The Creative Process: Four Phases
So, if we talk about creativity we need to understand that various creative activities involve the orchestration of very different mental skills and physical abilities. And it gets even more interesting if we look closer at various phases of creative thinking.
Almost a century ago, social psychologist Graham Wallas drew on observations made by the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz and the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré to describe a model for the creative process that is still widely considered to be useful today.34 Wallas distinguishes four phases:
You collect information about a certain problem or task, maybe discuss it with others, etc. this may take from a few minutes to years or decades.
You are not consciously thinking about your creative project or problem. Wallas points out that there may be various unconscious thought processes going on that work towards a solution. He also stresses that mental relaxation will help in this phase to move towards phase 3, illumination.
The Aha-Moment and some unspecified time that leads up to it. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the solution comes in a flash. Usually, we cannot tell how we came up with this and Wallas stresses that the thought processes leading up to this moment are either subconscious or only in the “fringe of our consciousness”.
According to Wallas, this phase is more like the illumination phase, which means that the thinking is more consciously directed. Here we edit our idea, evaluate it critically, and refine it.
Importantly, Wallas himself remarks:
“In the daily stream of thought, these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems.”35
I would add that some creative projects like writing a novel may demand several hundreds of little creative solutions. What is my headline for this chapter? How do I describe the character of my main proponent? What name should I give her? What is
a metaphor that summarizes the theme of my chapter? How can I visualize the conflict between the two families involved in a conflict?
If we want to take into account that creative activities come in various phases, then, we have to refine our question again:
“Can a cannabis high temporarily enhance a creative activity in a certain phase?”
Look at an artist during the process of painting, for instance. A cannabis high may help her to enhance her imagination and, thus, may lead to an unusual, novel mental image. Maybe the high helps her to make wider associations and to lead to an unusual idea for painting a portrait with unrealistic colors expressing the emotions of the portrayed rather than the perceived colors of the skin. In a different phase of painting, however, the high may have a negative impact. A painter may for instance feel that if she wants to execute her idea and paint, a high may not be helpful for her hand-eye coordination while drawing, or she feels too distracted to get into details because of her racing mind.
Simultaneous and Consecutive Cancellation Effects
We can now also see that there could be different types of cancellation effects when it comes to cannabis and creativity: simultaneous cancellation effects, and consecutive cancellation effects. In the example of the basketball player, I have described a simultaneous cancellation effect: while he generates a great “highdea” for a fake, his motor skills, attention, and sense of time may get disturbed by other effects of the high. The total effect of the cannabis high, then, could be detrimental to his creative activity.36
Here is an example of a consecutive cancellation effect: assume a painter has an innovative idea during a strong high because of an enhanced ability to imagine novel sceneries. He feels too “stoned” to paint, so he rides off his high, and his jumpy and quick associative stream of thoughts during the high takes him to all kinds of places. One hour later, though, when he sits down to paint, the idea he had before could be long forgotten. Again, some of the effects of the cannabis high cancel the positive influence and could lead to a detrimental overall outcome of the high on the creative process as a whole.
It is easy to see that cannabis users could avoid cancellation effects with some knowledge and some acquired skills. As I have described in my book The Art of the High: Your Guide to Using Cannabis for an Outstanding Life37, they should learn
about dosing, the different effects of various cannabis varieties, the impact of set and setting, and various other factors that can help them to avoid cancellation effects and to get the best out of their high not only for creative purposes but also to experience other useful mind enhancements.
Substantial, Essential, and Characteristic Enhancements
Here is another aspect of our question we have to address: What kind of enhancement do we mean if we ask if cannabis can enhance creative activities? We can distinguish at least three interesting categories of possible enhancements:
1) substantial enhancements
2) essential enhancements
3) characteristic enhancements
A substantial contribution of the cannabis high to creativity would change one or several mental or physiological processes in a way that leads to a substantially better creative result, qualitatively speaking. Let’s assume – and the evidence so far is pretty strong for this claim – that some cannabis varieties can help us to relieve stress and to relax, to turn our attention away from our daily sorrows and woes. Modern science on creative insights produced some good evidence that relaxation during some phases of the creative process may indeed be very helpful for the generation of novel ideas.38
In certain stages of the creative process, the mental relaxation and physiological muscle relaxation resulting from a cannabis high may then substantially help you to come to important creative breakthroughs. Yet, even if this contribution of the high may be substantial – is it an essential contribution to the creative process? Meditation, closing your eyes, or breathing could all lead to relaxation and help the creative process, but would these activities contribute something that we consider essential, something that specifically enhances the quality of the creative process?
Here is another example of an effect that we would probably consider to be substantial, but not essential: Substances like methylphenidate, the active ingredient in Ritalin, or cannabis may help you to sustain your focus of attention longer on certain tasks. So, they could help many creative activities substantially especially in the preparation phase and in the verification process. Arguably, though, most of us would not consider this stronger focus as essential to the enhancement of creativity, as compared to, for example, in the case of an enhancement of our ability to imagine non-existent objects or to recognize new patterns.
Similarly, cannabis can be mood-modulating (causing a profound state of euphoria or bliss, for example), and can affect our ability to improve our creative output. There is scientific evidence showing that our mood indeed has a strong and maybe sometimes substantial effect on our creative output.39 Again, I guess that most of us would not consider this to be an essential effect on creativity, though.
The third question, then, is, if the cannabis high can have a characteristic creativity-enhancing effect. Let’s assume that cannabis can have a substantial as well as an essential effect on our creativity by allowing us to better freely associate and connect far-remote concepts and ideas. Could the same effect be achieved with micro- dosing LSD? What is the characteristic effect of cannabis on creative activities as opposed to the influence of other mind-altering substances or techniques like meditation?
Again, let’s modify our initial question about cannabis and creativity:
“Can a cannabis high temporarily enhance creative activities in certain phases substantially, essentially, and in a characteristic way?”
I hope that at this point it has become visible how much it matters to ask the right question(s) if we are looking for satisfying answers.
On a practical level, many cannabis users would be satisfied to know whether cannabis can lead, for instance, to relaxation or a focus of attention to substantially help them in a creative phase. They probably do not even ask for an essential effect in the sense defined above. If cannabis can bring a substantial contribution to their creative output, especially in a situation where it is hard for them to find relaxation by going on a three-week vacation to the Seychelles, they may be totally satisfied.
Others, however, may find it more interesting to know whether cannabis can bring something more essential to their creative abilities – and maybe, also, if cannabis has a characteristic effect spectrum on creativity, an effect pattern that may or may not work better for some creative activities than other mind-enhancing substances or techniques.
In the following, I will argue that cannabis users have reasons to believe that a cannabis high can have substantial as well as an essential positive effect on creative activities – especially if used with knowledge and skill. Also, I will outline an answer to the question in which way a cannabis high may have characteristic effects on our creativity. I will also explain why I think that cannabis can also be detrimental to creative activities given various conditions. Before, however, let me comment on the nature of a few recent scientific publications on cannabis and creativity which generated much interest in the public.
Cannabis and Creativity: Scientific Investigations
There are only very few recent scientific studies concerning cannabis and creativity. 40 41 Studies interpreting them usually concentrate on the concepts of divergent thinking and convergent thinking for creativity because there are standardized tests for these cognitive abilities. Divergent thinking can be assessed for instance with the Alternate Uses Task (AUT), where individuals are asked to generate, as many as possible, uses for a certain object, for instance, a book. Some answers would be that you can read a book, help ignite a fire with the pages, kill a fly with it, step on it to reach something high up, etc. Your answers are then evaluated along the lines of certain criteria, for instance, originality.
Convergent thinking is usually measured with the Remote Associates Test (RAT) in which people are asked to find a concept that can be meaningfully related to three seemingly unrelated concepts, e.g. “widow”, “bite”, and “monkey”. The solution here would be “spider”.
Luisa Prochaskova and Bernhard Hommel give a short description of the two styles of thinking tested with these two tests, respectively:
“In sum, whereas divergent thinking calls for an associative, parallel, and flexible type of processing, convergent thinking rather calls for analytical, serial, and persistent processing to converge on a single answer.”42
There is some evidence, by the way, that natural synesthetes seem to perform better than others in verbal divergent thinking as well as in visual convergent thinking tasks.43
In his Metacontrol State Model (MSM), psychologist Bernard Hommel argues that all creative performance involves a balance between persistent information processing (convergent thinking) and flexible processing (divergent thinking) and that this balance is guaranteed by metacontrol states. I will not go into details here concerning Hommel’s MSM, but I want to highlight two core implications of it with which I agree:
(a) Creativity is not just divergent thinking or one other uniform mental process
(b) For successful creative performance, we have to be able to consciously or subconsciously find a balance between various cognitive processes
The few studies on cannabis and creativity we have seen so far may be an interesting start to understanding better how cannabis could affect some cognitive abilities that play a role in creative activities. We need to keep in mind, though, that a
cannabis high comes with a complex bouquet of effects on perception and cognitive and perceptual processes such as attention, memory retrieval, the perception of time, and other mental processes. Importantly, also, it needs to be stressed that various creative activities each involve the concertation of dozens of different cognitive, perceptual, and maybe even motor control skills – as we have seen in the two examples of the creative basketball player.
