“O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
In a good relationship, a loving partner can inspire you and help your creative output in many ways. She (or he) may simply inspire you day-by-day with a beautiful smile, encourage you to compose your music or help you to relax and refresh your energy. Your beloved partner could also help you to discipline yourself, to keep focussed on a writing a book, drag you to a movie she finds interesting for you to help collecting ideas for a movie project, or provide valuable feedback during the creation process of your new musical composition. There are many ways a lover can help you to be creative.
Naturally, things can also go wrong. Your partner could also negatively influence you or completely block your creative output in just as many ways. He or she could distract your attention away from your project, undermine your self-esteem or keep you constantly busy with irrelevant problems.
Marijuana can be to your creativity like a loving partner; a muse, inspiration and a help in many ways. But like a partner, it can also interfere negatively with your creative output when things go wrong in your relationship.
Does marijuana “enhance creativity”? The short answer is that marijuana certainly has a magnificent potential to do so. However, that does not mean that marijuana automatically pushes a “creative boost button”, for a simple reason; there is no such button. Creativity is not like electricity or a mysterious energy. It is the product of a successful coordination of various highly complex cognitive skills – and often crucially involves an additional coordination of many physical skills. This basic fact is often overseen in discussions when it comes to marijuana and creativity – not only by laymen, but also by scientists. The marijuana high affects various cognitive processes that are part of the creative process. If we want to know how marijuana can enhance creativity, we have to look at a variety of cognitive alterations during a marijuana high and analyze how these can be either helpful or, otherwise, detrimental for creative activities.
The story 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 spontaneous exploration of dance, a solo dancer requires the perfect functioning motor control of his whole body, timing and an ongoing stream of ideas in how to transpose music into motion. Marijuana can indeed help artists, musicians and others by a multitude of cognitive alterations that enhance a whole variety of cognitive processes. But we shouldn’t expect this to be a simple relationship. The many alterations of cognitive processes during a marijuana high have a different impact on various creative processes. Moreover, there are not only vastly different creative processes, but also, creative processes come in different phases. In his book High. 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.”
If you want to use marijuana for creative purposes you will have to find out whether marijuana can help you for a certain creative process during a certain phase. As more advanced marijuana users know, this will also depend on the type and strain of cannabis you are using. Often, we forget another crucial aspect at this point; whether marijuana can help you for a certain creative process also crucially depends on your own psychological makeup. While a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may appreciate that cannabis helps him loosen up a bit and to break with routines, a user with a tendency for ADHS (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Syndrome) might appreciate the fact that certain strains can calm him down and help to focus his attention better. Others may find such relaxation effects as being counterproductive for their work. In an interview with HIGH TIMES Magazine, essayist Susan Sontag once said that for writing, marijuana would relax her too much – she said 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 while writing.
In what follows, I will name a few effects of marijuana and outline how they might impact creativity; the list is not supposed to be complete. My intention is to broaden the perspective of many researchers in the field who have tried to reduce the “creativity-boosting” power of marijuana to one or two effects that have been confirmed in psychological studies (as for instance “hyper-priming”).
The taste of marijuana has often been underestimated because it is considered a “weed” and a “drug”, and because it is often used in the wrong way mixed with bad tobacco. Use a well-grown, great tasting strain in a vaporizer and you will experience the obvious: marijuana has a complex herbal, nutty, fruity, earthy, delicate taste. Similarly, the effects of marijuana are usually underestimated as just bringing a euphoric “high”, relaxation, and something like a better associative flow in thinking. The story, however, just like with taste, is much more complex – and much more interesting.
Based on the analysis of hundreds of reports of marijuana users and studies thereof I have described several cognitive and perceptual alterations during a high leading to various enhancements in my study High. Insights on Marijuana. The study aims to explain how these alterations can lead to creative insights. During a high, users experience a hyperfocused attention. Sensations of all kinds coming into that focus are not only experienced as more intense, but are also perceived with more detail. The seemingly simple taste of fresh water turns into a highly complex taste experience, with salty, fruity and herbal associations freely floating together in a symphony of delight.
Furthermore, while high the capacity of users to imagine situations is enhanced and they can often vividly recall episodes of their past, sometimes reviving long forgotten memories in astonishing detail. Marijuana users often describe how their mind races quickly through memories, ideas or associations. They report the enhancement for pattern recognition of various kinds during a high; seeing new patterns in an artistic painting style, in the playing style of a jazz musician or in the behavior of friends. Many have used the high for better introspection and have found out important aspects about themselves. Marijuana users have also reported an enhanced empathic understanding of others, feeling that they can more easily put themselves “into their moccasins”. Many other users report spontaneous insights during a marihuana high.
Briefly then, the marijuana high brings a variety of mind-alterations which can be positively used – but the successful use of a high for a creative process crucially depends on the knowledge and the ability of a user to choose the right strain under the right circumstances for the a certain phase of a certain creative process.
So, what are the effects of marijuana on cognition which can turn out to be especially helpful for creative processes, and how can they enhance a users creative activity? In the following, I will describe some of the typical cognitive alterations during a high used by artists and other people.
