This guest post is brought to you by Sera Ghaly, herbalist, naturopath and cannabis writer. She explores the concept of creativity and the effects cannabis has on our creative imaginations.

Key takeaways.

  • What is creativity?

    The most accepted definition for creativity is the outward expression of novel ideas. But there's also a lot more complexity than our scientific definitions allow.

  • How does cannabis affect creativity?

    Cannabis may affect creativity by increasing divergent thinking. However, because a dancer on a stage and a writer at his desk have vastly different experiences with creativity, cannabis might not affect every creative person positively.

  • How do strains play a role?

    Again — because of the nature of different creative endeavours, strains also play a role. For example, a sleepy indica strain might put a dancer off their game entirely, impairing their creative flow.

To talk about creativity alone in any kind of methodical or scientific way is difficult enough. Adding cannabis to that conversation takes subjectivity to a whole new level — which necessarily means that the only way to really discuss cannabis, creativity, and imagination is through delicious philosophical meanderings.

It’s not all that much investigated by science, and for the most part, it seems, isn’t questioned. Of the few studies that have taken place, their results are wildly inconsistent — likely because there’s no solid way of measuring creativity.

At the same time, there has been some research on how cannabis affects certain brain regions and psychological behaviours. That knowledge, coupled with what we know about how creativity is implicated in those behaviours, gives us an idea of the wildly complex mechanisms that might be at play.

Philosophy and science aside, on the basis of empiricism, cannabis does something to the creative gene. I know from experience, not just in my own creative endeavours with cannabis, but as a matter of observation. Some of my favourite writers, comedians, musicians and artists have had some connection with cannabis. For many, cannabis is even the subject of their artistic musings (much like me, in this very context). In that way, cannabis itself has been the inspiration for art repeatedly throughout history. 

Before I go on to divulge on the potential of cannabis and creativity, it’s necessary to mention that the cannabis experience is subjective. And so is creativity. The way humans express creativity varies from individual to individual. Think about the subjective experience of a writer at his desk, composing poetry, who has the time and space to experiment with words before committing. How vastly different that is from the experience of a dancer on stage, whose flow depends on fine motor control and movement, where everything is delivered in live-action. It’s safe to say then, that not all creativity is “boosted” by cannabis, and everybody’s context for unleashing that potential is different.

Defining and measuring creativity.

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Given that we have no good way to define creativity, we certainly have no good way to measure it. The only thing researchers seem to agree on is that we’ve been extremely unsuccessful in developing ways to measure creativity. But that’s a reasonable outcome for something which when we try to define, the best we can do is fumble.

Creativity is the outward? - or physical? - expression of novel ideas. But that expression could be music or poetry or architecture or sculpting or dancing or acting or singing or something like that. We all know creativity when we see it, but to pinpoint it is difficult. People seem to go through bouts of creativity, and then times when they don’t feel creative at all. Which is why some people liken creativity to a spring or reservoir of energy that can be “tapped into”. Others describe it in terms of an entity called the muse, that either comes or doesn’t come to work her magic through you.

From an entirely different perspective, creativity doesn’t always have to do with arts and artistic endeavours. Creativity can manifest as problem-solving, such as in the form of engineering or technology. Wiggling your way through or out of a problem in mathematics, design, or processing requires creativity just as much as writing. This just adds to the complexity of creativity and the ways in which it manifests.

In the 1960s, a psychologist by the name of E. Paul Torrance created a psychometric measurement of creativity called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Torrance admitted that environmental factors and psychological influences would affect creativity. But since their conception, they’ve primarily been used by the education sector and the corporate world to try and identify “gifted” people — which was never what they were intended for. Therefore, the score reveals nothing but a number thought to reflect the fluency, originality and elaboration of thoughts, but doesn’t necessarily consider patterns among them.

Okay — so it’s very clear that it’s hard to measure creativity. But humans are creative. So we can try to find similarities between creative people, and use them as markers for creativity. From there, we can try to draw links. For example, G. Feist, in a meta-analysis of personality traits in creative individuals, says that creative people are “more open to new experiences… and more self-confident,...driven, ambitious, dominant, hostile, and impulsive”. 

There are factors that have been determined important in the scientific acknowledgement of creativity. Arguably the most important is “divergent thinking”, which possibly refers to the measure of “fluency” prescribed by Torrance. Divergent thinking is essentially the process by which seemingly unrelated thoughts can be unified into a novel idea. It is a way to measure the mind’s ability to combine diverse information in novel ways. Researchers draw a connection between creativity and divergent thinking, and some go so far as to liken creativity to intelligence.

Cannabis and its effects on creativity.

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Now that we’ve established that the scientific method is one way of measuring creativity and that a little creativity is needed for the social-personality approach, we can theorize a multitude of different ways that cannabis affects creativity. Let’s first check out some of the science that already exists on the topic.

The science on cannabis and creativity. 

In 2012, researchers took to investigating the effect of cannabis on divergent thinking — which is a factor in creativity we’ve already talked about. Researchers demonstrated a clear relationship between the two, and found that acute cannabis intoxication increased the verbal fluency of “low creatives” to the same level as “high creatives”. 

Interestingly, the researchers made an association between cannabis-induced psychosis-like symptoms and trait schizotypy. Schizotypy refers to a group of traits that include things like disorganized and/or eccentric thinking and interpersonal difficulties and may indicate a vulnerability towards schizophrenia (we’ll talk more about this later).

Another study published in 2009 compared cannabis and MDMA users on different measures of creativity. Researchers found that cannabis users gave more “rare-creative” responses than the members of the control group. An unexpected result was that MDMA users self-rated themselves more creative than they performed, and cannabis users did the opposite.

