Cannabis and the Power of Introspection

Cannabis has been used as a sacrament in many cultures. The Rastafari culture is a perfect example. Is it possible that cannabis’ potential to incite introspection and reflective contemplation is the basis for the religious use of this plant? Even outside of these traditions, is there a way for everybody to harness these effects of cannabis?

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”

Aristotle

The Ancient Greek imperative, “Know yourself”, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, unquestionably confronts us with a task that can never be complete.

Despite this, we are reminded of Sisyphus, the king of absurdism; it doesn’t matter that the task can’t be accomplished. It is nonetheless satisfying, rewarding and somewhat absurd to seek out the “impossible”. There are many cannabis consumers, as well as consumers of other psychoactive substances (like LSD or psilocybin) that have experienced divine insight into the nature of themselves – insights which significantly augmented their self-knowledge and consequently, their personal growth. On the basis of his questionnaires sent to hundreds of consumers, Harvard psychologist, Charles Tart, made the following observation about cannabis and cannabis users:

“Spontaneously, insights about myself, my personality, the games I play come to mind when stoned seem very meaningful.” 

How could marijuana be especially helpful in gaining self-knowledge? How could it help us with our introspection? And ultimately, what is the purpose of this?

‘Introspection’ in philosophy

The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy states:

“Introspection, as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.“

We commonly associate “introspection” with the investigation of a current mental state or process. This includes pain sensations, feelings of anxiousness or a joyful mood. But introspection also includes inquiry into dispositions, such as a tendency to overreact to critique. These dispositions often stretch far into the past, but can be triggered by something in the present. Essentially, introspection can create an understanding of personality characteristics and traits.

As far cannabis users report, cannabis can be used to instigate both kinds of introspection. It seems to help users to better and more vividly experience tactile sensations (such as during sex), but it also offers insight into one’s character, dispositions and moods.

The body mapping system and the enhancement of bodily sensations

Charles Tart mentions that cannabis users often use their cannabis high to contemplate their physical sensations and feelings. This is the more narrow philosophical definition of introspection. The following statements are commonly observed among cannabis users as typical effects of the cannabis high:

“My skin feels exceptionally sensitive”

“Pain is more intense if I concentrate on it”

“My perception of how my body is shaped gets strange; the ‘felt’ shape or form does not correspond to its actual form (e.g. you may feel lopsided, or parts of your body feel heavy while others feel light)”

“I feel a lot of pleasant warmth inside my body”

“I am much more aware of the beating of my heart”

“I become aware of breathing and can feel the breath flowing in and out of my throat as well as filling my lungs“

According to neuroscientists like A. D. Craig and Antonio Damasio, we all have an introspective sense that gives us a sense of the body’s interior. These interior sensations, as portrayed in the brain’s body map, are the sensations that constitute feelings or emotions.

Antonio Damasio describes this representational mapping in his book, “Looking for Spinoza; Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain”:

“(…) pain states, body temperature, flush, itch, tickle, shudder, visceral and genital sensations; the state of the smooth musculature in blood vessels and other viscera (…).“

His philosophy rests on the premise that our feelings and emotions are guided by how the brain receives and interprets these sensations, which are far into the body, rather than being concentrated on the outside of the body. A sore stomach or a shiver up the spine is a sensation interpreted from inside, and this is how the organism “maps” its current state of existence.

Could it be that cannabis interacts with this body mapping system? Cannabis seems to offer a key or access code to this internal state of affairs. The increased awareness of internal matters can also lead to awareness of emotions, feelings and personality traits.

In a report by American writer, Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), he describes his experience after ingesting a large dose of hash jam:

“The sense of limitation – of the confinement of our senses within the bounds of our own flesh and blood – instantly fell away. The walls of my frame were burst outward and tumbled into ruin; and, without thinking what form I wore – losing sight even of all idea of form – I felt that I existed throughout a vast extend of space. The blood, pulsed from my heart, sped through uncounted leagues before it reached my extremities; the air drawn into my lungs expanded into seas of limpid ether, and the arch of my scull was broader than the vault of heaven.”

