Does Chronic Marijuana Use Reduce Emotional Intelligence?

Oregon State University's Anita Cservenka talks about her research on cannabis use and emotion processing.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 5, 2021

A new paper published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology suggests that chronic marijuana use may cause deficits in one's ability to recognize and process emotions in oneself and others.

I recently spoke with Anita Cservenka, an assistant professor at Oregon State University's School of Psychological Science and one of the authors of the research, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of cannabis and emotion processing and what did you find?

Much of previous research has suggested that heavy alcohol use is linked with difficulties in emotion processing that may explain challenges with socio-emotional and interpersonal relationships in individuals with alcohol use disorder. The degree to which emotion processing may also be affected in cannabis users has been less understood. Thus, we sought to investigate and synthesize the existing literature in the field. We found that several studies suggest difficulties with emotion recognition in cannabis users relative to healthy controls, as well as brain activity differences in response to emotions in regions such as the amygdala and frontal lobe. These findings would suggest that brain activity during emotion processing in cannabis users could be altered and be either preexisting or related to cannabis use.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone thinking about whether to change their habits around marijuana/cannabis consumption?

The synthesis of these studies would suggest that cannabis use may be related to alterations in emotion processing that could affect socio-emotional functioning, understanding of emotions, and in turn interpersonal relationships in individuals who use cannabis. Thus, someone thinking about reducing their cannabis consumption might experience changes in emotion processing that could potentially be beneficial to interpersonal relationships and overall well-being. However, to our knowledge, there are no long-term studies that have tested whether this benefit exists when cannabis use is decreased.

Why is it that cannabis use is linked to depression?

Some studies on cannabis and emotion processing suggest that cannabis users may attribute more negative emotions to facial expressions during emotion processing, and this particular bias could contribute to the links between cannabis and negative affect. The relationship is likely bidirectional — meaning that cannabis use may be associated with greater risk for depression due to alterations in neural systems involved in affective processing, but the stress/coping model would suggest that negative affect could increase vulnerability for using cannabis to decrease negative emotionality.

Did you find any gender differences or other demographic differences?

Sex differences have been underinvestigated in the field of cannabis use and emotion processing. We found one study that explored the interaction of cannabis use and sex on neural activity using electroencephalography. This study suggested sex may play an important role in the effects of cannabis on response to socio-emotional stimuli, and should be further explored in future research. Another area of interest is understanding how cannabis use and co-morbid psychiatric disorders, such as depression, may influence emotion processing.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on the psychological effects of cannabis consumption?

Given the emerging research in this field, the current review synthesizes existing studies of cannabis and emotion processing, most of which have been conducted in the past decade. Our findings of the existing literature suggest cannabis users may have greater difficulty with emotion recognition and differentiation, altered responses to emotional stimuli, and differences in physiological responses to emotional stimuli. These findings may inform work focused on promoting healthy socio-emotional functioning in cannabis users.

How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve mental health and psychological flourishing?

Studies suggesting the existence of any performance and/or neural differences in emotion processing in cannabis users relative to healthy controls could help inform clinical work aimed at prevention, intervention, or treatment efforts that could focus on emotion processing as a modifiable target to promote healthy socio-emotional functioning in cannabis users, and reduce the risk for consequences related to cannabis use.