by [anonymous]
7 min read11th Jan 201232 comments


Personal Blog

First allow me to show you my preliminary data.:



I think I may have found a novel use for an old technique, which may or may not have implications for rational decision making. I am open to constructive criticism or even deconstructive criticism if you make a sound argument. Ultimately, I would like the experiment to be put to the test. If you have the supplies and know-how to carry it out, then feel free to try it and report your findings.

The Goal:

  •  Catalyze the brainstorming process in a way that increases both the number and quality of ideas made.


  • Find a problem that needs solving. Unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics is a good, but ambitious, example. Some more likely problems that could be solved are: "How might I solve my relationship problems," or "how can I advertise my company's product to its target demographic", or "what are some ideas to make quick money."
  • Find 2-3 rationalists who understand the problem well. They don't need to be expert rationalists; the most important part is that they know the difference between rationalization and rationality. In the QM example above, and in most scientific applications of the method, all players should have access to the experimental data.
  • Assign two of the three rationalists to the "brainstormers" group (name subject to change), whose primary concern is to make logical connections between the data to form hypotheses.
  • Assign the odd-rationalist-out as the Confessor, whose primary concern, like in TWC, is to preserve sanity. It is the Confessor's job to catch the brainstormers when they make a logical leap or use biased reasoning. Some tactics the Confessor might use are the rationalist taboo, the reversal test, and argument from the least convenient world.
  • This is a scaled up version of what the brain seems to do. We need the brainstormers and the Confessor to act the part of the Apologist and the Revolutionary, respectively.
  • The Confessor - brainstormer dynamic is interesting in its own right, but I believe it can be improved. Now bear with me, because the optional step is for the brainstormers to smoke Cannabis. Not too much, but just enough so that connections between ideas are more quickly apparent to them. Remember, the goal is to have the brainstormers make many connections. They need to output quantity over quality, while the Confessor picks out anything that is quality and gently guides the brainstormers toward more quality ideas. Think of it like r-selected evolution.
  • Ideally, we would split twelve rationalists into four groups of three (the alternative is to use the same group repeatedly). Group 1 would be told to just brainstorm the problem. Group 2 would be told to choose one among them to be the Confessor. Group 3 and 4 would be told the same, but their brainstormers would be given either Cannabis or a placebo.
  • A placebo can be made by extracting the cannabinoids using ethanol or glycerine. All that should be left after extraction is plant matter, and the tincture can be used later for medicinal or recreational purposes. The placebo Cannabis and active Cannabis will have to be rolled into joints because extraction removes some of the plant's pigmentation. If you have access to a lab, then you might follow  this procedure  for the extraction; otherwise, use  this guide  for doing the extraction at home.
  • If you don't want to go to the trouble of making the placebo, then you may skip the control group and only do groups 1 - 3. It would be nice to get some preliminary data, even if skewed slightly by the placebo effect.
  • For data collection, the Confessor will note down any idea made by the brainstormers, marking the ones which were discarded. After a given amount of time, enumerate the data and compare the groups. The hypothesized result is that the smoking group will make the greatest quantity of ideas, followed by the non-smoking partitioned group, followed by the normal brainstorming group. It is also hypothesized that the smoking group will make the greatest quality ideas, due to a combination of the highly creative nature of ideas made while high (explained below) and the Confessor's job of immediately discrediting any faulty reasoning.

Some evidence that the Cannabis route might be a good one to pursue (more references to be added):

  • There is evidence that Cannabis engages the mind in semantic Hyper-Priming1,2, meaning that distantly-related concepts are primed quickly after having been exposed to an idea. For instance, a smoker might quickly respond to the word "fish" with "submarine," whereas someone who is sober might respond with "fin." If I understand it correctly, then this doesn't mean the smoker cannot answer "fin," only that the more distantly related concepts are given a higher priority than they normally would. One can see why this might be advantageous for brainstorming, but I suggest to take my - and's - interpretation of the paper with a grain of salt until someone with access can read it in full.
  • *Cannabis allows erroneous perspectives to be rapidly dismissed in the light of new evidence. While high, it is easy to put one's pride aside and say "oops". This is made especially easy if the user has cached understanding of the art of rationality. In other words: they will listen to the Confessor.* <-- (I haven't found any literature to support this claim, yet. It seems true in my experience, but it might not be true for everyone. If the brainstormers prove to be too clingy, we could alter the method by changing the Confessor's name to Kiritsugu and having the brainstormers agree to always defer to the Kiritsugu's better judgement. The Kiritsugu will have to take care to examine its own judgement and only discard the truly irrational ideas).

