A new paper published in Psychiatry Research sheds some light on this phenomenon, or why smoking weed seems to unleash a stream of loose associations. The study looked at a phenomenon called semantic priming, in which the activation of one word allows us to react more quickly to related words. For instance, the word “dog” might lead to decreased reaction times for “wolf,” “pet” and “Lassie,” but won’t alter how quickly we react to “chair”.

Interestingly, marijuana seems to induce a state of hyper-priming, in which the reach of semantic priming extends outwards to distantly related concepts. As a result, we hear “dog” and think of nouns that, in more sober circumstances, would seem to have nothing in common.

Here’s Vaughan Bell, lucid as always:

The effect [hyper-priming] has been reported, albeit inconsistently, in people with schizophrenia and some have suggested it might explain why affected people can sometimes make false or unlikely connections or have disjointed thoughts.

As cannabis has been linked to a slight increased risk for psychosis, and certainly causes smokers to have freewheeling thoughts, the researchers decided to test whether stoned participants would show the ‘hyper-priming’ effect.

Volunteers who were under the influence of cannabis showed a definite ‘hyper-priming’ tendency where distant concepts were reacted to more quickly. Interestingly, they also showed some of this tendency when straight and sober.

Obviously, you don’t want too much hyper-priming, or else everything seems connected; the web of associations becomes a source of delusions. But for many creative tasks it’s important to cultivate an expansive associative net, or what psychologists refer to as a “flat associative hierarchy”.


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