Marijuana, Empathy, and Severe Cases of Autism, Part I

I have always been fascinated to see in how many ways a marijuana high can enhance empathic skills in users. My interest in this effect of marijuana was first sparked when I experienced it myself about 15 years ago. I noticed it with excitement because I had already had a long standing philosophical interest and research focus on empathy. In contemporary philosophy of mind, philosophers like my teacher Simon Blackburn took a fresh look at theories of human understanding and empathy in the late 1980s, arguing for a version of what would become known as the “simulation theory of human understanding”. So far, cognitive scientists and philosophers basically thought that we understand humans on the basis of a learned “folk- psychology”, a quasi-theoretical body of psychological knowledge that allows us to make generalizations and give explanations about how people feel and behave. This position was labelled as the “theory-theory”, because it relied on the claim that we all -mostly unconsciously- use something like a psychological theory when understanding others.


You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

John Steinbeck, writer, 1902-1968

Empathy and the Simulation Theory

I have always been fascinated to see in how many ways a marijuana high can enhance empathic skills in users. My interest in this effect of marijuana was first sparked when I experienced it myself about 15 years ago. I noticed it with excitement because I had already had a long standing philosophical interest and research focus on empathy.

Simon Blackburn
Simon Blackburn

In contemporary philosophy of mind, philosophers like my teacher Simon Blackburn took a fresh look at theories of human understanding and empathy  in the late 1980s, arguing for a version of what would become known as the “simulation theory of human understanding”. So far, cognitive scientists and philosophers basically thought that we understand humans on the basis of a learned “folk- psychology”, a quasi-theoretical body of psychological knowledge that allows us to make generalizations and give explanations about how people feel and behave. This position was labelled as the “theory-theory”, because it relied on the claim that we all -mostly  unconsciously- use something like a psychological theory when understanding others.

Briefly, the simulation theory stated that in order to understand others, we use of a special cognitive ability to “put ourselves in the shoes of other people”. In other words, rather than just using a psychological theory about others, we understand them by simulating them, looking at the world from their point of view. Looking for an empirical confirmation, proponents of the simulation theory argued that many autists (especially high functioning autists) would be able to grasp theoretical psychological concepts and generalizations, but would have deficiencies to imaginatively simulate others, which would explain their problems with empathic understanding. Cases of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have stayed in the focus of philosophers, psychologists & cognitive and neuroscientists when it comes to theories of human understanding and empathy.

Marijuana and the Enhancement of Empathic Understanding

800px-Pan_pursuing_Syrinx_(1615)
Pan pursuing Syrinx

During my research for my first marijuana study for „High. Insights on Marijuana“[1] I found many astonishing reports from users about various enhancements of their empathic skills during a high. A busy father described how he got high before he played with his son and for the first time understood how alone his boy feels and how much he craving for more of his father’s attention and time. A husband wrote a letter to his wife explaining to her how the marijuana high enabled him to better understand her needs during sex. A psychotherapist reported that he always talked to his patients in a sober state of mind, but one day got high in private and then received an emergency call from a patient. His patient was so impressed with his empathic skills during the conversation that she later insisted to pay for the hour. These and other reports prompted me to think about possible explanations for the enhancement of our fundamental skills to simulate and understand other people during a high.[2]

Many of the cognitive enhancements during a high could play a role in the enhancement of empathic skills. Marijuana users have independently of each other observed and described enhancements like an enhanced episodic memory or an enhanced ability to recognize patterns during a high. These enhanced cognitive abilities can obviously help with empathic understanding: if I can vividly remember episodes of my teenage time I will be able to better understand a teenager in similar situations. If I can better recognize the subtle pattern of a sarcastic smile in the face of my conversation partner, I can better understand how that person feels and acts towards me. Yet, besides these and possibly other relevant cognitive enhancements, many of the reports of marijuana users explicitly stated that a high can help them to ‘slip into another person’, to feel his feelings, to see his point of view. In an intriguing report, Theophile Gautier, a member of the famous 19th century literary circle ‘Club des Hashashins’ describes this perspective change during a high even just looking at a painting:

“By some bizarre prodigy, after several minutes of contemplation I would melt into the object looked at, and I myself would become that object. Thus I turned into a nymph Syrinx, since the fresco represented Leda’s daughter pursued by Pan. I felt all the terrors of the poor fugitive, and sought to hide behind the fantastic reeds to avoid the ram-footed monster.”[3]

Reports of this kind made it obvious to me that marijuana can fundamentally enhance our ability to simulate others and to take their point of view.

