5
min to read
July 15, 2019

The Relationship Between Cannabis and Flow

Conor B. Murphy

Conor B. Murphy

Conor lives at the intersection of data science and optimal psychology, using data and technology to understand and reinforce the best parts of human experience. He transitioned to the tech sector after spending four years leveraging data for more impactful humanitarian interventions in developing countries. Since then. he has held a variety of positions including a faculty role for University of New Haven and Galvanize's Master of Science in Data Science program, principal data scientist and consultant for a number of startups and a data scientist and educator for Artificial Intelligence at Databricks. Outside of data, Conor is an avid skydiver, getting into the sport after reading Kotler's The Rise of Superman.

My high school biology teacher used to say: “you’re just a bag of chemical reactions.” There might be a bit more to it than that, but point taken. The image that came to mind when she first said that was the experiment kids run where they combine baking soda and vinegar together in a paper mache volcano and watch the fake lava bubble out.

That’s right in principle, but the reality is a lot more complex.

Flow is a game of attention; it’s about leveraging attention into the present. If you want to understand flow from the perspective of that skin-wrapped sack of chemical reactions, then you need to know a few things about those chemicals.

The thinking for quite some time was that not much of anything could jump the blood-brain barrier, that wall between the blood in your circulatory system and the brain. Then LSD happened and serotonin was discovered. Suddenly, the bag of chemical reactions wasn’t quite as simple as we thought because evidently something could make it over the wall.

Something similar happened with cannabis. Looking for his place in academia and unable to compete with American labs flush with cash, Israli chemist Raphael Mechoulam procured hashish.  

He did not do this through official channels, mind you. Funnily enough, his fellow bus passengers were concerned about the smell emanating from his bag on his hot ride back to the lab. He had gone to a police station and, armed only with his academic credentials, they decided to give him Lebanese hashish they had confiscated. Since this was by no means legal, in later experiments he had to go through more official channels.

Nobody was studying cannabis in the early 60s. He wanted to isolate its active chemical.

What he discovered was THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis.  But this is only half of the equation. For a chemical to have an effect on our system, it needs what’s called a receptor site. This is a protein on the surface of the cell that receives that chemical. This was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, the biological system that cannabis acts on.

So what does this have to do with flow?  Well, let’s start with runner’s high, which is low-grade flow state. I’m sure you’ve heard that exercise promotes endorphins. The thinking used to be that endorphins caused runner’s high. The current thinking, however, is that endorphins are too large and clumsy to hop that barrier between the blood and brain. So what causes it then?

Anandamide. Anandamide is how we naturally influence the endocannabinoid system. It’s the way our body activates the same system that cannabis does.

Anandamide was discovered by Mechoulam, who named it after the Sanskrit for “bliss.”  And we think this pleasure chemical affects flow in a few different ways.

The first is by decreasing cognitive load, or the demands on your working memory. If flow is a game of attention, then the more we can decrease distraction and stress, the better we can drop into flow.

The second is by modulating our friend dopamine, another character in that great drama of chemical reactions. Dopamine plays a role in attention, pattern recognition, motivation, and reward. Anandamide increases dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain.

So if flow is largely a game of attention, we now have two solid reasons why we should care about cannabis.

Enter CBD. CBD is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis.  In other words, it doesn’t get you high. It has anti-anxiety effects in addition to affecting cognition and pain.  We’re currently studying its effects on professional surfers.

But all of this might be putting the cart before the horse. Looking back at the history of science, it feels like stumbling around in a dark room, running into something, and then trying to turn on the light. That is how we discovered the endocannabinoid system, after all: It was observed that cannabis affects people and somebody, somewhere in the world wanted to know why.

The same can be said of cannabis and flow. Many have reported that cannabis improves our ability to access flow. This is anecdotal: We do not know if this is true.

But the chemistry of it makes sense. So we’re taking professional surfers on a double-blind, placebo-controlled ride where we’ll ask two questions. Do you get into flow faster when you use CBD and surf?  And is your flow state deeper?

We had the opportunity to work with a number of different cannabis companies. We went with the company we viewed to be the best: Ojai Energetics. Their formula, process, and rigor blew everybody else out of the water. We’re looking forward to a long collaboration with them.

Stay tuned. Our placebo-controlled beach party is coming up soon.

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