There are many stereotypes and myths surrounding cannabis consumption. Most of these myths are negative and have been amplified by the murkiness of prohibition and the War on Drugs propaganda (remember Reefer Madness?). But there are also a number of positive myths surrounding cannabis, such as that it is alright to drive after using marijuana, that there is no such thing as marijuana addiction, or that it’s impossible to overdose (you can’t die from a cannabis overdose unlike other drugs like cocaine or heroin, but you can still get very, very sick by ingesting too much of it).
One myth that has proven challenging to confirm or debunk is the claim that using marijuana makes you more creative. Many musicians, actors, comedians, and all sorts of people in creative industries in general have made no secret of the fact that they use marijuana daily. But are these people creative thanks to marijuana or are they just some creative people who happen to smoke pot? The difference between the two situations is like the difference between causation and correlation.
Researchers at the University of Washington considered this common belief and decided to put it to the test. To this aim, they recruited 191 self-described occasional cannabis users from the state. Washington state became the second US state where recreational cannabis use became legal in 2014.
The volunteers were tasked with coming up with as many creative uses as they could for a brick in only four minutes. At the end of the task, each participant was asked to rate how creative they thought their suggestions were. Half of the participants completed the task within 15 minutes of using cannabis, while the other half was allowed to take part in the task only if they refrained from using cannabis in the last 12 hours. Additionally, before embarking on their task, the participants were asked whether they felt ‘happy’ or ‘joyful’.
In order to objectively rate the creativity of each suggestion, two of the researchers and 430 people recruited online viewed and rated each of the 2,141 generated ideas. The raters did not know the purpose of this experiment and were kept on a need-to-know basis.
Those who had just used cannabis before suggesting alternative uses for a mundane object were unsurprisingly more likely to report they felt ‘happy’ or ‘joyful’. They were also more likely to rate their own suggestion as creative, something that the researchers pinned to their improved overall mood.
But while the participants who were high on cannabis perceived themselves as more creative during the task, the independent raters weren’t nearly as impressed. The ideas generated by members of the two groups were found to be equally as creative (or uncreative for that matter), as judged by the independent raters.
In another experiment, 140 other participants were tasked with a more cognitively complex creative task. They had to imagine they were consultants who have been hired by a local band called File Drawers to help them generate more revenue from their music. They had 5 minutes to come up with as many creative ideas as they could. The same conditions as in the initial experiment applied, only this time the participants themselves were asked to evaluate the creativity of their peers.
Those who had used cannabis just before embarking on their task were more likely to make more favorable evaluations of the other participants’ creativity compared to the control group. In other words, “cannabis will make you think you are more creative, and make you think others are more creative as well,” lead author of the study Christopher Barnes told PsyPost.
Given the findings, why is the belief that cannabis makes you more creative so enduring and widespread? The researchers point to the mood-enhancing effects of cannabis use as the likely culprit, which may cause people to perceive virtually everything is better, including their creativity.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t very creative people who regularly use cannabis. Famous artists and businessmen from Jimi Hendrix to Ted Turner have credited their imaginative success (or at least some of it) to cannabis. Steve Jobs once said that cannabis and hashish made him feel “relaxed and creative” when he used them in the ’70s, a period he would later reference as contributing to his massive success later in life. George Carlin deemed weed a “value-changing” drug that could open up “doors of perception,”
However, it may be the case that people who possess above-average creativity in the first place are drawn to cannabis. A previous study from 2017 found that people who use cannabis are more extroverted and open to new experiences. They also scored higher on tasks that demanded convergent thinking involving answering multiple-choice tests or solving a problem where you know there are no other possible solutions. Any perceived boost to creativity associated with cannabis may be actually owed to personality traits rather than a drug-induced enhancing effect.
That’s not to say that there are no limitations to any of these studies. For many artists, smoking cannabis is an intimate experience and their best creative ideas come when they are alone and have all the time in the world to express themselves. Sometimes, the idea for a new hit song might come right as they’re about to fall asleep in their beds, right next to a smokey ashtray. You can’t really measure any of that in a lab.
Let’s just say that answering whether or not cannabis makes you more creative can get rather complicated. Now, let me see what I can do with this old brick lying around my apartment.
The findings appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology.