Marijuana and the Enhancement of Episodic Memory

Our memory is simply amazing. We can store information about thousands of situations, but also abstract knowledge, theories, learned routines, and practical skills like ice-skating or driving a car.


“A memory is a beautiful thing, it’s almost a desire that you miss”
Gustave Flaubert, French writer (1821-1880)

French Poet and Writer Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867
French Poet and Writer Charles Baudelaire
1821-1867

Our memory is simply amazing. We can store information about thousands of situations, but also abstract knowledge, theories, learned routines, and practical skills like ice-skating or driving a car. Our memory keeps relevant information poised to meet our daily needs and plans, enables us to recognize people and places, and facilitates remembering past events. With its various functions, memory constitutes the cognitive basis for our personal identity, for our decision-making, our present actions, and our attitude towards the future. Our memory defines who we are. Memory is everything.

Short-Term Memory Disruptions

When it comes to marijuana and its acute effect on memory during a high, many people think only of the infamous disruptions of our short-term (or „working space“) memory. The effect is nicely described in Jack Margolis’ and Richard Chlorfene’s book „A Child’s Garden of Grass“ in the following short conversation of two „very stoned“ consumers:

Virginia: Are you hungry?
Andy: No. (Long reflective pause). Wait a minute. Did you mean am I hungry for food, or am I hungry in the abstract, like hungry for knowledge or adventure?
Virginia: What were we talking about?
Andy: You asked if I were hungry.
Virginia: Did I?
Andy: Yes.
Virginia: Well, are you?
Andy: Am I what?

When using various kinds of marijuana it is fascinating to see how much this effect depends not only on the dosage used, but also on the type of marijuana. A freshly harvested Sativa strain may bring almost no such disruptions and users often enjoy its high for hours of discussion or other activities without experiencing memory problems.

Enhancement of Episodic Memory Retrieval

On the other hand, many marijuana users have reported an enhancement of what cognitive scientists have called “episodic memory” or “autobiographical memory”. From these reports we know that during a high, users can often retrieve long-forgotten episodes of their lives, or have a much more vivid recollection of past events than usual. According to Yawger, the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) mentioned the memory enhancing effect of cannabis:

“John Stuart Mill … wrote of (cannabis’s) power to revive forgotten memories, and in my inquiries, smokers have frequently informed me that while under the influence, they are able to recall things long forgotten.” (1)

In the last decades, scientists have almost completely ignored these reports, presumably because government funds were given mainly to research on the negative effects of marijuana. Yet there are so many detailed reports about enhanced episodic memories that it seems outrageous to scientifically ignore this phenomenon for so long. On Lester Grinspoon’s website marijuana-uses.com, 19-year old computer programmer “Mackenzie Cross” writes in his piece “What I like about Marijuana”:

“Memories seemed to force themselves upon me, very rapid but very gentle. I started to remember things in my childhood that made me truly happy and joyful. Things I had either forgotten or just simply didn’t give the time of day to. I remembered raising my hands up as a signal for my mother that I wanted to be carried and the utter joy I felt when she would reach down and pull me up to her chest. I realized how much she really did, in fact, love me when I remembered how I longed for her goodnight kisses, of which never ran dry.”

Likewise, Jeremy Wells, a 23-year old undergraduate student of history, tells us about the recollection of childhood memories during a high in his report “Four Leaf Clovers”, featured on the same website:

„Recently I was visiting with a relative who has a two-year-old baby girl, and we were looking for four-leaf clovers. So here I was, a twenty-four-year-old man on my hands and knees, combing through the grass and screaming “over here I found one”. Actually we found several and I think we were probably more excited than the kid. See children have a way of doing that to you. Through them you can vicariously relive your childhood. In the name of “playing with the kids” you can shed your inhibitions and do the things you used to take for granted. You look at the world through a different set of eyes. It alters your worldview. In the course of reflecting on my four-leaf clover (of course I kept one) I began to think of all the things you used to do as a kid, and how everything holds wonder and magic for children.“

Episodic Memory, Introspection, and Empathy

These two reports also show that the more vivid retrieval of a past episode in one’s life during a marijuana high often brings back not just the episode as such, but also our personal stance and feelings at the time. Enhanced episodic memory during a high could be at least a partial explanation as to why many marijuana users report introspective, as well as empathic, insights into others. If you have better access to the person you used to be in various phases of your life, you will presumably have a better understanding of how you became who you are now – which aspects of you have changed, where you have made progress, and where not. And if you more fully remember how you felt as a kid, you will better understand children and their needs, fears, and hopes, from their perspective.

Our episodic memory is crucial in its functioning for introspection and empathy, but also for many other kinds of cognitive activities. The phenomenon of enhanced episodic memory during a marijuana high has been reported so often by users in the last centuries that it definitely deserves a closer look from psychologists and cognitive scientists.

We now know that episodic memory relies on activities in the frontal cortex and the hippocampus. Both regions of the brain contain lots of cannabinoid receptors which belong to an endocannabinoid signaling system, and also react to the consumption of THC. So far, however, we do not know if there is any kind of direct way in which marijuana consumption might enhance episodic memory retrieval and recollection, or if this is an indirect effect. An indirect route could be that a high often leads to a hyperfocus of attention, which may be just as likely to lead to more intense sensations of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream as to a more vivid and intense recollection of an episodic memory.

