Marijuana, Introspection, and Personal Growth

 Once again the powers of the herb open up the mind. Seek deep inside. Tell me what you find.“ 

Cypress Hill, Temples of Boom III

As we mature, we have experiences and gain knowledge about a wide variety of situations and facts. Accumulating knowledge about the world lets us grow into students, teachers, professors, mothers or fathers, skilled professionals or masters of some kind. Clearly, however, there is a special form of knowledge that shapes us the most as we grow: self-knowledge. Our self-knowledge plays a central role in who we are and how we lead our lives. You may remain more or less the same person as you learn new facts about the moon landing, the behavior of red ants or about Fibonacci numbers, but once you learn that your inability to lead a happy marriage is caused by a trauma in your childhood, this one piece of knowledge may change the course of your life forever.

The Ancient Greek imperative “Know yourself” inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi unquestionably confronts us with a task that will never be completed. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we all know how rewarding and life-changing the path can be. Myriad consumers of marijuana, as well as consumers of other psychoactive substances like LSD or psylopsybin have reported instances of important insights into themselves – insights which significantly led to augment their self-knowledge and consequently, to their personal growth. On the basis of his questionnaires sent to 750 consumers, Harvard psychologist Charles Tart found the following to be a description of a characteristic effect of marijuana:

Spontaneously, insights about myself, my personality, the games I play come to mind when stoned seem very meaningful”.

But how, and why, should marijuana be especially helpful in gaining self-knowledge?

Introspection“ in Philosophy and Common-Sense

We usually consider introspection to be the main route to self-knowledge. Literally, the term introspection is a composite of the Latin words “spicere “ (“to look”) and “intra” (within). The metaphor suggests that we see or perceive our own inner mental processes. Obviously, however, this should not be taken too literally: neuroscientists did not find eyes, ears or other known sensory organs in our brains, and we certainly don’t expect them to do so in the future.

So, what is introspection, generally speaking? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy states:

“Introspection, as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.“

Our common-sense notion of „introspection“, however, seems to be much broader construed: we usually say that we can introspect not only mental states like a current pain sensation, feelings of anxiousness, or a joyful mood, but we often say that we introspect dispositions (like a tendency to overreact to critique)  or other aspects of our personality like character traits. This broader view of introspection is expressed in the following statement by Pete Brady, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website, who mentions an enhancement of introspection under the influence of marijuana:

"Semyniak Beach II", Bali, copyright Sebastian Marincolo 2006 (from the art series "Spaceport Bali")

 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.“

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.“

These reports show that marijuana users feel that a high can help them to understand aspects of their personality better, to „look deeper“ into their emotions, moods and character traits. In his study „On being Stoned“, Charles Tart also mentions that marijuana users feel that a high can help them to better introspectively access their current bodily sensations and feelings – which is, introspection in the more narrow philosophical sense. Many of the users surveilled confirmed the following effects as a „common“ effect of a marijuana high:

My skin feels exceptionally sensitive”

Pain is more intense if I concentrate on it”

My perception of how my body is shaped gets strange; the ‘felt’ shape or form does not correspond to its actual form (e.g. you may feel lopsided, or parts of your body feel heavy while others feel light”

I feel a lot of pleasant warmth inside my body”

I am much more aware of the beating of my heart”

I become aware of breathing and can feel the breath flowing in and out of my throat as well as filling my lungs“

In the following, I want to explore several different ways in which a marijuana high may enhance our introspection in both senses, in the more narrow philosophical sense concerning feelings, thoughts and sensations, as well as more broadly construed concerning moods and character traits.

The Body Mapping System and the Enhancement of Bodily Sensations

According to neuroscientists like A. D. Craig and Antonio Damasio, we all have an intereoceptive sense which gives us a sense of the body’s interior. Accordingly, this inner sense rests on a representational mapping system, which developed in order for us to observe our internal states such as

(…) pain states, body temperature, flush, itch, tickle, shudder, visceral and genital sensations; the state of the smooth muscular in blood vessels and other viscera (…).“

Our brain has a body mapping system which represents bodily parts. The hands, for instance, are represented in much larger areas than the rest of the body, a fact visualized in this 3d homunculus sculpture.

