If you’re a musician, writer, painter, sculptor or any other type of artist, it’s a pretty widely accepted idea that cannabinoids can help boost artistic abilities and cannabis has long-been used as a tool to unlock creativity, imagination, and new ways of thinking.
It’s something I myself have said while sitting down in front of my computer preparing to write a new article. “I’ll just smoke a little to boost my creativity.” Then after a couple of hits, you’re completely and devoutly focused on the task at hand, letting your artistry flow from the depths of your soul to the tips of your fingers.
But how exactly do cannabinoids impact the creative process? And why do they work? What are the limitations? These are the burning questions about this topic that rarely get covered, so, let’s take a closer look.
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Convergent and Divergent Thinking – Connecting Abstract Ideas
To understand how cannabis plays a role in the creative process, we must first understand how exactly creativity works. Creativity is powered by the frontal lobe of the brain, and it refers to the use of imagination or original ideas to create something of value. This often applies to artistic work but creative thinking – or divergent thinking – can actually be utilized in many aspects of our lives.
Divergent thinking is a common “scientific measure” of creativity. The opposite of convergent thinking, which is very linear and aims for reaching one single solution to a problem; divergent thinking uses creativity and imagination to generate multiple answers and options to resolve an issue. In psychology literature, divergent thinking is often used as a direct synonym for creativity. The term was first coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1956.
According to Guilford and other psychologists, “A high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, personality traits that promote divergent thinking are more important. Divergent thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.”
In our everyday lives, divergent thinking is used when you brainstorm all the possibilities for accomplishing a set goal. For example, figuring out what kind of dinner you can make with the minimal ingredients in your cabinets because you don’t feel like going to the grocery store. Some people would be frantically scouring the internet for recipes, then give up and go to the store. Others would be able to whip up something delicious with a couple cans of food and some creative seasoning combos. The latter are divergent thinkers.
A very small study conducted a few years ago by University College London observed that cannabis was associated with improved divergent thinking patterns in 15 participants.
The Research – High Doses vs Low Doses
Research into the link between cannabis, creativity, and the brain’s frontal lobe dates back almost 3 decades. A study completed by Jasen Talise and published in the Berkeley Medical Journal in 1992 found that cerebral blood flow (CBF) to the frontal lobe increased after cannabis consumption. These results were echoed in another study conducted in 2002.
According to Talise, in a statement to representatives from the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, “When subjects with high and low creativity are compared, they have both higher baseline frontal lobe activity and greater frontal increase while performing creative tasks.”
Now, this isn’t to say that you should roll up a fatty and get blazed into oblivion. Apparently, there is a fine line between creative stoned and can’t-focus-on-anything stoned, and dosage is key to staying on the right side of that line. Research conducted by the team at Leafly found that low doses of THC (5.5 mg), slightly improved two aspects of divergent thinking: fluency and flexibility. Fluency refers to the number of responses provided, and flexibility is the variation in answers given.
However, when it comes to the originality of the responses, scores were significantly higher in the group that used low doses of THC. When the dose was bumped up to 22 mg of THC, scores were lower across the board.
THC vs CBD
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are chemically related and found in the same plant – they are the most dominant cannabinoids as a matter of fact – but they have very different effects on the human body. Most obvious is that THC gets you high and CBD doesn’t, but that barely scratches the surface.
THC and CBD both interact with our Endocannabinoid System (ECS), but they impact it in different ways. THC activates the 2 major ECS receptors in the brain – CB1 and CB2 – but CBD does not. CBD can actually interfere with the way THC impacts the CB receptors, which is precisely why dosing and ratios (THC:CBD) are so important for successful therapies with cannabis-based products.
CBD has an indirect effect on these two receptors, by interacting with other receptors and neurons that then interact with the CB receptors. This partially explains why CBD is non-psychoactive and THC is. CBD can also boost the body’s levels of endocannabinoids, which are the cannabinoids naturally produced by all mammals, by inhibiting the enzymes that break them down.
So, while CBD does have an impact in the brain, there is no known connection between this cannabinoid and the frontal lobe. THC, on the other hand, does directly impact this region. This is why THC is frequently linked to creativity while CBD is connected to health and wellness.
Openness to Experience
Some interesting results from this 2017 study found that cannabis users self-reported being more creative in general, and they were able to back up these statements by actually scoring higher when their creativity was put to the test.
The study also tested personality types using a common system called the Big 5 measure, and found that cannabis users scored higher in a category called Openness to Experience. “While cannabis users appear to demonstrate enhanced creativity, these effects are an artifact of their heightened levels of openness to experience,” the study noted.
So, this begs the question; does cannabis make people more creative, or are naturally creative people just more inclined to use cannabis? Well, some research conducted in 2012 might shed some light on this. In this study, participants were divided into two initial groups: high creativity and low creativity. They were tested sober, then under the influence of cannabis.
In the high creativity group, the cannabis had no discernable effects. However, testing scores in the low creativity group were noticeably increased after partaking. Simply put, this study says that if you’re not already creative, cannabis might be able to give you that extra boost to get a project started. But if you’re already creative, cannabis probably won’t do much to help you.
The important thing to take note of here, is that these studies are all to be taken with a grain of salt. When it comes to creativity, everything is so subjective. What helps inspire one artist might completely hinder another. Cannabis and creativity are not one in the same, but they are certainly kindred and profoundly connected.
Bottom line, it’s worth a try. And if you find that cannabis does in fact help you get more in touch with your creative side, like it does for many of us, by all means embrace it!
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