Smoking some great Bubba Kush may put you to sleep and make you feel a little apathetic in the short run. But, will smoking a few joints make you permanently lazy?
Like most things in the canna-science world, the answer to that question is complicated. Scientists are still struggling to figure out how marijuana affects motivation. This article will walk you through the current medical debates and give you the run-down on how weed might be affecting your overall get-up-and-go.
The Short-Term: Energizing Vs. Sedative Strains
To start off with the simple stuff, let’s take a look at how marijuana affects motivation in the short run. In today’s legal cannabis world, every strain comes with its own unique cannabinoid profile. Sort of the marijuana plant’s version of a fingerprint. How you feel when you smoke, vape, or eat a particular strain will largely impact how motivated you feel shortly after consuming.
Many marijuana users already know that you smoke a Sativa when you need an energy boost. A true sativa contains higher levels of cannabinoid THCV. THCV is a compound that works in tandem with psychoactive THC, mitigating the some of the plant’s disorienting and sedative effects.
If you want to get things done, grab yourself a sativa. The cannabinoids present in this cannabis species help motivate you and spur creativity.
These are the suckers that will truly zap your motivation in the short-term. You smoke an indica when you’re ready to wind down and catch some Zs. Indicas naturally have a higher THC content, and they typically also contain combinations of cannabinoids and terpenoids that are more sedative than uplifting.
High CBD strains are non-psychoactive. In these strains, THC has been selectively bred out of the plant. In the history of cannabis, CBD strains are extremely new. In fact, high CBD strains only began to make mainstream headlines in 2012.
Many medical patients opt for high CBD strains because they enable them to go about their day and avoid feeling any of the heavy sedation caused by THC-containing marijuana. Because of the newness of these extremely low-THC strains, virtually no research has been done on how regular use affects brain development and long-term motivation.
What is Motivation, Medically Speaking?
The couch-locked, lazy stoner stereotype has been haunting weed smokers for the past few decades. If you’re a cannabis activist or work in cannabusiness, then you know via firsthand experience that the stereotype could not be further from the truth. Yet, how we personally experience motivation can be scientifically traced to patterns and levels of specific chemicals in our brain.
Socially and personally, we experience motivation as:
- the will to pursue our interests and dreams.
In the world of science and psychology, however, motivation is tied to how well specific sections of your brain function. Namely, the striatum.
Your Brain and Motivation
The striatum is actually made of three different smaller portions of your brain: the caudate, putamen, and the nucleus accumbens. The function of the striatum is quite complicated. The sections that make up this region are responsible for controlling our reward response, voluntary movement, cognition, and behavior.
This part of our brain allows us to learn by connecting basic actions like moving with little chemical treats. When we do things that feel good (eating, sex, taking a drug, etc.), it’s the striatum that helps us remember what that feels like and translates it into a behavior. All of these responses are connected to our brain’s production of one key chemical: dopamine.
In summary: the striatum helps motivate us by connecting our internal reward system with memory and cognition, creating learned behaviors that propel us forward.
Here’s an oversimplified example of what that means in terms of marijuana:
Smoking weed makes us feel awesome. When we do it, our brain activates feel-good chemical dopamine. Once dopamine is activated, our brain draws connections from that chemical and remembers how amazing it feels to smoke. We then associate weed smoking with a positive behavior. Because of these positive connections, we may feel driven to smoke weed next time we smell it. When we get to smoke it again, our brain rewards us by producing more dopamine while we do it.
The Long-Term: Scientific Controversy
Scientists are currently a bit stumped on just how exactly marijuana interacts with these parts of the brain. In general, research on the harms of marijuana use seems to ping-pong back and forth every couple of months. This is especially true when it comes to studies on marijuana and motivation. One minute, a study is published claiming that cannabis decreases motivation in the long run. The next, an article comes out claiming the exact opposite.
So, what’s the cause of all of this confusion? Researchers are breaking out their boxing gloves when it comes to weed’s effect on the shape of the striatum and on our dopamine levels.
