“Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT
They all changed the way I see
But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life”
– Sturgill Simpson, “Turtles All the Way Down”
As rising country star, Sturgill Simpson, wrote in one of his breakout songs, psychoactive drugs have always had an effect on our perceptions of reality. Historically speaking, their perception-altering properties were used in indigenous religious ceremonies long before Western cultures got ahold of them.
But as they’ve become more common in Western cultures, the religious aspect has fallen to the wayside. In the last few centuries, mind-altering substances have more commonly been used by artists like Simpson, purportedly to gain access to different perspectives and modes of understanding.
From William Blake’s wild illustrations in 18th century England to Edgar Allan Poe’s, laudanum-drenched mysteries, all the way to the substance-saturated rock ‘n’ roll decades of the ‘60s into the ‘80s; Western culture has a long history of pairing drugs and art.
Cannabis has been uniquely ubiquitous in this regard. While heroin and cocaine only had their fifteen minutes of fame, cannabis has always held a constant and consistent role in arts and creativity.
But does the plant actually make us more creative? Or, is it possible that creative people just have a natural preference for cannabis and the benefit is, therefore, clouded in smoke?
Recent studies may shed light on whether cannabis truly unlocks creativity per it’s reputation, or if it’s simply just a vehicle for mood, allowing us to reach more creative states on our own.
The stuff of literature
There is abundant literature suggesting that cannabis helps individuals with a form of creativity called “divergent thinking,” which is a thought process that involves finding a solution by exploring seemingly unrelated concepts.
Far from scientifically proven, there are only observations and anecdotes about how psychoactive substances help stimulate the kind of creativity where solutions manifest from nowhere and wild new perspectives are discovered.
A study published in Consciousness and Cognition suggests that – contrary to popular belief via decades of stereotypes – consuming cannabis doesn’t actually generate creativity. Instead, the research posits that creativity is inherent to personality traits with which cannabis helps us access.
How the study worked
The researchers asked nearly 1,000 subjects about their cannabis use and divided them into a user and non-user group. Using what’s known as the Big Five, or Five Factor Model (FFM) as a criterion, the researchers assessed their base set of personality traits:
- Openness to experience: Are you inventive and curious, or consistent and cautious?
- Conscientiousness: Are you efficient and organized, or easy-going and careless?
- Extraversion: Are you outgoing and energetic, or solitary and reserved?
- Agreeableness: Are you friendly and compassionate, or challenging and detached?
- Neuroticism: Are you sensitive and anxious, or secure and confident?
Researchers asked the participants to self-report their own levels of creativity, and then each student had their creativity measured objectively using two separate tests.
This test measured the ability to judge a finite number of solutions and arrive at a single correct answer. Think of it as a multiple-choice test.
This test measured the ability of participants to generate as many solutions to a problem as possible. Think of it as a brainstorming test. Here, participants were given 60 seconds to come up with as many uses for a common object as they could imagine.
On the first day, they took these two tests not under the influence of cannabis. Then they repeated the tests on the second day after using cannabis.
The results are in…
After testing, the results showed that there was no significant difference between the two groups when it came to divergent thinking. However, cannabis users actually scored better than non-users at convergent thinking, which bucks the common trend.
The researchers had to figure out why cannabis users excelled in this specific type of thought process. They went back and matched the students up against how they scored on the Big Five personality traits and found that there was a strong correlation to convergent thinking and openness to experience.
This led the researchers to conclude that, “…the link between cannabis and creativity is largely a spurious correlation driven by differences in personality (i.e., openness to experience) that are related to both cannabis use and augmented creativity.”
The Big Five personality trait of “openness to experience” is generally characterized by having an active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, attentiveness to inner feelings, and a preference for variety.
People who score highly in this trait tend to be extraverted, liberal, and tolerant of diversity. They’re also more open to those psychoactive substances that have been used for thousands of years before them.
Cannabis & the creative process
Many people known for their creativity have offered their positive personal opinion about creativity and marijuana. Apple founder Steve Jobs believed it made him “relax into creativity.” This isn’t much different than Ernest Hemingway’s famous taste for booze that let him relax into creativity as well as pugnacity. Science struggles to prove the cause might be marijuana or alcohol, but the key may lie in their personalities.
So, it’s likely that cannabis doesn’t make us more creative – but our personality can make us more receptive to the inhibition-lowering aspects of psychoactive substances, like the THC in marijuana.
Whether we believe we are creative or not, we’ll all find creative acts – from writing to painting – easier to undertake when we allow ourselves the privilege of being able to silence our inner critics and explore different forms of thinking without pause or anxiety.
This is one thing about which both scientists and artists agree: Creativity starts with your personality. Seeking out mind-altering substances as a way to be creative is a lazy over-reduction perpetuated by cultural stereotypes about psychoactive effects.
Instead, bud should be used as a way to elevate the creativity that’s already within you.
It’s a supplement that helps shed the trappings of our inhibitions to allow thoughts to flow and connect more freely. But in order to get that level of cognitive liberation, you have to be open to the process in the first place.
To learn more about how to elevate your creativity and well-being through cannabis, take a look at our Cannabis 101 series to help you get started with the basics. If you’re already in the know, we have a great recipe for brewing up a cup of infused tea as you settle into a long session of writing, painting, or whatever you do to free the muse.