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Why Does My Pre-Weed Brain Overestimate What I’m Capable of Accomplishing Once I’m Stoned?

It’s a vicious cycle and, based on the science, I’m bound to experience it again and again

I like to think of myself as the sort of guy who can smoke a joint and put together a bathroom cabinet from Ikea. So that’s exactly what I did a few weeks ago: I stretched my thumb and index finger, filled up a glass of water, rolled a joint and puffed on it as I examined the schematics for how to put together a bathroom cabinet from the Swedish furniture company. There, in my hotbox, with a cloud of smoke that would visibly linger in my living room, I could feel my brain deconstruct the instructions as though I was Russell Crowe playing the famed mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. I got this, I said to myself, cheekily, as I took one last drag from the joint. 

And that’s where this movie ends. Because I did not put together that Ikea cabinet. Instead, as the ridges in my frontal cortex began to melt (or so I imagined), I stared at all those tiny screws and bearings and faux-wooden boards and flipped through the pages of the instructional guide once more before realizing that this project I’d assigned myself was more suitable for next weekend. 

I should have known better. This wasn’t the first time that my pre-weed brain had overestimated my weed brain. In college, I once wrote a paper high as a kite, thinking it might cultivate a sort of off-brand creativity. And to be fair, it did: I used the word “inchoate” six different times in the span of 1,000 words. 

Not great. 

For many others, though, this doesn’t seem to be the case. There is some evidence that suggests that for people with ADHD, smoking weed can actually help them focus. Per a report in VICE, a 2008 study published by the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine “concluded that cannabis use could mitigate problems with inattention and lead to ‘enhanced driving-related performance.’” In other words, for some folks, cannabis slows down neural transmission, allowing them to focus on one or two things rather than feeling overwhelmed. 

But others, presumably those who don’t have ADHD, also believe that smoking weed helps them focus. “I swear, I’m considering getting a bag of dope to study for my calculus final next week, and I think weed might just help me wrap my mind around it and stay focused!” writes one redditor. Several others agree. In fact, there are entire articles dedicated to the suggestion of various strains of marijuana that are better-suited for the calculus study session than others. 

Unfortunately, on this count, the science isn’t quite on their side. Per one 2016 study from the Society of Biological Psychiatry, in which researchers looked at the effects of cannabis use on human cognition, they found that “verbal learning and memory and attention are most consistently impaired by acute and chronic exposure to cannabis.” 

Worse still is how chronic cannabis use, especially if it begins at an early age, can affect a person’s motivation. Which does, in small part, apply to my thinking that the weed is going to help get me across the Ikea-furniture-construction finish line when in fact, it’s more likely to make me reconsider why I even need a bathroom cabinet to begin with. According to a report in Psychology Today, a 2013 study conducted by scientists at Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London found that while cannabis use may in fact reduce the potential for psychosis, “the younger someone was when he or she started smoking pot the lower the current levels of dopamine.” Which is a problem if you’re trying to get yourself in the right headspace to complete a task, considering that dopamine is, according to a 2015 study, a “key modulator of motivation,” reports Neuroscience News

Still, none of this really gets to the reason why I’m so convinced, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that my weed brain is a savant. The answer to that is fairly obvious, according to every piece of information that has ever existed on the subject of cognition and marijuana usage: the two brains — weed and sans weed — simply don’t function at the same. Which, I should add, is the point. “The exogenous cannabinoids [external to the kind your body makes] throw your usual neuron functions out of whack, boosting certain signals and interfering with others,” reports Greatist. “That’s why marijuana’s effects can range from a feeling of relaxation and pain relief to clumsiness, anxiety (or lack thereof), and even the munchies.”

In addition, per a 2016 report from Live Science, “short-term studies with human subjects clearly point to impacts on memory, learning and attention even once a user has sobered up.”

This is all to say that, as my colleague Ian Lecklitner has noted, with enough Mary Jane coursing through my body, I’m likely to forget this entire article in one, two, maybe three puffs. Which is why the next time I’m faced with the opportunity to build yet another piece of Swedish furniture, I’m bound to make all these same mistakes once again.