Cannabis the Creative Muse?

Cannabis has long held the mystique of the art world. Before its use grew during the sixties, cannabis was a staple of the jazz scene. It was thought to be an aid in allowing the musician to follow a free form jazz without being held back by the ordinary boundaries of musical style. By using improvisation, the music drifted away from fixed chordal progressions and was thought of as experimental, often leaving the listener surprised as they tried to follow along with the music. But, did cannabis actually help form the movement into progressive musical structures or did this plant hinder already naturally talented and inquisitive musicians? The debate has been going for as long as the use of cannabis has been in our society. Most users of the plant will support the creative element of the drug while nonusers believe that cannabis hinders the creative process.

This dichotomy actually illustrates more of the political differences between the two sides than it does the actual cause and effect. But, this will prove to be a key point in understanding the actual effect on creativity.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

One method of describing and measuring creativity in case studies is the term Divergent thinking. DT is the method used to find creative means by exploring many different possibilities. The more possibilities that can be considered, the more potential for creative solutions; this is considered thinking ‘outside the box’.

Another is Convergent thinking which strives to find one solution only for a specific problem. This is more similar to the formulae that scientists use to understand finite laws such as E=MC 2 to help us understand the universe.

There have been many studies exploring how cannabis (or other substances) affects the creative thinking process. One recent case study conducted at Leiden University in the Netherlands came up with the conclusion that high doses (22 mg) of THC actually impaired Divergent thinking while the placebo group showed no signs of loss of Divergent thinking. However, it is thought that an individual with low dopamine levels can have their creativity enhanced by increasing those low dopamine levels with a dose of (5.5 mg) of THC.

THC has been found that, by its effects on dopamine, it helps Divergent thinking and/or hinders Convergent thinking. This process may alter the creative method on the individual. Whether it changes for the better or worse will depend on the individual and to what degree the effect has. Another factor may be the chronic usage by the user. The higher and more frequent the usage, the higher the levels of dopamine will be in the user’s system. That level may reach a high enough point after chronic usage to effectively remove the advantage that dopamine can offer. The bigger effect dopamine may have on the creative process may be addition by subtraction. It has been shown that the higher dopamine levels will reduce an individual’s inhibitions. Imagine throwing caution to the winds and allowing yourselfto think of all the possibilities and not just the ‘sensible’ ones. By removing one’s restrictions, we are allowed more freedom to consider all possibilities. With the lower dose of THC, we remain grounded enough to still be capable of Divergent thinking but freer to lose our inhibitions that limit us in possibilities.

The confusing part of having all of these studies is that they don’t agree with each other. For every study that shows us Divergent thinking is affected positively, there is another one showing that it can be harmful. How can so many studies come up without a consensus of opinion? The answer may be a simple one. The common factor has been that a high dose has hurt performance in Divergent thinking. Low doses have had little or no effect. While that is not a resounding approval for THC use in the creative process, it is a start to a better understanding, recognizing that individual’s natural dopamine levels can be a factor in results.

The Creative Process

Another way to look at this is the creative process without drugs. With Convergent thinking, think of your creative path as a maze. The outside walls are the box that contains the maze. While you try and figure a successful way through, your mind calls on the Convergent way of thinking by taking all the possible directions and solving which one is the correct way out through trial and error. In its own way, it is looking at finite pathways and solving the puzzle. Divergent thinking takes a different path. Let’s give you a step ladder. By climbing a step ladder to above the maze, you are able to look down on the maze and see all the possibilities at once making connections from ‘outside the box’ by using Divergent thinking. You might even be able to move the walls around allowing you short access to where you are going. No longer are you limited by the walls inside the maze and you draw the different connections to the path out. Maze solving is not the only path. You can move the ladder next to an exterior wall and simply climb out of the maze. Divergent thinking can be limitless in finding solutions. However, the best projects may need both forms to create a finished product. Convergent methods will finish the task much easier while Divergent can bring the unique design or solution to be created. One can lead to the other. If THC raises a dopamine level high enough to remove inhibitions yet low enough to maintain a viable Convergent way of thinking, the balance could optimize the creative process.

This has been shown in study after study that, while making connections under the influence is enhanced, finishing the product isn’t. NASA did a famous study where they had the common house spider spin their webs under a variety of different influences including LSD and mescaline among others. When it came to THC, the spider created a reasonable web until it stopped before it was finished. A user can go from epiphany to epiphany without regard to completion.

Illusion or Real?

Finally, it has been argued that the creativity of THC is nothing more than an illusion.

The artist believes they are creative from the drug while the inspiration actually comes from inside the artist. Philosophically, this would be no different than any other muse an artist uses for inspiration. The idea may come from a high, in a drugged state, or a random thought. It is still the artist that recognizes a connection between two or more inspirations, creates the idea, forms the idea into a concept and then into art. THC may be a help, depending on the individual, but it is not the only way to create.

So, how can very talented people be able to create major works of art or take incredible technological steps while under the influence? Steve Jobs, a visionary and one of the geniuses behind Apple computers, was quoted as saying, “The best way I would describe the effect of the cannabis and the hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.” Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, credited cannabis with one of his all time greatest songs. “I listened to ‘Rubber Soul’ and smoked some cannabis and was so blown away that I went right over to my piano and wrote ‘God Only Knows’ with a friend of mine.” It just might be true that, in moderation, THC can help start the creative juices but I wouldn’t give it all the credit. Conditions will have to be right. The person will have to ingest a small amount so that the dopamine receptors function close to optimum level. That person will have to have some modicum of talent to be able to carry out the creation into a form that can be understood by his or her audience.

Divergent thinking may be able to ease the inhibitions to the point where the user is able to see connections between two different concepts and create a fusion between two very different ideas that would have not been seen before. However, remember that what might seem like a good idea at the time, might turn out to be a Twinkie with several toothpicks sticking out of it in the morning and you are left wondering, “What was I thinking?” The project may need a dose of Convergent thinking afterwards to finish the job.