Some people may turn to weed for anxiety, sleep and creativity. New research suggests it could also make you a nicer person.
The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, suggests there could be a connection between cannabis use and empathy.
A study of 85 regular cannabis users and 51 nonusers asked participants to complete a test that measures empathy. Researchers also used brain imaging to study some of the subjects, analyzing a region of the brain that plays a central role in mediating the empathic response.
Cannabis users scored higher on a part of the test that assessed emotional comprehension, or the ability to understand another’s emotional state. In the imaging section of the study, cannabis users had greater connectivity in areas associated with emotional and empathy-related regions.
Víctor Olalde-Mathie, an author of the paper and a neuroscientist at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, said he was motivated to explore the link between cannabis and empathic ability because of the sparse research on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis.
Olalde-Mathie believed cannabis users could demonstrate higher empathy because of the suggested anxiety-mediating effects of cannabis. “If you’re not so anxious, your physiological response and autonomic response is not so high,” he said. “You can use your resources.”
While there is limited research on cannabis and empathy, a study published in 2022 on cannabis and pro-social behaviors also suggests potential positive effects of cannabis. In the study, 146 college students, who had varying amounts of THC in their urine, filled out a questionnaire that gauged measures of pro-social behaviors, empathy and morality.
People who use cannabis “tend to have enhanced sense of care for other people and be motivated to engage in the world in a way that is benign and selfless,” said Jacob Vigil, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico and one of the study’s co-authors. Since completing the research, Vigil started a retail cannabis company.
Results of empathy research can vary depending on how it’s studied. A 2016 report used a technique called “event-related potential” that assesses participant’s responses to a series of stimuli. The researchers found that empathic processing was impaired in cannabis users compared to nonusers.
“They can focus in on the emotion, but can’t empathize,” explained Lucy Troup, one of the study’s authors and a neuroscientist at the University of the West Scotland.
The mixed results suggest that it may be that individual and situational differences play a large role in how you react to cannabis. “It may make someone easier, nicer, happier in one context, but it might do a different thing to another person,” Troup said. “We’re not all the same.”
The recent research shows an association between cannabis use and empathy, but doesn’t prove cause and effect, said Carrie Cuttler, a psychology professor at Washington State University.
“We have no idea if it’s that the people who are more empathetic to begin with are more likely to use cannabis,” Cuttler said.
Or there may be another reason such as “a personality trait or difference in lived experience, that is driving people to be interested in using cannabis and have higher empathy as well,” Cuttler said. “There’s not enough evidence to convince me yet that the cannabis is causing them to be more empathetic.”