Most commentators on cannabis and creativity referring to some small scientific studies out there tend to vastly overstate the implications of these studies on the complex broader issue of how cannabis may affect creativity.
Let me focus on two problems regarding studies that have been done so far: First, they underrate and misrepresent the wide bouquet of cognitive effects described by cannabis users. Second, these studies often seem to work with a simplistic understanding of creativity, equating creative performance with divergent thinking, for instance.
In his article “What’s wrong with creativity testing”, Robert Sternberg summarizes his criticism of such a simplistic view of creativity:
“There is no reason to believe that the different kinds of creativity represent, simply, different amounts of a single unidimensional construct. (…) The point of view presented here does not suggest that current creativity tests are invalid, but rather, that care must be taken like claims made for them.”44
Like Sternberg, I believe that we can learn something from these studies. But we need to do a lot more work to better understand how diverse creative activities can be and how cannabis can influence these activities.
Let me highlight another typical flaw in some of the scientific studies we have seen so far. These studies look at various standardized cognitive test performances of subjects during the acute influence of cannabis. As we have seen, however, the altered state of the cannabis high is characterized by a whole bouquet of cognitive effects which can lead to cancellation effects as described above. These cancellation effects, however, depend on the skills and knowledge of users and environmental and other factors. They can be avoided by users if they, for instance, learn about using cannabis creatively only for certain phases of the creative process or if they learn to dose cannabis individually for various phases or processes.
One example would be a strategy of cannabis enhancement for creative purposes which I named a “deep dive” during a strong high: The cannabis user lays down during a strong high to generate, for instance, some intense mental imagery
during an enhanced state of imagination.45 She is probably not able to get into a sophisticated creative activity like writing a short story well during such a strong, associative high. So, she just waits until her high is weaker to use the remaining enhanced focus of attention to get into the process of writing. In this second, more analytical phase, she can then use her memory of the creative vision she had in a previous phase. A good strategy would be to take short notes during the high. In this way, cancellation effects could be avoided, or at least minimized. Studies that focus on cognitive effects during a high with their standard testing methods cannot take such a strategic creative enhancement into account.
One famous creative artist who successfully employed something like a “deep dive” technique was the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, who used his dreams and self- induced states of lucid dreaming as techniques to enhance his creative work as a painter. He once said:
“Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams.”
Dalí would probably not have scored well in a RAT or AUT test while he was in a state of lucid dreaming, but many of us value the creative outcome of his efforts.
When people go to ayahuasca retreats, they usually have somebody there to guide them through integration sessions, sessions that come after the actual “trip”. In these sessions, they learn how to integrate what they have experienced into their lives and make some sense of it. Similarly, we can use the cannabis high and learn techniques on how to maybe keep short notes and later use our experiences during a high for creative (or other) purposes.
Suggestions for Future Scientific Investigations
There are more ways for scientists to proceed when it comes to investigating questions concerning cannabis and creativity. The most promising would be to take a closer interdisciplinary look at the complete bouquet of perceptual and cognitive effects of the cannabis high, to find those neuronal correlates, and to explore how these effects are interrelated.
Certainly, this needs to be an interdisciplinary effort informed by more basic research into the endocannabinoid system (ECS) as it is involved in higher cognition. I will not go into the whole list of disciplines of cognitive effects here again. Let me mention only a few cognitive effects and enhancements during a high that cannabis users have described over and over again: a better mental focus during a high, an enhanced ability to perceive 3-dimensions in 2-dimensional imagery, a strong feeling of awe and curiosity, an intensification of sensory experience, a redirection of their attention, for instance, to their body, an enhanced ability to perceive bodily states, synesthetic experiences, a better ability to retrieve distant memories in detail, enhanced ability for pattern recognition, a more intense imagination, and enhanced introspection, mind-racing, and an enhanced ability to better empathically understand others.
Note, importantly: these effects could each in themselves enhance a creative activity if used by a knowledgeable cannabis consumer. All of them could potentially have substantial effects on creativity, and we would think of some of them as having influences on cognitive abilities that are essential to creative processes. So, even if science can confirm only one or a few of the cognitive effects described for users of a high, such as the enhancement of our ability to imagine situations, this would suffice to claim that cannabis has the potential to be creativity-enhancing. Many cannabis users have experienced enhancements such as the intensification of imagination so often that they will not want to wait for scientists to jump in to tell them they are right – in some decades.
