Want to Think Creatively? Put Down the Joint

Using marijuana will almost certainly give you the munchies, but it will likely not give your brain a creative boost. So say researchers in an article in the journal Psychopharmacology as reported by Men’s Fitness. I’m not surprised by this. Creative types for millennia have claimed mind-altering substances from cocaine to alcohol served them as muses; more commonly they were simply self-medicating their often-troubled creative brains while remaining creative despite their substance abuse.

I drove through Colorado on the cross-country road trip depicted in Committed: now its marijuana legalization laws have given new meaning to "Rocky Mountain High."

I drove through Colorado on the cross-country road trip depicted in Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road; now the state’s marijuana legalization laws have given new meaning to “Rocky Mountain High.”

Research demonstrates creative thinking is usually akin to divergent thinking; thought processes that follow unpredictable paths to reach a new insight or inspiration. Note this from Men’s Fitness:

Based on the cognitive tasks that the participants were required to complete – coming up with ideas by exploring many solutions (divergent thinking) and finding the only correct answer to a question (convergent thinking) – researchers found that the cannabis with a high-dose THC significantly impaired divergent thinking among the test subjects.

I indulge in the occasional martini (the opposite of 007, gin and stirred) and lately have been overly tempted by Belgian Trappist beers. I also monitor my mental health and my creative thinking enough to know that both are retarded by alcohol intake. Yes, Papa Hemingway drank himself to sleep every night and wrote magnificent prose during the day. The lesson I draw from that is that he could have produced even more magnificent prose had he found his way to a more scientific and regulated treatment for his demons.

I do not indulge in marijuana, but many who do believe it makes them more creative. I have been sober around enough individuals high on pot to know they clearly think they are having intense, profound, and yes, creative thoughts; more often than not they are actually sounding a bit silly, like this “mind-blowing” moment from Animal House.

Note this observation by researcher Lorenza Colzato of the Cognitive Psychology Unit at the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University and the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition:

The improved creativity that [cannabis users] believe they experience is an illusion. If you want to overcome writer’s block or any other creative gap, lighting up a joint isn’t the best solution. Smoking several joints one after the other can even be counterproductive to creative thinking.

Here in the United States, momentum is growing to legalize marijuana use. My main concern with this trend is research demonstrating the harm it can have on brain development, a particular problem for teenagers and young adults whose brains are continuing to grow and evolve. It shouldn’t be surprising that a drug that can reduce a teenager’s IQ by eight points would not simultaneously stimulate greater creative thinking. But I welcome scientists seeking to confirm this hypothesis based on interpreting data through both convergent and divergent thinking.

UPDATE: A hot-button topic like this is likely to lead to some very interesting conversations, not all of them related to creativity (although perhaps everything is). I was thinking today about how many comedians I admire who proactively proclaim their use of marijuana as a part of their personal. Here’s a Twitter exchange I had with one comedian who I find quite funny:

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

29 Responses to “Want to Think Creatively? Put Down the Joint”

  1. Nice article, Patrick. I’d like to offer my perspectives. As one of the early adopters of marijuana in 1965, I thought I was being cool and I loved the buzz and near-hallucinogenic effect it had on my mind. I could listen to music in a trance, feeling it penetrating my mind as if I was being transported to another realm. While I was enjoying these passive experiences, I was becoming increasingly addicted to passivity. Even though the marijuana itself didn’t exhibit most of the problems of more obviously addictive drugs like heroin, the sense of being able to live life fully by kicking back and watching was so profoundly rewarding, I simply gave up on myself and fell into a pit of self-indulgence. I don’t need scientific studies to tell me that the five years I spent pursuing drug-induced experiences were in retrospect a poor use of my time. Having said all of that legalizing is a different issue. I hate warehousing young men who want to find out for themselves that drug induced highs are a betrayal by the mind, a chemical manipulation that would best be obtained by the legal highs of creativity and striving toward excellence. Jerry

    • Thank you for that insight, Jerry. I can imagine that passivity could be a factor.