One of the most fundamental effects of a marijuana high is the often reported hyperfocus of attention; cannabis users concentrate stongly and exclusively on whatever comes into the focus of their attention. This hyperfocus often leads to an intense perception of the here-and-now of existence. Whatever comes into the attentional focus of the user becomes not only more intense, but can often be explored in more detail. Time seems to slow down. The stunning experience of the here-and-now often leads to an exciting feeling of awe and wonder. Often, subjects report that their attention is redirected to aspects of objects or situations they would usually not attend to that much. Suddenly, they do not look at an object anymore under pragmatic aspects – they do not think about the usual ways to use it, but start to explore it’s colors, surfaces or shades from a different perspective, like an artist or a scientist scrutinizing its nature. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once wrote about his experience during a strong marijuana high in Paris:
“I opened my eyes and looked at some red ornament on the mantel-piece, and at once the room was full of harmonies of red, but when a blue china figure caught my eye the harmonies became blue upon the instant. I was puzzled, for the reds were all there, nothing had changed, but they were no longer important or harmonious; and why had the blues so unimportant but a moment ago become exciting and delightful? Thereupon it struck me that I was seeing like a painter, and that in the course of the evening every one there would change through every kind of artistic perception.”
For many marijuana users, this feeling of awe and wonder can be a crucial and life-changing catalyst for deeper investigations into patterns they have not explored before. In his essay ”Creativity, Marijuana and a ‘Butterfly Effect in Thought’“, Jason Silva points out the importance of the feeling of wonder induced during a high:
“(…) Marijuana enhances our ability to marvel: In some mysterious and uncannily recurring way, marijuana can induce an almost ‘synesthetic ecstasy,’ whereby a loosening of the usually firm borders that separate our five senses allows for a broader, deeper, more profound, and often time-dilated “interpretation” and “internalization” of moment-to-moment experience.”
Silva mentions the effect of synesthesia. Marijuana users experience full-blown synesthetic effects like seeing colors while listening to a guitar solo only for higher doses of marijuana. I have argued before that a pre-synesthetic effect of marijuana occurring even at lower doses may be constitutive for creative enhancements, leading to what I have called an enhanced ability for “isomorphism extraction”. In other words, the high seems to enhance our ability to extract similarities between seemingly unrelated concepts, objects, processes or patterns. The process of pattern recognition itself always involves the extraction of a similarity; when you look at a painting that you have never seen before and you recognize it as by Edgar Degas, you extract a similarity between the painting you are looking at and other Degas paintings works you have seen in the past; you re-cognize the style on the basis of an isomorphism extraction, a cognitive process to find similarities.
Many reports from marijuana users show that during a high, they attend to different aspects of situations, objects or behaviors and discover new patterns. Suddenly they link seemingly unrelated structures, processes or concepts a process that is crucial for the invention of new metaphors. Obviously, this is one of the fundamental effects of marijuana used by creative people in many areas.
There are countless reports of marijuana users regarding vivid imagery during a marijuana high and their enhanced ability for imagination. The effect usually goes undisputed in conversations about marijuana, but it is often overseen how important it is for various cognitive skills and especially for creative purposes. A New York painter reports:
”What I will allow myself to do – and succeed quite well in doing – is to paint mentally while I’m stoned. An image comes to my head, and, I refine it, rearrange it a number of times, and then let it float. The final stage of the image comes back to me, in a flash, later, when I’m straight. I can then use the mental painting as a series of shortcut steps.“
Naturally, imagination is not restricted to the visual area; chefs have reported how they can better imagine the taste of combinations of food during a high, and musicians describe an enhanced ability to imagine melodies played by various instruments, thereby aiding their composing skills.
Marijuana users often experience an enhancement of their empathic skills during a high. This enhancement is never named in connection with creativity, but I think it can be of fundamental importance when it comes to various creative processes. Writers may feel that they are better able to slip into another personality and to creatively write fiction involving the feelings of their characters. Generally, an enhanced ability to see the world through the eyes of others can be of tremendous help when attempting to come up with new perspectives and ideas.
Let me conclude with some remarks about existing research on marijuana and creativity. Many studies on marijuana and creativity will have to be critically re-evaluated. Scientists usually work with neophyte test subjects who do not necessarily know how to use marijuana correctly for the purpose of creative enhancements. Yet, as argued above, refined knowledge and experience with marijuana is crucial for a user to profit from various cognitive alterations during a high. Also, many studies focus on a simplified and abstract definition of creativity. I have argued here that the cognitive skills involved in creativity can vary significantly given the diversity of creative processes. Future research should better be directed at finding out about the basic cognitive effects of various cannabinoids and then investigate how these can influence a diversity of creative activities under favorable circumstances – ranging from an improvised trumpet solo to the writing of a poem.
 Novak, William (1980). High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans. Massachusetts: The Cannabis Institute of America, Inc, p. 138.
 Interview with Susan Sontag in the HIGH TIMES, March 1978, #31.
 Marincolo, Sebastián (2010) High. Insights on Marijuana. Dogear Publishing, Indianapolis, USA 2010.
 William Butler Yeats (1906) Discoveries, chapter „Concerning Saints and Artists“ (quotation taken from veryimportantpotheads.com).
 Compare Marincolo, Sebastián (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana. Dogear Publishing, Indiana, USA. My argument is based on the groundbreaking work of the neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard.
 The effect of semantic hyperpriming is presumably based to the pre-synesthetic effect described. Hyperpriming is a process in which subjects make unpredictable connections between items – a much-discussed recent study has shown that marijuana can induce a state of hyperpriming in subjects. See Morgan, CJA; Rothwell, E; Atkinson, H; Mason, O; Curran, HV; (2010), “Hyper-priming in cannabis users: A naturalistic study of the effects of cannabis on semantic memory function”, Psychiatry Res, 176 (2-3) 213 – 218.
 William Novak (1980), „High Culture. Marijuana in the Lives of Americans“, The Cannabis Institute of America, Massachussetts, p. 131.
This essay has been originally published here: