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

Many consumers of cannabis find that its effects, especially when strong, interfere with their ability to read. Some report that they have problems concentrating on a text, or that they often forget what they have just read in a previous paragraph. However, the negative effects described by these consumers depend on various factors.

Cannabis use acutely affects the way that humans read, write and interpret language. This often lends itself to an increased or decreased appetite for the written and spoken arts, depending on the constitution of the person and the kind of cannabis they are using.

Although this aspect of cannabis and its interaction with the human brain has not aroused the interest of modern science too much, it seems as though attention is the key factor affecting reading, writing, and interpreting language while consuming cannabis.

The type of cannabis also matters. Sativas might be better to give the reader a clear, heady ‘high’ which is helpful for concentration and thinking, whereas indica varieties cause a more physical ‘stone’ and can induce drowsiness. Any cannabis strain that has been harvested too late contains more CBN (cannabinol), a metabolite of THC, which can lead to disorientation and short-term memory disruptions. 

Most consumers today are forced to use poor quality cannabis that has been produced under bad conditions and sold on the black market with virtually no quality controls. Often, the end consumer inadvertently obtains laced cannabis that might actually be harmful, and certainly not apt for the enhancement of cognitive abilities.

The differences in strain and quality play an enormous role in how somebody experiences cannabis. This is equally true for reading, writing, and understanding foreign languages. While one person might find reading a pleasure under the influence, another person might find themselves a little lost and confused.

Together, the strain, its quality, and the user’s predispositions (especially with respect to the act of reading and writing) contribute to the effect that cannabis has on language use and interpretation.

The facilitation of reading during a high

Many users have reported that cannabis helps them in the process of reading. Robert Burruss, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website project,, 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 Chatterley’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.”

We know from many other reports and studies that a cannabis high often enhances the process of imagination – whether visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory or tactile. 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 is not altogether uncommon, and many readers appreciate the vividness and involvement they experience while reading during cannabis use. Many find that a high can be helpful to focus their attention while they read. Also, a clear cerebral high can enable users to keep their attention on a text without making them tired or loosing the thread.

The enhancement of foreign language understanding

The study of foreign languages usually begins with the translation of words into the mother tongue. This is typically the only way sentences are understood when learning a language. However, there are interesting reports about how cannabis has helped people piece together this puzzle more seamlessly.

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 the understanding of song lyrics when they are not understood in the spoken word. Some cannabis users observe that during a high, they suddenly understand spoken foreign languages better (if they have some previous understanding of the language already).

On the one hand, these enhancements might have to do with the effect of cannabis on attention. This high level of attention seems to be one of the characteristic effects of cannabis. It is what cognitive scientists would call “selective attention”; that is, focusing attention on a single object, pattern or thought and disregarding all other perceptual stimuli present.

Thus, a high could facilitate the ability to focus on a song lyric and to screen out otherwise distracting musical stimuli. In the case of foreign languages, it could aid focus on the sound of spoken words of that language and screen out all other noises and other stimuli, such as visual distractions.

More importantly, however, an enhanced capacity for reading and understanding during a high might be subserved by a subtler enhancement of pattern recognition abilities. I have discussed these before in my essay “Marijuana, Pattern Recognition, and What It Means to Be High”. Countless cannabis users 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 behaviour of her friend. In a similar way, the complete meaning, the “gestalt” of a sentence in the book Lady Chatterley’s Lover suddenly dawns upon the almost illiterate Robert Burruss while he is high.

Cannabis, the brain, and scientific research

Although there is not a tremendous amount of research regarding cannabis’ effects on language understanding and perception, there is an enormous body of research concerning cannabis and the brain.

In this meta-review, researchers found cannabis-induced brain activity in areas that implicate language. For example, they found activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, occipital cortex, and fusiform gyrus. These parts of the brain are involved in important executive functions such as mood, attention and certain aspects of language processing.

Furthermore, science has, time and time again, confirmed that cannabinoids affect aspects of the brain that deal with learning and memory. Some studies suggest positive effects on learning and memory, while others suggest negative effects. Interestingly, in this study, researchers investigate the habit-forming aspect of learning and how it s affected by cannabis. The study suggests that chronic cannabis use enhances habit-forming memory, which may be implicated in language; speaking, reading and writing are often used in a habitual way.

Though we don’t know how all of these ideas and research opportunities come together for language, they form a springboard from which science can begin to investigate.

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 “pre-synesthetic effects”. There is reason to believe that the effect of cannabis on pattern recognition is majorly implicated in the enhancement of language understanding discussed in this article.

Yet, it remains an open question whether cannabinoids could also directly affect cognitive processes underlying our language processing in a different, more specific way. 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.

  • 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.


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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    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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