No matter where you land on the generational spectrum, the connection between cannabis and music is something we’re mostly all familiar with. In decades past, it was the hippies, the punks, the grunge kids, the degenerates of society — getting high and listening to music was seen as part of their (and in some cases our) way of life.
Thankfully, modern society has mostly moved on from this stigma. With legalization in numerous parts of the world, even many of those with a staunch and conservative outlook on cannabis consumption have crossed the fence, whether due to sheer curiosity or for purely medicinal purposes.
Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, on the other hand, has devoted much of his career to the science behind it all . As an award-winning neuroscientist, musician, and best-selling author, his research encompasses music, the brain, health, productivity and creativity — all of which have varying degrees of connection to cannabis, if you think about it.
Earlier this year, we sat down with Dr. Levitin during a rather unorthodox event put on by Canopy Growth — one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, based right here in Ontario. The premise was simple; enjoy an assortment of cannabis-based beverages, partake in a Q&A roundtable with Dr. Levitin about the connection between the brain, music, and cannabis, and then head off to a concert to interpret elements of that discussion for oneself.
This initial interaction proved to be rather enlightening, so we followed up with Dr. Levitin for a bit of a deeper dive.
How and when did your neuroscience research turn towards cannabis? Can you walk us through the sequence of events, so to speak?
I became interested in cannabis research in 1976 after reading a book on psychopharmacology that I found at the Stanford bookstore. There are a lot of scientific questions to ask about the effects of cannabis on the brain: how it can modulate mood, creativity, sleep and wakefulness, and so on. But I’d always been fascinated by memory: why do we remember some things and not other things, and how are memories stored in the brain? At the same time, I knew from my own experiences that cannabis could thrust me into the present, with all of my focus on the here-and-now. What a wonderful state to be in — people meditate for years to get to that place. This gets to questions of different conscious states.
I was taking a neuropsychology class with Karl Pribram and for my term paper, I wrote about the effect of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol on memory, and Karl had suggested that the reason that cannabis created such a focus on the present was because it temporarily shut down some of the pathways to memory that might cause us to dwell on the recent past. For my paper, I had to create a plausible neural model of how this might work.
The next semester I started working in his lab. Studying cannabis and memory back then was quite primitive compared to what we can do today because back then, we didn’t have neuroimaging tools like MRIs and PET scans, and we knew a great deal less about how memory works. I spent much of the last 25 years trying to learn more about the cognitive neuroscientific basis for memory storage and retrieval. I’m still interested in all the other questions, but I haven’t got ’round to them yet.
How much has your research and direction changed since the legalization of cannabis in Canada?
My research hasn’t changed that much since the legalization of cannabis, although in two recent studies we conducted on how people adapted to and coped with the COVID-19 lockdown, we found that many people who consumed cannabis products, alongside other strategies, navigated the isolation and loneliness well.
In layman’s terms, can you summarize the neurological effects of cannabis and how they affect a person’s experience with music/sound/performance/creativity in general?
Cannabis does two things that impact music listening. Many people don’t know this, but your brain produces cannabinoids all on its own — we have a whole cannabinoid system that regulates appetite, pain-sensation, mood, and memory through cannabinoid receptors. When we ingest cannabis, it activates those receptors. We are simply facilitating neural pathways that already exist.
Whether those cannabinoids come from eating or drinking them or are generated by our brains internally, they stimulate the brain’s natural pleasure centres and narrow the focus of short-term memory. The disruption of short-term memory thrusts listeners into the moment of the music as it unfolds and they are able to narrow in on one thing, in this case the music or even with greater granularity such as being able to focus on just one instrument at a time. People on cannabis tend to hear music from note to note—a bit like the Zen ideal of living in the present.
Additionally, cannabis helps block out the internal chatter in your mind so instead of thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner and going through your to-do list you’re able to focus on the music.
Because all the disparate elements of music are woven together you can focus on them all at once. In well constructed songs, the rhythm supports the melody, and both support the lyrics. The focused attentional state that cannabis facilitates helps us to see the connections between these, to take them in all at once, to get lost in the beauty, complexity, danceability, joy, sadness, or any other reaction the music evokes in us—sometimes all at once.
As to creativity, cannabis is one of many ways to help us enter the brain’s “default mode network,” or what I call the “daydreaming network.” This is where we tie together ideas that we haven’t tied together before—and that is really the essence of what creativity is.
Can you break down what elements of this effect are variable from person to person, versus which ones are more consistent? Though cannabis will hit different people in different ways, I presume there are consistencies from a physiological/physical perspective?
Each of our brains is different from everyone else’s. Physically, no two brains are alike. And no two people, not even identical twins, have the same set of experiences. So it’s impossible to say how anything will affect an individual, and even within the individual, whether it will affect them consistently the same way. I normally drink green tea every morning and it wakes me up. This morning, after my cup, I felt tired and so I went back to sleep. Tomorrow I expect it will work again but there are so many factors that go into creating our different conscious and attentional states, such as how well you slept last night, what you ate, whether or not you exercised—even the barometric pressure (if it’s too low, your blood pressure could also drop).
Though societal perspective has changed dramatically with legalization, what would you say are the most common misconceptions about the human experience with cannabis that persist today?
I’m not the best person to ask about common misperceptions about cannabis. I think you’d need to talk to a sociologist or someone who broadly studies changing attitudes and opinions. When I was a kid, we were told that cannabis was dangerous. That’s a misconception that many people still have and it’s obviously false. There’s a misperception that it can reduce motivation, but if that were so, how else can you explain Willie Nelson having given more than 2500 concerts?
Musician, neuroscientist, author…. What path came first, and how did the others fall into place?
Hah! Thank you for this question. I’d say they were all there all the time, at least as far back as I can remember. I started playing the piano when I was 4 or 5. I always wrote little songs and stories, and science had always been a big part of my life — you know, the chemistry set at age 10, experiments with magnets and optics, that sort of thing. Neuroscience as we now know it wasn’t a major field of study when I was in college — I took classes in psychology and became fascinated by how one can study something as varied and squishy as human behaviour, and study it in a rigorous, scientific way. Neuroscience per se came along later, when I did my first neuroimaging study during my post-doctoral training at Stanford.
You’ve worked with a ton of incredible artists/musicians over the years. Is there anyone left that you’re still itching to work with in some capacity?
I have been tremendously lucky. As I write this, I’m on an airplane on my way to Greensboro, North Carolina where I get to perform with one of my favourite singer/songwriters of all time Rosanne Cash. I’ve been able to work, in some capacity, with all of my musical heroes who are still alive. The last three would be Neil Young, Paul McCartney, and the band Pomplamoose.
Feature photo by David Livingston.