In their groundbreaking book “The Body Has a Mind of its Own”, the authors Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee focus on recent research on this ingenious body mapping system – a system which has been underestimated so far in the cognitive neurosciences. They describe a system of ‘flesh bound’ somatic senses which fall into several categories, each subserved by different populations of receptor cells, such as the sense of touch, thermoception (feeling cold or hot), and nociception (detecting various kinds of pain, including piercing pain, heat pain, chemical pain, joint pain, tickle and itch). Two other somatic senses would be proprioception, a sense of your body’s position and motion in space, as well as the sense of balance. All these somatic senses deliver information to the brain’s “body maps”:

Every point on your body, each internal organ and every point in space out to the end of your fingertips, is mapped inside your brain. Your ability to sense, move, and act in the physical world arises from a rich network of flexible body maps distributed throughout the brain – maps that grow, shrink, and morph to suit your needs.”

Could it be that marijuana has a systematic effect on this system, intensifying the signals and thus leading to a redirection of attention to perceive and feel our own body? I will leave this as a hypotheses for now, but I think we have enough detailed reports here to encourage cognitive scientists to take this to their laboratories using new brain imaging techniques.

Introspection as „Reflective Contemplation“

As to the introspection of moods, more complex emotions and character traits, it is obvious that this is not a kind of ‘direct’ inner observation. If I introspectively realize that I am a courageous person, I have to make a judgement involving the evaluation of many autobiographical memories, of „courageous“ patterns in my behavior compared to the behavior of others, and involving my understanding of the concept „courageous.“ A marijuana high might have several effects on cognition which could lead to the many enhancements described by marijuana users. We could also call this kind of introspection „reflective contemplation.“

Let me briefly explain four effects of marijuana well known under marijuana users which are important here: the „Zen-effect,“ (a hyperfocus of attention), an enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination, as well as an enhanced pattern recognition.

One of the most important acute effects of marijuana is a hyperfocus in attention, an effect which I also like to call the „Zen – effect“ of marijuana, because Zen tells you to concentrate on one thing or activity at a time. This attentional focus often leads to an intensified experience of sensations and of a strong feeling of being in the here-and-now, but it can also lead to an hyperfocus on a stream of thought or on episodic memories – memories of past episodes in your life. Myriads of marijuana users have reported not only this hyperfocus, but also the enhancement of episodic memories. User often vividly remember past events, events that they have often long forgotten, with incredible details. Also, it is a very commonly reported effect of a marijuana high that users can imagine things better – and importantly, imagination does not only mean visualization, but it could also be auditory, or tactile, taste or olfactory imagination. Last but not least, we have an incredible amount of reports of marijuana users who describe various sorts of their pattern recognition abilities, like finding a new pattern in a behavior or in a guitar solo. 


Enhancement of „Reflective Contemplation“

"Hand with Reflecting Sphere"
M.C. Escher, January 1935

Now, how could these four enhancements (hyperfocus of attention, enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination, enhanced pattern recognition) affect our introspection? I think this is pretty easy to see. Let’s assume you are reflecting on whether you are a courageous person. A marijuana high can help to redirect and hyperfocus your attention on your episodic memories and your inner stream of thought. Now you can search your episodic memories for episodes in which you have acted courageously, and also those in which you haven’t. Of course you want to know about a character trait, not a current mood or feeling, so you have to go back in time. Your enhanced episodic memory during a marijuana high will help you to associatively bring up memories, and the enhanced pattern recognition ability can help you to find similarities between courageous or not so courageous actions or feeling in the past. But also, 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 try to imagine whether you would act courageously in certain situations. Would you jump into the ice-cold Hudson river from a bridge to save that kid, like this man just did on television? During a marijuana high, you can often imagine situations like these more vividly and imagine how it would be for you, what you would actually feel, and how you would act. Thus, an enhanced capacity for imagination could 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.”

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.

An Amazing Potential

Let me stress that my claim is NOT that marijuana automatically enhances your introspection. My claim is that marijuana has the potential to enhance your introspection – but in order to use this potential you have to use it appropriately, with the right dose, with the right set and setting, and with knowledge and skills to „ride a high.“ (compare my essay „Marijuana, Surfing, and The Purity of The Moment“).