      Like a teenager’s brain, I don’t have a fully formed opinion on the legalization argument, and I get where you’re coming from on “warehousing” young people. In talking with my two teenagers about this I cite the brain-development statistic (which, by the way, also demonstrates no lasting ill effects on fully developed adult brains) and don’t push it further; you won’t hear me saying it’s a gateway drug (no evidence of that) or other such arguments used by opponents.

  2. Great, thoughtful, and thought inducing post, Patrick!
    While I do think pot should be legal after 21 (or perhaps a bit older), I also agree that the research suggests it’s not good for developing brains – which research also suggests continue to grow and develop until 25 or later.
    And I agree with Jerry’s comments that it can cause stagnation and a marked lack of ‘doing’.
    But, knowing several people with medical issues that are significantly helped by pot, and seeing how keeping it illegal causes grief to people who get caught with it as you mention, I do believe it should be treated more like alcohol, and am glad to see our laws growing in that direction. There are better things for our law enforcement to be focusing on.

    • This is spot on: “There are better things for our law enforcement to be focusing on.” And I get the argument that forcing people to buy it illicitly encourages organized crime and other problems (as well as preventing the collection of taxes). And yes to the medical benefits of it. It is interesting, however, that communities that legalized medical marijuana saw it become de facto legalization, in that it wasn’t hard to get a doctor to approve it (like these radio commercials I hear on sports stations promising you a doctor you talk to on the phone will write you a prescription for Viagra or Cialis). So if you’ve gone that far, you might as well legalize, while ensuring there are solid regulations in place (if someone is buying a spiked brownie, for example, it’s not unreasonable for them to know the amount of THC content, possible side effects, etc.). All tough issues, which make me glad I’m not a policymaker dealing with them.

      Of course this isn’t directly related to the theme of the post–creative thinking!🙂

  3. I love smoking grass. My lungs hate it. They refuse it. I haven’t done it in years. But virginal lungs aside, dope could never measure up to certain kinds of meditation, or white water canoeing, or hiking the high country, or wrestling with my dog, or raising a kid, or filming cheetahs, or discussing literature with my wife, or chanting, or fasting, or walking, or flying, or singing or writing. My current writing is taking me on a trip up the Congo River, for goodness sake, I’m lost, it’s stinking hot, we’re going to die, and at the same time I’m getting this epiphany that is breaking through all my b.s., my outmoded ideas about myself and what I want or need — what Proust called “the heavy curtain of habit which conceals from us almost the whole universe.” I would still love to smoke a joint but I don’t know why I would.

    • Perhaps you could bring some Conrad with you on your Congo trip for some light reading. Have I told you recently how much I want to live your life?

      An MFA instructor of mine gave a lecture once on how creative writers usually have a muse/vice, that something that they look to when it comes to fueling their creativity. He cited the many examples of creatives who relied on mind-altering substances. He also talked about Thoreau and others who relied on nature (that was the instructor’s addiction) or activity (jogging, etc.). I felt quite inadequate because I don’t take daily walks or hike up mountains. But I did realize that when I ride a motorcycle (I’m in between bikes right now) I do feel a sense of escape. Robert Pirsig wrote about the phenomenon far more eloquently than I ever could, but I have some mention of this phenomenon in Committed. Perhaps the bigger issue here isn’t whether a certain act specifically triggers creative thinking; perhaps it is more what a certain act does to help the artist achieve a state of mind where they feel open to their muse (along the lines of what I was considering in my response to Cynthia).

  4. How inept can one article be? So, if only you didn’t have those Martini , you would have a more creative article? One that doesn’t infuriate the reader with it’s pompous opinions about pot?

  5. There’s many ways to respond, as this post touches on different points. I did my best to keep to what was relevant, but am sorry that I trailed away from creativity for a portion, but I felt like expressing myself on this ‘hot-button’ subject.

    First, I’ll start with; Men’s Fitness is hardly an authority on creativity or the mind and a journal called Psychopharmacology might have a vested interest in the legalization debate/result… In such topics, the source must be considered, as well as what the source gains from different perspectives being adopted by the mainstream populace, but not only the source; the individual writer who contributed the piece and transcribed the research findings in their own words should be considered as well.

