The famous poet, painter, and writer Henri Michaux self-experimented with substances like mescaline and cannabis to create art and wrote about his experiences. His brilliant observations about many effects of cannabis are a treasure trove for modern psychologists and cognitive scientists who are curious to better understand the psychoactive effects of cannabis on the human mind.
“Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.“Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
He was admired by many of his contemporaries both for his poetry and writing as well as for his unique paintings. The French writer André Gide was so fascinated by his work that he wrote a book to promote him entitled Let’s Discover Henri Michaux. Paul Celan, the German poet who translated Michaux into German, thought that Michaux’s work was just as enigmatic and hard to decipher as Kafka’s writings. And the art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote about Michaux in the New York Times:
And the art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote about Michaux in the New York Times:
„He strikes me as being one of the most palpably authentic of post-war European artists. Influenced by Ernst and Klee, he created an art of energized ideograms and meandering calligraphy, of figures evolving haphazardly out of weltering chaos, or of the chaos asserting itself to wipe out anything recognizable.“
Michaux was born in 1899 in the small Belgian town of Namur, the very town where the French writer and poet Charles Baudelaire died. Like Baudelaire and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, Michaux experimented with several psychoactive substances including mescaline and hashish to explore what he would call the “space inside.”
Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Michaux certainly belong to the most vigorous, proficient, and brilliant modern psychonauts. All three of them were prodigious literates and explicitly set out to self-experiment with hashish, determined to express their journeys into the inner realms of consciousness.
Like Baudelaire and Benjamin, Michaux left us with incredibly perceptive, poetic and sometimes cryptic descriptions of the effects of cannabis on the human mind. Michaux is much better known for his writing on his mescaline experiments – he also created many of his more famous paintings under the influence of this substance. Yet, his writing on hashish is just as profound and insightful.
Like the writing of Baudelaire and Benjamin’s protocols written under the influence of the hashish high, Michaux’s work needs decoding and interpretation. But from all we know about the cannabis high today we can say that he beautifully and accurately described many of its most amazing effects in meticulous detail.
The three dedicated psychonauts Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Michaux often experimented with very large ingested doses of hashish, which led to much more pronounced effects on their mind and body than those experienced by most modern users. This allowed them to make observations on some extreme effects, which helps us to understand the nature of the cannabis high. It is especially interesting to see in how much vivid detail Michaux described many interesting cognitive and perceptual enhancements of the hashish high.
A sense of wonder, the hyperfocus of attention, and stereovision
In his book Miserable Miracle Michaux notes:
“Anyone who takes hashish as an experiment witness after taking mescaline leaves a racing automobile or a long distance electric locomotive for a pony.”
Yet, he adds in a footnote: “A pony, however, is capable of surprises not to be looked from a locomotive.”
During a high, Michaux experiences many surprises – and he follows their trail.
Myriads of cannabis users have reported that a cannabis high makes them feel as if they would perceive something for the first time; whatever comes to their attention often comes with a strong feeling of awe and curiosity. This is certainly one of the great enhancements a high can bring.
For the philosophers Aristotle and Plato, the feeling of awe and amazement towards something perceived or contemplated is the very beginning of all philosophy. If we feel this, we do not take something as given anymore and we wonder about it, we start our investigation. Many cannabis users had this feeling of awe seeing a landscape, hearing music, or experiencing a kiss as if it was for the first time.
In his book Miserable Miracle, Michaux also writes:
“(…) whatever Hashish displays interests me. I follow it all the way. I want to know the end. I want to know where it is taking me.”
Looking at a photograph, he writes: “And I so devoured this colored landscape with a new eagerness. How wonderful looking it is! A new youth came back to me, one of the subtlest, the youth of the eye.”
Michaux also observes that the high focuses his attention (I have often called this the “hyperfocus”-effect of attention during a high):
“With Hashish in me I am a falcon. If I give a circular glance it will be only once, as one makes a general survey, not to be repeated. I am against dispersion. I look for an object in order to follow its trail. (…) Nothing can distract me.”
Michaux notes that he can perceive a photo with “marvellous optical dexterity”. He describes his “stereovision” of a photograph – which makes him better see the photo ‘in depth’ – and also describes ‘stereoaudition’ of sounds.
An enhanced ability for stereovision has also been reported by other cannabis users, such as an anonymous planetary geologist to Lester Grinspoon’s collection of anecdotal reports of marijuana-users. This scientist reports that planetary geologists rely on two stereo image photos of planetary landscapes taken from two slightly different angles by satellites and that usually, one needs a device like a stereo-opticon to judge depth perception from those paired photos:
„But one evening we smoked some especially potent marihuana, purely for pleasure. I amused myself by looking at a pair of stereo photographs that had been left in the room. Suddenly the two pictures merged into a single three-dimensional view. It was like a gift from God.“
Altered body image perception and the flying carpet
Interestingly, Michaux also notes a drastic change in his perception of his own body. Many users have times again reported that they have intensified body sensations during a high. For very strong dosages, users report body image distortions (such as the feeling that one’s leg is 3 meters long) as well as ‘losing their body’ completely. Likewise, Michaux writes:
“At the time I did not know that the sensation of floating in the air, of being weightless, was one of the characteristics of hashish. The flying carpet is not just a legend, but an old reality in Persia and Arabia where for centuries Indian hemp made people float on the air and travel through the skies.”
