Cannabis and Creativity: On Imagination, Artistry and Creative Expression

Cannabis users throughout millennia of recorded history have explored the association between cannabis and creativity. It has been the topic of many writings and the inspiration behind many songs. Amazingly, and maybe even slightly unexpectedly, the connection between cannabis and creative expression has even aroused the interest of academic researchers.

There is perhaps no way to accurately understand the degree to which cannabis affects creativity other than to consume it and observe. This is because creativity is often described and explained in terms of subjective experience, and even the scientific means of ‘measuring’ creativity are flimsy. Science does not adequately describe the mechanisms of this phenomenon.

Even scientific writers often lend themselves to academic philosophy as a means to explain the ways that cannabis affects creativity and whether or not this is a morally sound activity. The scope of this topic is colossal, as scientific literature and even anecdotal evidence point to the infinitude of nuances in the human creative experience.

For example, a writer in his study certainly experiences the effects of cannabis on his creativity very differently than a dancer would with a partner, or on stage. They are different creative processes, engaging different parts of the body and brain. This can all be affected by various strains of cannabis, dosage and even personal dispositions.

Sativa and indica varieties of cannabis have very different effects. The creative potential will vary from person to person. While a writer might find small doses of indica conducive to creativity, a dancer might experience its effect as lethargic. Similarly, a mathematician might find sativa varieties more useful than indica for inducing creativity. There is an infinite amount of potential for cannabis to bring about creative expression to the person who knows how to choose a strain and dose.

What is creativity?

Defining human creativity in an empirical fashion is very difficult, as our usual methods of measuring it are subjective and open to interpretation. Thus far, modern science has been unsuccessful in finding a universal definition for creativity. Subjectively, creativity simply refers to the outward expression of novel thought processes, and can be expressed in countless ways including speech, the written word, art or music.

Creativity can also be considered a problem-solving tool that is not strictly limited to art, but an entire array of different daily activities. Perhaps the most pertinent real-world example is Archimedes of Syracuse, who during a hot bath one evening noticed the displacement of water in his tub. In an impulse of creative inspiration, Archimedes discovered a specific methodology for measuring impurities in gold.

Archimedes wasn’t alone in his creative use of imagination. Other scientists have often described how their imagination helped them to come to solutions to problems and great ideas. One of Einstein’s greatest insights came when he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light, and the chemist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz saw the Benzene ring in a reverie of a snake biting its tail.

In this way, creativity need not be limited to art, but can be expanded into general problem solving, even in mundane life activities or relationships. In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as “real world problem solving” or “creative problem solving”. This adds to the complexities of defining creativity – and even more to measuring it!

Efforts to introduce a standardised creativity test similar to intelligence quotient tests have so far been unsuccessful, although several measures are in use to establish individual levels of creativity to some extent. It is impossible to measure the quality of creative expression empirically as that depends completely on social, cultural and individual response to whatever is created.

How is creativity measured?

It is possible to measure the “quantity” of creative thoughts engendered in different people in response to standardised tests. American psychologist, Ellis Paul Torrence pioneered a psychometric approach to creativity measurement in 1966 — the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. This test assesses subjects via a set of simple problem-solving tests in order to ascertain the fluency, originality and elaboration of creative thought.

This measure of creativity is perhaps the most commonly used in the educational field and even in the corporate world. However, there are still criticisms of this form of measuring creativity, especially among psychology-related academic writers. Most often, single scores are the final result, whereas many theorists say this measure is inaccurate, and rather, patterns should be sought among sub-scores to provide insight into individual abilities.

Fluency (essentially equivalent to divergent thought, outlined below) in this case refers to the total number of ideas generated in response to a stimulus, while originality refers to the rarity of a subject’s ideas compared with the rest of the group, and elaboration refers to the level of detail given in the response.

While some researchers have focused on the tangible expression of creative thought, others hold that the true measure of creativity can only be gained from a social-personality approach. This means that the person’s self-confidence, willingness to take risks, and independence of decision-making are included in the measurement.

American psychologist Gregory Feist has described that creative people are “more open to new experiences, less conventional and less conscientious, more self-confident, self-accepting, driven, ambitious, dominant, hostile, and impulsive”.