This report shows that a marijuana high can strongly affect one’s body imaging system – and it also shows a relationship with dosage. Whereas a decent high might help with intensifying bodily sensations and bringing them to our awareness, a higher dose might lead to misrepresentations and distortions of our inner body mapping system.

Losing your body

Charles Tart also notes that under stronger doses of cannabis (specifically THC), users seem to forget about their bodies completely. He mentions the following descriptions as common effects for a strong high:

“I lose awareness of most of my body unless I specifically focus my attention there, or some particularly strong stimulus demands my attention there”

“I have lost all consciousness of my body during fantasy trips, i.e. gotten so absorbed in what was going on in my head that my body might as well not have existed for a while”

“I have lost all consciousness of my body and the external world, and I just found myself floating in limitless space (not necessarily physical space)”

There are two possible explanations for this:

The first is that the effects of cannabis on our cognitive minds are so strong as to excite episodic memory and imagination.

The second is that the direction of attention towards the body, no matter how short, is strong enough to (virtually instantly) connect the user with the feelings, memories and fantasies associated with those same physical sensations. Upon connecting with these even more profound internal affairs, the sensation of the body is lost completely, and the user is then floating in a conceptual body mapping system.

Endocannabinoids, exogenous cannabinoids, and the body imaging system

These observations raise interesting questions. How does cannabis affect this proposed body mapping system? We know that many effects of cannabis strongly depend on biological factors such as its interaction with the already existing endocannabinoid system in the brain and body. We also know, for instance, that endocannabinoids play a dose dependent role in thermoregulation.

What are the other functions in the body mapping system? How do various endocannabinoids play a role in the regulation of the body mapping system? And how do exogenous cannabinoids – that is, cannabinoids coming externally by the consumption of cannabis – play a role affecting this system?

Will a strain with a higher level in CBD affect the body imaging system in a different way than other strains? It’s likely that the answer to this is yes, as CBD does not necessarily stimulate the same cognitive effect as THC.

These questions may lead to interesting developments in the science and medicine of cannabis. Even in the absence of scientific inquiry into this topic, we can use anecdotal evidence to mount our own investigation.

“Once again the powers of the herb open up the mind. Seek deep inside. Tell me what you find.“

Cypress Hill III, Temples of Boom, ”Spark Another Owl”

Many users have observed how a marijuana high does not only lead them to introspective insights about bodily sensations. An investigation into these anecdotal reports also shows how cannabis helps users to gain insights into their own personalities.

Pete Brady, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website marijuana-uses.com, describes an enhancement of introspection under the influence of cannabis:

“The marijuana high made me introspective, and I used it to catalogue my strengths, weaknesses and traits. The drug was a revealer, not an escape mechanism; it helped me see who I was and what I needed to be.“

Another anonymous contributor (“Twinkly“) to Grinspoon’s website reports:

“I was so much more tuned-in to myself and others. I could concentrate on my fears, my turmoil, my stress, my problems, and turn them into plans on healing and freeing myself from lifelong chains that had bound me. I felt calm and relaxed and capable of dealing with who I was, good or bad. (…) I am able to look deeper inside myself to make good, sound decisions based on my true beliefs and morals.”

These reports exemplify the kinds of emotional and “feeling” responses to the cannabis high. Though the writers did not specify physical sensations, it is possible that the hyperawareness of the physical body (the body mapping system) effectively leads to emotional understanding. This is how Antonio Damasio explains the cognitive and emotional effects of being aware of internal sensations.

Introspection as “reflective contemplation“

Introspection with respect to moods and more complex emotions has both direct and indirect effects. For example, through an introspective journey into autobiographical memories of events, a person may come to the conclusion that they are a courageous person. This is a two-part process: the first is to access the internal state of affairs (memories, sensations), and then to pass a judgement on those observations. The first can be considered the “body mapping system”, whereas the second part is the feeling dictated by how the brain receives and interprets this information.

