Thursday, September 8, 2011

Does Marijuana Make You Stupid?

Marijuana is currently regulated by the United States government as a Schedule I drug, placing it in the same category as heroin, MDMA and LSD. This is largely due to the first condition of Schedule I drugs, which is that the substance “has a high potential for abuse.” The language in that clause is deliberately vague. Does abuse equal addiction? Probably not, since marijuana is not addictive like other Schedule I drugs. Rats don’t self-administer the compound in a lab, it’s virtually impossible to fatally overdose on the drug, and the physiological effects of marijuana withdrawal, if they occur, are far milder than those experienced by chronic amphetamine, alcohol, nicotine or opiate users. Put another way, if “abuse” means “addiction” then cigarettes should be Schedule I, not marijuana.

Rather, the case for marijuana “abuse” has always stemmed from its cognitive effects. While cigarettes are like caffeinated smoke — they increase attention and productivity, marijuana is the drug of choice for slackers, hippies and Seth Rogen characters. In popular culture, all it takes is one hit from a bong before people become ridiculously dumb, unable to solve the simplest problems or utter a coherent sentence. Potheads eat a lot and laugh at stupid jokes. The larger worry, of course, is that such damage is enduring and that “smoking dope” permanently impedes learning and memory.

That, at least, has been the collective stereotype for decades. There’s even been some science to back it up, especially when the marijuana use begins at an early age. But now a different answer is beginning to emerge, thanks to an authoritative new study led by Robert Tait at the Australian National University. The scientists looked at the long-term cognitive effects of marijuana use in nearly 2,000 subjects between the ages of 20 and 24. The subjects were divided (based on self-reports) into several different categories, from total abstainers (n = 420) to “current light users” (n = 71) to “former heavy users” (n = 60). Over the course of eight years, the scientists gave the subjects a battery of standard cognitive tests, most of which focused on working memory, verbal memory and intelligence. One of the important advantages of this study is that the scientists controlled for a number of relevant variables, such as education and gender. In Time, Maia Szalavitz explains why this statistical adjustment is necessary:

The lower education levels of the pot smokers — and their greater likelihood of being male — had made it look like marijuana had significantly affected their intelligence. In fact, men simply tend to do worse than women on tests of verbal intelligence, while women generally underperform on math tests. The relative weighting of the tests made the impact of pot look worse than it was.

Once these population differences were corrected for, the long-term effects of marijuana use disappeared: The scientists found that “there were no significant between group differences.” In other words, the amount of pot consumed had no measurable impact on cognitive performance. The sole exception was performance on a test of short-term verbal memory, in which “current heavy users” performed slightly worse than former users. The researchers conclude that, contrary to earlier findings, the mind altering properties of marijuana are ephemeral and fleeting:

The adverse impacts of cannabis use on cognitive functions either appear to be related to pre-existing factors or are reversible in this community cohort even after potentially extended periods of use. These findings may be useful in motivating individuals to lower cannabis use, even after an extensive history of heavy intake.

This study builds on previous work by Harvard researchers demonstrating that the learning and memory impairments of heavy marijuana users typically vanish within 28 days of “smoking cessation.” (The slight impairments still existed, however, one week after smoking.) While several days might sound like a long hippocampal hangover, heavy alcohol users typically experience deficits that persist for several months, if not years. In other words, heavy marijuana use appears to be a lot less damaging than alcoholism.

Taken together, these studies demonstrate that popular stereotypes of marijuana users are unfair and untrue. While it’s definitely not a good idea to perform a cognitively demanding task (such as driving!) while stoned, smoking a joint probably also won’t lead to any measurable long-term deficits. The Dude, in other words, wasn’t dumb because he inhaled. He was dumb because he was The Dude. (All those White Russians probably didn’t help, either.)

Furthermore, there’s some intriguing evidence that marijuana can actually improve performance on some mental tests. A recent paper by scientists at University College, London looked at a phenomenon called semantic priming. This occurs when the activation of one word allows us to react more quickly to related words. For instance, the word “dog” might lead to decreased reaction times for “cat,” “pet” and “Lassie,” but won’t alter how quickly we react to “chair.”

Interestingly, the scientists found that marijuana seems to induce a state of hyper-priming, in which the reach of semantic priming extends to distantly related concepts. As a result, we hear “dog” and think of nouns that, in more sober circumstances, would seem rather disconnected, such as “leash” or “hair.” This state of hyper-priming helps explain why cannabis has been so often used as a creative fuel, as it seems to make the brain better at detecting those remote associations that lead to radically new ideas.