It is obvious that an enhancement of our introspection can also help us get in touch with our feelings and other subjective states to help us understand others as well. Another anonymous contributor to Grinspoon’s website reports:

Friendships and Relationships, especially those involving sexual and romantic intimacy, can be developed and deepened by the use of marijuana with others. Marijuana tends to cause introspection and by altering one’s habits of thought, yields new perspectives on who one is and how one works, psychologically. Hence, marijuana works as an effective catalyst for understanding oneself and others, and discussing and developing one’s relationships with other people.”

Clearly, then, marijuana holds a potential not only for introspection, but also for empathic understanding and for personal development.

It is about time that we recognize that many people use marijuana not only for „recreational purposes“, but are using it as a tool to find out who they are, to understand themselves and their relation to others better, and to grow as a person.   

Marijuana Insights: Myth or Reality?

Countless users of marijuana have claimed that marijuana can act as a catalyst to enhance creativity and to obtain real insights. Are these reports just exaggerations of users justifying their smoking habit? Or is it true that a marijuana high can lead to profound insights?

In his legendary essay “Mr. X” published in Lester Grinspoon’s study “Marijuana Reconsidered (1971),” an anonymous author stated:

“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.”

Marijuana expert Lester Grinspoon

With the permission of the author, Harvard psychiatry professor Lester Grinspoon would reveal the identity only posthumously. It turned out that the article had been written by Grinspoon’s best friend, the late Carl Sagan, famous astrophysicist and popularizer of science who died 1996. In his essay, Sagan claims: 

I can remember on one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidity of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. (…) One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide rage of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. I can’t go into the details of those essays, but from all external signs, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”

Marijuana VIP’s

Carl Sagan is not the only prominent marijuana aficionado who used marijuana for inspiration. Pulitzer Price winner Norman Mailer once said in an interview for the High Times Magazine:

“What I find is that pot puts things together. Pot is marvelous for getting new connections in the brain. It’s divine for that. You think associatively on pot, so you can have real extraordinary thoughts. But the more education you have, the more you have to put together at that point, the more wonderful connections there are to see in the universe.”

Other prominent testimonials who used marijuana for inspirational purposes include the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, physicist Richard Feynman, musicians Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, directors Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, the American writers Jack London and Alan Ginsberg, French writers Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, and comedians Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Bill Maher, as well as Groucho Marx, who enriched the world with some of the funniest statements ever made (“Either this man is dead, or my watch has stopped”). As you may imagine, this is only a short sequence of a much longer list of marijuana VIP’s.

French Writer Charles Baudelaire

But how much did marijuana really help them to come to creative insights? Maybe marijuana simply helped to relax and to get their already talented creative minds started. Also, they could be self-deluded about the inspiring powers of marijuana because of what we could call forgetful glorification – ideas during a high often seem to be profound and glorious revelations, just like taste experiences during a high become so much more intense.

The Evidential Challenge

So, even if we document and evaluate myriads of stories from prominent and other users about deep and interesting insights during a high – can we take them at face value? We should expect marijuana users to be biased towards justifying their use, so they will probably emphasize and document their insights during a high.

How could we possibly find better evidence for the insights claim then? I suggest the following approach: first, we have to clarify what kind of cognitive processes insights are in general. We have to find out which cognitive processes are involved when we obtain insights, such as episodic memory retrieval, changes in attention, or pattern recognition. Second, we should look at studies and personal reports which concern the effects of a marijuana high on those various processes. We can then put the puzzle pieces together and see how marijuana affects our ability to produce insights by affecting a whole array of underlying cognitive abilities.

Insights in Psychology and the Cognitive Sciences

We all have those “Eureka” experiences and little or more profound insights once in a while. Suddenly, you realize that you can take a shortcut to drive to the supermarket. In an instant, you understand one day you have to become an artist, or you realize in a flash that your marriage is going nowhere. Insights occur spontaneously, like sudden quantum leaps in understanding; rather mysterious in nature, but sometimes with a profound impact on our lives. For a long time, the mainstream of psychology in the last century has persistently ignored this phenomenon. Insights seemed to be a myth bound to the classic greek concept of a privileged genius who “receives” great ideas through the inspiration of the gods. It was only at the beginning of the last century that a group of scientists around the German psychologist Max Wertheimer started to look for explanations of what he called “productive thinking”. In the last two decades, psychologists and cognitive scientist around the globe have tried to develop the existing models of the so called “Gestalt school” in psychology in order to better understand insights.

