Nov. 9, 2023 – Marijuana is often linked to poor mental health, but a small new study shows that it may improve users’ empathy, which is the ability to understand or share the feelings of another person.
Brain imaging showed that the marijuana users’ brains were more connected and functional in the region linked to empathy, compared to non-users.
The findings, from researchers in Mexico, were published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience Research and build upon previous research that showed marijuana use activates certain areas of the brain.
This latest study included 85 marijuana users and 51 non-users. Among users, 22 were women and 63 were men. The people in each group had similar levels of education. None of the people in the study had depression or used certain other drugs like opioids, cocaine, or psychopharmaceuticals, or drugs that have mental effects.
Researchers asked them questions about empathy and studied their brains. The people in the study rated their agreement to statements from the Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test, such as, “When a friend is sad, I get sad, too.” The questions measure four areas of empathy skills. Some of the people in the study also had magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.
The MRIs showed that marijuana users had more connections in the part of the brain that senses the emotions of others within one’s own body.
For the questionnaire portion of the study, marijuana users showed significantly greater skills in one of the four areas called emotional comprehension. Those skills allow someone to understand the emotions and intentions of others. There were no differences between users’ and non-users in the three other areas of empathy skills. Those three areas included:
- Empathic stress skills, which let someone share the negative emotions of another person or be emotionally in tune with them
- Empathic joy skills, which help someone share the positive emotions and successes of others
- Perspective taking, which is understanding the points of view of others
“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, such as sociopathy, social anxiety, and avoidant personality disorder, among others,” co-author Víctor Olalde-Mathieu, PhD, of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, said in a news release.
The authors cautioned that “further research is needed to explore such association, since many other factors may be at play,” meaning that such differences may have existed before people started using marijuana.