Anecdotal evidence:

  • Artists, writers, and even scientists have long used Cannabis and other psychoactive drugs as a tool to make "insights." I'm defining insight as the connection and/or creation of ideas (erroneous or otherwise), possibly due to hyper-priming. The Confessor, in the early pioneers' case, was usually their sober self. As Hemingway wrote, "write drunk; edit sober."
  • Less gifted stoners have been doing this for ages  but they - for the most part - are completely undisciplined, believe in dubious pseudoscience, and/or don't have a rational observer to moderate them.
  • This is going a bit meta, but the outline to the outline of this idea was made while I was high. It was the first time I smoked since having been introduced to Less Wrong and "The Way", and I was surprised to find that I still had most of my wits about me. Although I would often begin down paths that were just Rationalizations, I usually caught myself. In the instances where I didn't catch myself, and it seemed like a legitimately good insight, I wrote the idea down for future (sober) consideration.
  • One of the good, practical, non-meta insights I made that night was a life plan. My plan up until this point had been to finish my undergraduate degree and then immediately go to grad school, relying on my schooling and a bit of luck to maybe hopefully turn into a somewhat-successful scientist somewhere along the road. The problem is that I suffer from quite a bit of procrastination, in part because I don't know exactly what I want to do. I don't have any strong passions or any real motivation. My college career, so far, has been an uphill battle against crippling akrasia.
  • Aided by Cannabis, I finally saw the obvious: I need to make an effort to find a passion. My new plan is to get a job as a computer programmer after finishing undergrad, but to continue self-teaching in Biology and other sciences. I've already taken the first step by having Computer Science as my minor, and I can help my resume along right now by getting involved in open source projects. As for self-teaching, that's made easy by open courseware like that found on Khan Academy, MIT, and other places, and I always have the old-fashioned solution of just reading textbooks. After following my interests for a while and learning what things I really, really like to learn about, then I'll go to grad school with an actual PhD thesis in mind and money in the bank.
  • I'm attributing these insights (the life plan, some other ideas I'm not mentioning, and even the hypothesis itself) to hyper-priming and later editing, but they might have just been made because I was focused on the problems. Hence the need for an experimentally-controlled test.


  • Cannabis allows connections to be made between concepts which normally seem unrelated. This is an experience commonly reported by users, and experimentally verified. Some of these connections will inevitably be false, but others might be true, and a third party - a Confessor - might be able to distinguish truth from falsehood. Whether the Confessor - brainstormer dynamic is any more efficient or productive than a normal brainstorming session is an open question, and the only way to really know is to test the hypothesis.


How cannabis makes thoughts tumble. (n.d.).Mind Hacks. Retrieved from
Morgan, C. J. A., Rothwell, E., Atkinson, H., Mason, O., & Curran, H. V. (2010). Hyper-priming in cannabis users: a naturalistic study of the effects of cannabis on semantic memory function. Psychiatry Research, 176(2-3), 213-218. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2008.09.002

What I'm missing. To be included later:

  • References to the benefits and techniques of traditional brainstorming. In lieu of that, for now, here's  this  and  this .
  • More references to Cannabis research.

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32 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:34 AM

This is an odd post. It starts out with a suggestion for how to structure group brainstorming, then veers into an argument for why cannabis use enhances creativity. I think you would be better served splitting those arguments into separate posts.

The idea of having a multi-person brainstorming team composed of one person on psychoactive drugs and one person off them is not an obviously bad one, but you should at least try it out and certainly clean up your ideas before making a top-level post about it.

Kids, don't smoke and LW post!

So far, I don't believe I've ever heard a single novel and demonstrably true idea conceived under the influence of drugs. There was one case of a person on Less Wrong who claimed it helped him with original math, but another member who looked over an example of his work found that it contained a mistake. My impression is that various drugs may make one feel more creative, but largely in the same way that alcohol can make one feel more intelligent, since it lowers one's standards for what constitute good ideas.

The man, whose name was Captain H.R. Robinson, would tell anyone who would listen that he had discovered the secret of the universe. It was all contained in a single sentence but he could never remember it after his opium trances were over. During a long crazy night of dreaming about this secret, he managed to write down the pearl of wisdom, but when he looked at in the morning, all it said was, 'The banana is great, but the skin is greater.'"

-- George Orwell, Burmese Days (via)


William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was: "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

-- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy

I wonder if both stories are real, or one is a memetic mutation of the other.

If it turned out that there actually were two different people who had the two different reported experiences, but that one of those people had been inspired by reading the story of the other, how would you classify that?

I'd say both are real. But if the "secret" written down and read in the morning was also similar (and this was because the second person remembered the other story and this influenced his visions) then I'd say it was a case of memetic mutation, in addition to being real.

"novel" might be setting the bar too high, given "There's nothing new under the Sun".

Regardless, here is an interesting article regarding psychedelics and the history of Mathematics and computer graphics in the late 20th century.

