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“