Cannabis smokers often report that when stoned, their thoughts have a free-wheeling quality and concepts seem connected in unusual and playful ways. A study just published online in Psychiatry Research suggests that this effect may be due to the drug causing ‘fast and loose’ patterns of spreading activity in memory, something known as ‘hyper-priming’.
Priming is a well studied effect in psychology where encountering one concept makes related concepts more easily accessible. For example, classic experiments show that if you see the word ‘bird’ you will react more quickly to words like ‘wing’ and ‘fly’ than words like ‘apple’ and ‘can’ because the former words are more closely related in meaning than the latter.
In fact, it has been shown that the more closely related the word, the quicker we react to it, demonstrating a kind of ‘mental distance’ between concepts. Think of it like dropping a stone into a pool of mental concepts. The ripples cause activity that reduces in strength as it moves away from the central idea.
‘Hyper-priming’ is an effect where priming happens for concepts at a much greater distance than normal. For example, the word ‘bird’ might speed up reaction times to the the word ‘aeroplane’. To return to our analogy, the ripples are much stronger and spread further than normal.
The effect 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.
The experiment used a classic ‘lexical decision task‘ where the volunteers are shown an initial word (‘time’) and then after a short gap are shown a nonsense word (‘yipt’) and a true word (‘date’) at the same time and have to indicate as quickly as possible which is the real world.
The experimenters altered how related the initial word and true word were to test for the semantic distance effect, and also varied the gap between the initial word and the test to see how long the priming effect might last.
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 .
Cannabis also had the effect of causing temporary psychosis-like distortions as would be expected from a psychedelic drug, but the smokers did not make more errors and were not more likely to report psychosis-like symptoms when sober, suggesting the effect was not due to general mental impairment and couldn’t be explained by underlying tendency to mental distortion.
Although the debate is not completely settled, there is now good evidence that cannabis causes a small increased risk for developing schizophrenia particularly when smokers start young. In fact, additional evidence on this front was published only this week.
The researchers discuss the possibility that long-term smokers who spend a lot of time in a chronic ‘hyper-primed’ state might make psychosis more likely by loosening the boundaries of well-grounded thought, although exactly how cannabis raises the risk of psychosis, and indeed, how exactly it affects the brain, is still not understood well-enough to make a firm judgement.
Link to PubMed entry for cannabis ‘hyper-priming’ study.