“Chapter III. Cannabis, Creativity, and Cognitive Liberty” delivers much-needed conceptual groundwork and an evaluation of the empirical research so far to explore how a cannabis high can affect creative activities. It argues that the few studies concerning this topic based on the concept of divergent thinking are flawed in their construction and overrated in their interpretations. Generally, the conclusion is that there are many ways in which cannabis could positively or negatively affect many cognitive functions involved in creative activities. If cannabis users have certain skills and knowledge and the right attitude the cannabis high as an altered state of consciousness indeed holds a great potential to enhance many creative activities.
Chapter 3 Cannabis, Creativity, and Cognitive Liberty
“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all.”
Edward de Bono, psychologist, 1933-2021
“You are the task.”
Franz Kafka, writer, 1883-1924
Does cannabis enhance creativity? Countless columnists and scientists have asked and discussed this question in the last years – usually coming to negative or at least contradicting results.[i] Many cannabis users have asserted that cannabis has indeed helped them with their creative work, whereas many others reported that the cannabis high seriously negatively interfered with their creative output.
Creativity is one of the main cognitive resources for humans to deal with and overcome the challenges of life. Creative ideas and behaviors cannot only be used to produce art or music or to come up with new scientific findings. They can help us to find a partner for life, to find an unusual way to cope with the stress inflicted on us by co-workers in an abusive workplace, come up with a new strategy to generate income, or personally grow. In the last decades, advances in cognitive sciences and psychology have made it increasingly obvious that creativity is one of the main positive driving forces for individuals as well as for important developments in human societies. Creativity shapes our society not only through the inspiring work of writers, artists, or musicians, but also through innovations in the sciences, technology, the business world, the financial sector, architecture, and countless other areas of life.
As hard as it may be to define and describe, creativity is no doubt one of our most important human resources, especially as humanity faces existentially-threatening challenges like climate change, the rapid and powerful rise of AI, the rise of autocrats and dictators in so many countries, the negative impact of modern social media on our democracies, or the threat of deadly nuclear weapons in the arsenals of many countries in the world.
As more and more countries have liberalized their laws concerning the medical and general adult use of cannabis, an increasing number of users have gained legal access to high-quality cannabis as well as better information about its use, its benefits, and risks. Cannabis users today are now better equipped than ever to explore the mind-altering potential of this astounding plant. In the last years, we have seen an avalanche of reports, documentaries, studies, and articles about cannabis and its effects, as well as about various phytocannabinoids used in medicine, and the endocannabinoid system.
So, do we now have a better answer to the question of whether cannabis enhances creativity? What’s the current verdict?
My verdict is, first, that there is something seriously wrong with our question. In this essay, I’ll explain why I think we need to find better questions and will suggest some preliminary answers to them based on our current knowledge. Also, I’ll make suggestions for future routes of scientific investigations and give some practical advice for cannabis users on how to better use cannabis for practical purposes.
The Art of Questioning
“We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.”
James Stephens, Irish poet, 1880-1950
“Wait”, you say, “how can a question be wrong? Is the question “Does cannabis enhance creativity?” not a perfectly reasonable and innocent question to ask?”
Well, frankly, no. Not after all we already know. We should be able to ask better questions based on what we know about creativity and the effects of cannabis today.
Questions are tools that help us to learn and gain knowledge; they can be “bad” and misleading in many ways, and some of them are even designed to be misleading. Assume I ask you in a meeting with some of your friends: “why didn’t you help to prevent the bankruptcy of your father’s ice cream business?” Assume, also, that your father owns an ice cream business, but it is doing just fine. My question is wrong, then, in the sense that it presupposes a situation that is not true. Questions can carry presuppositions, and these presuppositions can be false or misleading.
As we will see, “Does cannabis enhance creativity” carries various highly problematic presuppositions. It is, additionally, too ambiguous and vague to help us to gain significant knowledge. Let us take a look at some of the problems with this initial question so that we can come to formulate more interesting questions – and then suggest some answers to those.
First, the question “Does cannabis enhance creativity” presupposes – or at least strongly suggests – that the real issue is whether cannabis under all circumstances and for everybody, no matter what dosage, and no matter in which situation, enhances creativity. It either does enhance creativity, or it doesn’t. It is obvious, however, that cannabis can only enhance creativity given a whole list of other favorable conditions, for example a specific dosing range, or a specific context/setting in which somebody uses cannabis. A user relatively new to cannabis will probably not be so great at a complicated creative verbal task administered in a test after smoking three joints packed with a new cannabis variety containing almost 30% THC (aptly called “99 problems”).
The more interesting question, then, would be:
“Can cannabis enhance creativity?”
