Does smoking weed make people creative, or do creative people smoke weed?

A new study investigates if pot smokers outperformed nonsmokers in creativity.

Does marijuana boost creativity, or are creative people drawn to marijuana more than others?


A new study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition suggests the latter: The results showed that pot smokers (sober at the time) outperformed nonsmokers at one of the two tests researchers used to measure creativity, and that the difference in creativity is most likely due to personality traits rather than pot itself. The study worked like this:

Researchers used the Big 5 model of personality to measure the personality traits of 979 undergraduate students. They then asked the group to self-report their own levels of creativity, and also objectively measured creativity among the students using two separate tests.

Two kinds of creative thought processes were measured to assess participants' levels of creativity:

Divergent thinking — a thought process used to generate many possible solutions to a problem, like brainstorming. To measure divergent thinking, participants were asked to complete the Alternate Uses Test, in which they had one minute to generate as many uses for common objects as they could imagine.

Convergent thinking — a thought process that involves judging a finite number of solutions to arrive at one “correct" answer, like a multiple choice test. To measure convergent thinking, participants completed a Remote Associates Test, which “consists of three unrelated stimulus words, which are associated with a solution word." For instance, the solution word for “cottage," “Swiss," and “cake" would be “cheese."

The results showed that, while there was no significant difference between the two groups on the divergent thinking test, cannabis users outperformed non-users on the Remote Associates Test that measured convergent thinking.

What's causing stoners to excel in this dimension of creativity? It's mainly a personality trait called “openness to experience." The researchers suggested:

“While mainstream media has propagated the idea that cannabis expands the mind and enhances creativity, our results show that the link between cannabis and creativity is largely a spurious correlation driven by differences in personality (i.e., openness to experience) that are related to both cannabis use and augmented creativity."

As one of the dimensions in the Big 5 model of personality, openness to experience is characterized by active imagination (fantasy), aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity. People high in this trait are also more likely to be liberal, extraverted, and tolerant of diversity.

Ultimately, the results don't necessarily suggest that marijuana use has no effect on creativity.

“The answer isn't black and white," said Dr. Alice Weaver Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in deep brain stimulation and the brain's relationship with creativity, to Artsy. “Marijuana is a stimulant. And most stimulants, in the short term anyway, boost output of all kinds."

Flaherty argues that the question of whether marijuana use boosts creativity largely depends on the personality of the artist.

“A very anxious creative person may get some benefit from cannabis. In calming them down, it could help their creativity," Flaherty said. “But for someone who's already in the zone, and who's not too anxious to work, it might push them into a place of being too laid back."

Pot in the Creative Process

Looking beyond the scientific literature and into firsthand accounts, many artists claim marijuana plays a key role in their creative process. Alanis Morisette said smoking pot was a great way to get “clarity" and new perspectives when writing songs. Steve Jobs claimed smoking pot made him feel “relaxed and creative." And comedian George Carlin deemed weed a “value-changing" drug that could open up “doors of perception," as Alexxa Gotthardt notes in her article for Artsy.

Gotthardt's article also features an interview with artist Gina Beavers, who proposed something that seems key in this debate about drugs and creativity: Getting high can sometimes be good for the idea-generation part of the creative process, not necessarily the execution of those ideas.

“If I smoke weed and then go to bed, I'll have mild hallucinatory effects as I'm drifting off to sleep and get creative ideas...A few times, I've been mulling over how to solve some issue and weed will give me ideas, but not always ones I go with. I have to wait and look at the solutions in the light of day."

Considering the plethora of mind-altering substances in the world — from Ayahuasca to Budweiser — should we think there's anything special about marijuana when it comes to creativity? Couldn't alcohol help artists be more creative, too?

Possibly. One hypothesis is that, because drugs can lower our inhibitions, they help to silence the self-editor that tends to harshly criticize what we create, allowing us to overcome writer's block or simply the fear of creation.

Jason White, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who likes to compose songs while drinking a glass of bourbon on his front porch, summed it up like this:

“I'm drinking to stop the noise in my head so I can express what I'm feeling in my heart."

There's an interesting caveat to White's career: Although he was more of a whiskey drinker than a pot smoker, his biggest success in songwriting was influenced by marijuana and not alcohol, as Adam Wernick and Michael May wrote for PRI:

“Years ago, a friend left a marijuana bud on his coffee table. White wasn't a pot smoker, but he popped it into a corncob pipe, lit it up, and in forty minutes wrote a song called Red Ragtop. The song became a huge hit for country singer Tim McGraw."

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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