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Marijuana As Muse

How Cannabis and Novelty-Seeking Affect Your Health

Jasen Talise

Spring 2011

marijuana neurological creativity frontal lobe dopamine    Carl Sagan, Salvador Dali, and William Shakespeare all smoked cannabis. In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga—former NYU Tisch student who took home three awards at the Grammy’s this year—admitted to her artistic relationship to the drug, claiming bluntly: “I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.” Medicinal marijuana ameliorates nausea and vomiting, stimulates hunger in chemotherapy patients, alleviates back pain and lowers intraocular eye pressure. Considering the drug’s many benefits, we may pose the same question the journal Clinical Addiction Psychiatry asks, “One purpose of medicine, in addition to the alleviation of suffering, is to improve the quality of life. A question that arises in this context is: if we could enhance cognition in disease, should we do it in health?” If yes, we might bring the aforementioned artists back into the discussion, asking whether their relationships with marijuana enhanced, if only even partly, their cognitive creative processes. Research concerning both the neurophysiological effects of marijuana on the brain and the neurophysiological tendencies found in creative individuals brings to light the ways in which marijuana may act as a muse to bolster individuals to creative genius.

    Current creativity research has discovered common neurological occurrences that are associated with high human creativity. One such occurrence is increased activity of the frontal lobe. According to Alice Flaherty from the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, “When subjects with high and low creativity are compared, the former have both higher baseline frontal lobe activity and greater frontal increase while performing creative tasks.” Frontal lobe activity generates creative output in two ways.

    First, it stimulates creative drive. Flaherty’s research found that deep brain stimulation near the nucleus accumbens correlates to an increase in creativity. The nucleus accumbens is a collection of neurons located on the outer parts of the forebrain which plays an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, and rhythmic timing for musicians. The output neurons of the nucleus accumbens project to the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe, thereby establishing a connection between these two parts of the brain. Flaherty points out that this connection, coupled with the nucleus accumbens’ role in the limbic generation of drives, helps explain the generation of creative drive via frontal lobe activity.

    Second, the frontal lobe serves as the headquarters for creative divergent thinking. As pointed out by creativity researcher Crystal Gibson of Vanderbilt University, “Divergent thinking is distinguished from convergent thinking, which is defined by a narrowing of possible responses to reach the correct solutions. In contrast, divergent thinking involves flexible ideation to generate many responses to open-ended and multifaceted problems.” Divergent thinking provides the foundation for creative production as it entails the ability of an individual to think of solutions without being limited by strict conceptual boundaries, thereby allowing one to think outside the box. It is a type of thinking characterized by making connections between ideas that would otherwise be left unconnected.

    Considering this, marijuana may promote creativity as it increases frontal lobe activity, primarily by increasing cerebral blood flow (CBF) to this area. In studies done at the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría Ramón de la Fuente, Mexico and John Hopkins University, it was found that subjects with high creative performance showed greater CBF activity in various locations in the brain associated with the frontal lobe. Cerebral blood flow is the amount of blood in the brain at any given time, and higher amounts in specific areas of the brain indicate higher activity of those areas. This is because neurons in the brain require energy when being used and they receive this energy from the glucose and oxygen supplied by blood. Experiments by Mathew and Wilson (1992) showed CBF tended to reach a maximum effect in the frontal lobe after thirty minutes of cannabis consumption. More recent research done by O’Leary et al in 2000 and 2007 confirm that marijuana increases normalized regional CBF to various parts of the frontal lobe, including the orbital frontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex. O’Leary’s work juxtaposed to Flaherty’s observations suggests that marijuana’s role in stimulating frontal lobe activity has the correlative effect of promoting the creative drive and divergent thinking characteristic of the creative process.

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