GUINEA – A Guerilla-Neurophilosophical Approach to High Science, Part I

What is it like to be high? What is the positive potential of this altered state of consciousness for medical and inspirational uses? How, exactly, does marijuana enhance cognitive functions like our ability to remember episodes, our attention and perception, or our ability to recognize patterns, to introspect bodily states, to empathically understand others, and to generate new ideas and insights? How do the various cannabinoids and terpenoids contribute to the high? Can we systematically research the high? Is it really important to do research in this field?


What is it like to be high? What is the positive potential of this altered state of consciousness for medical and inspirational uses? How, exactly, does marijuana enhance cognitive functions like our ability to remember episodes, our attention and perception, or our ability to recognize patterns, to introspect bodily states, to empathically understand others, and to generate new ideas and insights? How do the various cannabinoids and terpenoids contribute to the high? Can we systematically research the high? Is it really important to do research in this field?

The Positive Impact of the High on Individuals and Cultures Worldwide

Marijuana user Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo
Marijuana user Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo

According to U.N. estimates, Cannabis is the most widely cultivated and used psychoactive substance worldwide. In the last years, it has become more and more evident that medical marijuana has a huge therapeutical potential for numerous indications and can – and has been – used by millions of users as a cognitive enhancer for inspirational and other purposes. Without doubt, we can also see a lot of abuse. Even though remarkably nontoxic, marijuana abuse can certainly negatively affect the lives of consumers in various ways. But many skilled users worldwide have discovered that a marijuana high can be an incredibly useful tool for many activities. We have innumerable reports from all cultures and times about how marijuana has helped people to work better creatively, to perceive all kinds of new patterns, to inspire them in their sexual relations, to come to introspective and other insights, to deepen their relationships with others, or to personally grow, to name just a few of the enhancements reported. These enhancements have not only touched and transformed individual lives, but through their work, societies worldwide. Marijuana users like Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, William Butler Yeats, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Norman Mailer, Carl Sagan, Pablo Picasso, Hal Ashby, Diego Rivera, Richard Feynman, Bill Hicks, Bill Maher and countless others had a huge influence on culture.[1]

A concerted research effort of the marijuana high and its positive uses would not only give us a better picture of how cannabis use has actually influenced science, literature, art, and other cultural developments worldwide. Innumerable inspirational and medical users would profit from knowing more about the exact cognitive alterations resulting from various strains. And, as I will argue in the second part of this essay, researching the marijuana high might lead to important advances in our understanding of the nature of mental processes like introspection, empathic understanding, or the generation of insights.

In the last years we have learned that marijuana strains with high ratios of CBD (cannabidiol) give many patients like epileptics an effective treatment without getting them too high, which is a blessing for many. However, we should not turn away too fast from the “high” as an unwanted side effect. Many users still seek a certain high and its respective mind-alterations; the high will always remain crucial for certain therapeutical and inspirational uses.[2]

The ‘Gold Standard’ for Medical and Inspirational Use

DFS Jamaican Pear Stacked II-klein Kopie
Herbal Marijuana, the gold standard for medical cannabis – Sebastian Marincolo 2013

The experience of medical marijuana patients so far has clearly shown us that natural strains of marijuana work a lot better than synthetic cannabinoid extracts or extracts of single cannabinoids like THC. I agree with Lester Grinspoon, who calls natural marijuana the “gold standard” for medical marijuana.[3] We have to keep in mind, then, that the various “highs” with their individual character valued by millions of users comes from natural strains with different cannabinoid and terpene profiles. Cannabis strains contain more than 80 different cannabinoids and approximately 120 different terpenes. Obviously, then, we should expect significant and interesting variations in the high coming from various strains. But how can we make serious progress when it comes to researching the ways in which various strains alter consciousness?

GUINEA – A Guerilla-Neurophilosophical Approach to Researching the High

In short, I would like to suggest GUINEA, an unconventional integrative and interdisciplinary approach which comes in two phases. First, we need careful anecdotal data mining of reports from “guerilla” users of marijuana. In other words, we need to critically analyze detailed reports of experienced marijuana users about their experiences with marijuana strains and their mind-altering potential. This approach is not new. Both Harvard scholars Charles Tart as well as Lester Grinspoon started such an approach more than 40 years ago.[4] While Tart send a questionnaire about marijuana and its effects to 750 students and evaluated their feedback, Grinspoon critically evaluated reports from various literary and other resources. This approach is based on the insight that set and setting significantly influence the high. Tart himself pointed out that the usual scientific method of observing neophyte probands with no previous experience with marijuana in a laboratory setting just leads to anxiety and other reactions – reactions not caused by marijuana intake, but by the setting. Another important fact which Lester Grinspoon and I have repeatedly stressed in the past is that much depends upon the skill of users to learn how to use marijuana and how to “ride a high” – just like surfers need to learn to use a surfboard.[5] Ideally, then, scientists should analyze stories of skilled psychonauts. They will not only know how to use their strains for various enhancements, but will also be able to introspect subtle nuances in cognitive changes brought about by various strains. A true wine taster needs knowledge about various the nature of various grapes, soils, production, processing, and storage of whines. The more he knows, the more he will be able to discriminate subtle nuances in his taste experience. For marijuana psychonauts, this kind of aficionado knowledge will be even more crucial. For them, the issue will not be mainly about taste experiences, but about a whole array of cognitive enhancements. The better their knowledge of psychology, the more they will be able to introspectively tell us in which ways a strain leads to various cognitive alterations in such complicated processes such as attentional hyperfocusing, pattern recognition, or empathic understanding. I have argued in my previous essay “An Unusual Argument for the Legalization of Marijuana” that in a society where marijuana is legalized, we will get a much better for anecdotal reports, because legalization will facilitate a cannasseur culture. Marijuana users will better able to freely access and exchange information and will also know exactly what strains they are using. Lester Grinspoon’s “marijuana-uses.com” is a unique resource for this approach because it shows a fine selection of reports from skilled marijuana users with great psychonautic abilities.

As a result of the critical evaluation of skilled psychonautic user reports, we will be able to make hypotheses about the effects of marijuana strains on higher cognition. In a second phase of GUINEA, these hypotheses should be empirically tested. In my part II I’ll explain how scientists could do this.

[1]    Compare http://www.veryimportantpotheads.com/ for a list of influential marijuana users and a description of their respective uses.

[2]   See my essay https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/personal-transformation-with-marijuana/

[3]   For an excellent essay on this subject see „Patented Pot versus The Herbal Gold Standard“, http://www.cannabisculture.com/node/19879

[4]   Tart, Charles T. (1971). On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. Palo Alto,

Cal.: Science and Behavior Books, Grinspoon, Lester (1971). Marihuana Reconsidered. Cambridge, M.A. Harvard University Press.

[5]    Compare my essay https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/marijuana-surfing-and-riding-a-marijuana-high/ A more detailed version is in my Marincolo (2013) High. Das positive Potential von Marijuana, Klett-Cotta/Tropen, Stuttgart. 

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