Does cannabis make you creative?

Divergent and convergent thinking explained. Photo: visualpun.ch creative

Divergent and convergent thinking explained. Photo: visualpun.ch

Cannabis is the most popular illicit substance in not just the United Kingdom but the whole world. There were between 125 and 23 million users in 2009, per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Some people are using it to get creative.

Artists such as Bob Marley and Lady Gaga have ascribed their creativity to cannabis. So did astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Steve Jobs, the dude behind the Apple corporation, credited cannabis with making him “relaxed and creative.” It looks like Shakespeare was a stoner. And George Washington, too. Do people really get creative with cannabis?

Neurons are brain cells that process information by releasing chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters pass messages by travelling between neurons and attaching themselves to molecules termed receptors. A signal is passed by changing the electrical charge from the axon of one neuron to the dendrite of another. Neurons number in the billions, allowing for the creation of complex messages in the space of milliseconds. Endocannabinoids are one special kind of receptor. Cannabis contains endocannabinoids, which latch onto the ones in your brain. This boosts some signals and interferes with others, so the effects of the drug range from relaxation and pain relief to clumsiness and anxiety.

People might also be more likely to get creative with cannabis because it decreases the amount of mundane thoughts that cloud the brain, permitting creativity to blossom. Or it could be that cannabis increases cerebral blood flow, so neurons fire in a more uninhibited fashion.

Studies since 1970 have shown that regular users were able to get creative with cannabis, having more original thoughts while using the drug. More recent research found that 50 percent of users believe it improves their creativity.

Two cognitive processes are believed to play a major part in creativity: divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is exploring loosely associated options to generate novel ideas – this involves flexibility, fluency and originality, the basis of brainstorming. Convergent thinking works the other way, taking loosely-organised ideas and finding common threads between them.

Divergent thinking worsens when there is very low or very high dopamine activity, while convergent thinking worsens as dopamine activity increases. Long-term cannabis users have depressed dopamine function.

In 2011, Schafer and pals examined literature, finding that science had looked little at the question of whether people get creative with cannabis. They discovered that cannabis produces psychotomimetic symptoms, ie those similar to a psychotic state. These allowed people to connect apparently unrelated concepts, a dimension of divergent thinking regarded as primary to creativity. In 2000, Weiner wrote of how drugs had always been regarded as stimulating creativity, with examples including native Americans using peyote, Chinese people using plum wine, Coleridge using opium and Hemingway consuming alcohol.

A study by University College, London, examined two groups of people designated highly or lowly creative who were regular cannabis users. The “low” creatives were as creative as the “high” ones after taking cannabis. So if you’re already creative, you won’t get creative with cannabis. Except possibly if you’re just in a creative rut, which is all the excuse you need.

Of course Shakespeare was a great playwright – he was a stoner

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