Weed makes some people clean like crazy, but scientists don’t really know why
This post is part of Mashable’s Spring Cleaning Week. Just a little something to distract you from the eternal dread of constantly wiping all those fingerprints off your screen.
“Stock up on Cheetos and Mt. Dew BEFORE you spark,” a local police department in Kansas recently tweeted, warning “potheads” not to drive on 4/20.
While stoners may roll their eyes at the stereotyping, science, it seems, is on the police department’s side. Weed impairs our ability to think, organize, and pay attention, studies have shown. And it’s not usually associated with productivity and motivation.
Yet, some users feel more focused, even productive, after consuming or smoking weed — even though there’s no scientific evidence cannabis acts upon the motivational circuits in our brains.
“I’ve heard individuals report that they’ve followed through on tasks or got something accomplished,” Larissa Mooney, an addiction psychiatrist at UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, said in an interview.
Weed companies and popular cannabis review sites even promote the idea that different strains of marijuana can boost productivity and enhance clarity, though there are no clinical studies proving this.
So what’s going on here? Why do some people anecdotally say using cannabis increases productivity for tedious tasks, like scrubbing the floor or organizing the house? Weed could be paving the way for motivation, even if it isn’t known to promote productivity directly.
Medical cannabis butter being put on crackers in Santa Monica, California.
Image: Bob Berg/Getty Images
The notion that cannabis can promote productivity or focus on any task, however mundane, is “unlikely,” Andrei Derbenev, an associate professor of physiology at Tulane University’s School of Medicine, said over email. This has been studied, and consistently shows the opposite effect.
“Actually, most of the research on cannabis and motivation shows no effect, or if anything, reduced motivation,” John Salamone, a psychopharmacologist at the University of Connecticut, said over email. The same goes for attention and focus, he noted.
But, cannabis might have a secondary, or collateral, type of effect. Derbenev said cannabis could potentially increase focus on some tasks indirectly, for instance, by temporarily reducing physical or mental pain.
“Someone’s perception is someone’s perception.”
Feeling better might also cause someone to perceive an increased motivation or focus.
“Someone’s perception is someone’s perception,” said Mooney. “During intoxication, somebody might have more energy or more euphoria. They may be actually feeling better, at least, temporarily.”
But many everyday drugs or stimulants that cause a buzz, euphoria, or high can have a similar effect. “Some people might report the same thing after drinking a cup of coffee,” said Mooney.
Using cannabis to focus on activities may still work for some people, she said, because drugs affect different people in different ways. But this still isn’t a remote link to the drug increasing motivation or attention, especially when we know the opposite is true. “It can impair executive functions, which is to plan and organize,” said Mooney.
Cannabis cultivation in Washington State.
Image: Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images
There is still much, however, that isn’t fully understood about the effects of cannabis use. This is because the federal government is highly suspicious of the drug, classifying it as a substance with the highest abuse rate, or Schedule 1. Formal research means getting the Drug Enforcement Agency to approve a study and ensure the still-illegal drug is properly controlled and secured.
“It’s very difficult to do research on cannabis,” said Mooney. “It’s very hard to even obtain the product [for study].”
The Food and Drug Administration states that it has “not approved marijuana as a safe and effective drug for any indication.” The agency has, however, approved two similar synthetic substances that mimic the effects of marijuana for anorexia treatment and weight loss caused by AIDS.
The national tide, though, is turning. The federal government hasn’t yet budged, but marijuana (as of April 2018) has been legalized either medicinally or recreationally in 30 states. The former conservative Speaker of the House, John Boehner, now supports removing federal restrictions on cannabis “so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”
Even if it became easier to research the effects of cannabis, it still appears that the evidence is heavily weighted against the drug truly promoting attention or motivation. Weed often stifles productivity, said Mooney, but it appears to work for some people. We shouldn’t “negate someone’s perception,” she said.
There's little, if any, scientific evidence that weed has a motivating effect. But people still report it helps them focus on cleaning and organizing.
Could Cannabis Actually Help You Study Better?
It’s time for you to be honest with yourself. If you are a university student who loves cannabis, think about how it’s impacting your studies. Some research suggests it may be helpful in moderation. Here is our guide to the signs you should be watching out for.
