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Of Creativity, Marijuana and "a Butterfly Effect in Thought"

h4. _By Jason Silva_ bq. "The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.” [...] “ some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating...
July 16, 2011, 1:00am

By Jason Silva

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive." […] "…by some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.” – Pearl Buck, Winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938.

In a blog post last year entitled “Marijuana and Divergent Thinking”, Jonah Lehrer explains that many creative tasks require the cultivation of an "expansive associative net, or what psychologists refer to as a “flat associative hierarchy”. What this essentially suggests is that creative people should be able to make far-reaching connections among all sorts of seemingly unrelated ideas, and to not dismiss one possible connection just because it seems far-fetched.


Creativity and insight almost always involve an experience of acute pattern recognition: the eureka moment in which we perceive the interconnection between disparate concepts or ideas to reveal something new.

The cosmic think tank (and fine t-shirt purveyor) the Imaginary Foundation says that “to understand is to perceive patterns.” Throughout the ages, all great thinkers have demonstrated this concept by providing a larger, dot-connecting scope of things, which embrace previous paradigms. As Richard Metzger writes:

“What great minds have done throughout history is provide an aerial view of things. A larger more encompassing view that often subsumes the previous paradigm and then surpasses it in completeness with the vividness of its metaphors. Consider now how the evolving notions of a flat earth, Copernican astronomy and Einsteinian physics have subsequently changed how mankind sees its place in the cosmos, continuously updating the past explanations with something superior.

Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan sets a wonderful example as a patternistic thinker: he saw the electronic global village coming decades before the Internet and interpreted electronic communications as extensions of the human nervous system. He connected the dots.

In his biography of McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, Douglas Coupland writes that McLuhan was a "master of pattern recognition…who bangs a drum so large that it's only beaten once every hundred years."


This heightened ability to draw connections and novel associations between disparate ideas or objects is the hallmark of creative thinkers, who are always searching for the initial conditions or tools that epiphanies are born from.

I believe that Marijuana is perhaps one of the best cognitive tools for creativity.


In his ScienceBlogs post, Jonah Lehrer points to a paper recently published in Psychiatry Research, which “sheds some light on why smoking weed seems to unleash a stream of loose associations.” Essentially, marijuana can extend the range of our free-associative capacities. It increases the novel ways in which we find connections between ideas, and it also extends the range of ideas that we might somehow relate to one another. The study also looked at a phenomenon called “semantic priming,” in which, Lehrer describes:

The activation of one word allows us to react more quickly to related words…Interestingly, marijuana seems to induce a state of hyper-priming, in which the reach of semantic priming extends outwards to distantly related concepts.

He cites Vaughan Bell:

As cannabis certainly causes smokers to have freewheeling thoughts, the researchers decided to test whether stoned participants would show the ‘hyper-priming’ effect…[And indeed they found that]…volunteers who were under the influence of cannabis showed a definite “hyper-priming” tendency, where distant concepts were reacted to more quickly.


While not surprising, it does offer a scientific validation for what so many artists, philosophers and scientists have been saying for ages: that marijuana is a cognitive catalyst that can trigger heightened free-associative creativity, increased pattern recognition, and insight.

In this video I explain how marijuana sparks a “butterfly effect in thought”


"Cannabis is an assassin of referentiality inducing a butterfly effect in thought," says the author of Darwin's Pharmacy, Richard Doyle. You can see the hyper-priming, free-associative effect at play when Doyle adds that cannabis “induces a parataxis wherein sentences resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another.”

Terence Mckenna, who described language as an ecstatic activity of signification, wrote that marijuana "excites vocalization and empowers articulation. It transmutes language into something that is visibly beheld." In essence marijuana liberates our linguistic straight-jacket. Perhaps this is why so many artists have enjoyed Marijuana's effects.

Walter Benjamin Carl Sagan and William Shakespeare were all known tokers. Charles Baudelaire wrote that under the influence of marijuana "every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians, and brings despair to thoughtful men, becomes clear and transparent."


Accompanying this extended, intellectual hyper-priming, what we also gain with marijuana is an enhanced ability to marvel. Richard Doyle describes in Darwin’s Pharmacy, that, when high, there is "an upwelling of fresh insight coupled with a feelings of ubiquitous harmony." This sense of revelation and awe can be illustrated by a tendency to indulge heady thought experiments like this one described in Doyle’s book:

Christopher Uhl reminds us that "while gazing ‘up’ at a night sky, one in fact hangs off the planet and near the edge of a galaxy, vertiginous, suspended over the infinity of space.


