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Juan de Pareja, The Hound of Saint Dominic (circa 1660s)
Juan de Pareja, The Hound of Saint Dominic (circa 1660s)Indianapolis Museum of Art

Weed smokers are more empathetic, according to a new study

Research says that regular cannabis smokers are better at sensing other people’s emotions, defying negative stereotypes

Earlier this year, a poll found that 1.8 million people are self-medicating with cannabis in the UK, up 29 per cent from 2019 (despite tough penalties for possession and mixed messages about its legal status). Of course, the idea that the drug has beneficial properties is hardly breaking news, but now there’s even more evidence for its positive effects.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, people who smoke weed are officially more empathetic than those who don’t. To test this theory, researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México analysed the brain activity of regular weed smokers in comparison to non-smokers. They found that smokers have greater “emotional comprehension”, a cognitive empathy trait that relates to understanding other people’s emotions.

At the heart of this study is the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure in the brain associated with emotional processing. Researchers found that this area is notably active in cannabis users, which suggests they might be more adept at picking up on the emotions of others and acting accordingly.

More specifically, the study featured 85 regular cannabis users and 51 people who didn’t smoke cannabis, who all completed psychometric tests. A smaller sample of 46 users and 34 non-users underwent MRI brain scans, which were paired with test results to highlight the link to the anterior cingulate.

The positive results might have something to do with lowered barriers to emotional engagement, suggests the university’s Víctor Olalde-Mathieu, Ph.D, a co-author of the study. In other words, cannabis might make users more open and responsive to others’ feelings, while also reducing the “discomfort” felt around emotional people.

For most smokers, it might not come as much of a surprise that stoners are more empathetic (insert joke about feeling the love, etc) but, as the study’s authors point out, “cannabis use has generally been associated with negative mental health and behavioural outcomes” in the wider world. The study can be seen as part of a broader effort to push back against this stereotype, with implications that extend beyond recreational use.

"Although further research is needed, these results open an exciting new window for exploring the potential effects of cannabis in aiding treatments for conditions involving deficits in social interactions,” suggests Olalde-Mathieu, naming “sociopathy, social anxiety, and avoidant personality disorder” as just a few examples.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t overdo it, of course (more on that here) and the study also comes with a few disclaimers. Most notably, the researchers say that the THC concentration in cannabis is generally lower in Mexico – where the study was conducted – than in the US or the UK, pointing out that the quality of your weed and where you buy it may lead to different psychometric outcomes.

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