Winding through the crowds of Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, or any other summer festival, you'll inevitably catch a whiff of weed smoke in the air. We may not all have the same taste in music, but we can definitely agree on one thing: smoking pot and listening to tunes is the greatest combination since peanut butter and marshmallows.
Despite plenty of stoner message boards on the internet scribbled with pseudo-science attempting to answer that question, it's more complicated than you might think. Marijuana has been studied for decades in North America, but continues to be illegal in most places. Like many psychedelic drugs, it has suffered from a social stigma that has affected the potential for research on it.
However, there's been a growing body of work, drawn from multiple disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, and musicology, that looks at how our brains react to music while on drugs. Just last year, in 2015, a study was published on how LSD affected a listener's emotional reaction to music.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there about the link between music and weed, actual research is surprisingly hard to find. Nonetheless, we got together several academics from different fields to find out more.
Dr. Sophie Scott: A British neuroscientist who teaches at University College of London in London, UK.
Dr. Zach Walsh: A professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
Dr. Jörg Fachner: A professor of music, health, and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK.
THUMP: Why do music and marijuana seem to go together so well?
Dr. Zach Walsh: It seems like people love listening to music when they smoke cannabis. Cannabis users will often include increased appreciation of art in general and music specifically. There's just this deep relationship.
Dr. Sophie Scott: I sometimes wonder if the relationship with marijuana isn't a happy coincidence in two things that might be activating similar brain areas, but also have been so culturally brought together. There may be more cultural bringing together than neural.
What's actually happening in the brains of stoned people listening to music?
Dr. Jörg Fachner: [Marijuana] works like a psycho-acoustic enhancer. That means you are more able to absorb, to focus on something, and to have a bit of a broader spectrum. It doesn't change the music; it doesn't change the ear functioning. Obviously it changes the way we perceive ear space in music.
It also changes time perception, and if you listen to music, it is a time process, so if you have a different time perception of course you will listen differently to music.
Walsh: [Marijuana] puts you in a relaxed pleasant state, and there you are able to be receptive to music, or to be perhaps in the moment. Cannabis improves all types of things that are related to being present in the moment, as opposed to long term planning and worrying and ordering and organizing.
What parts of the brain are you looking at?
Fachner: In the study that I've done with the EEG [electroencephalogram, a machine that measures electrical brain activity], there are changes in the occipital area, which is processing visual; the temporal area, which is processing the auditory; and then in the parietal. These three connections seems to be of benefit for the listener.
Walsh: When you think about psychedelics, their effects are largely on the serotonergic system, whereas cannabis' effects are very diffuse. Cannabis can facilitate the activity of a bunch of other things—like gamma [waves], which is where you get the relaxation; all the systems that facilitate dopamine, which is why people like it so much. But, when we think about the main effect, a large concentration of cannabinoid receptors are in an area called the hippocampus, which is involved in the formation of memories.
Why is there so little research on this aspect of cannabis?
Scott: Essentially [marijuana and music] are looked at by two totally different groups of people. The people interested in how drugs affect the brain are not interested in music and vice versa. Even if you see similar networks [in the brain] getting activated, I don't think there's anybody theorizing about that relationship quite so strongly.
Walsh: We're looking at major indications, as far as medical use, that are going to have public health implications and alleve suffering. Because of the barriers that there have been to studying cannabis, it was hard enough to be able to do studies that could really help the health and well-being of veterans.
Interviews conducted separately by Gigen Mammoser.