Cannabis products has forever been associated with laziness and a lack of motivation – but is this stereotype true? In this post, we’re going to shed the bias and stick to the scientific facts.
Marijuana scientists have learned plenty about the plant in recent times, and if anything has become apparent, it’s that not all cannabis users respond in the same way to the herb. For some, blazing a few high-quality joints regularly could make you lazy and apathetic, in both a mental and physical sense. However, for others, cannabis can be a powerful stimulant, energizing the user with unfettered creativity and positivity.
From a scientific perspective, researchers are yet to make a definite link between cannabis and motivation. Let’s explore the variety of strains available in the modern cannabis era, and the vastly different effects they can have.
Explaining strains: the differences between sedating an energizing marijuana
We’ll start by looking at the short-term effects of cannabis and consider how strains with differing cannabinoid profiles induce differing reactions. No two strains are the same, hence why when you walk into a dispensary you’ll see tons and tons of products, but we can classify cannabis into two main groups: sativas and indicas. The effects can also vary depending on whether you smoke or vape your herb, consume an edible or indulge in any other cannabis delivery method.
Indica-dominant strains are best-known for their physical effects, and the full-body high that users tend to experience from this type of cannabis are prone to having an adverse effect on your short-term motivation. That’s because indica strains are, in their nature, designed to help the body wind down and relax, perhaps in preparation for sleep.
Indicas are typically high in THC, but the other cannabinoids and terpenoids that are generally found in these strains are more likely to bring sedation than stimulation.
Seasoned cannabis users will know just how energizing a sativa-dominant strain can be in the right frame of mind. Quality sativa herb is high in the more obscure THCV cannabinoid in addition to THC. THCV and THC interact in a way that reduces the sedative properties often associated with cannabis.
Therefore, if you want to be productive, creative and brimming with energy while on marijuana, opt for a sativa strain.
High-CBD strains have filled a previously unnoticed gap in the cannabis market, catering for users who want to medicate with marijuana but not – for several reasons – want to get high from their usage of it. CBD strains are cultivated to contain very low levels of THC so that they do not induce psychoactivity. In the cannabis world, high-CBD strains are new on the block, and only received mainstream attention for the first time in 2012.
Medicinal users love that high-CBD cannabis doesn’t leave them baked, sedated and incapable of operating at their full potential. Many of the high-THC strains that are so popular with recreational users are ill-suited, or at least far from ideal, for those who medicate with cannabis. Unfortunately, because CBD strains are very new, there is no extensive research to suggest what long-term effects they have on memory and brain development with regular use. However, many users report that high-CBD strains improve their concentration levels, suggesting non-psychoactive cannabis could be an efficacious stimulant.
Cannabis smokers have always been plagued with the damaging stereotype that their ilk is lazy, unmotivated and a drain on society. Anyone that’s actually involved with the cannabis industry will tell you that this image can, providing you use the herb responsibly, be a completely inaccurate one.
However, there’s also the matter of motivation being subjective – it means different things to different people, although scientists have studied the chemical reactions that occur in the brain due to changes in motivation.
In a personal and social sense, motivation comes in the form of inspiration, drive, determination to succeed, passion and the desire to try and achieve our dreams. However, in a scientific and chemical sense, motivation boils down to activity in certain parts of the brain – particularly the striatum.
Motivation and the brain
The striatum is made up of three smaller parts – the putamen, the caudate and the nucleus accumbens. The striatum’s role is complex, but it has a role in influencing voluntary movement, cognitive function, behavior and reward response.
This section of the brain helps to make connections, by linking simple actions such as moving a leg with chemical rewards. The striatum is responsible for reminding us what feels good – whether it be exercise, eating, sex – and translating these feelings into common behavior. The key chemical that strengthens the connection made by this part of the brain is dopamine.
In a nutshell, the striatum increases our motivation by creating learned behaviors which helps us to improve. This is achieved by linking cognitive function and memory to the body’s internal reward system.
So, what does this mean as far as cannabis is concerned?
I’m sure that anyone who has smoked marijuana before or consumed it via any other method will confirm that it makes us feel fantastic – this is because the brain activates the dopamine chemical when we do it. Our brain makes a connection between smoking pot and feeling good, which is why we remember that it feels great. Therefore, the next time we smell weed or see somebody else smoking it, the positive learned behavior that our brain has created through chemical reactions encourages us to smoke again. The next time we smoke, that positive link is strengthened further.