Schizotypy, divergent thought and creativity

The concept of schizotypy was developed in order to describe the spectrum of personality traits found in humans, from “normal” imagination to that experienced by psychotic or delusional individuals. The more schizotypal an individual is, the more likely they are to experience unusual perceptive and cognitive phenomena (at the most extreme, hallucinations and delusions), cognitive disorganisation, introverted anhedonia (introverted, “joyless” behaviour), and impulsive nonconformity, particularly with regard to social situations.

Divergent thought refers to the ability to create a range of responses to a stimulus (as opposed to convergent thought, in which the one “correct” answer is sought). Positive correlations have been observed between divergent thinking and schizotypy in multiple studies.

Within the scientific and academic domains, the connection between divergent thought, schizotypy and creativity has arguably become the greatest controversial issue in the field of creativity. It is hypothesized that creativity and psychopathology may arise from the same cradle of mental activity and process. A bidirectional relationship may exist, at least according to some theorists, whereby creatives are more likely to develop psychosis-related disorders, and those with psycho-diagnoses are more likely to express creative talent.

Interestingly, previous research has suggested that the association between psychotic traits and creativity explains the retention of the psychosis gene in the gene pool. This hypothesis has tremendous implications, at the very least in how we perceive psychosis and its role in the grander picture of human existence and history.

The existing research into cannabis and creativity

Various studies have been performed in the last few years that have focused primarily on cannabis’ effect on the creative process, although results have not been entirely consistent throughout these studies. As well as this, dozens of studies into specific brain functions affected by cannabis have yielded results that give us some degree of insight into the vast, complex process of human creativity.

A 2012 study into the relationship between schizotypy, divergent thought and cannabis use demonstrated a clear relationship. Acute cannabis use (administered via smoking) increased verbal fluency in “low creatives” to the same level as that found in “high creatives”, as well as increasing levels of schizotypy.

A 2009 study comparing creativity in (abstinent, formerly chronic) cannabis and MDMA users and a control group demonstrated that cannabis users exhibited greater numbers of “rare-creative” responses than the control group. This indicates a higher level of original thought. Interestingly, MDMA users rated themselves as more creative than controls, but didn’t exhibit corroborating evidence in their responses. Cannabis users, on the other hand, were more likely to exhibit creativity but did not self-rate as being more creative than controls.

However, not all studies have established such a link. In this 2001 study, which used the Torrence set of measurements, no increase in divergent thinking was observed in cannabis users compared to the control group. In fact, researchers observed a decrease in divergent thinking in regular users.

In another study published in 2015 in Psychopharmacology, researchers observed something unexpected altogether: highly potent cannabis dramatically impairs divergent thinking in regular cannabis users. They also observed no impact on creativity with low-potency cannabis.

The inconsistencies demonstrated between studies can be attributed to different measuring techniques used to assess creativity. These inconsistencies also exemplify the difficulty in measuring something as nuanced as creativity, especially when cannabis is added as a variable. 

Cannabis, hyperpriming and semantic memory

In psychology, ‘priming’ is a function of memory, whereby exposure to stimulus elicits a response to a subsequent stimulus. Semantic priming refers to the memory association between two items that are semantically related, e.g. ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’. When an individual is exposed to a stimulus in a particular semantic category, the neural networks of the brain are stimulated and other related items are remembered.

Semantic priming refers to the neural connections that are stimulated in response to observing semantically similar items

Hyperpriming refers to a condition in which unusual and unpredictable connections are made between items that are loosely related or not at all related. A 2010 study determined that levels of semantic hyperpriming were higher in regular cannabis users even when abstinent, and were significantly higher when intoxicated compared with a non-using control group. This study also found that although intoxicated individuals exhibited increases in schizotypy, abstinent levels of schizotypy did not vary from controls.

The thin line between madness and genius, and tying it all together

Clearly, much work remains to be done—indeed, the definition of creativity must be better established—before we can achieve consensus on the relationship between cannabis use and creativity. In order to reduce the level of inconsistency across different studies, better methods of empirical measurement must be found to accurately assess individual levels of divergent thought. However, although the research is essentially in its infancy, a generally positive relationship between cannabis use and creativity has thus far been found.

Due to the strong association between use of cannabis and divergent thought, there may be some increased risk of abnormal divergence occurring with prolonged, heavy use. This may greatly assist in explaining the link between cannabis use and schizophrenia itself (as well as a number of related conditions), as the hyperpriming effect of the former paves the way for the uncontrolled responses of the latter.