Novel is easy. If you're not constrained by what's coherent and sensible, worlds of possibility open up before you. They're just not worlds you're going to be taking anything useful back from. I've spent a lot of time wandering around alone in the woods with an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic (he was my field ecology lab partner,) and by ordinary standards he certainly seemed like a constant fountain of novel ideas, but that was because he was sharing with me a perception of reality that was skewed in a maladaptive way relative to everyone else's. All of his novel ideas were crazy.

The fact that nearly everyone in computer graphics in California at the time was using psychedelic drugs seems possibly significant, but I'm inclined to discount self assessments of whether they're actually useful for the creative process more or less entirely. People have a pronounced tendency to say that psychedelics help them be creative, but I haven't seen any evidence yet that leads me to believe that they're actually having more worthwhile ideas than they are when off of drugs.

When you're constantly being struck by profound-seeming ideas, it's easy to conclude that you're in a particularly creative state of mind, but you could just be in a state where stupid ideas seem profound. It seems a priori much more probable to me that introducing foreign chemicals into your brain would interfere with your faculty for recognizing profundity than that it would improve your faculty for generating it. The example given by the interviewee of his own work influenced by psychedelics

About the time that chaos theory was discovered by the scientific community, and the chaos revolution began in 1978, I apprenticed myself to a neurophysiologist and tried to construct brain models made out of the basic objects of chaos theory. I built a vibrating fluid machine to visualize vibrations in transparent media, because I felt on the basis of direct experience that the Hindu metaphor of vibrations was important and valuable. I felt that we could learn more about consciousness, communication, resonance, and the emergence of form and pattern in the physical, biological, social and intellectual worlds, through actually watching vibrations in transparent media ordinarily invisible, and making them visible.

Is definitely not something I would regard as a good idea on the face of things. It's an idea, and I can imagine that they made a lot of progress in computer graphics at the time by working on the programs to do this, but believing that visualizing vibrations in transparent fluid would give some valuable insight into human consciousness on the basis of Hindu religious metaphor strikes me as a case of really bad scientific intuition.

When you're constantly being struck by profound-seeming ideas, it's easy to conclude that you're in a particularly creative state of mind, but you could just be in a state where stupid ideas seem profound.

Dude ... that's, like, so deep ...

But seriously, this agrees closely with my experience. Another way I've thought of it is in terms of a bullshit filter. If your bullshit filter is too high — if you're dismissing patterns that actually exist, because they don't fit your preconceptions — then dropping your bullshit filter across the board may lead to you recognizing more truths. But it's at the expense of believing more falsehoods, too.

When you're constantly being struck by profound-seeming ideas, it's easy to conclude that you're in a particularly creative state of mind, but you could just be in a state where stupid ideas seem profound.

This was Feynman's conclusion. I can't seem to find the quote, but he said something along the lines of, "I thought my hallucinations were profound, and then I realized I was just hallucinating that they were profound, which I should have expected."


I'm confused. I thought his preliminary data was the link at top, of the "robots" he found? It seems plausible... I mean, I would have read that comment thread and not see anything. Using his perspective, the comment thread seems to make more sense. It's just a bunch of fake accounts shilling for Foxconn.

What does this have to do with marijuana?


Reading from the context, I'm assuming he was high when he made that discovery. And that "New Foe" is the same person as "Winged Foe."

Group brainstorming is actually a pretty crappy technique for creativity; IIRC individual brainstorming beats the crap out of it. I suggest reading "Serious Creativity" by de Bono if you're, well, seriously interested in creativity.

(Also, the post is terribly disorganized and unclear; it probably belongs in the Discussion section if it belongs anywhere on the site.)

My guess is that group brainstorming sucks because people are afraid of being judged for having crazy ideas by other members of the group. Seems like marijuana might solve this problem.

More generally, we could rank various brainstorming methods from least controlled to most controlled:

  • One person high alone.
  • One person high, being directed by a sober person.
  • One person sober alone.
  • Several sober people, all being afraid of each other's judgment.

Current data suggests that "one person sober alone" beats "one person high alone" and "several sober people", but we don't have much data for the high person who's getting directed. Furthermore, it's plausibly the one that's closest to the optimal level of controlledness.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what creativity is. Read "Serious Creativity" to dissolve the idea that creativity and craziness are related. (It's actually an optimization and search process -- and as per the Sequences, you can't improve such a process much by adding randomness to it. That is, above a certain small level of randomness, you won't be making things better, compared to changing the higher-level processes as per Serious Creativity. SC's author offers a proper reductionist explanation of creativity, at the, "AI people wanting to implement creativity should read this" level.)


Does the book have a strong empirical basis? Does the author quote experimental studies and then draw conclusions from them or does he rely on intuition and personal experience in coming up with his thesis? I'm asking because the book's Amazon page tells me that the author is a business consultant and the whole thing has a very self-helpy feel to it.

