So we all know the stereotype – people who smoke marijuana are lazy, unmotivated, pothead burnouts, right? I mean haven’t you ever seen the movie Half Baked? If Jim Breuer isn’t a walking definition of the quintessential stoner, then I don’t know what is.
From a real life perspective though, how accurate is the old “pothead stereotype” — in all seriousness? Does weed actually “promote laziness” and/or make people apathetic, or is it the other way around? That is, are apathetic people just naturally more drawn to smoking weed?
The question actually brings up an interesting argument that can border on the philosophical as much as it does on the scientific or psychological. In this article, we aim to find an answer the only way that we know how – through science.
Apathy and Lack of Motivation… is Marijuana the Culprit?
Not surprisingly, there hasn’t been a ton of clinical research done on whether or not marijuana causes – or even promotes – apathy. For one, measuring apathy is not exactly easy. It’s not as if we can draw a blood sample and immediately determine whether or not someone is apathetic, or has low motivation.
That being said, there have been studies conducted in the past that have attempted to pinpoint whether or not marijuana induces any amount of lowered motivation. The most recent of these studies, published December 2017 in Substance Use and Misuse, monitored 79 adolescents (aged 14-18) that were categorized as either “regular” cannabis users (36 out of the 79) or “light” users (43 out of the 79). The hypothesis of the study was that the regular cannabis users would display “lower motivation than light users,” and that “greater lifetime and past 30-day [cannabis use] would be associated with decreased motivation.”
However, results showed “no significant differences between regular and light users on any motivation index,” and that “no associations between motivation and lifetime or past 30-day cannabis use were observed.” In short, the findings of this particular study clearly showed that there was not a link between low motivation and cannabis use among adolescents.
The indexes used to “measure” motivation levels in the study were the Apathy Evaluation Scale (AES) and the Motivation and Engagement Scale – both of which have been subject to scrutiny in the past. In fact, a study published in Psychiatry Research nearly 30 years ago (1991) singled out the AES and raised questions as to the reliability and validity of the scale; like we mentioned earlier, apathy and motivation are not the easiest things to measure, especially in terms of quantitative/scientific methods where data needs to be extremely accurate in order to be viable.
Dopamine Levels are a Better Indicator for Motivation Levels
If we really want to use quantitative methods in order to measure levels of motivation and apathy, then monitoring dopamine activity in the brain would probably be a good start. Dopamine has been described as the “reward molecule” – when we see things that are pleasing to us, whether it be sex, earning more money, or even finishing a simple task at hand, dopamine is the chemical messenger that puts us into action and sets us on the path of achieving those things. When we have low levels of dopamine, it can be hard trying to come up with the motivation that’s required to take action. This, of course, is the definition of apathy (and in fact is one of the surest symptoms of depression).
As such, if we want to accurately monitor motivation levels what we really might want to do is take control of dopamine levels. Of course, this leads us to the inevitable question: What role(s) does marijuana have on the activity of dopamine in the brain?
Well, the little bit of research that has been done on the topic has not been too promising. A study published in 2014 in the journal Psychopharmacology, for example, pointed out that there is a definitive link between dopamine function and apathy in frequent cannabis users. Basically, the study showed that frequent/chronic marijuana use results in a decreased capacity to produce dopamine in the brain. In other words, frequent cannabis use subjects us on a chemical level to reduced motivation. Not good news if we have any hope of getting rid of that “lazy stoner” stereotype.
Lack of Motivation is Linked More to Depression than to Marijuana Use
However, like we mentioned earlier low dopamine levels and a lack of motivation are also clear symptoms of depression – and we have know for years that cannabis can be an excellent therapy in treating depression.
So how does this make sense? If research has shown that cannabis use lowers dopamine production in the brain, yet is also effective at treating depression, how in the world do we know what to make of all this?
That’s an excellent question, and it is one that scientists are still trying to figure out. In short, what we are starting to learn is that it is too naive to say that low dopamine levels are single-handedly responsible for depression, apathy, procrastination, lack of motivation, etc. Dopamine is just one neurotransmitter involved in the extremely complex network of chemical messaging, that also includes other molecules such as serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin, among others.
Final Thoughts: Does Marijuana Lead to Low Motivation and Apathy?
Based on the research, it is true that frequent marijuana use can lead to a reduced ability to synthesize dopamine, which can in turn lead to a general lack of motivation. So in reality, there is a degree of validity to those old stereotypes that weed smokers are not the most motivated individuals in the world.
However, it is naive to make that the basis of what in reality is a much larger argument – in other words, we need to consider the fact that high dopamine levels (i.e. motivation) is not always a good thing. Consider things like greed, lust, addiction, etc – these are some of the most terrible qualities in human nature, and are qualities that can almost certainly be traced back to heightened dopamine activity.
With that in mind, what we really need to strive for is some sort of quality balance. There are millions of people who use weed every single day of their lives and have zero problems whatsoever with apathy, lack of motivation, etc. In fact, the majority of frequent cannabis users would probably say that weed is the only thing that actually gives them the motivation to get through their day to day lives.
In short, it is unwise and irresponsible to label marijuana as a drug that lowers motivation to the point of diminished productivity. True apathy likely lies in a much more complex chemical imbalance, and cannabis is certainly not the culprit.