    Moving on; Cannabis is a substance that can be manipulated to create effects in the human body. Unlike most things, it is not potentially lethal, which I would think would be most important when considering the legality or potency of a substance…

    Can you imagine doing a similar take on heroin or cocaine? (“Want to Be Fearless? Put Down the Blow”). What a ridiculous article that might make, but you could… yet, you didn’t; you chose the politically relevant, controversial substance. Don’t be surprised by relevant and controversial responses that might arise in reaction to this post.

    Stating something like “I have been sober around /enough/ individuals high on pot” suggests to me that you find it more enjoyable to analyze others participating in life to decide whether their actions are “wrong” or “right” in the scheme of your own perception of the world. (also, how much is enough?)

    But this right/wrong must be moralistic and faith-based, because if we are to bring actual scientific inquiry into the subject, it becomes overwhelming that cannabis provides a great service to the human body and instead, it is our culture’s coping skills that creates many of the detrimental effects. An individual’s personality has more bearing on how they employ cannabis in their life, than cannabis as a plant itself.

    Never forget, the power of placebo and the role of culture in individual relationships with material objects and how these might pertain to cannabis studies and the (usually, few) participants involved.
    Research is not an iron shield; it is one more voice in the deep sea.

    There is a lot of hypocrisy in looking at brain development as an excuse for a negative perspective on cannabis, especially in regards to policy. Because as a society, we place hormones and chemicals in children’s food with little explanation, so how much do we sincerely care about the individual’s brain development?

    If we do care, wouldn’t we freely provide scientifically proven nutrition to each and every American child as a moral imperative? Yet, we still allow poverty to flourish, shallow food to run wildly abound in the marketplace, and children are left to the whim of their parent’s lot in life as to how their brain will actually develop because food and environment while growing up plays a dominant role.

    We also allow our children and teens to consume TV and other screen-based entertainment in a nearly unrestrained fashion. It is also encouraged, like alcohol. Such activities definitely have an influence on the development of the human brain.

    The average age for a brain to finish development is around 25, yet we allow drinking starting at 21, we allow nicotine at 18 – both have effects as well. Many modern children are started on pharmaceuticals as soon as the parents and doctors decide so, easily at 8 or 9. So, why does this specific debate demand such apparent hypocrisy, simply in order to maintain a traditional status quo?

    Back to creativity, are you suggesting that IQ and creativity are built through the same neural networks? Furthering this, where is creativity born and bred in the human brain? Why is there an automatic link between momentary IQ and creativity? Can a person with low IQ not be creative? Are all creatives blessed with high IQ? Do all those that have high IQs display creativity?

    It’d be fair to share my personal stake in the subject; I am an artist and writer. Cannabis is a medicine for me and it is the best medicine I have used so far. I suffer from daily chronic pain triggered by occipital neuralgia that was exacerbated during my recent university years while finishing my degree in Sociology.

    As a patient that’s been involved with policy development for the past 4 years; medical communities do not see medical marijuana as de facto legalization; rather it is anti-cannabis opponents that see it this way. As a nation, we are not even close to seeing or realizing what true cannabis legalization looks like. We’re barely skimming the surface and policy-wise, until the federal CSA is reformed or repealed, there is always political work to be done in the cannabis communities, especially the medical one.

    The ease of becoming a patient has more to do with the state and the people involved with the day-to-day work in the regulated system. If it were up to me, cannabis would be grown similar to potatoes, freely in people’s yards with all the other vegetables and herbs that benefit our body.

    Overall, cannabis provides me with relief from intense pain without horrid, life-ending side effects; it allows me to have hope in life and a positive outlook on my future. In this way, it definitely supports my creativity.

    Before I started cannabis treatment, I was on the edge of suicide and heavily doused in pharmaceutical chemicals (perhaps they are related), my creativity was on a downward spiral and I could hardly bear existence except for when I was knocked out by these legal and approved substances. I’d easily be passed out for more than 12 hours in a day to get by, doctor’s orders. It wasn’t a life worth living.

    Cannabis allowed me to break free from that; it plays a role in my life that is much greater than creativity, it offered me an opportunity for empowerment.

    For somebody else, with a different body and life, this might not be the same, but all I can truly know is myself and in my day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute life, that is all that matters.

