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.
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
During my research for my first marijuana study for „High. Insights on Marijuana“ 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.
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.”
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
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”, 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.”
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.
 „Sebastián Marincolo, High. Insights on Marijuana. Dogear Publishing 2010
 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.
 Gautier, Théophile, (1966). “The Hashish Club.” In: Solomon (ed.) (1966), “The Marihuana Papers”, Signet Books, Indiana,p. 174.
 Vilayanur S. Ramachandran & Lindsay M. Oberman, (2006) “Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism”, Scientific American 295, 62 – 69 doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1106-62.
 Sebastián Marincolo “High. Insights on Marijuana”, Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana 2010.