Just Another Altered State of Consciousness

“Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?”

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


Altered States of Consciousness and Western Culture

There is the marijuana high and there is normal consciousness. And being high is like being a little crazy and retarded. Briefly, this is still the mainstream attitude within our society when it comes to the marijuana high. This view is deeply embedded into our modern Western attitude towards altered states of consciousness in general, as the American psychologist Charles Tart pointed out more than 40 years ago:

“Within Western culture we have strong negative attitudes toward altered states of mind: there is the normal (good) state of consciousness and there are pathological changes in consciousness. Most people make no further distinctions”.[1]


The Many States of Consciousness

But are altered states of consciousness generally pathological? It should become obvious that there is something wrong with this view when we remember what kind of transformations our mind is going through almost daily. Every night we fall into an incredibly weird state of consciousness, experiencing illogical dreams with intricately interwoven storylines accompanied by vivid imagery. We are going through a phase that is somewhat like tripping on a strange magic mushroom yet this transformation occurs naturally, and repeatedly, every night. During sleep, we go through various states of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and other phases in which our consciousness changes into something wild and mysterious.

We also experience many types of altered states of mind while we are awake. When watching TV, surfing the internet or playing a computer game we often fall into a weird state of immersion between trance and hypnosis. Most of us (so-called normal people) spend several hours every day in this altered state of mind immersed in virtual realities. We can go deeper into a state of trance listening or dancing to electronic music during a long club night. During our lifetime, we typically go through thousands of prolonged altered states of consciousness when we experience orgasms – intense ecstatic trips in which we usually deeply connect with somebody else during a strange dance performed by our bodies. We also go through other forms of ecstasy when we fall in love or sit in roller coasters, or when we party after winning an ultimate frisbee game or experience a runner’s high during a marathon. We go through prolonged altered states of deep mental relaxation in a sauna, mineral bath or during a massage. When we get attacked, our mind automatically falls into a fight-or-flight-or freeze mode, in which we become extremely alert, with your attention hyper focused on your opponent and possible survival strategies. In our modern society, we experience this fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode when we get into situation that leads to extreme stress, such as giving a presentation for the first time in front of a large audience. Many of us value the altered state of meditation – not only for relaxation but also for refreshment, for mental health and healing, to deal with various pressure, anxieties, grief, or traumas. We often go through phases of daydreaming, in which we let our mind wander, less alert than usual in a more imaginative state of mind.

We all value many of these altered states of consciousness and we even celebrate some of them. They can be highly functional and necessary for survival, like the concentrated tunnel vision in the fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode when we are physically attacked. Many such altered states of consciousness occur naturally and we usually understand how they can be useful in many ways. We embrace states like ecstasy or falling in love as essential and meaningful parts of our lives and usually believe that they are part of the essence of what makes our lives meaningful.


The Potential of Altered States of Consciousness

In some aspects, altered states of consciousness are superior to the rational mind state we usually consider to be normal. Brain imaging techniques for instance have already begun to answer Da Vinci’s question why we can sometimes see things more clearly in our dreams, showing us hyper-stimulation in areas of the brain responsible for vision during our REM sleep phases.[2] These findings would explain why many creative, artistic people or scientists often report how they make use of their dreams.

In short then, we naturally go through various transformations of consciousness every day and, obviously, we can profit from these changes enormously. Our consciousness has the natural ability to transform, and while some altered states of consciousness like hallucinating during a strong fever may be pathological, others are clearly evolutionary adaptive and helpful in our everyday lives.

However, we might ask, isn’t it unnatural to induce an altered state of consciousness artificially by taking a substance like marijuana?


Animals and Altered States of Consciousness

For thousands of years, humans in all cultures have invented methods to alter their states of consciousness with rhythms, music, dancing, meditation techniques and the use of psychoactive substances such as cannabis, alcohol, psilopsybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, or ibogaine. In our modern Western society, we often tend to look at these practices as outdated rituals, but when we take a close look at our society today, we find hundreds of millions of people all around the globe using a multitude of techniques to transform their consciousness. Some use music and substances like MDMA to arrive at an ecstatic trance state, others use the refined techniques of yoga to come to a state of deep meditation and medical professionals use hypnosis for a variety of treatments.

