There is normal consciousness and there is the marijuana high. And being high is like being a little crazy and retarded. Briefly, this is still the attitude of a mainstream in our society when it comes to the marijuana high. This view is deeply embedded into our modern Western attitude towards altered states of consciousness in general, as the American psychologist Charles Tart pointed out more than 40 years ago.
Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?”
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Altered States of Consciousness and Western Culture
There is normal consciousness and there is the marijuana high. And being high is like being a little crazy and retarded.
Briefly, this is still the attitude of a mainstream in our society when it comes to the marijuana high. This view is deeply embedded into our modern Western attitude towards altered states of consciousness in general, as the American psychologist Charles Tart pointed out more than 40 years ago:
Within Western culture we have strong negative attitudes toward altered states of mind: there is the normal (good) state of consciousness and there are pathological changes in consciousness. Most people make no further distinctions”.
(Charles Tart (ed.) Altered States of Consciousness, HarperCollins, San Francisco 1969/1990, p.2.)
The Many States of Consciousness
But are altered states of consciousness generally pathological? It should become obvious that there must be something wrong with this view when we remember what kind of transformations our mind is going through almost daily. Every night we all fall into a weird state of consciousness, experiencing illogical dreams with intricately interwoven story lines accompanied by vivid imagery. We are going through a state that is much like tripping on a magic mushroom and this transformation occurs naturally and repeatedly.
During sleep, we are going through various states of REM and other phases in which our consciousness changes into something wild and mysterious.
Yet we also experience many types of altered states of mind while we are awake: when we get attacked by somebody, our mind automatically falls into a fight-or-flight mode, in which we become extremely alert, with your attention hyperfocussed on your opponent and possible survival strategies. When we watch TV, we often fall into a weird state between trance and hypnosis. We go deeper into a trance state listening or dancing to electronic music during a long club night. In our lifetime, we typically go through thousands of more or less prolonged altered states of consciousness when we experience orgasms. We also go through other states of ecstasy, like falling in love or sitting in a roller coaster (which is often about the same), and we experience prolonged states of deep mental relaxation in a sauna, mineral bath, or during a massage.
We all value many of these states. They can be highly functional and necessary for survival, like the tunnel vision we experience in an attack. These altered states of consciousness occur naturally and we usually understand how they can be useful in many ways. We embrace states like ecstasy as essential and meaningful parts of our lives.
The Potential of Altered States of Consciousness
In some aspects, altered states of consciousness are superior to the rational mind state we usually consider to be normal. Brain imaging techniques for instance have already begun to answer Da Vinci’s question why we can sometimes see things more clearly in our dreams, showing us hyper-stimulation in areas of the brain responsible for vision during REM-sleep phases. (Compare Allan J. Hobbson, The Dream Drugstore. Chemically Altered States of Consciousness, MIT Press. Cambridge/MA, 2001) These findings would explain why many creatives or scientists often report how they make use of their dreams.
In short, then, we go through various transformations of consciousness, and obviously we can profit from these changes enormously. Our consciousness has the natural ability to transform, and while some altered states like hallucinating during a strong fever may be pathological, others are clearly helpful.
But isn’t it unnatural to induce an altered state of consciousness artificially?
Animals and Altered States of Consciousness
For thousands of years, humans in all cultures have invented methods to alter their states of consciousness with rhythms, music, dancing, meditation techniques, and using psychoactive substances like cannabis, alcohol, psilopsybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, or ibogaine. In our modern Western society, we often tend to look at these practices as some outdated rituals, but when we take a close look at our society today, we find hundreds of millions of people using a multitude of techniques to transform their consciousness all around the the globe. They use music and substances like alcohol or MDMA to arrive at an ecstatic trance state, use the refined techniques of yoga to get into a state of deep meditation, and medical professionals use hypnosis for a variety of treatments.
The evolutionary perspective shows that animals of all kinds systematically consume psychoactive substances to alter their consciousness. Some butterflies get drunk sipping on the alcohol of fermented fruits, cats get sexually aroused on catnip, goats eat coffee berries and frantically play around rolling down a hill. The psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel studied animals and their use of psychoactive plants for years and concluded:
In every country, in almost every class of animal, I found examples of not only the accidental but the intentional use of drugs. The thousands of cases I investigated convinced me that the action of an animal in seeking out intoxicants was a natural behavior in the animal kingdom.”
(Ronald K. Siegel, Intoxication. The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances, Park Street Press, Vermont 1989, p.13.)
Siegel thinks that the search for intoxication is almost like a fourth drive (the three others being the drives for drink, food, and sex) and has an overall adaptive value for a species.
Altered states of mind belong to our existence and partially define who we are – and so does our curiosity and our ability to induce those states. They can be useful and substantially meaningful. Some of them are pathological, some are not. Obviously, altered states of consciousness we find useful also bring risks, because even if some cognitive abilities may be enhanced (like the ability for imagination during dreaming), others decline. Dreaming may be a very useful state of consciousness, but you shouldn’t do it while driving a car or during a mathematics exam.
A New Perspective on The Marijuana High
A marijuana high can change and enhance many cognitive functions. Users have reported among other things a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced ability to retrieve distant memories, to see patterns, to go through quick associative chains of thinking, to come to introspective and other insights, and to better empathically understand others. Other cognitive functions can decline during a high; your perception of time may be distorted and your ability to multitask may become worse, which can lead to considerable dangers in certain situations. A user of marijuana who wants to positively use a marijuana high has to learn how to use it and, importantly, how to integrate his high into the rest of his existence – just like we all have to learn how to embrace the many other altered states of consciousness defining us. A routine like taking notes of your dream right after you wake up for instance can help you to more meaningfully integrate your dreams into your existence; taking notes of your insights during a high can do a similar thing.
If we want to experience the high as an enrichment for our lives, we have to change our mind about our mind. We should accept first that we are far more than merely a rational, logically thinking being and give up the distorted self-image professed in our Western culture about the nature of our own consciousness.