However, scientists are a bit uncertain on how exactly cannabis interacts with various sections of the brain, including the striatum. We’re getting plenty of research into the herb nowadays, although studies can be contradicting – this is particularly apparent for science on cannabis and motivation. One month we’ll see a study about how the herb improves motivation levels, the next month we’ll be told that marijuana is making us all lazy and unproductive. So, which is it?
Scientists have had plenty to say about marijuana, the striatum and dopamine. A study authored by Jodi Gilman of Harvard’s School of Medicine/Massachussetts General Hospital was released in 2014, and the media jumped on it, possibly with too much zealous. The study, which featured in the Journal of Neuroscience, focused on how the shape of young people’s emotional and behavioral brain was altered through consistent marijuana use.
Gilman’s research, however, was entirely concentrated on the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, and her study made no mention of CBD or any other cannabinoids or terpenoids found in cannabis. The study took brain scans of 40 participants between the ages of 18 and 25 – 20 of them cannabis users, 20 of them non-users. Abnormalities in the amygdala and nucleus accumbens were found among marijuana smokers. The former is a section of the brain involved with controlling behavioral and emotional response.
The results of this study confirmed what another study revealed in 2013, which discovered that young people who used cannabis regularly struggle to produce dopamine. Therefore, with this chemical in shorter supply than usual, the brain finds it harder to learn, remember information and get motivated. Several studies relating to dopamine and addiction have corroborated these findings. At the very least, constant cannabis usage will likely make you more dependent on the herb to keep your motivation levels piqued.
Dr Michael Bloomfield, lead author of a study carried out at Imperial College London, says that the ‘amotivational syndrome’ theory associated with some marijuana users could perhaps be proven by these changes to dopamine structure. However, he freely admits that the syndrome is “controversial,” with many scientists debating whether it really exists.
However, since Bloomfield’s research focussed on cannabis users who have experienced “psychotic-like” sensations through their usage of the herb, its accuracy is questionable. If you’re looking to get a general overview of how marijuana affects users’ motivations, using participants who have reported negative experiences with the herb is going to throw up lopsided, incomplete data that doesn’t prove anything.
The Journal of Neuroscience published a study just a few months after Gilman’s that contradicted what she found about how cannabis affects brain structure. The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Barbara Weiland carried out a study that showed cannabis doesn’t change the brain structure of adults or teenagers – and she criticized the research of Gilman and others in her work.
Weiland says that while Gilman’s study did show brain changes, there was no way to determine whether cannabis was the sole cause of these changes, since the investigation was “not designed to determine casualty.”
Furthermore, the UC Boulder study was more comprehensive than any of the research done by Bloomfield and Gilman put together. Weiland and co analyzed more than 500 adults and 250 adolescents, taking scans and making statistical analysis for all of them. Moreover, all participants were screened for past drug and alcohol use, and for any mental illness. The volumes of the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum and accumbens were not affected with cannabis usage, in neither adults nor adolescents.
And while Weiland did not that cannabis could cause short-term memory impairment, the research available suggests that the herb doesn’t have any severe long-term impact on the brain, at least not relative to alcohol and other drugs.
Cannabis use can slow the body’s cognitive functions and movement, but we all know that. However, that’s simply a short-lived effect, and even with that, there’s no evidence that regular usage of cannabis would do anywhere near as much harm to the brain as other drugs that are legal and readily accessible.
The scientific community remains pretty confused when it comes to neuroscience. In fact, most of what we have learned about marijuana over the years has come from anecdotal evidence and the knowledge accumulated from centuries’ worth of documented cannabis smoking. There are plenty of famous folk out there who are known dabblers in the herb, and there’s no way they would have gotten where they are without serious motivation. Think Maya Angelou, Carl Sagan and Morgan Freeman. Could Michael Phelps have won all those gold medals without dedication and training? And did you know that Queen Victoria also used cannabis? In the grander, historical picture, there’s nothing taboo about the plant at all.
The researchers will continue to investigation the nuances of how marijuana alters our biochemistry. And the cannabis activists (most of whom are cannabis users) will continue to build businesses and push for legislation that will make marijuana available all over the world for medical and recreational reasons. Despite the stigma and negative connotations attached to cannabis, those involved in the industry have still had the perseverance and motivation to make a success of their lives and bust out of the stoner stereotype. It’s thanks to the inspiration and creativity that marijuana gives us that the herb has progressed as much as it has in the past decade or so.
Have you used cannabis or cannabis-based products before? Did you find that it affected your motivation levels? If so, in what way? We’d love to hear your stories.