Enhanced episodic memory, imagination, and transforming imagery
Apart from perceptual changes during a high, Michaux describes the enhancement of cognitive abilities like the enhancement of the ability for episodic memory retrieval:
“Later on at home I begin vaguely going over in my mind a scene of a motion picture seen a few days before, when suddenly the noises and the voices from the episode – ‘burst out’ and violently throw themselves at me. A memory revived, but stronger than the original expression.”
Michaux’s experience with an intensified imagery supposedly comes from ingesting a large dosage of hashish, which can cause visual ‘trips’:
“These images were distinct, stayed quietly in place. I had enough time (just enough) to see them clearly. It was like a series of very short scenes in color, very well composed (…).”
Interestingly, Michaux also notes how these images can go through associative transformations, a process which can easily be seen to be a rich source of creative exploration for an artist:
“A rope I was watching, coiling there, suddenly ended in the red muzzle of a little feline, (a sort of ocelot, it looked to me, (…) its neck being made of rope, although its muzzle was very life-like and menacing). (…) Another time a complicated assemblage of metal pieces I am examining suddenly turns into a machine gun pointing at me.”
Enhanced empathic understanding
We have countless reports from inspirational users of marijuana about how a high helped them to empathically understand others, to better imagine to be in the situation of somebody else and to feel this person’s feelings. For a few years now adults as well as children with various forms of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have been reported to profit greatly from consuming cannabis. Under the influence of a high, they seem to be better able to understand the emotions and needs of others around them.
Reading a text during a high, Michaux finds that hashish can help to understand and “feel” the author’s personality:
“You can hear the authors in person (….) Words no longer play any part. The man who is behind them comes out in front. (…) The text, at whatever point you pick it up, becomes a voice, (…) and the man speaks behind this voice. The man who wrote it is there. Hashish opens the inner space of sentences (…). The author thus unmasked never altogether recovered his mantle or his former retreat.”
In another passage, Michaux indicates that during a high his perception of others is what other cannabis users have described as “telepathic”:
“(w)ith a look that thinks, thinks and goes through the other person’s head”.
On another day, Michaux is walking on the street and his attention is arrested by the voice of a girl passing by. Again, he feels as if he could “read” the girl’s mind:
“I continued to dwell in it amorously – a voice, hardly mature, and genuinely shy, that made you forget everything else, a voice that implored protection, so wary of the phenomenon of speech, advancing so cautiously like a foot at the edge of a precipice, or fingers held out towards the fire. (…) I really should have (…) got to know this girl, so elegant in her apprehensions, so touching and distinguished in her tiny boldness, which must have seemed enormous to her, so delicately adventurous in her loss of reserve as she took her first tentative step.”
Is it plausible that Michaux can read all this from the mere sound of her voice, of a girl he writes he did not even see? In my book High. Insights on Marijuana I have argued that a cannabis high can indeed lead to various cognitive enhancements such as a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced ability for episodic memory retrieval, and an enhanced pattern recognition, which could explain Michaux’s ability to ‘read’ as much of the girl’s voice. He focuses strongly on the voice and recognizes sound patterns he remembers from other voices; typical sound patterns similar to those of other people he experienced as expressing insecurity, boldness, and shyness.
Contemporary ‘simulation’-theories of empathic understanding stress the importance for us to imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others, to simulate them in their situation in order to understand them better. This ability seems to be often strongly enhanced during a high. Michaux describes this process clearly. Looking at a photography during a high he observes:
“I was looking (…) at some photographs of those amazing divers of the New Hebrides who, held back by long lianas, leap head-first from a rustic tower fifty feet or so high, landing on the ground slowed down … I was conscious of the distances, I estimated as though I were up there on the top of the tower, myself the man, (…), even having the sensation of dizziness, and even after turning the page, still feel myself on top of the tower, still at that terrifying height.“
Poets, psychonauts, and the value of anecdotal evidence
The majority of past scientific studies designed to research the acute effects of cannabis on consciousness were seriously flawed in their design. Usually, the participants of those experiments had no previous experience with the substance, came with negative convictions or were fearsome because they did not know what to expect.
Many of the resulting anxious and negative reactions were caused by a sterile clinical set and a setting in which observing scientists would control their dosages. Also, the participants of those studies had no special introspective abilities to observe and report their own mental states.
More than forty-five years ago, the Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and the Harvard psychologist Charles Tart concluded that they could better study the effects of marijuana on the mind and body by collecting and analysing anecdotal reports of habitual marijuana users. In his seminal book Marijuana Reconsidered (1971), Lester Grinspoon was bold enough to include and to evaluate many reports from writers and artists, like Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Baudelaire, and Michaux.
Lester Grinspoon reminded us that we have to carefully evaluate these reports, because poets like Baudelaire for instance had often consumed several substances at once.
Michaux, however, seems to have clearly distinguished between his mescaline and hashish experiences. Like other writers and fellow psychonauts, he left us beautiful and rich descriptions of many of the perceptual and cognitive enhancements a cannabis high can bring. Many of his observations have been supported by countless detailed anecdotal reports of other users, including many medical patients like those with autistic spectrum syndrome who profited from the use of cannabis.
It is time that scientists of various fields look at these reports again to better understand how consumed cannabis can effect and enhance our mind and body – and, connectedly, to understand which role the endocannabinoid system might play in those processes.
 Quoted from Douglas McGill, „Henri Michaux, Poet and Artist”
 Anonymous, „Cannabis and Planetary Surfaces“, in: Lester Grinspoon (ed.) (2016), marijuana-uses.com
 Henri Michaux (1961), Light Through Darkness, Orion Press, New York pp.124-127.