In one other study, no connection was drawn between cannabis and a change in divergent thinking. In another one, researchers concluded that cannabis actually impairs divergent thinking

Researchers used a lot of different ways to measure creativity and even consume cannabis in these studies. This likely is accountable for the discrepancy in results. The fact that there isn’t a single, standardised way to measure creativity makes it extremely difficult to replicate results across studies.

The science on cannabis and imagination.

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One study investigated the effects of cannabis use on visual imagery using a pair-associated task. The researchers created the paper on the basis that cannabis users report better visual imagery. The participants of the study were asked to use imagery to describe the images presented to them. Cannabis users scored lower in the vividness of their depictions.

Most people can see the flaws in this study. Firstly, it’s likely that users who report better visual imagery don’t necessarily report an increased ability to describe those visual imageries. Secondly, the study doesn’t even begin to touch on the potential of the imagination, which is much more than the ability to generate and describe visual images.

In one paper, the researcher suggests that mental imagery might arise from a function called exaptation. This is the ability to give thoughts or objects a function that they didn’t have before. This isn’t a phenomenon in psychology textbooks, but a real phenomenon that has happened many times over. We can look to August Kekule, who discovered the benzene ring as a result of a dream in which he observed a snake devouring its own tail. Or we can look to Archimedes of Syracuse, who developed the method for purifying gold while watching bubbles in his bathtub. Seemingly unrelated objects, ideas, or thoughts, suddenly connect, and all of a sudden, a snake eating its own tail serves the purpose of a benzene ring. Sounds a lot like divergent thinking, doesn’t it?

The ability to have multiple thoughts occurring at the same time and the capacity to draw connections between them seem linked, not just to creativity, but to the imagination. Which makes me hypothesize that imagination and creativity are not like two different fruits in the same basket. It’s as though imagination is the basket. Imagination is the home of creativity, the faculty by which creativity is manifest. 

An infinitude of people, personalities, strains, and effects

At its basis, cannabis is an experience. It’s subjective. Naturally, this means that no two cannabis experiences are the same, as no two subjective experiences are the same. People bring to an experience a wealth of memories, knowledge, traumas, etc. The same is true for the cannabis experience. Couple that with the variety of strains that are available, and the variety of effects that cannabis can have on creativity is enormous. For a lot of people, cannabis doesn’t inspire creativity in exactly the same way every time either.

I gave the example of the writer and the dancer, and how very different their requirements are for their creative expressions. As a writer, cannabis opens my mind to the many possibilities of ideas and gives me the freedom to sail on them for a while before jumping into any one. But when it comes to my music practice, cannabis gets in the way of my motor control. My fingers don’t move as swiftly or with as much precision — they don’t land on the strings with the same perfection. At the same time, I can hear the music better when I’m high, which makes it a perfect time for composing or singing, but never for performing.

This is true for strains too. A heavy indica might not lend itself to creative expression as the body melts into a meditative state. It might be prompted better by sativa strains which are more energetic in nature. And again, all of this will finally boil down to the unique combination of events that take place between cannabis and your very own body and mind.

The connection between cannabis, psychosis, and creativity.

I mentioned earlier that in one study, researchers found a connection between cannabis-induced psychosis and trait schizotypy. First, I’m going to go on a little tangent here, but I promise, I’ll bring it all back together.

It’s not the first study or document that has drawn a connection between cannabis and psychosis. But interestingly, it was drawn during a study about cannabis’ effects on divergent thinking — and the observation was about trait schizotypy. Other studies have drawn a connection between schizotypy and divergent thinking, such as in this study published in Frontiers in Psychology.

The researchers of this study concluded that those with high schizotypal tendencies performed better on creative tasks, cognitive inhibition and overinclusive thinking. Overinclusive thinking is the inability for a person to restrict his or her thoughts to the limit of a topic, and cognitive inhibition is the ability to tune out anything that’s irrelevant to the task at hand (they are kind of like two opposites). In another study, researchers concluded that cognitive inhibition and overinclusive thinking might be the cognitive link between schizotypy and creativity.

All of this points towards the possibility that the genesis of creativity and psychosis occurs in the same cradle of cognitive processes. The same thing that makes us creative might also make us crazy, apparently. And in an altogether bizarre hypothesis, some researchers suggest that the interconnectedness between psychosis and creativity explains the retention of the psychosis gene in the gene pool. 

It’s interesting then, that what makes some people feel extra creative under the effect of cannabis, might also be the trigger for certain mental health conditions, too. The same place in the soul that cannabis tickles when someone feels extra high and creative might be the same place in the soul that it tickles when someone feels extra high but in a state of psychosis or paranoia. That doesn’t mean creatives shouldn’t use cannabis. For all we know, cannabis might be the way that the person who tinkers on the edge of creativity and psychosis stays there, and never quite falls off the edge. But that’s another matter, for another discussion.

The potential for creation.

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Cannabis has been demonstrated to be a tool that can amplify cognitive processes linked to creativity such as divergent thinking. More than that, cannabis has inspired many artists over history, and has itself been the subject of so much art. 

Users report increased connection to their art, greater vulnerability in expressing it, and the ability to invent new ways to express their ideas. For some, it’s simply about being more relaxed, and therefore feeling freer to express. 

Using cannabis as a tool for creativity requires a little practise. Perhaps you’ll find that your mind is rich with ideas after using cannabis, but the actual composition of the art is hindered by cannabis. If you’re a dancer, for example, you might find cannabis useful when choreographing, but might find it a hindrance during performances. 

If cannabis really is a tool for creativity, you have to learn to use it the same way a swordsman has to first learn to use a sword. It takes some time, a little practise, and a little self-observation to be able to use that intimate relationship between humans and cannabis for its potential for creation.

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