For example, cannabis’ hypothesized ability to stimulate or trigger symptoms of psychosis may be the same mechanism by which it triggers creativity. After all, scientific literature has even explored the link between psychotic tendencies and creativity without regard for cannabis use. However, more narrowly focused research is required to accurately assess the validity of this hypothesis.

When we observe all of the research, the common connections (or at least, hypotheses) are clear: cannabis, creativity, and symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia. If this were not true, then qualities such as schizotypy and divergent thinking would not have been researched in relation to creativity and cannabis use.

Cannabis and imagination

A surprisingly untouched topic with respect to cannabis is its impact on imagination. This may be a result of the fact that imagination has largely been left to psychoanalysis, which leaves very little room for large-scale, statistical data. Again, creative imagination is not strictly limited to the arts, because even great thinkers employ creative imagination in their work.

In one psychological paper on the neurobiology of imagination, the author, Agnati, proposes something called ‘exaptation’ as a possible mechanism of action by which mental imagery is produced. This is the process by which features or objects acquire functions for which they were not originally intended. In many ways, this can be likened to the creative process; to give something a quality it didn’t have before, or to recycle a ‘thing’ for another purpose, even if that thing is a thought.

The reason this is pertinent is because the author does not define imagination purely as mental imagery, but perhaps as the ability to somehow incite exaptation. This is contrary to the single study that exists on cannabis use and mental imagery, where cannabis users received specific instructions to use imagery to facilitate learning. The subjects were instructed to use imagery to describe the images presented to them. Researchers found that cannabis decreased the ratings of vividness of these imagery descriptions.

In any case, the cannabis experience is sometimes described in terms of its effect on the imagination. The concept of hyper-priming mentioned earlier touches on the concept of imagination that Agnati mentions in his article about the neurobiology of imagination. The seemingly effortless ability for some cannabis users to make connections between unrelated topics can be considered the power of the imagination.

Needless to say, modern science doesn’t know how, or by what mechanisms, cannabis can have this effect – or why it has this effect on some but not on others, for example. At the root of it, the ability of exaptation or hyper-priming is not possessed by all, and offers problem-solving potential, much like the case of Archimedes and water displacement in the bathtub.

A variety of creative processes, phases, and cannabis strains

The topic gets even more interesting, though, when we look at a variety of creative processes. Playing a new drum solo in a band during a live performance demands the coordination of various cognitive abilities and, simultaneously, flawless hand-eye coordination.

These abilities are very different from those a poet needs when he silently sits down trying to write a poem about the sound of wind going through a field of rye. For the creative spontaneous exploration of dance, a solo dancer needs a perfect functioning motor control of his whole body, timing, and an ongoing stream of ideas in order to transpose music into motion.

Cannabis can help artists, musicians and others by a multitude of cognitive alterations that enhance a whole variety of cognitive processes. We shouldn’t expect this to be a simple relationship. The many alterations of cognitive processes during a cannabis high have a different impact on various creative processes.

Also, there are not only vastly different creative processes, but also, creative processes come in different phases. In his book High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans, William Novak quotes an essayist stating:

“I just can’t write well on grass. My grammar and syntax get screwed up, and I can get caught in the details. I do some of my thinking stoned, and the more linear work is done straight.”

(Novak, William (1980). High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans. Massachusetts: The Cannabis Institute of America, Inc, p. 138.)

The quote suggests a need for artists to assess their own creative processes, and whether or not cannabis is conducive to those processes. As more experienced cannabis users might know, this will also depend on the type and strain of cannabis. The subjective experience of cannabis cannot be disregarded, even in the absence of scientific reasoning, because at the very least, cannabis affects people differently.

For example, while some may see relaxation as a doorway to creative expression, others might find the same relaxation counterproductive to creativity. In an interview with HIGH TIMES Magazine essayist Susan Sontag once said that for writing, marijuana would relax her too much – she preferred a little speed once in a while. Other writers feel they can write perfectly during a high because they feel more concentrated and have a better flow in writing.

The fact that a single specimen of cannabis can elicit mutually opposed responses in two different people typifies the complexity of cannabis’ effects. Then, with the multitude of strains available, this complexity is exponentially expounded. The variety of mind alterations which cannabis can induce leaves the topic open to all manners of interpretation and eventually, output. What one cannabis user accepts as a tool for creativity, another accepts as a hindrance.