The Founder of Gestalt Psychology Max Wertheimer

Insight Problems and The Gestalt School

One of the basic ideas of the Gestalt psychologists was that in the “Eureka moment”, a thinker unconsciously “restructures” his perception of a situation and finds a new pattern, or, as they would call it, a new Gestalt. Let me explain this shortly by looking at one of the most famous experiments of the Gestalt school. In order to study the process of insights in experiments, psychologists created problems that needed an insight on the part of the problem solver. The German psychologist Karl Duncker, Wertheimer’s most talented student, invented the now classic “Candle Problem”, where the subjects are given a matchbox, a candle and some thumb tacks and are asked to attach the candle to the wall.

Karl Duncker's Famous Candle Problem

The candle is too thick to be directly tacked into the wall – the only solution is to use the tacks and attach the inside container of the matchbox to the wall and then to put the candle on it. The crucial step for the problem solution is to see the matchbox container not as container for matches, but as a tray for the candle. The subjects need to restructure their first perception of the matchbox only as a container. Duncker showed that the subjects needed longer to solve the problem if the matchbox container was presented to them with matches inside, highlighting the original function of the container. The subjects were blocked from coming to an insight because their perception and thinking of the box was “functionally bound”; they did not see the box as a mere object with a certain form that can be used in various ways, but as a container with the specific function of holding candles. Duncker’s candle experiment shows that a problem solver comes to an insight only if he overcomes this functional boundness by redirecting his attention to aspects of an object that he has not perceived before.

Let’s assume that the subjects who solved the candle problem be faced with a similar problem a few months later. This time, they are presented needles instead of thumbtacks, a little cardboard box and a little toy figure inside with a similar goal of attaching the toy to the wall. Obviously, subjects who succeeded in solving the candle problem would see the similarity of the solution and would easily solve the toy problem. Wertheimer would call this the use of “structural analogues”: we transfer our knowledge from past similar experiences of problem solutions to new situations.

We now have three crucial notions for the characterization of the process of insight: restructuring a problem representation (where we have to perceive a situation in a different way), thus overcoming functional boundness (where we are bound to perceive or think of certain things as serving a certain function only), and finding structural analogues (or, in other words, finding similarities between patterns).

I will now use these three notions to give a rough explanation how marijuana can affect our ability to generate insights.

Marijuana Insights

Macro Photography of Super Silver Haze Marijuana Strain (c) Sebastian Marincolo 2012

Users have described many effects of a marijuana high on their consciousness, but for the sake of brevity, I will name only three here. One of the most common effects of marijuana during a high is on attention: stoners tend to have a stronger focus in attention, they hyperfocus. Sometimes they hyperfocus on sensations, a focus which leads to a more intense experience of the here-and-no. Sometimes they hyperfocus on memories or imaginations or on a stream of thought. Second, many users have reported an enhanced episodic memory, i.e. an enhanced ability to vividly remember past events in their lives. Third, many users describe an enhanced ability to find structural analogues, or, similarities in patterns (“Eric Dolphy sounds like the early Coltrane on this record”), (“This painting looks like an early Edgar Degas”).

There are many other effects of a marijuana high which can positively affect our ability to gain insights, but for sake of brevity, let us for now stick to these three effects: hyperfocusing, enhanced episodic memory, and enhanced pattern recognition. These will be enough to give us a rough outline how marijuana can positively influence our ability to produce insights while high.