    As for my own moralistic, faith-based right/wrong…

    It is wrong that our society withholds such a powerful antidote from so many people suffering in pain.
    It is wrong that we continue to do so, even with rampant and increasing opiate/pharmaceutical deaths and abuse.
    It is wrong that our society continues to jail huge portions of our disenfranchised populations in order to justify such a blatant wrong.
    It is wrong that privileged populations glibly discuss and debate this topic without offering any real support or change for society, being neatly settled in the status quo.
    And it is wrong that the politicians are darting and weaving, so that this 70-80 year prohibition (originally made in the name of the Red Scare and vested interests in the timber and pharmaceutical industries) will change with as little blame placed upon authority as possible because no one wants to be marked down as responsible for this huge stain on history, this horrible policy made in the name of greed, kept due to… fear? Judgment? confusion? Oppression? No, it’s probably still greed when it comes to the actual people involved with crafting the policies of our nation.

    Future generations will look back at this minor and straight-forward issue, then shake their heads, just as we shake our heads at so many policies and regulations that our ancestors had wars over…

    As an artist, my creative vice (as you describe it) is taking baths and showers! I’ve woven water into being a fundamental necessity in unlocking my creative flow… and it’s become limiting. I’ve been working to change this because my skin gets quite dried out.

    Direct responses to questions and statements aren’t necessary, most of this is meant as a rhetorical response to further thought on the subject.

    This was a thought provoking post, thank you for writing/reading.

    • Wow. Thank you for this thoughtful comment. It’s obvious you have given far more thought/reflection to the issue than I have (I freely admitted it’s not one I’m centrally focused on) and you also were honest enough to share your personal reasons for having developed your perspective.

      You asked some good questions about my perspective on creativity, questions that cannot be answered in this comment field. But I’m glad you found your way to this site, because this blog is about creativity. I have written almost 400 posts over the last four years and about 90 percent of them are squarely focused on creativity and the creative process. The book I wrote that is publishing tomorrow tells the story of my interviews with about forty artists about their creative process. So feel free to poke around here if you are curious to know more about my perspective on curiosity, including my position that there are no fixed answers on the subject; all of us who are fascinated with the subject are in a constant state of learning.

      • You’re welcome and thank you for the kind response. From what I have explored so far, I enjoy your site/blog, which is why I am following. This is a topic I am passionate about because of my experience and when I saw the headline in my dash this morning, it caught me with my morning coffee and readiness to write. The political relevance also brings me to be more open than I might otherwise be.

        I agree that humans, in general, are in a constant state of learning, but it is especially true to be aware of this during the creative process. Inquiry is a great means for internal exploration that can result in external manifestation/expression. I will explore, feeling freely.😉

  6. Hey, Patrick! Guess what arrived in the mail today?😀😀😀 Yep! It’s in hand! I have other books I need to read before that (and I’m not a fast reader *sigh*), but I’m totally looking forward to it! I have a feeling I’m going to be reading it in pieces, in between fiction. Yay!

    And as far as pot/marijuanna/cannibus: I’m not a fan of pretty much any substances that alter the mind (and body) in generally negative ways. I, too, thought people “smoked” pot to use it medically, which is why I didn’t agree with it. When my aunt was dying of cancer (nearly two years ago), I dove into a bit of research on the subject. I learned there’s a significant difference between smoking pot and its effects, and the medical use of it. It is the oil of the plant which is administered medically, so it doesn’t have the same effects as smoking it. When used properly, it can be very effective treatment. Part of the problem with getting it medically is that the pharmaceutical form is not as beneficial or effective as what comes directly from the plant, so it is in growing the plant that there are restrictions (different in every state, btw).

    Like anything else, the people who want to smoke pot as a recreational drug will, most likely, ultimately abuse it with legalization if they have the tendency. It’s true with other things, too, and it doesn’t have to be drugs. There’s plenty of evidence of the damage that recreational drug use can have on the body and mind (regardless of age), but similar to smoking tobacco, there will always be people who will hold to the mentality of “Well, my grandfather lived to be a hundred and he smoked 3 packs a day!” Same thing with drugs, alcohol, etc. In my opinion, it’s a “denial” mind set which makes it easier to justify and condone the use of such things beyond “occasional and moderate.”

