What Happens if You Smoke Pot All Day Every Day?
Marijuana’s lesser-known effects on creativity, productivity, memory and cognition
Seth Rogen, the highly productive comedian, writer, actor, director, producer, ceramic artist and now entrepreneur, smokes a lot of pot. “I smoke weed all day every day,” Rogen said recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “It is 100% intrinsic to my functionality and my life.” Amid all the self-deprecating humor and tangential streams of consciousness, the co-creative force behind such films as “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” emphasized how rigorously he has tested each strain of marijuana sold by his new cannabis company.
Toward the end of the interview, the obvious question finally came up:
Kimmel: “Are you high right now?
Rogen: “Yeah. I’m high all the time.”
The obvious next question, from a writer who gets nothing done while high: Seriously, dude?!
Consequences of constant cannabis consumption
Rogen’s perpetual pot propensity could serve as an illuminating case study about heavy use on creativity, productivity, memory and overall brain function. I’ll get to the known and unknown science of these outcomes below. First, let’s put this in our pipes and smoke it:
Marijuana is not as inherently dangerous as, say, cocaine or heroin, and it has important medical applications. But its effects on the brain, including downsides that pot proponents don’t always acknowledge, are serious and well documented.
A new review of 124 studies finds chronic marijuana use can mess with cognition, motivation and mood, plus raise the risk for psychosis. The extent of the effects depends on dose, cumulative use and the age a person starts, the researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. Children and young adults are particularly vulnerable to life-long behavioral and cognitive problems.
The findings are in line with what multiple experts tell me.
“Humans use mind-altering drugs for one purpose — to change their brain, to change how neurons communicate,” explains T. Celeste Napier, PhD, a professor and director of the Center for Compulsive Behavior and Addiction at Rush University Medical Center. “Changing neuronal communication with a drug can alter how one perceives or experiences their environment, or how they interpret inner thoughts.”
Sounds familiar, perhaps. Maybe relaxing and enjoyable, helping take the edge off a crazy day. But here’s the thing:
“Someone who smokes marijuana daily may be functioning at a reduced intellectual level most or all of the time,” Napier tells me, echoing the scientific consensus. The effects can last a lifetime: “Scientific reports link heavy marijuana use to lower income, unemployment, and lower life satisfaction.”
Screwing with the brain’s choreography
Cannabis disrupts a key distributed network of molecules in the brain and throughout the body called the endocannabinoid system. Developed over millions of years of evolution, this uber network monitors and modulates all the other neurotransmitting systems, says Ruben Baler, a health scientist at the science-policy branch of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Like an orchestral conductor for the mind and body, the endocannabinoid system cues up or tamps down reactions to everything we experience and do, not with a flourish of the baton to the violins or the oboes but by releasing chemicals on demand that excite or inhibit myriad brain and body functions.
“This is a very dynamic, very carefully choreographed system of control,” Baler explains in a phone interview.
The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — is a poser. It fools the endocannabinoid system by locking onto natural cannabinoid receptors and hijacking the orchestration. Weed messes with the choreography of everything from learning, memory and emotions to development, decision-making and motor skills, Baler says.
The very stoned mind can be likened to a cacophonic, sometimes senseless symphony.
As other functions are overwhelmed, the brain’s reward center is stimulated, producing the perception of pleasure that repeat pot smokers seek. Because a person feels so good, they tend not to realize how impaired their other functions are, Baler points out.
If you smoke pot daily, the endocannabinoid system “will try to adapt to those abnormal levels of activation,” and in some cases it may become desensitized, he explains. “So you will need more THC to just feel normal.”
Keep it up, and your brain will change in permanent ways. Baler likens it to carving a highway through a virgin forest. The road may bring you from point A to point B faster, but the forest is forever altered. Just as a forest may gradually claw back some of its lost territory if you stop using the road, the brain can bounce back and regain functionality if a person quits indulging.
“But it is no longer the brain that it was before,” Baler says. “It’s never going to go back perfectly.”
Warning: Cannabis is particularly dangerous and addictive for children and young adults whose brains are still developing, Baler and other experts agree. For adults about age 25 and older, marijuana messes with the brain’s software, like inserting a bug into an app. But for younger adults and teens or adolescents, cannabis screws up the still-developing brain hardware and the operating system, causing potentially long-lasting impairment.
Creative? Or just different?
There are “huge individual differences” in how cannabis affects each person, Baler says. That’s why some people love it and others hate it. Which brings us to a central question:
Is Seth Rogen so damn creative because of pot, or in spite of it?
The query eludes a firm scientific answer, but Baler notes that creativity is a complex and subjective thing. Some aspects of creativity may be impaired by heavy marijuana use, while some aspects may be enhanced, he says.
Of course there is “vast anecdotal evidence” suggesting drugs can make writers and artists more creative, he says. But great skepticism is in order. For one thing, it’s not clear if the purported creative episodes were reported when they were sober or under the influence. Their perceptions may have been “generated under a state in which they really didn’t have all their faculties in order, 100% optimally designed to perceive and assess what the level of performance was,” Baler says.
A search of scientific literature examining links between psychoactive drugs and creativity, done in 2016, yielded only 19 studies worth including in a review; 14 were empirical and five were case studies, only one involved cannabis. The upshot: Creative people may be more apt to use psychoactive drugs, but the drugs probably don’t enhance their creativity much, if at all.