10 artists quotes about cannabis and creativity

1.      Alanis Morissette

“As an artist, there’s a sweet jump-starting quality to [marijuana] for me. I’ve often felt telepathic and receptive to inexplicable messages my whole life. I can stave those off when I’m not high. When I’m high – well, they come in and there’s less of a veil, so to speak. So, if ever I need some clarity… or a quantum leap in terms of writing something, it’s a quick way for me to get to it.”

2.      Steve Jobs

“The best way I would describe the effect of the marijuana and the hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.”

3.      Sebastián Marincolo

“Marijuana can be like a loving partner to your creativity; a muse and inspiration and a help in many ways.”

4.      Lady Gaga

“I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.”

5.      Jason Silva

“Marijuana is a cognitive catalyst that can trigger heightened free-associative creativity, increased pattern recognition, and insight.”

6.      Bob Marley

“Music and herb go together. It’s been a long time now I smoke herb. From 1960s, when I first start singing.”

7.      Bill Hicks

“See, I think drugs have done some *good* things for us, I really do. And if you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favour: go home tonight and take all your albums, all your tapes, and all your CDs and burn ‘em. ‘Cause you know what? The musicians who made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years… Rrrrrrrrrrrrreal —— high on drugs.”

8.      Jay-Z

“I smoked some weed, and that’s how I finished ‘Izzo.’”

9.      Terence McKenna

“Marijuana excites vocalization and empowers articulation. It transmutes language into something that is visibly beheld.”

10. Justin Timberlake

“Some people are just better high.”

If you have ever used cannabis as a tool for creativity, we would love to hear about your experience! Which strains do you prefer? Any other tips?

  • Disclaimer:
    Laws and regulations regarding cannabis use differ from country to country. Sensi Seeds therefore strongly advises you to check your local laws and regulations. Do not act in conflict with the law.

Comments

17 thoughts on “Cannabis and Creativity: On Imagination, Artistry and Creative Expression”

  1. freedom fighter

    Keep it going Seshata, i really want to meet u somewhere, someday becuase your way of thinking ,writing are very sincere and dedicated ! Don’t give up, there are many of us who think like you only our voice’s is not heard as your.

  2. Hey guys, I think you may find that particular Mckenna quote is in reference to Psilocybin.

    If you find the original source in Google books you’ll see it is incorrectly referenced by the Huffington Post as being about marijuana.

  3. WOW! So glad that I came across this!! I was trying to explain this and felt like a crazy person! Groovy!!!

  4. Clement Makonde Kenya Kakuma

    Cannabis makes my music and with out it there was no better man.I want to be one.

  5. It is with weed that I write hit songs only which has made the wealthiest person I once dreamt to be….

    Soulful house vocalist ???❤️

  6. People smoking cannabis, or anything, would only be ‘creative’ with all the gangster graffiti that they start doing!

    1. Scarlet Palmer - Sensi Seeds

      Hi Natasha,

      Well, thanks for enlightening us on this issue. It’s always good to have personal statements, research and evidence challenged by someone who can present a coherent argument backed up by facts, so that we can have an intelligent debate.

      With best wishes,

      Scarlet

  7. I smoke like two times where my bpdy felt a lil weird and than boom when i close mi eyes and struggle with the feeling after I smoked i was able to just do whatever i wanted too in my head like a visual reflection of me but of what ever character i want and any set up and feels so real idk i want to do this again but theres no info that i could find

  8. DA VINCH STAH

    comAm alocal artist from the Eastern UGANDA en thats Africa….i like taking weed in the morning it keeps me the whole day creative en I wrote my best song so far after smoking carnabis

  9. A bunch of cells

    Damn, I keep looking to justify smoking pot because of how relaxing it is, but all I see is pot-smoking idiots in the comment section incoherently and ungrammatically trying to convince me of the intellectually stimulating properties of marijuana. I think I’ll stay away for good this time, especially since the evidence is inconclusive. I think it’s best to wait until there’s more clarity in terms of research. For now, the financial and cognitive costs of smoking outweigh its flimsy benefits.

    1. Scarlet Palmer - Sensi Seeds

      Hi there,

      I’m sorry to hear that you’re judging cannabis by a few people in the comments section – some of whom I don’t think have English as their first language – rather than the articles themselves, many of which were written by cannabis users. Additionally, if you find cannabis to be relaxing, why do you feel that you need to justify it, and to whom? Unless it really is a question of your personal ‘financial and cognitive’ costs, in which case, it sounds like you’ve already justified not using it. I hope that you can continue to enjoy the blog despite this.

      With best wishes,

      Scarlet

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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