There are an infinite number of factors that could affect this judgement. These factors are reminiscent to the “layers” of oneself as described by Shrek: a person is like an onion! The patterns of behaviour that are observed can be compared to others’ patterns. The judgement also involves what a person’s understanding of character traits is, whether those traits are positive or negative.

We could also call this “second layer” of introspection “reflective contemplation“. A cannabis high may instigate the body mapping system, but may also instigate the “reflective contemplation” that is so imperative to the understanding of the body mapping system.

Hyperfocus, enhanced episodic memory, imagination and pattern recognition

Cannabis users often report four cognitive phenomena: the hyper-focus of attention, enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination, as well as enhanced pattern recognition.

One of the most important acute effects of cannabis intoxication is hyper-focused attention, which I have elsewhere referred to as the “Zen-effect”. In Zen, the master instructs the student to concentrate only on a single activity or thought at any given time.

This undivided attention can be applied to a thought, a memory or an experience of physical sensations. Many cannabis users report this kind of hyper-focused attention and the enhancement of episodic memory. Users often report vivid recollections of long-forgotten events with incredible detail.

Cannabis users also report enhanced ability to imagine, whether those imaginations are tactile, visual, auditory or olfactory (smell). Users also report the enhanced ability to recognize patterns of all kinds. These may be patterns in behaviour in oneself or friends, patterns in nature, or patterns associated with academic work such as mathematics or physics, for example.

Enhancement of “reflective contemplation“

Now, how could these four enhancements – hyper-focused attention,  enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination and enhanced pattern recognition – affect introspection or reflective contemplation?

A cannabis high may help to redirect attention and hyper-focus it on an episodic memory or inner stream of thought. The enhanced ability to recognize patterns may subsequently lead the user to connect the episodic memory or stream of thoughts to other events or thoughts which follow the same pattern. Finally, the imagination assists with the problem solving of such patterns.

During a cannabis high, a person may imagine future potential situations more vividly, how it would be for them, what they may actually feel and how they may act. The enhanced capacity for imagination could assist in arriving at valuable insights into the past and the future.

One college student describes this effect of cannabis in the following statement:

“Pot is very therapeutic to me. When I’m stoned, I can really see myself. I can list my strengths and my weaknesses, and my goals. My mind is clear and eager to learn and understand, even when I have to understand awkward things, like those parts of my personality that I don’t want to change. I can see parts of myself that I don’t like, without hating myself in the process. I’ve learned things about myself that I have brought into my life when I haven’t been stoned, such as how to be less self-centred, and how to be more low-keyed about myself, and less anxious in the presence of others”.

The apparent ability to “see into oneself” as described by this college student is a commonly reported aspect of the cannabis high, albeit virtually untapped by modern psychology or neuroscience. This commonly reported phenomenon would form one of the most interesting enquiries into the human mind and how psychedelic substances such as THC affect it.

Is it a pipe dream that one day, neuroscientists will investigate the potential of cannabis as something of a religious or spiritual tool into character development? It would be wonderful to one day see the results of a study about cannabis and its effects on attention, pattern recognition, imagination and emotional processing so that we may understand how to better apply this plant  as a physical, mental and emotional tool.

  • Disclaimer:
    Laws and regulations regarding cannabis use differ from country to country. Sensi Seeds therefore strongly advises you to check your local laws and regulations. Do not act in conflict with the law.

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    Sensi Seeds

    The Sensi Seeds Editorial team has been built throughout our more than 30 years of existence. Our writers and editors include botanists, medical and legal experts as well as renown activists the world over including Lester Grinspoon, Micha Knodt, Robert Connell Clarke, Maurice Veldman, Sebastian Maríncolo, James Burton and Seshata.
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