The Simulation Theory and the Mirror Neuron System

200px-Giacomo_Rizzolatti
Giacomo Rizzolatti

The debate concerning the simulation theory took on a new twist when an Italian group of researchers around Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered the mirror neuron system in the early 1990s. In short, the group noticed that when a monkey would grab a peanut, the same group of motor-neurons responsible for its hand movement would fire not only during the grabbing, but also if the monkey only perceived someone else grabbing the peanut. Since this finding, neuroscientists like Rizzolatti, Vilayanur Ramachandran, and Marco Iacoboni have argued that mirror neurons comprise a specialized system of neurons which fundamentally subserve our ability to “mirror” and to understand the emotions and intentions of other people. Simulation theorists used this line of research to argue for their position: a specialized mirror neuron system would actually constitute our special capacity to simulate others when we understand them “from inside”, rather than just making folk-psychological inferences about them.

Marijuana, Autism, and the Endocannabinoid System

In 2006, Vilayanur Ramachandran published a paper entitled “Broken Mirrors – A Theory of Autism”[1], arguing that autism could have to do with a defective (or, so to say “broken”) mirror neuron system, a highly controversial theory still under debate now. Based on my own research I introduced a hypothesis on a possible connection between the endocannabinoid system and the mirror neuron system in a chapter of my first book on marijuana and empathy:

Could it be that (…) there already exists a functional relation between the endocannabinoid system in our brain and the body mapping system, including the mirror neuron system? Again, a look at the enhancements of cognitive skill under marijuana may be fruitful for a general scientific outlook on the workings of the human brain.”[2]

Now, if there would be such a functional connection, could it be that the endocannabinoid system is defective in autistic children, causing their problems with empathic understanding? I think that recent findings show that I was roughly on the right track, even though the “broken-mirror”-hypothesis remains highly controversial. In my next two essays, I will first describe how some severely autistic children seem to incredibly profit from medicinal marijuana and then summarize some new findings on possible links between the endocannabinoid system and autism.

[1]   „Sebastián Marincolo, High. Insights on Marijuana. Dogear Publishing 2010

[2]   For more reports compare Lester Grinspoon (2014), marijuana-uses.com, and Novak, William (1980). High Culture: Marijuana in the Lives of Americans. Massachusetts: The Cannabis Institute of America, Inc.

[3]   Gautier, Théophile, (1966). “The Hashish Club.” In: Solomon (ed.) (1966), “The Marihuana Papers”, Signet Books, Indiana,p. 174.

[4]   Vilayanur S. Ramachandran & Lindsay M. Oberman, (2006) “Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism”, Scientific American 295, 62 – 69 doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1106-62.

[5]   Sebastián Marincolo “High. Insights on Marijuana”, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana 2010.

Comment Section

Post a comment

John

I would like to focus on the point here: "Yet, besides these and possibly other relevant cognitive enhancements, many of the reports of marijuana users explicitly stated that a high can help them to ‘slip into another person’, to feel his feelings, to see his point of view."

Over the last few years, I have casually smoked cannabis and I have felt this sensation of being able to slip into another person MANY times. It is a crazy experience but it is very fun. For example, when I listen to a song that I like, I can "vibe" to it. I literally feel all the influxes in the singers voice. I can feel their emotion that they are putting into the song. If its a sad song, if its an angry rap, ect. Same works for Television. I was watching an episode of "Ridiculousness" but I had my head down (just listening pretty much) and I was literally laughing with the host because I felt what was going on was funny (even though I was not watching what was going on). What is even more interesting is when I play a video game. When high, depending on the game, it feels like I slip into the character I am playing. It's not like I feel like I am the character 100% of the time I am playing, but it comes in waves. For example if I play Mortal Combat, I will experience a wave where I am in the characters shoes and I can DESTROY. Sometimes I will get this rush where all the moves I want to do will just subconsciously happen one after another, without mistake. I am in a combo, they get a breaker, my character instantly blocks the break and reverses to continue back on the offense. Games become a crazy fun collage of virtual reality and simulated-actual reality, Movies, TV shows, and music produce an entirely different type of satisfaction (the feeling of literally transferring emotions instead of merely showing you a story). This is a very interesting topic and I think this should definitely be further researched.

08/04/2015

Bo

I was diagnosed with Apserger's when I was five. My frequent temper tantrums, emotional 'explosions' and fierce aversion to all forms of social contact--including the normal parent-child physical contact and communication--clued in my flabbergasted parents that something wasn't right. Ritalin and other prescription drugs did help, but only in the most rudimentary fashion. I knew their effects were superficial. I wanted to succeed, so I struggled to understand emotions and to empathize with others. I never could make eye contact, but over time, I developed the ability to read and understand others on a general level.