And there was a story some time back about scientists who found similarities in brain function of highly creative people and schizophrenics so the idea that creativity and craziness are related might be somewhat true.

Similar point about intuition in "Strategic Intuition" by WIll Duggan

Some loose thoughts:

  • Use the word "illegal" more often. Most countries in the world, including the US, take a very dim view of marijuana. I think the Dutch drug policy is better, but getting caught may have serious consequences which should be thoroughly considered.

  • A high-quality mediator ("confessor") and illegal drugs (which implies quite a bit of preparation) are nontrivial resources. You also have to instruct the group. Wouldn't it be more fair to compare the effectiveness of your scheme to, say, a group with a high-powered brainstorm consultant (in addition to an "unaided" group)?

  • Are high-quality mediators useful in unaided groups? They are not common, at least. If they make the group less effective, is the extra creativity worth enough to overcome the bad effects?

  • I thought LSD was used in this way more often than marijuana?

  • More generally, are legal(-ish) substances able to deliver the same effect, if any?

  • Are you proposing that marijuana will help rationalist groups, or all groups? In the first case, define "rationalist".

Full disclosure: I'm Dutch, and I think mind-altering chemicals are squicky.

P.S. I don't understand your reddit link. Your last two links are broken. Check the rest.

EDITed to add: note that this article previously appeared in discussion, which I didn't know. Consider reading fiddlemath's comment and other comments.)

Cannabis allows connections to be made between concepts which normally seem unrelated.

Which leads to the problem of thinking up connections between ideas that are actually unrelated. Creative, interesting, neat-sounding insights are not always true insights.

Also, I suspect that different brains respond differently to this kind of experience. I know that a friend of my parents' is a mathematician by profession and frequently smokes marijuana to "help his thought process." As for myself and the small amount of personal experience I have, the feeling of being high isn't an unpleasant one and can even be fun as an experience in itself, but the quality of my thought processes drops quickly and if I'm actually trying to accomplish any kind of specific goal, being high (or drunk) quickly becomes irritating.

I do think your idea might be valid in the sense that anyone brainstorming under the influence of drugs is likely to produce more ideas than someone who is sober. Even if a lower percentage of those ideas are useful, someone whose sober thinking process is rigid or self-censored, and who thus has trouble coming up with any ideas during a brainstorm, might benefit from a little de-inhibition.

At the Ohio meetup I speculated that marijuana may be useful for getting a higher score on creativity tests such as Guilford’s Alternative Uses Task.

I have not tested this idea, just speculated about it. For all I know, the experiment has been performed already.

Even if a lower percentage of those ideas are useful, someone whose sober thinking process is rigid or self-censored, and who thus has trouble coming up with any ideas during a brainstorm, might benefit from a little de-inhibition.

Makes sense. I take adderall regularly, and I've subjectively noticed the oft-cited drop in creativity. Likewise, if I want to babble incessantly about things that seem really important, I can consume too much caffeine.

I guess ideas are expensive for some people.

Hi All, I just want to ask if anyone ever tried using medical cannabis as an alternative meds? I have read many articles about medical marijuana and how it can help you in terms of chronic pain, bone injuries, eating disorder/anorexia, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, inflammation, even cancer and a lot more. Like this article about a marijuana strain called Brainwreck from: . Cbd and thc are also new to me and I don't even smoke. If this is true I cant find any solid conclusive evidence that speaks to its efficacy. Any personal experience or testimonial would be highly appreciated. Thanks

Please, stop capitalizing "cannabis".


I'm a biologist, and I recognize that as the correct spelling. It's a genus name

The Wikipedia article on Cannabis also capitalizes the word. I don't think I am used to that convention. Under what circumstances is it standard practice to capitalize names of organisms?

Wikipedia on binomial nomenclature:

In modern usage, in writing the first letter of the first part of the name, the genus, is always capitalized, while that of the second part is not [...] Both parts are italicized. Thus the binomial name of the annual phlox is now written as Phlox drummondii.


The binomial name should generally be written in full. The exception to this is when several species from the same genus are being listed or discussed in the same paper or report, or the same species is mentioned repeatedly [...]

(In my opinion "cannabis" in most cases seems like a common name rather than a taxonomical name, and it looks weird capitalized.)

Well, either you're using it as a taxonomical term or not. If you are, it should be capitalized and italicized (“Cannabis”). If you aren't, it shouldn't (“cannabis”), but I prefer “hemp” (for the plant in general) or “marijuana” (for its use as a drug specifically).


Well, either way it's just nitpicking. We ought to be arguing over the content, not the definition (or spelling) of a word.

Meditation -> mediation, I presume?

I don't condone smoking anything - placebo or not. Try eating it?



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