“The general results suggest that there is an association between creativity and substance use,” the researchers wrote in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. “However, the studies were unable to show that substance use directly contributed to the growth of creativity or facilitated [the] creative artistic process.”
Two of the case studies — of cartoonist Robert Crumb and musician Brian Wilson — concluded that psychoactives altered their artistic style or approach but did not necessarily fuel their fundamental creativity.
“It is more likely that substances act indirectly by enhancing experiences and sensitivity, and loosening conscious processes that might have an influence on the creative process,” wrote study co-author Mark Griffiths PhD, a professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University. “This means the artist will not be more creative but the quality of the artistic product will be altered due to substance use. On the other hand, it appears that psychoactive substances may have another role concerning artists, namely that they stabilize and/or compensate [for] a more unstable functioning.”
Marijuana might make you feel more creative, but that does not mean you are. And you can expect the feeling to fade with time, fueling a desire for more and stronger fixes, which can lead to “marijuana use disorder” or marijuana addiction.
“These new sensations might feel like one is enhancing creativity,” says Napier, the Rush University professor. “However, with repeated use, the newness tends to lessen.”
Great idea! Now what?
Whatever’s going on in Rogen’s mind, this much seems clear: In business and many other aspects of life, creativity is only as good as the practical results that ensue. Imagining something amazing doesn’t make it so, and pot’s negative effects on productivity don’t bode well for turning any creative thinking into world-changing actions.
The effects of pot on productivity were illustrated in findings published last year in the journal Group & Organization Management. People who use cannabis after work don’t appear to suffer in performance or productivity the next day, the study found. But those who toke before or during work have problems with concentration, problem-solving, getting tasks done on time and — no surprise — they spend more time daydreaming.
Study leader Jeremy Bernerth, PhD, a management professor at San Diego State University’s Fowler College of Business, speculates there could be benefits to after-hours cannabis use.
“Individuals deciding to consume cannabis after finishing their work may be able to distract themselves from stressful on-the-job issues,” Bernerth says. “The relaxation induced by cannabis may help employees restore energy spent during the day and they may subsequently return with more stamina to devote to their job once they are back on the clock.”
But decades of research links cannabis use to problems with attention, concentration, and memory, all of which can worsen productivity, says Jason Kilmer, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. That’s particularly true with constant consumption, when heavy use can beget heavier use to generate the same feel-good experience. Even if a heavy user feels productive when they’re high, they may experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop, Kilmer explains by email.
“One of the features of withdrawal can be restlessness, and that can impact productivity,” he says.
Other cannabis withdrawal symptoms, including depressed mood, anxiety, sleep difficulties, headaches, and appetite issues, Kilmer says.
The pragmatism problem
Seth Rogen’s success with his new cannabis business, Houseplant, could depend on surrounding himself with sober employees to vet and execute his big ideas, science suggests. If his TV interview was any indication, Rogen is a lot like other chronic cannabis users: less inhibited, more impulsive, and good at connecting seemingly unrelated concepts. But that does not mean all his business ideas will be pragmatic.
Marijuana users with a passion for new ideas generate more original ideas than non-users, whether they are high or not at the time of the brainstorm, according to a new study in the Journal of Business Venturing. Problem is, the original ideas generated in the experiments — including a gravity-free virtual-reality workout — tended to lack feasibility, reducing their creative potential.
The study focused on comparing chronic cannabis users to non-users, and most of the participants were sober when they did the task. But an interesting tidbit emerged that warrants further research, says study leader Benjamin Warnick, PhD, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Washington State University: “The higher they were, the less feasible the ideas were,” Warnick says in a phone interview.
Warnick figures the findings could apply to any adult trying to solve problems creatively.
“Using pot could be something that you do when you need some of this originality and fusion, maybe you’re in a rut and you need to be thinking more outside the box,” he tells me.
Warnick, like other experts, stresses that marijuana use is particularly harmful to young, developing minds, and that adults should consider its side effects before consuming. Also, before investing time or effort in a big life change based on an idea conceived under the influence, you’d be wise to bounce it off someone who doesn’t smoke, or take a break for a few weeks to allow your brain to revert to its baseline as much as possible, then rethink.
“You might consider using cannabis for a period of time,” he says. “But then you could stop using cannabis and focus more on the feasibility end of things.”
Just how long the effects of marijuana last after a person stops using it, and how pronounced those effects remain, isn’t clear, but other scientists generally agree with Baler: The forest of the mind won’t easily nor quickly take back the scar carved into it. For children, the negative effects are pronounced and can last a lifetime, experts agree. For adults, the long-term implications remain a “hotly debated topic,” Napier says.
“The negative effect of marijuana on attention, learning and memory can last for days or weeks after the drug wears off,” Napier says. And longer term? “The heavy user may have missed life opportunities, for example career advancement, that impact quality of life later — lower income, less job satisfaction.”
Is Seth Rogen creative because he smokes marijuana all day, every day? The evidence suggests that’s not the main reason. Does pot help him be more creative? A decided maybe, at best. Has it had any negative effects on his memory or thinking ability? Probably. Perhaps this is the more interesting question now: If Seth Rogen stopped smoking pot, what would happen to his creativity, his productivity, his mindset and his happiness? Now that would be an interesting case study, if only a scientist could get the subject to go along with such a draconian experiment.