I think it should be obvious that research concerning marijuana and the often observed enhancement of episodic memory will not only pay off for those interested in marijuana, but could actually deliver highly relevant facts about the nature of episodic memory itself, including the possible involvement of the endocannabinoid system.

Flaubert’s Reminder

The French writer Charles Baudelaire wrote his book “The Artificial Paradises” based on his experiences with marijuana and other substances. When in 1860 he sent his manuscript to his friend Gustave Flaubert (author of “Madame Bovary”), Baudelaire received a very warm and admiring response about the many brilliant observations in it. Flaubert had also participated in some meetings in Paris of the “Club of the Hasheesh Eaters” (“Club des Hashishins”), of which Baudelaire was a member. Beside his overall praise for Baudelaire’s observations, Flaubert critically remarked:

“It seems to me, that concerning this subject field, (…) in a work which is the beginning of a science, in a work of scientific observation and inductive reasoning, you emphasize too much (at various places) the spirit of evil. One can feel here and there the sour influence of Catholicism.”

Maybe scientists and politicians today need to overcome the “sour” influence of the flawed thinking behind marijuana prohibition, in order to invest in research that could help so many of us to better understand the mind-altering potential of marijuana.

(1)       Yawger, N.S. (1938). “Marijuana: Our New Addiction.” American Med. Sci., 195, 353.

 

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Kevin Gaudette

Relevant to exclusive/intensive language training programs...After teaching for 12 years in China, I have recently learned of indigenous-peopled Bama, Guangxi Province, famed longevity zone, HEMP seeds/roots are part of the traditional diet.There can be a strategic outpost for income-generating/community-building/establishment of an profit-sharing Co-op/BuckyFuller-style trim-tabbing/JediKnight-Tai Ji training, At an international TESOL conference in May in Taiwan, I'll introduce the above research, and link it with the field of NeuroCinematics, especially Event Segmentation Theory.

19/03/2013

Amanda Massey

I have spent most of my adult life enjoying cannabis, a lifestyle choice and welcome companion for my hyperactive physical being. However more recently for the past year or so my dependency on cannabis to alleviate chronic pain and anxiety worries me at times. Although after a hellishly complicated period of pain killers, anti-inflammatory meds and sedatives my decisions to use only cannabis I feel contributes to why I am here to write this. The depression and almost fatal effects of the medication is something I hopefully will always remember.
I am going paralyzed you see slowly, the operation I need to halt the process brings along a whole host of pain demons and neurological problems. The complications,adverse,allergic or side effects from the medication affected my heart preventing me getting the surgery I needed. However during this time my cannabis has remained a close and loving friend, forced into a corner I have had an opportunity to fight my illness and pain holistically using my herbal meds ,diet, accupunture and tui-na massage, meditation and enlightenment. The anxiety or P.T.S is associated with my condition and eptopic heart feel like a fading memory. My surgeon has even taken me off the urgent list for now as although his diagnosis will be in my future for now I,m have the time to come to terms with it rather than feeling like a rabbit blinded in the headlamps.
The awesome thing about this article is I have been trying rehabilitate my short term memory skills which apparently will always be impaired. Its going well,some days are better than others, when I forget ! I decided to write down as many of my memories that I could remember just in case the worst happened after the operation. In doing so I have unlocked the most magical childhood memories filled with a physical sense of the moment way back in my small self. The smells, the faces of my parents, I have written about the empathy I felt looking up into an elephants eyes the smell of fear or frustration and the comfort of being safe in my dads arm confronted with this sad animal.
These clear memories are as it states, have help me work through a host of my own issues presently it is like I have the hand of my child in this journey. I have always had a wonderful relationship with children but now I feel my memories are evolving into fables and stories that will enrich not only my own grown children but their children too. This has been like light switching on for me on for me and now my purpose and personality I can safely say have benefited by using cannabis. Imagine how wonderful this therapy could be so that we could relive our happiest memories to enrich our present, amazing.

04/04/2013

Ken

It's totally true. THC has amazing abilities to relax all parts of you, and thus, your brain becomes a little more likely to wonder down memory lane. There are other things though now that are even better for this...they are known as cognitive enhances, specifically referred to as "Smart drugs" or "nootropics" ...this guy he lists a bunch of the nootropics that can enhance memory and thinking, studying and all sorts of things....you can find it at drugs and bad ideas
it even goes over specific examples of what they do....and a whole section about how some of the nootropics can help improve things like gaming reflexes! We live in a truly amazing world where we can now basically "hack our brains" ! : )

17/02/2017

MC

I mostly only take edibles. More often than not I have episodic memory, especially if I am by myself for a moment while high. A lot of the times I have repeat memories that come back from previous times that I had gotten high. Last night I had the most intense episode of episodic memory while high. It's like I could pick an age in my life and retrieve all of the memories that stood out to me. They were flashing behind the lids of my eyes one after another. It almost felt as if I was out of my body and in the body of me as a child, and the personality and feelings I had as a child. It was amazing to go back and be that little person that I was.

This article was helpful, nice to know I'm not alone in this and how common it is. It really has been therapeutic. I hope more research is done on it.

11/06/2017

Tom

I liked these writings very, very much ...they’ve certainly validated my own personal experiences with WEED smoking in AK.
Where, in 1982-1986 , marijuana, possession, growth and use was completely legal for this Repressed Bipolar Disorder patient who first experienced pot use and encountered vivid promotion of long repressed memories and issues from my past.

Tom Ph.D.

02/02/2018

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