Psychology Masala

The creative answer

Cannabis and Creativity

Should drugs be used to facilitate creativity?

Cannabis is reportedly the most popular illicit substance in the world.  Its estimated one-time use in 2009 ranged from125 million to 203 million people (aged 15-64) (UNODC, 2011).  According to a report by WHO, cannabis use has increased since the 1960s in North America, Europe, and Australia particularly among young people and is commonly associated with youth culture.  The report also summarizes the acute and chronic effects of cannabis use including various cognitive (learning and recalling information, integrating complex information, increased risk of psychotic disorders) and psychomotor impairments (higher risk of accidents when driving intoxicated).  

In light of these effects, it was interesting to find a study on the effects of smoking cannabis on creativity.  Schafer and colleagues (2011) reviewed literature suggesting that the effects of cannabis on creativity have not been extensively studied nor are the mechanisms by which it stimulates creativity well understood.  However, they suggested that cannabis produces psychotomimetic symptoms, which in turn might lead to connecting seemingly unrelated concepts, an aspect of divergent thinking considered primary to creative thinking.  A drug induced altered state of mind may indeed lead to breaking free from ordinary thinking and associations, thereby, increasing the likelihood of generating novel ideas or associations.  Weiner (2000), for example, noted “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” (p. 211).

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Schafer et al. identified two groups of participants, one high (average age 21.37) and the other low (average age = 21.62) on trait creativity and tested them in two counterbalanced conditions: non-intoxicated (day 1) and intoxicated (day 7).   Creativity was measured using three tasks: (a) verbal fluency (give as many responses linked to a given alphabet in 60 seconds); (b) category fluency (give as many verbal responses linked to a given concept category in 60 seconds); and (c) Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (give one word that links three given words; 4 minutes given for each of the 16 word triads on the test).  They found that while both trait creative groups scored higher on state schizotypy as assessed by a self-report questionnaire on the intoxicated day, there were no significant differences between the two groups on the Remote Associates Test, thus ruling out the possibility that increased schizotypy played any role.  However, verbal fluency scores for the low trait creativity group increased to the level of the high trait creative group on the intoxicated day, but the latter group’s scores did not differ on the two days.  Also, the category fluency scores did not differ on the two days, but the high trait group performed better than the low trait group on both days.

The authors speculated that the increase in verbal fluency scores for the low trait group on the intoxicated day might be related to cannabis stimulating “dopamine release in the mesolimbic pathway which includes the frontal cortex” (p. 297).  They further speculated that the high trait group might already have “some sort of disinhibition of frontal cortex functions” (p. 297) that facilitated their verbal fluency on the non-intoxicated day.  Thus, cannabis intoxication had no further disinhibition effects for the high creativity group.  Regarding category fluency, Schafer et al. explained that the advantage for the high trait group might be due to the already enhanced functioning of their temporal cortex, an area possibly not influenced by cannabis use.

Although Schafer et al.’s results are intriguing one might ask: What do we do with such findings?  Obviously, we cannot recommend smoking cannabis as a way of stimulating creativity.  Understandably, speculations on the involvement of particular brain regions in the creative process are of scientific interest, but the question remains: Should we consider designing drugs to unlock our creative potential? 

There is much concern ours is an over medicated society.  The medical model dominates the treatment of psychopathology with DSM IV as our Bible for diagnosis and treatment.  Cummings (2012) notes that psychiatry utilizes the “brain disease” model to treat psychopathology.  Likewise, the results of studies that suggest creative processes can be facilitated by drugs might be construed to imply that an inability to be creative is a “brain deficit” issue to be remedied by drugs, just as the use of Ritalin to treat attention deficit disorder.  

Happiness is yet another state presumably attainable by using drugs.  The Austrian born graphic designer Stefan Seigmaster concluded from his “extensive reading” that using psychotropic drugs is one of the three “most widely agreed upon routes” to happiness, the other two being meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy (Kennedy, 2012, p. c5).  If this were so, which route would you choose?

Will lack of creativity become a treatable condition?  Cummings observed that individuals who seek relief from anxiety, depression, or emotional distress tend to see their primary care doctor first—“Referral for psychotherapy has become a distant second choice” (p. 55).  Imagine eager parents who want their child to stand first in an upcoming creativity competition approaching their family doctors to prescribe a cannabis derivative to boost their child’s creativity.  If this scenario does occur, at the very least we can blame our biology for our lack of creativity.  We can put aside most of the research on understanding the complexity of creative processes to become creative—instead, all we would need to do is take a pill and become instantly creative and, hopefully, instantly happy.  A word of caution: you can be happily intoxicated brimming with creative thoughts after consuming a cannabis derivative, but don’t drive or operate machinery.

References

Cummings, N. A. (2012). How it was and how it was disrupted. In Cummings, N. A. & O’Donohue (Eds.).  Restoring Psychotherapy as the first line intervention in behavioral care (pp.36-62). NY: Ithaca Press.

Kennedy, R. (2012, April 4). How that sausage of happiness is made. The New York Times, The Arts, pp. c1, c5.

Schafer, G., Feilding, A., Morgan, C.J. A., Agathangelou, M., Freeman, T., & Curran, H. V. (2012).  Investigating the interaction between schizotypy, divergent thinking and cannabis use.  Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 292-298. doi10.1016/j.concog.2011.11.009

Weiner, R. P. (2000). Creativity & beyond: Culture, values, and change.  Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press.

V. Krishna Kumar, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

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