On the other side, many users have also reported potentially detrimental cognitive effects such as losing the thread during a conversation, the distortion of their sense of time, or paranoia due to the overinterpretation of patterns during a high. Only if we understand better how the endocannabinoid system is involved in these processes and how cannabis and cannabinoids can affect these perceptual and cognitive processes as a whole will we learn more about the potential of cannabis as a creativity-enhancing tool, as well as how it can negatively interfere with various creative activities.
For scientists, this is a long and rocky path with a lot of conceptual and empirical groundwork to do. Understandably, it is tempting to take a shortcut and to rather create a study based on observations about cannabis users and how they behave during a RAT or AUT test. And it is tempting for journalists and other commentators to pick up the headlines of one of those studies to come up with a verdict on cannabis and creativity: “Scientists show that cannabis negatively/positively influences creativity!” Lovely clickbait for sure, especially in a situation where you want to seem like you are doing scientific reporting. But the grandiose claims in those headlines, as so often in science reporting, are not warranted. Divergent thinking alone is not creativity and preliminary studies with the specific method of administering tests during a high do not show us much about the full potential of the cannabis high to enhance our creative activities.
Characteristic Effects of the Cannabis High
Can we say more to cannabis users about whether a cannabis high characteristically affects their creative abilities in various situations? Do we have reasons to believe that cannabis could have a characteristic effect on various creative activities?
Let me outline the beginning of an answer to this question. Cannabis brings a “signature” bouquet of cognitive effects which characterize a multidimensional cannabis high state. This signature, as far as I can see, is very different for various cannabis varieties and depends also on factors like the method of consumption, mood, and setting, but, arguably, there are similarities between those “highs”. Note, however, that some factors may well systematically shape the “signature” of a cannabis high as it comes to mind enhancements. Aged cannabis, for instance, contains more Cannabinol (CBN), a degradation product of THC), and other degradation products of cannabinoids and terpenes which are believed to cause sedative effects. These may also be partially responsible for problems with your short- term memory during a high. If this is so, then we would have to expect a lot of “cancellation” effects from aged cannabis. If you are tired and you tend to forget about the great idea for a mathematical theory you just had a few seconds ago, then you will probably never end up winning the Fields Medal for the theory that got lost in time.
Individual Reactions and Subjective Flow
The good news for cannabis users is that we now know that cannabis is a remarkably nontoxic substance and that it may be well worth a try to use for creative purposes. Furthermore, there are some easy methods and tricks based on what we know about how we could avoid some pitfalls and how we could improve our use of cannabis for creative purposes. Generally, a mindful approach to experimenting with cannabis can help you to find a dose that works for you. If you know more about creative phases and activities you can learn how to use specific doses of cannabis for various phases in various activities. For instance, after a mindful journey trying various cannabis varieties, you might end up using a cannabis variety in a high dose for a strong high in a phase of the music composing process in which you want to enhance your ability to imagine sounds and to come up with new ideas for sound combinations. Later, in the editing phase, you may choose to only use a light buzz to be able to vividly remember what you have experienced before to then review the ideas and make changes. Importantly, this mindful process of finding a method of consumption, the right variety of cannabis, a productive set, and setting is highly individual. We all have different talents, characters, and styles of perceiving the world, and we, therefore, have to find how a cannabis high can help us in various situations, and how it can be detrimental.
It is of crucial importance, therefore, that you trust your judgment more than the marketing of cannabis-producing companies when it comes to the effects of various varieties on your creativity. We have gone from the era of prohibition to the era of cannabis marketing, and a lot of the marketing claims about “Sativas” and “Indicas” are not warranted and are actually refuted by several scientific investigations.46
From a subjective point of view, it may be worth asking yourself what helps you to “get into the flow” of creative activity. A high may sometimes help you to get into the flow and to stay in it, but it can also let you drop out or even hinder you to get into a flow at all. The Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described flow as
“(…) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”47
According to Csíkszentmihályi, if we want to achieve flow experiences, we have to achieve some kind of balance: If the challenge of a creative task is too ambitious concerning our skills, we might become frustrated, angry, or stressed and we do not
achieve our goals. If the challenge is not enough for our skills, we will feel bored, distracted, and maybe even depressed at some point.
This takes us back to the surfboard metaphor. Like a surfboard, cannabis is a tool with a unique shape that can essentially and substantially enhance our lives. But we have to learn how to use it and how to control a whole range of factors that influence our performance. The board can be a great tool for a certain activity, but it cannot guarantee a positive outcome by itself.