An informed evolutionary perspective shows us that animals of all kinds systematically consume psychoactive substances to alter their consciousness. Some butterflies get drunk sipping on the alcohol of fermented fruits, cats get sexually aroused on catnip, goats eat coffee berries and frantically play around rolling down a hill. The psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel intensively studied animals and their use of psychoactive plants for years and concluded:

“In every country, in almost every class of animal, I found examples of not only the accidental but the intentional use of drugs. The thousands of cases I investigated convinced me that the action of an animal in seeking out intoxicants was a natural behavior in the animal kingdom.”[3]

Siegel thinks that the search for intoxication is almost like a fourth drive – the three others being the drives for drink, food, and sex – and has an overall adaptive value for a species.

Altered states of consciousness belong to our existence and partially define who we are – and so does our curiosity and our ability to induce those states. They can be useful and substantially meaningful. Some of them are pathological some are not. Obviously, even the altered states of consciousness that we find useful can also bring risks; even if some cognitive abilities may be enhanced, such as the ability for imagination during dreaming, others may decline, for instance our alertness to external goings on, which can certainly be dangerous in some situations. Dreaming may be a very useful state of consciousness, but you shouldn’t do it while driving a car or operating a crane.


A New Perspective on The Marijuana High

A marijuana high can change and enhance many cognitive functions. Users have reported among other things a hyper focusing of attention, an enhanced ability to retrieve distant memories, to see patterns, to go through quick associative chains of thinking, to come to introspective and other insights, and to better empathically understand others. Other cognitive functions can decline during a high; your perception of time may be distorted and your ability to multitask often becomes worse, which can lead to considerable dangers in certain situations. Those who want to positively use a marijuana high have to learn how to use it and, importantly, how to integrate the high into the rest of their existence – just like we have to learn how to integrate many other altered states of consciousness defining us. Just like sleeping and dreaming while driving, a state of trance or ecstasy will not be very helpful for operating dangerous machinery. But this does not mean that sleeping, dreaming, trance or ecstastic states are useless and only dangerous. Sleeping and dreaming are not only necessary for our survival and part of who we are – a routine like taking notes of your dreams right after you wake up, for instance, can help you to more meaningfully include your dreams in your life, to use them for creativity or to get to know your subconscious fears and desires. Taking short notes of your insights during a high can do a similar thing for you. As trivial as it sounds, this routine alone may significantly change what the high can do for you – and taking notes of ideas is just one of many measures that can help a marijuana user to better include the altered state of being high into his life.

Naturally, like so many others, you can just sit down and relax while you are high or enjoy the typical intensification of various sensations. You need to learn what strain works to relax you, how much you need to consume to get a certain effect and which environment is best for you. If you want to explore and positively use the more sophisticated effects of marijuana like enhanced pattern recognition, however, you have to learn more about how much to consume exactly for which activity, under which conditions and in which mood and condition. Like a cigar or wine aficionado, the high aficionado has a more profound knowledge about various strains and their chemical profile including details about growing and harvesting marijuana. High aficionados will also know the difference between highs coming off a joint, a bong, a pipe, a cookie or from a vaporizer. Unlike the tobacco aficionado, however, marijuana users should not be mainly concerned with the taste experience but with the diverse effects potentially coming from various plants with different cannabinoid profiles through various routes of administration.

If we want to experience the marijuana high as an enrichment for our lives we first have to change our mind about our mind. We must first accept that we are far more than merely a rational, logically thinking being and give up the distorted self-image professed in our Western culture about the nature of our own consciousness. Only an altered perspective on altered states of consciousness will lead to the possibility of using the full potential of an altered state like the marijuana high – positively enriching individual lives and society in general.


[1]    Tart, Charles (ed.) (1969/1990) Altered States of Consciousness, HarperCollins, San Francisco, p.2.

[2]    Compare Hobbson, Allan J. (2001)The Dream Drugstore. Chemically Altered States of Conscious­ness, MIT Press. Cambridge/MA.

[3]    Siegel, Ronald K. (1989, 2005) Intoxication. The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances, Park Street Press, Vermont, p.13.


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