Marijuana and Self-Knowledge

There are four effects of marijuana well known under its users which I want to highlight and explain here to come to a better understanding of how a high might positively influence the process of reflective contemplation: a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced episodic memory, an enhanced imagination, and, last but not least, an enhanced pattern recognition.


“Gnothi Seauthon” (“Know Thyself”)
Inscription in the forecourt of the antique temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece

In my last essay on marijuana and the body image perception I have tried to shed light on the question how the use of marijuana might lead to an enhanced introspective awareness of various bodily sensations. My hypothesis was that marijuana might actually interact with what is now know as the body mapping system (also called somatosensory system). But this is not the only sense in which marijuana has helped users with their introspective awareness. Many users have observed how a marijuana high does not only lead them to introspective insights about bodily sensations, but, also, how it helped them to gain insights into their own personality and character. In this essay I will try to illuminate this phenomenon a little more.

Introspection as ‘Reflective Contemplation’

Pete Brady, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website marijuana-uses.com, describes an enhancement of introspection under the influence of marijuana:

The marijuana high made me introspective, and I used it to catalogue my strengths, weaknesses and traits. The drug was a revealer, not an escape mechanism; it helped me see who I was and what I needed to be.” [1]

“Sensi Seeds Experimental Nepalese Strain” copyright Sebastian Marincolo 2012
“Sensi Seeds Experimental Nepalese Strain” copyright Sebastian Marincolo 2012

Another anonymous contributor („Twinkly“) to Grinspoon’s website reports:

I was so much more tuned-in to myself and others. I could concentrate on my fears, my turmoil, my stress, my problems, and turn them into plans on healing and freeing myself from lifelong chains that had bound me. I felt calm and relaxed and capable of dealing with who I was, good or bad. (…) I am able to look deeper inside myself to make good, sound decisions based on my true beliefs and morals.” [2]

Many marijuana users claim that a high can help them to better understand aspects of their personality, to „look deeper“ into their character traits, moods, and feelings.

The introspection of moods, character traits, or more complex emotions certainly is not  a kind of ‘direct’ inner observation. If I introspectively come to believe that I am a   courageous personality, I cannot simply read this off an internal monitor. I have to make a judgement involving the evaluation of many autobiographical memories, of previous instances of courageous patterns in my behavior compared to the behavior of others we find either courageous or not. I need to make a judgement that involves my understanding of the concept „courageous.“ Maybe I also think about this question imagining how I would act in various situations which demand courageous behavior. Would I help my friend if a group of teenagers attack him? Would I run away from that attacking dog or defend myself with my bare hands? Am I courageous enough to climb that mountain?

We could call the kind of introspection described here as „reflective contemplation.“ A marijuana high has several effects on cognition which could help those introspective judgements  described by marijuana users.

How Marijuana could Enhance your Introspective Abilities

There are four effects of marijuana well known under its users which I want to highlight and explain here to come to a better understanding of how a high might positively influence the process of reflective contemplation: a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced episodic memory, an enhanced imagination, and, last but not least, an enhanced pattern recognition.

One of the short-term effects of marijuana many users observed is a hyperfocus in attention. This hyperfocus often leads to an intensified perception of bodily processes and to the intensification of sensations (like when you enjoy ice-cream during a high). The hyperfocus of attention can also lead to a strong feeling of being in the here-and-now, or to a better concentration on a stream of thought or on episodic memories.  User often vividly remember past events – sometimes long forgotten events – with astonishing detail. Also, many users reported that during a high they can imagine better – and importantly, imagination does not only mean visualization, but it can also be auditory, tactile, taste or olfactory imagination. Furthermore, marijuana users have reported that during a high, they can better recognize all kinds of patterns. For instance, they can see a pattern in the behavior of their friends that they have never seen before, or they can suddenly see in which ways various saxophone players were influenced by Sonny Rollins,  suddenly recognizing certain patterns in style or sound.

I think it is not too hard to understand how these four enhancements – a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced episodic memory, an enhanced imagination, and an enhanced pattern recognition – could affect our introspection. Let’s assume you are asking yourself  whether you are a courageous person. A marijuana high can help to redirect and hyperfocus your attention on episodic memories and on your inner stream of thought. In this state, it is easier to search your episodic memories for occasions in which you have acted courageously, or in which you failed to do so. You want to know about a character trait of yours, not just about current mood or feeling, so you have to go back in time to see whether you have acted courageously only a few times, or whether you are generally courageous. Your enhanced episodic memory during a marijuana high helps you to  bring up memories and to let them shine much more vividly with details you have probably never remembered before, and the enhanced pattern recognition ability can help you to find similarities between various courageous or not so courageous actions or feeling in the past. The pattern is quite complex: it could show in the fact that you jumped from a  5 meter high diving platform as a six year old, or in the fact that you stood up to your unfair teacher when he shouted at you 10 years later.

Note how your enhanced ability for imagination might also play a crucial role for a success of reflective contemplation concerning your character trait: if you want to judge whether you are a courageous person in general, you do not only think about your past, but you may also try to imagine whether you would act courageously in certain situations. Would you jump into the ice-cold river from this big bridge to save that kid, just like this man did in the news?

Manhattan at sunsetDuring a marijuana high, you can imagine situations more vividly and imagine how it would be for you, what you would actually feel, and how you would act. An enhanced capacity for imagination can be generally helping you to come to valuable insights about your dispositions and character traits, which is expressed in this statement by a college student:

Pot is very therapeutic to me. When I’m stoned, I can really see myself. I can list my strengths and my weaknesses, and my goals. My mind is clear and eager to learn and understand, even when I have to understand awkward things, like those parts of my personality that I don’t want to change. I can see parts of myself that I don’t like, without hating myself in the process. I’ve learned things about myself that I have brought into my life when I haven’t been stoned, such as how to be less self-centered, and how to be more low-keyed about myself, and less anxious in the presence of others.” [3]

As far as I can see, there are many reports of marijuana users which confirm the effects described here, but of course this is only a beginning. I hope that in the near future, cognitive neuroscientist will start looking more into the effects of marijuana high concerning attention, memory, pattern recognition and imagination, to clarify in which ways marijuana can effect our introspective capacities.

Sources:

[1] Brady, Pete (2009). “Marijuana as an Enhancer of Music Therapy.” http://www.marijuana- uses.com/essays/040.html. In: Grinspoon (ed.) 2009.

[2] “Twinkly” by Twinkly, marijuana-uses.com, 2010.

[3] Novak, William (1980). High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans. Massachusetts: The Cannabis Institute of America, Inc., p.138-9.

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