Ever look at the unchained torment of a Hieronymus Bosch painting…the vivid manifestations of emotive beasts, landscapes of simultaneous anguish and beauty, and think: boy oh boy, what was that guy smoking?!
Divorcing art from drugs can be as difficult as divorcing artists from their drugs. From the Beatles and their iconic acid trips to Victor Hugo and the ‘Club of the Hashish-Eaters,’ where mid-19th century Parisians toyed around with drugs, it seems that behind many creative types is some sort of psychedelic stimulation. While history has seen its fair share of teetotallers, from Alice Cooper to Franz Kafka, they often feel like exceptions to the rule.
Does smoking weed make people creative or do creative people just like smoking weed?
Well, there’s no exact science to it.
While dopamine serves many functions, it is most commonly known as the brain’s reward to itself. It is released whenever you do something you find pleasurable, from eating sugar to having sex. Marijuana has been known to release bursts of dopamine, which is part of the feel-good nature of the high, and dopamine deficits are why you might feel down the morning after tearing your bong a new one.
Artists can often be their own toughest critics, and while that may not always be the case, working high can turn the volume down on that negativity until work is done. Similarly, with self-scrutiny weakened, ideas that the mind may usually dismiss or repress may get reprioritized. While that might not make those ideas any more valid, their reassessment may improve other aspects of the creative process.
Beyond confidence, another popular theory about the relationship between cannabis and creativity has to do with what is known as ‘priming.’ Priming is the mind’s unconscious logic and pattern recognition. It’s how complex ideas, feelings and memories get tethered to colors, smells and songs. Some psychologists believe cannabis puts this brain function into overdrive, a state called ‘hyper-priming,’ where the mind is much more enthusiastic about this process and will freewheel from looser thoughts more than usual. These connections aren’t always ‘correct’ or ‘logical,’ but they are expansive, and creatively that can be useful. One study came to this conclusion when seeking connections between the effects of marijuana and schizophrenia, and even found that ‘hyper-priming’ could be detected after other effects of the high wore off. Mental illness is, of course, commonly affiliated with creativity as well.
Even Charles Baudelaire, the famous French poet, made a similar observation at the aforementioned Hashish-Eater Club. “People completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft,” wrote Baudelaire in ‘Artificial Paradises,’ a comparison of hashish and wine. “But after a few minutes, the relation between ideas becomes so vague, and the thread of your thoughts grows so tenuous, that only your cohorts can understand you.”
In a paper about musicians and marijuana, Peter Webster explores the way drugs can stimulate the brain processes most useful to an artist.
“Cannabis ‘‘runs away with itself,’’ writes Webster. “Thus, we ‘‘tend to forget what we are talking about’’ or even reading or thinking about, making reading a notoriously difficult task. This effect might well explain another of the peculiarities of cannabis consciousness: The character and meaningfulness of what is scribbled down while under the influence, although perhaps seeming profound at the time, is the next day notoriously silly and obvious.”
Cannabis, in essence, causes a form of thought some call ‘divergent thinking,’ where the usual routes of the mind are tangled with so many detours that you often end up a ways away from where you started. I shouldn’t have to tell you how tangent-prone your conversations are high, or how even wilder your internal thoughts become under the same conditions. In an effort to overcome mental roadblocks, however, the detours of divergent thinking may be exactly what your lil’ mind car needs to get home.
Smoking weed can help creative people make art. But not always. Smoking weed may make people realize their creative potential. But not necessarily. If you are not destined to be a creative person, weed won’t fix that. It may, however, make uncreative people think of themselves as extremely creative—but that’s a whole other issue.