Cannabis, Reading and Language: What’s It Like to Read High?

Many cannabis users find that a high interferes with their ability to read, others have reported that a high can enhance their reading abilities and their ability to understand foreign languages. In which ways can a high affect our reading and understanding abilities? And under which conditions may cannabis enhance those abilities?

Let me comment on what I consider to be the most important mistakes cannabis users make in the context of reading or language understanding:

1. Dosage too high

If your high becomes too strong, you may have trouble reading because your high can for instance affect your short-term memory too much – you might lose the thread of what you are reading and then miss out on the whole story.

2. Wrong strain, aged cannabis

The cannabis high is not only induced by THC, but also depends in its character on various other substances – this is he well-known entourage effect of cannabis. Some varieties contain higher proportions of the terpenes linalool or myrcene, which are known to be sedatives, and degradation products of terpenes or cannabinoids like the metabolite cannabinol (CBN) in combination with THC may also add to you being drowsy and tired rather than concentrated and able to read or understand spoken language.     

The structural formula of CBN, a metabolite of THC which can make a marijuana consumer disoriented and confused.

The facilitation of reading during a high

Many users have reported that marijuana actually helps them in the process of reading. Robert Burruss, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website project marijuana-uses.com, describes his former self as an effective illiterate at the age of 31. While at that time he was able to read single words, pick up the gist of texts and even get the meaning of some sentences, he says he never really quite understood the meaning of full sentences and texts written by others. One day, he sat down, puffed a joint and opened the book Lady Chatterly’s Lover to “look for dirty words”:

“I have no memory of the intervening moments before I learned to read. Perhaps only a few seconds passed. Maybe minutes. I don’t know. All I recall is opening the book at a random place, or perhaps at multiple random places, and the next thing I know is that I’m walking up a stone path with flowers beside it, to the gardener’s cottage, which has a thatched roof. The sky in the mental scene which the written words were creating is grayish, and the air is comfortably warm and slightly humid.

The sort of teleportation which the book and the joint provoked that night . . . that was the first time in my life that mental images had been created by printed words. Until that night I had been unable to comprehend phrases longer than about three words. Until that night I had thought that everyone read that way, by looking at words and phrases and then fabricating an interpretation – highly personal, of course, though I didn’t know it then – of the writer’s intent. The seeing of mental images – and from printed words no less! – was the second great revelation of my life.” [1]

We know from many other reports and studies that a marijuana high often enhances the process of imagination – be it visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory or tactile imagination. Here, the ability to associate visual scenes with sentences seems to have helped the untrained reader Robert Burruss to finally come to a point where he could fully grasp the meaning of whole sentences.

Enhanced imagery during reading has been reported by many other readers, who appreciate the marijuana high for giving them a vivid experience of the stories they read. Many others find that a high can be helpful to focus their attention while they read. Also, a clear “heady” high can enable users to keep their attention on a text without making them tired or losing the thread.

The enhancement of foreign language understanding

Interestingly, this process of a “sudden switching” from tediously puzzling together the meaning of words to the immediate grasp of a sentence as a whole during a cannabis high has been reported by other users for the understanding of foreign languages.

Chinese Proverb: “If you know, recognize that you know, If you don’t know, then realize that you don’t know: That is knowledge.”

What begins as a tedious process of word translation can suddenly switch to the immediate grasp of sentences as a whole during cannabis use. “T.D.” (anonymous author), a graduate student of Asian languages in his thirties with more than ten years of experience as a cannabis user, reports how a high helped him in the process of translating a foreign language:

“My approach when studying stoned was always to bring as much concentration to bear on whatever aspect of the task I was working on, apply sustained effort until I had reached a conclusion, and then hurriedly write it down before forgetting it. Reaching the end of a sentence, I would then re-read all my notes and attempt to piece the meaning together. (…) On one particular occasion (…) something different happened. For some indeterminate period of time I was straining over a sentence and all at once, in a moment, the entire sentence as a single unit “flashed” in my mind and I read not syllable-by-syllable translated, but “read” the sentence as a coherent meaning unit.