    Using cannibus medically is (from what I understand) better or certainly no more harmful (when administered properly) than chemically-compounded prescription drugs (all of which have the potential to damage or kill you, thus legally classifying it as “medication”). As far as what’s right and wrong—there’s no question that comes down to individual perspectives and belief systems. I stand on the conservative side of most things.

    I do agree that drugs alter and don’t necessarily enhance creativity. When I was a kid, though I was afraid, I had a boyfriend (worst one ever–extremely bad influence) who convinced me to try LSD. During the year I knew him, I did it three times. One time it did seem to “open my mind” to very deep, insightful thinking, so I can understand where the “it makes me creative” aspect can stem from. It seems each of those three times was a different experience, probably due to the actual chemical difference in the batches (?). The third time was horrible. I was actually what I would define as “tripping.” It scared the crapola out of me! It was completely uncontrollable thinking and feeling. Although my severe neuro-toxicity is due to mercury toxicity (from my amalgams), I will always believe that taking that those few times when I was 18 years old, along with whatever pot I smoked (on and off in high school and beyond) contributed to my brain issues. It is one of my greatest regrets in life.

    I see all of it as “bad” and not worth it. It truly is a waste of life, time and everything else. I stopped smoking pot by the time I was 21 (I didn’t do it regularly) because by the time I was maybe 19 or so all I would do was get sleepy, hungry and had no control over things, so asked myself “Why would I want to do this? There’s nothing good about it.” I still feel that way and have no understanding of why adults still choose to do it. It just doesn’t make sense from my perspective. What I would give to have a clear brain back!

    • Let me begin with the fun response: I’m so excited to hear you have the book in hand! Several people have told me they received a notice that it had been shipped; you appear to be the first one to have received it. (I haven’t seen a physical copy of it yet; I hope it looks nice!) Take your time; I’d note, however, that people tell me it’s a surprisingly fast read.

      Thank you for sharing your story re: marijuana, both your personal experience (as well as other drugs) and the research you did re: health benefits. You have had more experience both with the plant itself and with study of it. What I get from your story and from others here and those who have been commenting on Twitter is that this is not a black-and-white issue (I’m talking the larger issue of marijuana use, not necessarily the narrow finding of impact on divergent thinking in this study), and that doesn’t surprise me; few things in life are clear-cut.

      • It DOES look nice🙂 I really like the cover! And I like the weight of it, too🙂 I’m into things like that. I will always be a big fan of the printed book! I’m curious, too, about if it was the publisher’s decision to keep it just as text. I’m also thinking if people are saying it’s a fast read, it must be VERY interesting and not too many “big” words😉 I’m happy to finally have it! Yay!!! I’m going to be tweeting the cover, but I’ve been busy doing decorative artwork all day (for my cousin’s wedding).

  7. Patrick, performance enhancing drugs in sport create such a stir and yet performance enhancing substances in the arts is accepted and to be admired for its wackyness.
    What a strange world we live in.
    I performance enhance sometimes ( just the odd glass of fine Shiraz) but I usually end up asleep.
    I guess by sleeping, my brain is creating something?
    In Australia, we have performance enhancing as a sport – not in sport though.
    I agree, a nice cocktail or perhaps a Gin or two, could be just the ticket for some.
    B

    • Thanks for the fun comment! Speaking only for myself, a couple of martinis does put me to sleep, and while I often write while asleep (read my past post on subconscious-driven creativity) I think when it’s alcohol induced I do not in fact do much “writing.” But my response is a bit too serious, I fear!

    • That was a fascinating article. The schizophrenia and dropout sections could be chicken-and-egg–are you drawn to pot because you struggle with early signs of schizophrenia, are you drawn to pot because there are factors in your life that are already putting you on a path to dropping out–but are still compelling. The IQ section echoes other things I’ve read. What really leapt out at me is this: The pot smoked at Woodstock in 1969 contained about 1 per cent of the psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol. It was mere shrubbery compared to today’s street-grade marijuana, which typically has THC concentrations of at least 10 per cent, but may contain upwards of 30 per cent, according to Health Canada. I suspect there are a lot of parents my age or older who think “Well, it was harmless enough when I did it” who may not realize they didn’t do what people are doing today.