Here is a very typical report of a marijuana insight:

Martha found herself smoking (marijuana) with (…) Alice: ’During the conversation with Alice and Karl, I realized that she was being very self-conscious, and kept stepping back out of herself. I looked at her and thought, “That’s a whole new way of looking at Alice.” I had never seen her insecurities so palpable before. (…) I suddenly understood that her insecurity was a key to her personality, and then I also understood how it was a big key to my own, as well. I understood, too, how she and I clashed because both of us are insecure, and that each of us was waiting for the other to give the cue of reassurance that actually never came. That’s the type of insights I get when I am stoned, and for me it’s very useful.”1

Under the influence of marijuana, Martha’s attention is more focused on the here-and-now. She is intensely watching Alice’s behavior. Her attentional focus has changed. Usually, she would probably be sharing her attention more, thinking about the content of the conversation, maybe listening to music and keeping better track of time to make preparations for a dinner for her guests. Her high makes her hyperfocus on a certain patterns in Alice’s behavior. Martha’s attention is not functionally bound anymore to merely following the literal content of the discussion or to catering her guests, as it would normally be. She is now open to perceive a certain pattern in Alice’s behavior, namely, behavior that shows a certain insecurity. In the words of Gestalt psychology, she has “restructured” her perception of Alice. She can see a different “Gestalt”, or, a different pattern in Alice’s behavior and character now.

The change in attention during her high is not the only factor that allows Martha to proceed to her insight. In order for Martha to see this pattern in Alice’s behavior, she must be able to recognize overall behavioral clues as fitting a pattern she already knows. Martha’s enhanced episodical memory during her high might help her to remember past events in which she has seen Alice acting insecure; also, her enhanced episodic memory may help her to compare Alice’s behavioral clues (like avoiding eye contact, or a certain tone in her voice) to behaviors she has seen throughout her life that she has learned to perceive as signs of “insecurity”. Furthermore, Martha has to rely on her episodic memory to infer that she his insecure herself; she needs to remember episodes of herself showing that pattern. The insecurity-behaviors of that Alice has seen or acted out herself before may be similar to that of Alice now. Last but not least, Martha’s enhanced ability to see similarities between pattern allows her to see a “structural analogue” between other behaviors of insecurity and some behavior she sees now in Alice. This allows her to understand that she and Alice are both insecure and therefore clash as personalities.

Of course, this is only a possible explanation of how Martha’s insight actually occurred. Martha’s report is certainly not detailed enough to exactly pin down how exactly she arrived at her insight. But the possible explanations helps us to begin to understand how the interplay of various effects of marijuana may positively influence Martha’s ability to gain an insight on the background of the Gestalt model of insights.

The Path to Evidence

Location of Episodic Memory (above) versus Semantic, Procedural, and Working Memory (below)

But is it really true that marijuana leads to effects like an enhanced episodic memory or to hyper-focusing? We will have to leave it to the empirical studies in psychology and the cognitive (neuro)-sciences to come up with more evidence. However, now we have broken down the question about insights during a high to something that can be studied more easily. We should take the many detailed anecdotal reports about various mind-enhancements during a marijuana high serious and start to investigate them empirically. Once we better understand the effects of marijuana on memory, attention, and other cognitive processes, we will be able to get a better picture of how these changes in cognition can add up to actually lead to more complex enhancements of insights under favorable conditions. So far, the overall anecdotal evidence is already strong, not because we have many detailed reports about stoner insights, but because we have hundreds of independent detailed accounts of many typical cognitive effects during a marijuana high; effects which, as we have seen, are crucial for the generation for insights. 

It becomes more and more clear now that our ability to creative insights crucially depends on right hemisphere activity a fact that Carl Sagan had already addressed in a footnote of his “Dragons of Eden,” where he speculated that marijuana might suppress left hemisphere activity in favor of right hemisphere processing. Surely, further research in this area will be both fruitful for the understanding of marijuana effects as well as for our understanding of creativity and insights in general.

For a long time, our perception of marijuana has been “functionally bound” too much by focussing on its risk potential. Don’t get me wrong: I do not want to argue that we should ignore any risks or negative aspects of marijuana consumption. But we need to free ourselves from the still predominant one-sided fixation to get a deeper insight into the positive potential of marijuana; a potential that so profoundly and positively affected millions, if not hundreds of millions of users – and through them and their work, the history and shape of societies worldwide.

1 In: William Novak: “High Culture. Marijuana in the Lives of Americans“