Why does marijuana increase access to far reaching intellectual connections? One possibility is that the beneficial effect of the drug is mediated by mood. Marijuana, after all, has long been used to quiet anxious nerves — big pharma is currently exploring targeted versions of THC as a next generation anxiolytic — as only a few puffs seem to dramatically increase feelings of relaxation and euphoria. (The technical term for this, of course, is getting stoned.) Furthermore, recent research has suggested that performance on various tests of remote associations and divergent thinking — a hallmark of creativity — are dramatically enhanced by such positive moods. Look, for instance, at a 2003 study by German researchers that investigated performance on a classic remote associate test (RAT), in which subjects have to find a fourth word that is associated with the three following words:

cottage Swiss cake

This answer is pretty obvious: cheese. But what about this problem?

dream ball book

That was a trick question: There is no shared association. Here’s the remarkable thing about these remote associate problems: People can recognize the possibility of a solution before they’ve solved the problem. The German scientists demonstrated this by asking people to quickly press the spacebar whenever they were presented with a triad that had an answer. If people had no intuitions about creative associations, their guesses should have been roughly random. But that’s not what the scientists found. Instead, subjects were able to efficiently sort “coherent” word problems — those with an actual answer — from incoherent problems, which are a waste of time. Before we find the solution, we can feel its presence.

And this returns us to marijuana: Putting people in a positive mood roughly doubled their accuracy at the task. All of a sudden, they were twice as good at identifying problems with possible solutions. This suggests that anything that makes us happier, reducing vigilance and anxiety, might also make us more creative. We can detect more remote associations, of course, but we also know which associations are worth pursuing, which is probably even more important. It doesn’t matter if it’s pot, chocolate or a stand-up comic — those substances or experiences that put a smile on our face can also increase the powers of the imagination, at least when solving particular creative problems.

So here’s the very un-D.A.R.E. takeaway: Heavy marijuana use doesn’t seem to cause any sort of lasting brain damage. All the negative side-effects are relatively temporary. (But those side-effects are real.) Furthermore, the sort of anxiolytic giddiness triggered by THC comes with its own unexpected benefits, which is probably why humans have been self-medicating with cannabis for thousands of years.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Great Minnesota Get Together

Who can forget their first visit to the fair — a magical land of sights and sounds and smells beyond the reach of teachers, bosses, worries, and chores? There is nothing quite like that strange, veritable city that rises anew year after year on the outskirts of town to fill youths with wide-eyed wonder and adults with vivid memories of their own childhoods. For many people and many generations, the fair has occupied its own special place on the calendar and in the heart.

For our trek to what is probably our last Minnesota State Fair, Misplaced & Company decided to utilize the free Park & Ride shuttle service offered to the public.
(click to enlarge all photos)

The American state fair is a conceptual curiosity, a celebration of agriculture that is at once a fantastic departure from the discipline and labor of the farming life. Even at the earliest fairs, agricultural displays and discussions competed for space and attention with horse races, carnivals, and shows. And innovations only widened the gap. The plowing contest became the tractor pull, and the horse race led to auto and motorcycle races and automobile stunt shows. Horse and hog contests blossomed into competitions among every kind of animal and vegetable, with baking and sewing contests right alongside. Like the prizewinning livestock and produce they showcased, state fairs expanded in size and number, becoming a national institution.

Agricultural fairs reach back to biblical times and promise to stretch far into the future. In America it was around the time of the Civil War when many of the country’s best-known and largest state fairs were first held. Before that, fairs were mostly local or county-wide affairs, more serious and less entertaining. But after the Civil War, the thrill shows, contests, and pageants that became such an integral part of our fair experience appeared to enliven the event.

The farming community began to shrink after World War I — a trend that accelerated after World War II. At the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of Americans supported themselves through agriculture; by 1940, only a quarter of all Americans lived on farms, and by 1980, that number was down to three of every hundred. Rural America was disappearing, and although fairs were thriving, the crowds in attendance were more often city or suburban dwellers who saw livestock about as often as they saw animals in zoos.

(Tara won the "Mullet Hunter" competition with this fine specimen)

Fairs have changed with the people who have sponsored them, but tradition and innovation remain constant. In the 1860s and 1870s, fairs closed at dusk because gaslights and electricity were still decades in the future. Implements from that time, then considered revolutionary, live on in exhibits of agricultural history. By the 1950s, the Texas fair was installing a monorail, and the Indiana fair was displaying a replica of an atomic pile at an exhibit of nuclear energy. But at both fairs, the venerable Ferris wheel, invented at the turn of the century, was still a centerpiece of the midway. New meets old at the fair, and always takes something fresh from the encounter.

