Here’s what you should know about the ‘lazy stoner’ myth.
There’s a common belief that marijuana zaps motivation. Picture the unfortunate stereotype of the lazy stoner: sitting around watching TV and eating snacks all day.
It’s easy to think that smoking weed could be the source of this kind of behavior. But is there any science to back this up?
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. Some studies have linked marijuana to motivational problems, while others claim it can actually increase motivation. There are also studies which suggest no effect at all.
Let’s take a deeper look at the science behind motivation and how marijuana might affect it.
What is Motivation?
Motivation is the feeling of willingness or desire to take action. It’s related to the word motive, meaning reason for acting.
Colloquially, most people think of motivation as the general willingness to get up and go. In simplified terms, motivation is how easy it is for your brain to make you want to do things.
When you feel motivated, you might describe it as a feeling of willpower, determination, passion or drive.
Dopamine and Motivation
The brain chemical dopamine plays a big role in motivation. If you’ve heard of dopamine, you know it as the brain’s reward chemical.
Dopamine is released when we do things that promote our survival and reproduction, like eating, learning, and sex. The release of dopamine makes us feel good, so we do these things again and again.
Have you ever noticed a sudden rush of pleasure when you smell a tasty meal, even though you’re not actually eating it yet?
The dopamine-reward system is connected to learning and memory. When you experience a pleasant sensation over and over again, the brain learns to associate the context and cues with impending pleasure.
So when you smell food before you eat it, your brain starts to release dopamine in anticipation of the pleasure of eating it. This ultimately conditions you to keep doing the things that lead you to pleasure.
Dopamine can also be released when the reward pathway gets stimulated for another reason. For example, alcohol, coffee, cigarettes and many recreational drugs are known to activate the brain’s reward pathway and release dopamine.
To sum it up, dopamine is released in anticipation of pleasurable experiences, producing motivation and incentive to seek out reward.
Marijuana Releases Dopamine
The dopamine-reward system is important when it comes to understanding marijuana and motivation. That’s because there is a strong link between the brain’s reward pathways and those that respond to marijuana.
THC activates the brain’s CB1 receptors, which leads to a rise in dopamine. Simply put, marijuana causes the brain to release dopamine. This is part of why smoking weed makes us feel good.
This effect is only temporary, and is measurable for about 2 hours following ingestion of marijuana.
That being said, when marijuana is consumed repeatedly, it can cause more lasting changes to your dopamine-reward system.
Does Marijuana Reduce Motivation?
The issue of whether marijuana reduces motivation is still up for debate. Some studies show that marijuana can lower motivation, while others find no difference at all.
The belief that marijuana reduces motivation can be traced back to the 1960s and 70s. During this time, North America saw an increase in cannabis use, and many early studies claimed that using marijuana could lead to chronic laziness.
In 1972, scientists came up with the term amotivational syndrome to describe the loss of drive to work, socialize, and attain success in life commonly seen in marijuana users.
Marijuana users were described as apathetic, lethargic, and disengaged.
This theory has since been challenged. Today, there is little evidence to support the idea that marijuana causes amotivational syndrome. What evidence we do have is poor-quality: observational, and with small sample sizes.
For example, Lynskey and Hall cite several studies which find that marijuana use is correlated with lower educational attainment, such as lower grades, higher rates of skipping class, and less satisfaction with school.
However, a 1995 study found significantly lower motivation in marijuana users with depression and argued that it was depression, not marijuana that caused motivational problems.
Some studies of heavy marijuana users have revealed no impairments in motivation at all. For example, a 2006 study with nearly 500 participants found that people who used marijuana daily had the same levels of motivation as non-users.
Overall, research on how marijuana affects motivation has produced conflicting findings, and scientists still aren’t sure of the answer.
Correlation vs. Causation
In the world of marijuana and motivation research, there is a lot of speculation and very few studies. And the studies that do exist are almost exclusively observational, meaning they can’t prove whether marijuana is the cause.
You may have heard that correlation does not equal causation. What this means is that just because two things occur together, doesn’t mean one causes the other.
For example, ice cream sales in the U.S. have been linked to a rise in homicide rates. Does this mean ice cream consumption causes people to become violent? Obviously not.
In this case, there is a third variable causing both homicide rates and ice cream sales to rise: the summer weather. People go out more in the summer, leading to more ice cream sales and more crime.
Likewise, people who tend to smoke marijuana may be similar to each other in other ways, like being more creative or more likely to suffer from depression.
This means that scientists can’t tell whether it’s marijuana, or some other trait that marijuana users share that causes the effect on motivation.
Marijuana Use Linked to Low Dopamine
Marijuana use has been linked to abnormalities in the dopamine-reward system of the brain.
For example, one small study found that marijuana use was associated with irregularities in brain regions related to dopamine.
Could this be how pot reduces motivation? Possibly. Again, this study suffers from the problem of correlation verses causation. People who already had these particular brain differences could simply be more likely to smoke marijuana.
Another study found lower levels of dopamine in long-term cannabis users. However, the study was a bit odd because they only used participants who had experienced psychotic symptoms when high, meaning the results may not generalize beyond this group.
Regardless, this could explain the link between marijuana and low motivation: if you need dopamine to produce incentive, and dopamine is in short supply, it makes sense that motivation would be reduced.
The effect on dopamine levels appears to be reversible, as no significant difference was found between pot smokers who have quit and people who’ve never smoked.
When a person stops using marijuana, their dopamine levels gradually return to normal.
Can Marijuana Increase Motivation?
The short answer: maybe. Marijuana causes a temporary release of dopamine, which theoretically raises motivation in the short-term.
However, the effects of marijuana on the brain are complicated and vary depending on the strain.
Certain strains of marijuana are known for increasing energy and alertness (sativa strains) while others are more sedative and have a “couch-lock” effect (indica strains). Users generally agree that sativa strains are a better choice for having a productive day.
Likewise, many people report that using marijuana actually increases their motivation, based on their own personal experience.
There are many well-known successful stoners, including Carl Sagan, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and even Bill Gates. If they were locked to their couches in a pot-induced haze, could they really achieve that level of success?
A few studies seem to support the idea that marijuana can boost motivation. One study by Rubin and Comitas found that in societies where marijuana use was widespread, it was seen to increase motivation, contrary to their expectations.
The researchers observed that Jamaican farmers who regularly smoked cannabis worked harder and showed increased concentration after smoking, as measured by physical movement and caloric expenditure.
Finally, many artists report using marijuana to stimulate creativity and motivate them to create. A 2009 study found that marijuana use is associated with creativity. But again, this may reflect creative people being drawn to marijuana rather than the other way around.
Overall, the jury is still out on the link between marijuana use and motivation.
Marijuana has long been thought to reduce motivation, but some studies and anecdotes suggest the opposite is true. Additionally, it’s possible there is no significant link between marijuana and motivation at all.
Most studies tend to have a negative outlook on marijuana and motivation, only investigating whether marijuana decreases or impairs motivation. In reality, the link between marijuana and motivation is complicated.
Whatever the case may be, long-term controlled studies are needed before scientists can say for certain whether marijuana helps or hurts your motivation.