Back in 2014, media outlets went a little overboard reporting on one particular study by Jodi Gilman, an Assistant Professor at Harvard’s School of Medicine/Massachusetts General Hospital. The research was originally published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Gilman’s study examined the way heavy cannabis use in young people changed the shape of their emotional and behavioral brain.
Gilman’s study focused on THC and included no discussion of other cannabinoids. Brain scans were taken of 20 marijuana users ages 18-25, and 20 non-users of the same age group. Gilman found that weed smokers had abnormalities in the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. The amygdala is another part of your brain that plays a major role in regulating emotion and behavior.
These brain changes corroborate with a different study published in 2013 (also cited in the video above). The study suggested that that regular marijuana use in young people limits your brain’s ability to produce dopamine over time. This supposedly leads to a decline in motivation, long-term memory impairment, and slowed learning. This finding is similar to other studies on addiction. Less dopamine means that you’re more likely to become dependent on marijuana to stay motivated.
In an interview with Imperial College London, study author Dr. Michael Bloomfield explains that changes in your brain’s dopamine structure “could also explain the ‘amotivational syndrome’ which has been described in cannabis users, but whether such a syndrome exists is controversial.”
Bloomfield’s study, however, relied on a small sampling of patients that had “psychotic-like” experiences with the plant. Not necessarily the best example to use to determine how marijuana affects the motivation of your average, healthy user.
…And the Punches Start Rolling
Another study also published in the Journal of Neuroscience less than one year after the Gilman study contradicts research on the overall changes in brain structure. Published in January of 2015, research conducted by Barbara Weiland of University of Colorado at Boulder found that marijuana use is NOT associated with changes in brain structure in adolescents or adults. In fact, Weiland calls out Gilman (among several others) directly in her article.
According to Weiland, Gilman’s study was “not designed to determine causality”. Meaning that while Gilman’s study may have shown some sort of brain changes, marijuana use could not be isolated as the direct cause of those changes.
Wieland’s study was far more inclusive than Gilman’s and Bloomfield’s. The UC Boulder team conducted scans and statistical analysis on 503 adult and 262 adolescent participants. They also performed comprehensive screenings for previous mental illness, as well as drug and alcohol use. Wieland’s study “found no evidence of differences in volumes of the accumbens, amygdala, hippocampus, or cerebellum between daily versus nonusers, in adults or adolescents.”
Further, Weiland explains:
While the literature clearly supports a deleterious short-term effect of marijuana on learning and memory, it seems unlikely that marijuana use has the same level of long-term deleterious effects on brain morphology as other drugs like alcohol.
Said simply: Yes, you may be slowed down a bit after smoking marijuana (duh). But, the effect of long-term cannabis use on your brain pales in comparison to drugs that we’ve already legalized and consume on a regular basis.
Where Does All This Leave Us?
When it comes to cold, hard neuroscience: mostly confused. But, based on centuries of weed smoking and a wealth of anecdotal evidence, we know that stoners are among the brightest and most hardworking people out there. Just to name a few famous ones:
- Carl Sagan
- Snoop Dogg
- Rick Steves
- Oliver Stone
- Maya Angelou
- Morgan Freeman
- Martha Stewart
- Michael Phelps
- Queen Victoria
- … And the list goes on.
Scientists may be duking it out over the precise ways cannabis affects our biochemistry, but it’s safe to say that the modern marijuana industry was built by the ingenuity, grit, and hard labor of highly motivated business owners and activists alike. As an industry, we’ve accomplished all of this despite social stigma and the constant assault of the lazy stoner stereotype. Without a special kind of passion, willpower, and motivation, we would not be where we are today.
After all, to quote the great John Maynard Keynes: “In the long run, we’re all dead”.
Give a special shout out to all of the highly-motivated weed lovers out there by sharing this article. Do you feel that cannabis has limited your motivation, or prevented you from becoming successful? Even if marijuana decreases your ability to produce dopamine over time, is it worth the risk?
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