If you are a minor and studying for exams, you should NOT be taking cannabis. You should not even be reading this article. We do not condone underage use of cannabis, and there are compelling medical reasons against it. The teenage brain is still developing in a way that could be adversely complicated by cannabis use. If you are in university, however, then by now you probably have been exposed to at least some people who enjoy cannabis. Public perceptions of cannabis have long considered it a drain on motivation and productivity, yet there are students who claim it actually helps them study more effectively. To investigate these claims, let us look at the impact cannabis has on the brain.
HOW DOES CANNABIS AFFECT THE BRAIN?
Perhaps with different jurisdictions legalizing cannabis, scientific research on the plant and its constituents will improve. Universities and research institutions could be free to conduct controlled cultivation for scientific purposes. While cannabis is said to improve neural connectivity in the brain, there are also questions over the exact link between cannabis use and rare cases of psychosis. Some of the most up-to-date research from the University of Texas was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their research  concluded that while cannabis appears to physically shrink the brain, it does in fact, increase the number of connections between neurons.
Their methodology was to follow 48 adult cannabis users aged 20 to 36 and compare them with a control group of non-users. MRI scans tracked how cannabis users fared after consuming an average of three joints a day over six to eight years. The images of the brain suggest that THC could be shrinking grey matter. The orbitofrontal cortex of the brain seemed particularly vulnerable to shrinking. This could be problematic since this region of the brain is associated with the processing of reward and adversity.
And while neural connectivity seemed to improve, it could gradually degrade under conditions of prolonged heavy use. That being said, overall connectivity still seemed to be healthier than average. The study’s authors admit it does not account for occasional users or the impact sudden abstinence could have. If this study shows regular users still have improved connectivity, occasional users may find some benefit from studying while high. Let us examine the arguments for and against.
PROS OF STUDYING UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF CANNABIS
Getting high may be a nice reward mechanism after completing a studying goal. But could being under the influence of cannabis actually help one study better? Scientifically speaking, those with treatment-resistant pediatric epilepsy may benefit from cannabis in several ways; however, CBD is the main cannabinoid utilized in this scenario, not THC. In certain cases, individuals with various forms of epilepsy who took CBD-enriched cannabis experienced not only a significant decrease in seizure frequency, but also increased  alertness, better mood, and improved sleep as a result. Moreover, the state of Rhode Island recently approved medical cannabis use for treating autism. So depending on one’s circumstances and upon consultation with a medical professional, individuals with specific neurodivergent conditions may benefit from a greater ability to study with the use of cannabis.
If one does not have such conditions, is there still any benefit to studying with weed? Indica strains are great for relaxation and helping one get to sleep. Getting sufficient sleep is hugely overlooked as a health issue in general. It’s particularly important for students to have a regular sleep schedule. Most adults typically require somewhere between 6–8 hours of sleep, so find what works for you and stick to it. A more relaxed mindset from an indica high may help you focus on a reading task before you head for pillow hugging. A sativa strain may also give you the energetic uplift you need. A cerebral, creative buzz could help you brainstorm ideas and get enthusiastic over learning your material.
CONS OF STUDYING UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF CANNABIS
Depending on your cannabis strain and circumstances, there could be some benefit to studying while high. We are talking about moderate doses, of course. Heavy doses are likely to affect concentration and motivation. We certainly would not advise heading into an examination under the influence of THC-rich cannabis. That’s when you really need to focus. But is there harm in having a little bit handy for when you’re working on assignments and research? Aside from how much your finances are affected?
Cannabis may improve the flow of thought and creativity, but with it comes the ability to get distracted by tangents of thought. With such a fluid mindset, memory does become affected. Studies have shown that spatial memory can be dulled by heavy cannabis use, and so can working memory. Working memory is the ability to process information in real-time. So if you are learning with the aim of retaining crucial information, you better be keeping really clear notes on what you need to know. Your brain may be more engaged with new information, but it can also forget it quicker in the rushing flow of new thoughts.
On the other hand, being high right before diving deep into a topic could help one focus on the train of thought. It is a matter of pacing yourself and trial and error. Be mindful of your performance and whether responsible cannabis use is better left to other scenarios.
Cannabis has many effects on the brain, particularly memory. So pinning down its impact on studying is a highly individual process.