 19 mg of Δ9-THC. The participants were given multiple tests to study the acute effects of marijuana on cognitive processes. The primary measure of creativity within the study was similar to Tinklenberg et al. The researchers found an increase in original responses on associative tasks within marijuana users.
So far, little evidence exists showing an increase in general creativity due to marijuana usage. In fact, the exact opposite might occur. The previous studies are not without their limitations. The samples are often fairly low, none of the studies using samples of >25 per group, which is recommended by Cohen (1990) in order to detect a difference between groups. Still, the samples are regularly adequate and the research is placebo blinded, allowing for studies of satisfactory quality. Another limitation is the variation of doses across studies (Hazekamp et al., 2006). One possibility could remain that marijuana usage increases abilities in specific, creative tasks, but not overall creativity. This potential is not as heavily investigated within the literature and would be a worthwhile venture.
It is possible that marijuana increases creativity for a specific group of people, particularly some that are already very creative, as is. Steve Jobs, for example, said “The best way I could describe the effect of the marijuana and hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative”. Musicians, artists, and other creative figures are also known to use a plethora of drugs. Indeed, creativity has been found to be heritable on its own, and research has shown that the subjective report of increased creativity during marijuana usage is mediated by the genetic influence on both traits (Lyons et al., 1997). It may also be a matter of discipline among highly creative people; these people may use marijuana specifically with the purpose of increasing their creativity for their project but not use it much outside this purpose.
There are two arguments contra this hypothesis. The first is that, if it is true that marijuana exerts its effects primarily on creative people, we still should have seen these effects in the cited research. Most of the studies cited within this article used samples of undergraduates and groups of people who already smoked marijuana regularly. As was shown in the beginning of this article, people higher in creativity are more likely to use marijuana than less creative people. So, the samples should, in fact, be a part of the group that receives an effect from marijuana. Despite this, there is not evidence of an increase in creativity due to marijuana usage. Second of all, the most likely biological method for marijuana to induce creativity would entail most of the effects occur within less creative people. Kowal et al. (2014) explains this below,
|With regard to the neural effects of THC, the link between creative thinking and DA appears to be particularly interesting. Administration of THC has been shown to indirectly induce DA release in the striatum (Bossong et al. 2009; Kuepper et al. 2013), and there is evidence that its chronic application can lead to dopaminergic hypoactivity in the long-term, especially if the onset of cannabis use is at a young age (Hoffman et al. 2003; Urban et al. 2012; Bloomfield et al. 2014). As divergent thinking performance is expected to be optimal with medium subcortical DA levels (Akbari Chermahini and Hommel 2010), one may suspect that THC can have a beneficial effect on this creative process, particularly in individuals with low dopaminergic functioning.|
Indeed, this prediction is shown in a study by Schafer et al. (2012). The researchers found that THC did increase scores on divergent thinking tasks, but only among people who were lower in creativity3.
In conclusion, the evidence does not suggest marijuana acutely increases creativity. Better studies can be done in the future in order to validate or disprove this finding, using larger, or even more specific samples. Most importantly, future research should attempt to examine specific features of creativity, rather than general creativity. This can be done by having participants create music from scratch, do drawing tasks, such as the Draw-A-Man creativity measure, or try to write stories. To repeat, however, current research does not indicate a likely effect of marijuana usage on general creativity.
1: I mainly talk about Hart’s study on the subjective effects of marijuana due to its extensiveness and moderate size. There is another report of interest I found done by Gruber, Pope, and Oliva (1997). They interviewed 37 Americans who used a very large amount of marijuana; they estimated having smoked marijuana over 5,000 times in their life. 8 percent said marijuana had a negative impact of their work due to decreasing motivation. However, 19 percent reported that marijuana enhanced their creativity and improved their productivity and work quality. This sample had also not used any other drugs.
2: The dose was not that high, despite their labelling. It was only about 6 mg of Δ9-THC, which will only produce mild effects for most people.
3: The study was not an experiment, however, so causality is up for debate.
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