  8. Pretty sure my writing is controlled by my hormone levels. LOL! There are days when all I want to do is write while listening to love songs. My need to listen to love songs is driven by my need for male companionship. My need for male companionship occurs about mid-cycle. Just sayin.🙂

  9. I’ve never experienced any increase in creativity from drinking alcohol. When I write, I like to drink tea or coffee (usually decaf) and listen to music. I have a playlist of instrumental music that’s pleasant without taking over my thoughts. The tea and music distract the overactive part of my brain and help me sit still and work. Useful ways I’ve found to increase creativity: taking a walk or a shower. Also leaving my work for a few minutes to do something mindless often helps.

    By chance, I also wrote about creativity on my blog this week. The post is called, “Want a Creativity Boost? Go for a Walk.” http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/

    • Great post, Nicki! Interesting to learn about Dickens; of course Thoreau wrote an entire essay lauding a daily walk. The Ferris Jabr quote hits the nail on the head as to the wandering mind; the blog post I just put up today came to me yesterday when showering.

  10. Based on my own perspective, I have NEVER understood this myth about how marijuana supposedly makes you more creative. Here’s where I shatter all illusions about how innocent and goody-two-shoes I am (I DID have that going on, didn’t I? Didn’t I? Oh. Okay fine, whatever then…)

    When I was a nineteen-year-old art student, I worked part-time in a local nightclub. On what was euphemistically referred to as ‘Rave Nights’ (i.e. “everybody bring your hallucinogenic drugs and go car-azy, ‘cos, like – no undercover cops in tonight, woohoo!”) I was usually put on Cloakroom Duty, which meant standing for eight hours in a tiny room with no windows and just a small hatch at the front, through which customers would hand me their coat to look after while they went into the club and partied. In between said partying, customers would come out of the club, sit down in big happy groups right beneath my cloakroom hatch and smoke spliffs. Like I said, this was GROUPS of people, and it went on throughout my EIGHT-HOUR shift in there. This is how I discovered passive smoking is a genuine, actual thing, at least where marijuana’s concerned; by the end of those shifts I was off the scale in terms of stoned-ness, without a single joint ever touching my lips.

    Did it make me think creatively? Creatively dumb would be a more accurate description. Mostly it just rendered me incapable of speaking; customers would hand me their ticket for their coat, and in response I would grin inanely in the approximate direction of their face and pootle off to find their coat in silence (because in that state, acknowledging their existence as a human AND matching up the number on their ticket to the number on the corresponding coat peg was a cognitive leap too far.) But two of my lowest points were: 1) trying to sign the docket for my wages for the night – and having to ASK SOMEONE ELSE what my name was, and 2) spending a good twenty minutes begging for mercy from a street light shining through a bathroom window, because my wazzered brain had decided it was actually one of the holographic heads from the beginning of the Superman II movie (the ones who put Zod and his two henchies on trial for crimes unspecified.) Creative, yeah. But soooooo not in a good way!

    Obviously even the Management of the club began to see this as something of a problem, so they tried to solve it by splitting the eight-hour shifts between staff, to lessen their exposure. They had to get it to eight staff members doing no more than one hour each before it had any noticeable benefit – and even then, you’d still be mildly ‘mellow’ once your one-hour shift ended…

    • Sounds like a character in a novel of which I would be willing to read more. Very good!

      • Now that IS an idea… thanks PJ! Oh, the crazee that went on in my two years working at that club..!

        I remember another time when a bunch of people were sitting right near me below my hatch, off their faces on various substances. One guy who’d spent the last half-hour staring forlornly into space suddenly got up and – without saying a word – did a perfect backflip and then calmly sat back down again. His mate leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially to me “He’s just split up with his girlfriend.” As if that explained everything…

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  1. Want to Think Creatively? Put Down the Joint | ... - October 15, 2014

    […] Using marijuana will almost certainly give you the munchies, but it will likely not give your brain a creative boost. So say researchers in an article in the journal Psychopharmacology as reported …  […]

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