Again, this first modification of the question sounds trivial. Yet, I don’t think it is trivial at all if you look at studies and reports about the topic of cannabis and creativity. Often they highlight the fact that high doses of cannabis impair your creative output and do not take into account that other factors such as the (mind)set and the setting (context/environment, other people present), which are substantial factors for the effects of any psychoactive substance on the mind.
If we ask “Can cannabis enhance creativity?” it becomes obvious that we need to answer more questions: Which are the factors that can affect or modulate the effects of cannabis on our mind and our creative abilities? How much and how exactly do they contribute to the effect of cannabis in this aspect? We will come back to these questions later.
Now, let us address an important ambiguity in the question. Usually, when somebody asks if cannabis can enhance creativity he inquires about the short-term effects of the cannabis high. Some critics however, also seemed to confuse this with questions about the long-term effects of continuing cannabis use, or maybe even the question of how daily use of high doses of cannabis affects one’s creative career. But these are entirely different questions: Maybe cannabis has a great potential to temporarily enhance your ability to generate some great ideas for a novel, but it might still have a negative impact on your writing career if you use it daily in high doses.
In this essay, I will focus on the short-term effects of the cannabis high and will not go into the broader issue of how long-term use may affect your creative career. First things first, I’d say. Once we better understand how the short-term effects of cannabis can affect our creative abilities, we can then set out to take a more informed look at the long-term effects.
Our new question, then, would be:
“Can a cannabis high temporarily enhance creativity?”
We are not done yet with refining our question, though: the new version of the question still has some major flaws and carries some misleading presuppositions. If we want to find out why, we first need to take a closer look at the concept of “creativity” and come to a better understanding of the phenomenon.
Creativity: A Minimal Characterization
Many who have delved into the subject of cannabis and creativity have made it seem like we would have one well-defined and uniform process or activity we call “creativity”. Is this so? What is creativity?
We can find dozens, maybe hundreds of diverse definitions and characterizations of creativity in literature and science. So let us first take a look at a possible minimal definition of creativity on which many scientists in the field could agree, and take it from there. In the last decades, most scientific definitions of creativity can be summarized by a minimal characterization given by psychologist and creativity expert Robert Sternberg: Creativity (a) leads to the production of something novel or original, and (b) the product is something valuable or useful.[ii]
This definition is of course vague to a certain degree: it is not clear what we would regard as entirely novel, and it also does not say much about the standard which should be applied to whether something is valuable or useful. More importantly, though, there seems to be something essentially missing in Sternberg’s definition. If an earthquake shakes up rocks that roll down to accidentally form into a new and funky looking shape of a rock pile with a hollow core that can be used by humans as a house or shelter, then can we legitimately say the earthquake has “created” something novel and original, and something very valuable and useful? Most of us would be somewhat reluctant to call this a creative process, however. Although we may choose to call nature “creative”, metaphorically speaking, we usually think of creativity as a process that happens in higher evolved lifeforms, organisms, or systems.
Hundreds of Different Creative Activities
The observation about the rock pile points to an important aspect: the minimal definition of creativity given by Sternberg does not give any characteristics of the mental processes or abilities involved in the creative process. We usually think of creativity as a highly refined human skill or a skill possessed only in a few highly developed animal species like chimps, or maybe in current or in a few current or future AI systems. From a cognitive science perspective, the processes involved in creative production are not only highly complex. Hundreds of different creative processes involve the concertation of a whole variety of different mental and physical skills. For illustration, let’s look at two examples of human creative activities:
- Inventing a basketball move
- Writing a poem about a street scene in Rome
Let’s assume you are a basketball player in the last 5 seconds of a game, it’s still a tie, you are dribbling and close to the opponent’s basket. You know your defender knows you inside out. You need to come up with a creative and new move, fast, a move that will trick even him. There are many mental skills involved: you need to empathically understand your opponent and “read” his movements as you are dribbling, you need to keep attending to his moves while you come up with your new idea. You have to keep moving without losing the ball, and you need to keep track of the merciless clock ticking down the last seconds of the game. Simultaneously, you have to get your great idea at the right moment. You remember a moment from your adolescence when a Chinese Tai Chi grandmaster asked you to hold on real tight to his lower arm with both of your hands. He announced that he could easily remove his arm. You waited, holding your breath in tension of the anticipated move.[iii] A few seconds later, he confused you for a split second by gently slapping the back of your clutching hand. Back then, you were surprised by this seemingly nonsensical move and lost your muscle tension for a split second when he freed his arm by a gentle, quick move. Let’s assume you now use this memory and transpose it to your situation to invent a new fake, designed for this situation in the basketball game. You pretend to make a pass with one hand, with your hand formed like a fist. For a split second, your opponent is puzzled, just as you were back then. You jump in the air and shoot. You gained exactly the time you needed to shoot the ball, undisturbed. Like your reaction many years ago, your opponent’s confusion left him dysfunctional for a short time. For your basketball fake to be useful, however, you have to execute that idea flawlessly, control your body perfectly in only a few seconds, and, then, redirect your attention quickly to focus on the basket and perfectly execute your shot.