Now it is usually hoped that at some point in the career of a foreign language specialist, this will happen. And, I am sure that there are those for whom this more “intuitive” approach to language comes naturally, and for whom strictly logical and rational thought seems painful and equally alien from everyday functional existence. But for me, going through life without a dominant framework of linear thought seemed to court danger, if not madness. Yet as a result of my experience, I could see in clearly demonstrable terms the facility of such occasionally less logically-stringent states-of-mind, in which the progression of thoughts is no longer logically sequential, but rather arise one after another through thematic association. It was in just such a state of mind where the marijuana which induced it had served as a catalyst to galvanize my comprehension of the language.”

Better auditory abilities

In his study “On being stoned”, the Harvard psychologist Charles Tart found that a very characteristic effect of cannabis is that users can understand the words of songs which are not clear to them when they are straight. Some cannabis users (including myself) have observed that they find that during a high, they suddenly understand spoken foreign language better (if they have some previous understanding of the language).

On the one hand, these enhancements might have to do with the effect of cannabis on our attention. It seems to be one of the most basic effects of marijuana to focus our attention, that is, to help with what cognitive scientists would call “selective attention”, focusing on a certain kind of pattern or object and screening out other present perceptual stimuli. Thus, a high could facilitate our ability to focus on a song text and to screen out otherwise distracting musical stimuli, or to focus on the sound of spoken words of a different language and to screen out other noises and perceptual stimuli such as, for instance, visual distractions.

More importantly however, an enhanced capacity for reading and understanding during a high might be subserved by a more subtle enhancement of our pattern recognition abilities. I have discussed these before in my essay “Marijuana, Pattern Recognition, and What It Means to Be High”.

Countless users of marijuana have observed that they suddenly see a new gestalt or, in other words, a pattern, during a high. Being high, a young man suddenly realizes that he is walking in a rigid way, and a woman sees a new pattern of insecurity in the behavior of her friend. In a similar way, the complete meaning, the “gestalt” of a sentence in the book Lady Chatterly’s Lover suddenly dawns upon the almost illiterate Robert Burruss while he is high.

In my book “High. Insights on Marijuana” I have tried to explain the enhancement of pattern recognition during a cannabis high on the basis of a “pre-synesthetic effects”. [2] I am convinced that this general effect on our pattern recognition ability has much to do with the enhancements of language understanding discussed above. Yet, it remains an open question whether the cannabis could also directly affect cognitive processes underlying our language processing in a different, more specific way.

At this point, we know that the endocannabinoid system is active in the brain and in many functions that concern higher cognition, but we do not have an understanding of the role it plays in functions such as language understanding. So far, I have not seen any significant research concerning that issue, but I think it might be a promising research focus for cognitive neuro-scientists.

[1]   Sebastian Marincolo, “High. Insights on Marijuana”, Indianapolis, Dogear Publishing 2010.

[2]   “T.D.” (anonymous author), “Some Experiences with Language Facility and Learning”, in: Lester Grinspoon (ed.), marijuana-uses.com

  • 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.

Comments

5 thoughts on “Cannabis, Reading and Language: What’s It Like to Read High?”

  1. i carried out a conversation with a woman who was speaking a foreign language while high.i could understand everything she said. She wanted to know if i could speak the language since all my responses were in english, and i told her i had grown up in an english speaking environment but my parents spoke the language, hence my comprehension but lack of the ability to speak it. She believed it entirely.

  2. Richard Osburn

    I’m a native English speaker but I learned Spanish at the University when I was in my 30’s. I think I do pretty well after traveling through out Latin America for 30 years and living on the border with Mexico, volunteering in Nogales, Sonora. I use Spanish everyday. However, when in Colorado, I tried marijuana and was listening to music in Spanish. It was like everything was subtitled in English. I understood nuances that I hadn’t before. The Spanish was very clear to me. I think there is a connection with how marijuana effects the language centers of the brain and merits further research.

  3. what about speaking in another language you’ve never heard with other people while high?

  4. I find smoking a little bit before my college Spanish classes helps me clear my head to where I can really completely switch my brain over to Spanish mode for class.

  5. denise f toomb

    I was an avid reader my whole life. When I quit heroin 21 years ago, I lost the ability to read for pleasure. I started using cannabis 2 years ago. I suddenly regained the ability to read. What do you make of that?

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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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