Cannabis in North America, since its earliest roots with Jazz musicians, has always had an association with artists and musicians. Louie Armstrong, for instance, used cannabis extensively and spoke about the use during interviews. However, despite being anecdotally known as a creativity enhancer, cannabis’ creative effects have not been formally studied. Aside from the normal limitations on cannabis research due to legality in the latter 1900’s, part of the difficulty stems from the problem that we still have a difficult time defining creative thinking scientifically. What makes a song or a work of art creative?
One measure of creative thinking is called “schizotypy”. Schizotypy is not directly “creativity” and is actually defined as a measure of dissociative thinking. In this model, truly dissociative thinking, or the ability to have unrelated cognitive thought, which allows the creation of previously un-thought ideas, is schizophrenic. In this sense, dissociative thinking is not necessarily healthy. However, studies do confirm that artistic individuals and creative individuals are more likely to show schizophrenic symptoms. This indicates that schizotypy might be one indication of raw creativity. According to this theory, everyone displays traits of a general spectrum of schizotypic behavior.
One group, from University College London, tested 160 cannabis users both under the influence of cannabis and abstinent either seven days before or after use, to measure schizotypy in both situations. To cover all bases, researchers ran multiple tests on test subjects, including:
Psychotomimetic States Inventory (PSI) – a psychological inventory that measures symptoms of psychosis or separation from reality
Verbal Fluency Task – a test that measures participants’ abilities to generate words that start with a randomized alphabet letter in only 60 seconds
Category Fluency Task – a test that measures participants’ abilities to generate words that belong to a named, general category
The Remote Associates Test – a test in which participants are required to generate a word related to all three of the words in three-word groups presented
In addition to these tests, participants answered questionnaires about depression and schizotypal personality. These fluency tasks, however, served to measure both patients divergent and convergent thinking. Specifically, generating options for answers is a divergent thought process and eliminating incorrect options is a convergent thought process.
In the end, this gave a general poll of how verbal and conceptual fluency might change during cannabis use.
The results here are striated. The group that measured with high creativity without cannabis use did not show much difference during cannabis use. However, the group that measured low creativity without cannabis use, showed greater verbal fluency during use. In fact, this fluency increased to be comparable to that of the high creativity group normally.
Unfortunately, the opposite effect can be observed in conceptual fluency. Low creativity group individuals did not show much change in conceptual dissociativity on either medicated or non-medicated days. High creative group individuals actually showed a slight decrease in performance during medicated days. Likewise, The Remote Associates Test showed that cannabis use did not significantly change performance. Comparing medicated to non-medicated states, cannabis users showed significantly greater indications of schizotypal personality on medicated days, regardless.
Distilling this data, we see that cannabis use, for the most part, influences verbal creativity or dissociation. One theory as to why the low-performing creativity group showed a greater increase in creative thinking during cannabis use than the high-performing group is that the high-performing group may already be performing at peak levels. If it is true that much of the brain’s function is to limit thinking to logical thought, perhaps highly creative individuals already possess fewer restrictions on creative thinking. If these same restrictions are lowed by cannabis use, the low-performing group would therefore see a greater increase in creative thinking.
Additionally, the idea that conceptual fluency might not increase at the same time or rate as verbal fluency would make sense, since these types of fluencies are thought to be handled by different parts of the brain. Verbal fluency is phonological, or deals with auditory signaling, while conceptual fluency is semantic, or deals with the brains understanding of symbols or groups. This might also explain why cannabis is popular with musicians, who might derive greater verbal fluency pertaining to music and sound.
Lastly, while self-ranked schizotypic behavior my increase, if conceptual dissociative thought does not increase at the same time, as seen in this study, we have some proof that creative/dissociative thinking is not entirely related to schizotypic behavior. Creative individuals are not necessarily less stable individuals.
In any case, objectively, creative thinking can be increased with cannabis use. Statistically low creativity individuals with verbal fluency issues may stand the most to gain from cannabis use. With a sample size of 160, we can be fairly confident of the results. Extending on research goals here, one aspect of creativity not explored in this study is the relationship between state of relaxation and ability to generate divergent thinking. Perhaps part of removing the creativity-limiting relevancy filter we all possess has to do with the state of relaxation of an individual. Further testing might determine whether cannabis’ creative influence is more dependent on neuronal signaling or general excitatory state of individuals.
Schafer G, Feilding A, Morgan CJA, Agathangelou M, Freeman TP, Valerie Curran H. Investigating the interaction between schizotypy, divergent thinking and cannabis use. Consciousness and Cognition. 2012;21(1):292-298. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.009.