Uhl then quotes cosmologist Brian Swimme:

As you lie there feeling yourself hovering within this gravitational bond while peering down at the billions of stars drifting in the infinite chasm of space, you will have entered an experience of the universe that is not just human and not just biological. You will have entered a relationship from a galactic perspective, becoming for a moment a part of the Milky Way galaxy, experiencing what it is like to be the Milky Way galaxy.

MARIJUANA AND ART : Why suffer when we can see?

As I've said before, Marijuana enhances our ability to marvel: In some mysterious and uncannily recurring way, marijuana can induce an almost ‘synesthetic ecstasy’, whereby a loosening of the usually firm borders that separate our five senses allows for a broader, deeper, more profound, and often time-dilated “interpretation” and “internalization” of moment-to-moment experience.

Marijuana treats us to an awareness of a simultaneity of sensations, which makes it a great tool for the appreciation and study of art.

Imagine the “here and now” as a usually folded accordion, revealing only a fraction of what is there: what weed does is it unfolds this ‘accordion of the present moment’, by sharpening our focus, diverging our thoughts, loosening our reality tunnel, augmenting our semantic priming, removing our judgments and slowing how we perceive time.

Subjectively, this manifests itself in the perception that the emotions elicited by art and music are in fact the actual feelings the artist felt while creating their work; held in ‘static communion’ by the canvas, or musical recording, or camera.


We feel (and correctly recognize) the emotions of the artist, we apprehend the wordless, yet-no-less emotive sensations that were vividly translated from the artist's inner-experience into a communicable form. Art, therefore we're able to understand art as a tool for communication.

Art may be an important supplement to traditional language, due to its ability to convey and communicate truth that doesn’t fit inside the present constraints it imposes on us.

This could explain filmmaker Werner Herzog's preference for “ecstatic truth” over factual truth. For whereas a literal journalist might have certain facts straight, the articulation of a poet or artist, though less “factual”, can actually reveal a deeper truth. Alain DeBotton once wrote:

the artist is willing to to sacrifice a naive realism in order to achieve realism of a deeper sort, like a poet who, though less factual than a journalist in describing an event, may nevertheless reveal truths about it that find no place in the other's literal grid.

The question remains: why does the artist choose to make art. Why not just “experience the present” and be done with it?

Ernest Becker wrote in The Denial Of Death that the artist's motivation comes from a desire to channel the anxiety about our mortality in a creative way. While not disagreeing, I might add that it is when we make art that we defy death.

Richard Doyle explained to me that among other things, a desire to make art "shows that there is compassion, a will to share the outcome of the work of beauty on us, a bubbling desire to awaken us to our common ecstasy." He continued, saying that insight comes from practice in letting go of prior thought formations and that marijuana does not "cause these sessions but occasions them. this is why cannibis must be understood as a teacher plant: if used with intention, we learn to let go of what we 'know' and, instead, wonder."



This sense of ecstatic rapture and wondrous awe might have the added effect of creating a feedback loop between our moods and our creativity: It begins when we feel stuck. We get high. The high excites us into a state of hyper-priming and free-associative intellectual ecstasy. We take great delight in our sudden linguistic outbursts and improvisational word-play. This 'mood lift' adds fuel to our creative bursts, and so on and so forth.

Jonah Lehrer has written about the effects of mood on cognition. If we know that certain moods can improve certain kinds of cognitive function, then we should seek to carefully calibrate our moods. Lehrer mentions “the possibilities of self-medicating ourselves into the ideal mood,” perhaps by using marijuana:

The moral is that emotions influence how we process and pay attention to information, and that different kinds of cognitive tasks benefit from different moods. When we’re editing our prose, or playing chess, or working through a math problem, we probably benefit from a little melancholy, since that makes us more attentive to details and mistakes. In contrast, when we’re trying to come up with an idea for a novel, or have hit a dead end with our analytical approach to a problem, then maybe we should take a warm shower and relax. The answer is more likely to arrive when we stop thinking about our problem. (It should also be noted, of course, that the same mental states can be induced with drugs, which is why so many artists experiment with benzedrine, marijuana, etc. They self-medicate to achieve the ideal mental state.)

When high, our senses are heightened. Intellectual and aesthetic stimuli arrest our attention. We are absorbed, immersed by our surroundings—music, discourse, visuals—all flare with intensity. We come alive. The feeling is one of exhilaration. It seems pretty obvious that engaging in the act of thinking through the lens of this euphoria could lead to all sorts of new insights.

Jason Silvasilva is a psychonaut, Hybrid Realities Institute fellow, and host on Current TV._