Let’s assume for a moment that you are high and under the influence of cannabis, and that because of this, you can indeed retrieve distant memories better, and that it also enables you to come up with a great idea, an adaptation of the Tai Chi fake move you have previously seen. Will a cannabis high be helpful in this situation? Not necessarily, if we evaluate the creative activity and its value of it in the context of the game. If for some reason the high helps you to generate this idea but also interferes with your sense of orientation or your sense of time, you may have a great and novel idea, but it will not lead to a valuable and useful outcome for your creative activity. As you come up with a new fake move, your distorted sense of time maybe makes you wait for too long. Or you lose the ball during the fake to your opponent because you are too focused on your thinking and miss his movement towards the ball. Maybe the high helped to focus your inner attention on your memories, but now your lack of attention for your opponent spoils it all. There are many ways in which a high could have a negative impact on your playing despite helping you to generate an idea.
Now, consider a different creative activity: writing a poem about a street scene in Rome. Assume you want to write a poem describing a certain perceived mood of an evening street scene at the famous Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. You have time – maybe hours, or days. You perceive various scents, sounds, voices, moods of other guests, music on the street, and then slowly come to merge all these impressions into a composition of words based on your thoughts about the life around you, the world, life. You may need to retrieve remote verbal associations, come up with metaphors, and maybe make your words rhyme in a certain style that you retrieve from memory. The creative process could start while you sit there taking notes and stretch for days when you remember certain aspects of the scene and start forming your first notes into a more structured text.
For the writing of a poem, a cannabis high could still be helpful even if it distorts your sense of time, or even if it for instance interferes with your hand-eye motor control. Your handwriting may look a bit different, but that would not lessen the quality of your poem.
Those two examples of creative activities illustrate two important points for us:
First, if we want to know how cannabis, or any other psychoactive substance, affects creativity we need to look at various creative activities which involve the concertation of various cognitive and motor control skills. We have to be prepared for the fact that a cannabis high may affect these creative activities in completely different ways. And that, again, means that we have to refine our question. Now we have to ask:
Can a cannabis high temporarily enhance certain creative activities?
Second, if we take a closer look at the example of the basketball player, we need to talk about what we could call “cancellation”-effects during a high. For some activities, various cognitive effects of cannabis may be beneficial, such as enhanced memory retrieval and the ability to transpose far-fetched patterns to different situations, as the basketball player does use an analog to the Tai Chi master’s trick for a basketball fake. But other effects of the high such as a distortion of time perception could cancel out the beneficial effects in the sense that the resulting action isn’t useful or valuable as a whole anymore. Another example would be a jazz saxophonist who feels that he generates great ideas during a high, but cannot play along with his band anymore because he loses his sense of time too much. These “cancellation” effects are intuitively very easy to understand, but highly underrated so far in the literature on cannabis and creativity. As we will see, the existence of cancellation effects plays a big role in constraints on how to construct studies on cannabis and creativity.
These cancellation effects during a cannabis high exemplify a general aspect of psychoactive substances. All of those substances bring certain temporary cognitive impairments, too. Typical cognitive enhancers like amphetamines or cocaine may make you more awake, alert, and speed up aspects of your thinking, but you also end up losing some of your ability to empathically perceive and understand others around you. It depends on our goals and needs if we consider the general effect on our cognition by those substances to be beneficial in some aspects.[iv] Again, we are reminded of the wise words of Baudelaire when he wrote about hashish: “thus it gives with one hand what it withdraws with the other.”
(…) Read more in Part II, coming soon!
[i] See for instance Kowal MA, Hazekamp A, Colzato LS, van Steenbergen H, van der Wee NJ, Durieux J, Manai M, Hommel B. (2015) “Cannabis and creativity: highly potent cannabis impairs divergent thinking in regular cannabis users.” Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015 Mar; 232(6):1123-34. doi: 10.1007/s00213-014-3749-1. Epub 2014 Oct 7,. PMID: 25288512; PMCID: PMC4336648.
[ii] Sternberg, Robert J. (2011), “Creativity”. Cognitive Psychology (6 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 479. ISBN 978-1-133-38701-5.
[iii] At least I did so, this is actually a situation I experienced with a Chinese Thai Chi grandmaster more than 30 years ago.
[iv] Colzato, Lorenza & Hommel, Bernhard & Beste, Christian, (2020). “The Downsides of Cognitive Enhancement.” The Neuroscientist. 27. 10.1177/1073858420945971.
from: “Elevated. Cannabis as a Tool for Mind Enhancement”, by Sebastián Marincolo, Hilaritas Press, Colorado 2023. All rights reserved.