The problem came in my twenties when I realized that everything I had experienced throughout childhood and school had been a lie. I never really empathized or cared about others, I just did as I was instructed to according to social laws that I had rigorously analyzed like a machine. This I only did for the purposes of cultivating a financially and academically successful persona that could earn enough money to retire early and live like a recluse, free from all human contact as had been my driving purpose in life. I experienced reality through a foggy glass. Ups and downs, everything was characterized by a distinct lack of personal meaning. None of it felt real. Emotions were calculated, not felt.

Many years later, eventually this feeling of disconnection became overwhelming and I began to contemplate suicide. After all why continue in this colorless state? I had achieved what I needed to live like a recluse, but I remained internally empty. I wasn't satisfied. I needed something I couldn't explain, something I had tried to obtain numerous times but had been unable to due to unstable brain chemistry.

And then, there was cannabis. As soon as I smoked that first pipe, something changed. I felt my mind rewiring itself. And then, for the first time in my life, I felt something tangible. It was such a revelation that I laughed hysterically for hours. But when I laughed, I understood why I was laughing. Later, overwhelmed by this positive realisation, I cried. I understood what my suffering meant, where it came from and how to resolve it in a healthy way. It was as if some suffocating emotional barrier had been dissolved and a veritable flood of all the emotions I had never felt came pouring out in waves of ecstasy. I was uplifted.

I looked at the faces of my parents and felt that I could understand them. I realized both of them just needed a hug and had been waiting for one, desperately, from their little boy all of their lives. I had been too confused, too angry and disconnected to realise this, but at that moment, it was the clearest message I had ever received. I told them how much I loved them, we cried, we hugged, we communicated. And I FELT something. It was as if I had born again. The past became some distant nightmare. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe I even made it to thirty years in that bugged out half-conscious state. How can anyone live life without feeling? How can anyone reciprocate their parents' love when it is drowned out by the deafening, ceaseless screeching of the autistic mind, one that plays tricks on perception, that skewers reality, disorders the muscles and sensitizes the flesh, and binds the tongue from speech?

I've escaped that prison. I no longer contemplate suicide. I'm no longer isolated, nor do I desire isolation. I still need time to recharge and eye contact remains difficult without the aid of cannabis. But with it, I am a different person, the person I desire to be, one that is healthier, happier, connected to the world and to the people in it. Furthermore the effects of cannabis last long after a high has been achieved. What you learn in that altered state transfers over to the sober world. How could it not, given its profundity?

In the past, I saw people as machinery that existed for be used and discarded. I treat people like garbage because I didn't see them as real. I harmed myself, battering my limbs and face bloody against the walls because I didn't know how to process the world. Now, I refuse to harm another human being and I no longer engage in self harm, nor do I ever feel desire to do so. I treat people better, I do not get angry, I do not judge, I do not hold prejudice for any reason. I feel real guilt when my mistakes or actions harm others, and I feel the need to resolve conflicts, make connections and heal. Not only did cannabis unlock my ability to feel, it unlocked in me a degree of reason and understanding for all people and their unique (if often times bizarre!) intellects.

Empathy goes beyond the mere reading of surface emotions--it's also how we understand, love and support the diversity and intellectual sovereignty of all individuals which, let's face it, is the basis of freedom and respect, two of the greatest human qualities we have. These past few years, I've felt like a human being, a living individual full of contradictions and complexities that can recognize the same qualities in others. Who knew such a feeling could be so fulfilling? No wonder I laughed so hard. Everything just became so absurdly obvious in the face of it that I could do nothing else.

TL;DR, cannabis saved my life. My only regret was that I was too scared to try it when I was younger, and willfully ignorant, thanks to the anti-cannabis crusaders of my conservative state. I have no doubt it would have changed the course of my life for the better from the get go, especially after reading this article and its follow ups. I know exactly how those kids feel.

I apologize for the long ramble. I'm glad people are out there doing this research and making this known. I personally feel that adults with autism (and parents of autistic children) are less likely to try cannabis because they are already sensitive, and fear the effects of a plant that is still sadly considered in many parts of the world to be an 'illicit' destructive substance. The truth of the matter is that this plant is not destructive and should not *be* illicit. I should not have to risk my freedom to obtain viable medicinal relief for a mental disorder that has systematically ruled my life.

30/06/2015



Leave a Comment

Please enter a name
Oops, looks like you forgot something?
Read More