A retrospective of state fair snapshots and anecdotes includes a cavalcade of exciting, old, funny, heart-warming, startling, and amazing things. Monkeys dressed in hats danced to minstrel music at the Ohio State Fair in 1853. Monkeys drove miniature hot rods in California in the 1950s (the first aid tent, one year, treated 10 people for monkey bites, along with the usual hundreds of stomachaches and dozens of lost children).

Fairs held butter-making contests. A dairy company presented a butter sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt, posed with his foot on a dead lion; a live lion once rode in a racecar. Elsewhere, a butter sculptor carved a John Deere tractor. Fairs featured tractors when they were newfangled inventions that some farmers figured would never replace horses. Those same tractors appeared at displays of antique farm equipment 100 years later, where they evoked nostalgia for a simpler time.

Sure, fairs are corny — that’s why folks love them. Where else could you see a replica of the Statue of Liberty made of ears of corn? Or the state’s tallest corn stalk? Or watch contestants vie to slice off the longest apple peel? Or see a Liberty Bell made of apples?

Deep-fried cheese curds... probably one of the greatest thing to ever come out of the Midwest.

Crab fritters... more deep-fried atrery-clogging goodness...
(Food porn courtesy of Tara M. Rowe)
Pretty girls wore new styles during fashion shows. Pretty girls in coochie shows wore not much at all. Pretty cows had their own events, as did fat cattle.

You could see the eruption of Mount Vesuvius depicted on a huge mural. The Battle of Manila in fireworks shot high into the night sky. A daredevil shot from a cannon. A car (the Torpedobile) shot from a cannon.

Big shots gave speeches. Trick shots entertained the crowds. Suffragettes rubbed elbows with prohibitionists; bootleggers offered shots of illicit liquor. Bamboozlers thrived. Bamboo novelty canes sold like hotcakes.

Parched fairgoers swilled draft beer and eyed draft horses. Draftees poured into fairgrounds during four wars, turning barns into barracks. One fairground became a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. At another fairground, a huge family campground has been popular for generations.

At fairs from Florida to Alaska, farmers and ranchers have shown enough livestock to fill 10,000 Noah’s arks, and gardeners enough jars of fruits and vegetables to build a pyramid for a pharaoh.

You can see cages of pigeons with names you’ve never heard: Oriental Frills, Modenas, Fantails, Birmingham Rollers, and White Kings.

You could have seen Blue Boy (the prizewinning hog in Phil Stong’s novel State Fair) or Old Oscar (the Iowa State Fair’s famous sturgeon, who spent 28 years as an attraction at the fair before dying in his tank on the last day of the fair in 1954). You can still peer up at Big Tex, the giant robot who greets people (in English and Spanish) at the Texas State Fair.

Honest Abe spoke at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1859 (he was paid $150, which included his expenses). A century later, the Kentucky State Fair held Abraham Lincoln look-alike contests.

Racers galore vied for ribbons, trophies, and loot; events featured horses, mules, camels, burros, dogs, boys, people riding on bikes or riding in wheelbarrows. Ostriches raced. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, an entrepreneur named E. R. Johnson of Fallbrook, California, did a steady business by serving omelets made from the eggs laid by his flock of 28 ostriches.

For generations, Americans took fairs to heart and expanded them in an unprecedented fashion. Along the way, the state fair became a piece of bedrock Americana, with elements so familiar that they seem quintessentially domestic.

The reason for this popularity is that, throughout their sprawling, tumultuous history, state fairs have always reflected the basic elements of the national character: the strengths and weaknesses, the common sense and faddishness, the unities and discords that have long marked Americans’ unique development as a culture.

Unfortunately, conservative group’s booth at the Minnesota State Fair the was hit with a “glitter bomb” on Sunday by opponents of a proposed same sex marriage ban in the state.

Four people on the SkyGlider ride threw rainbow glitter on Minnesota for Marriage’s booth as they passed over it, shouting “Equality for all.” The group is an umbrella organization that includes the Minnesota Family Council, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

Minnesota for Marriage has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as solely between one man and one woman.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Animation Time! Redux

The management here at Misplaced in the Midwest has decided to save the newsy article for Monday... See ya then, in the meantime, here's some more animation, this one feature the music of Massive Attack.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Animation Time!

In the process of finishing up a new short story, but unfortunately, it won't get done today.