A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this month found that cannabis users have greater emotional comprehension, a form of cognitive empathy.
While some medical professionals associate cannabis use with causing negative mental health and behavioural outcomes, this study found that cannabis users have a greater understanding of the emotions of others and that parts of the brain associated with empathy are stronger among those who use cannabis.
These findings, say the researchers, help to highlight positive effects of cannabis on interpersonal relationships and its potential therapeutic applications.
The study involved a group of 85 regular cannabis users alongside a control group of 51 non-users. The groups excluded those with neurological disorders, use of psychopharmaceuticals, depression, and MRI contraindications.
Researchers “applied the Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test (TECA, in Spanish), developed by López-Pérez and Pinto, which analyzes the empathic ability of the subject, assessing both cognitive and affective empathy.” MRI scans were also used to assess brain activity in areas associated with empathy.
The psychometric tests showed that cannabis users scored higher in emotional comprehension than non-users. They caution, however, that it’s possible the cannabis users they observed in the research were more empathetic prior to consuming cannabis.
The study also noted that the quality of cannabis consumed in Mexico is often around 2%–10% THC on the illegal market, much lower than cannabis consumed in legal markets in the US or Canada. Researchers caution this could lead to different results when using higher-potency cannabis.
The differences in THC concentrations between US and Mexican cannabis could have a differential impact on functional brain outcomes between the present study and those reporting emotional dysfunctions in cannabis users.
The results of the MRI tests indicated that “regular cannabis users showed greater connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the pre-posterior central gyrus (pr-pCG). In the within empathy network analysis, the users showed greater connectivity between the left anterior insula (lAi) and the ACC, and greater network strength when compared to controls (t = 2.27, p = .02).”
The authors note that “the ACC is a region that is prone to the effects of cannabis consumption and is also greatly involved in empathy, which is a multi-component process that can be influenced in different ways. In the present study, regular cannabis users scored higher on emotional comprehension when compared to non-users.”
“We believe that the differences shown by regular cannabis users in the emotional comprehension scores and their brain functional connectivity, could be related to the use of cannabis. However, we cannot discard that such differences were present before the users started their use of cannabis.”
They continue, saying that “this difference is consistent with those reported by Vigil et al., where cannabis users report a higher ability to detect others’ feelings compared to non-users. Additionally, previous research has shown that these types of psychometric results correspond with the subjective experience and behaviours of cannabis users related to a greater understanding of other emotions, less verbal hostility, enhanced prosociality and empathic predisposition to others’ situations.”
In closing, they hypothesize that they “believe that these results contribute to open a pathway to study further the clinical applications of the positive effect that cannabis or cannabis components could have in effect and social interactions.”