Marijuana, Dopes, and Cognitive Enhancements

When genius mathematician and originator of cybernetics Norbert Wiener moved with his family from Cambridge to Newton, his wife organized the move and let Wiener concentrate on his work as a professor at MIT. She knew her notoriously absent-minded husband would be of no help to her. She also knew he would forget they had moved so she gave him a piece of paper with the new address of their home. Later during his work, Wiener spontaneously came up with an insight, found the piece of paper in his pocket, scribbled down the idea, but then, finding an error in his workings, threw away the piece of paper. In the evening he drove home to his old address and soon realized that he did not live there anymore. The note in his pocket was gone. Wiener had no clue anymore where he lived, so he asked a little girl on the street: “Excuse me, perhaps you know me. I’m Norbert Wiener and we’ve just moved. Would you know where we’ve moved to?” The young girl replied, “Yes, Daddy. Mommy thought you would forget.”

The “absent-minded professor”-phenomenon has long become a stereotype and a popular character in countless comedies.

We basically know what happens when an academic genius like Wiener shows this kind of absent mindedness. Wiener’s attention was probably often so bound to thinking about current mathematical or other ideas or problems that there was not much ‘processing speed’ left for navigating in the real world.

Norbert Wiener
Norbert Wiener, American mathematician and philosopher (1894 – 1964)

We can assume then, that Wiener’s ‘dopey’ behavior resulted from an intense process of concentrated thinking. Wiener’s ‘dopey’ behavior does not show that he is stupid; it only shows that some of his cognitive abilities – like his spatio-temporal orientation – suffer because some other cognitive processes are extremely active and enhanced.

We don’t have to look at geniuses to learn this lesson. When you are really focused on upcoming exams you might run out the house with your shirt buttoned up the wrong way or wearing an odd pair of socks. The intensification of one cognitive process often leads to weakening of others. We all know this from our everyday lives; it seems almost trivial to point this out, but we tend to forget this when it comes to the discussion of psychoactive substances and their effects on cognition. And as trivial as the lesson seems, it is an important one for users and scientists alike, as I will explain now.


Cognitive Enhancements

For thousands of years, marijuana users have reported in detail various forms of what we would now call cognitive enhancements. Some have used the marijuana high to hyper focus their attention, to better attend to perceptions, memories, thoughts or imaginations. Other users have observed that their minds are racing during a high, they feel they can think faster, associatively flying through thoughts, imaginations, or memories. Many value the marijuana high for retrieving distant memories from their past, episodic memories which often come in such astonishing detail that they feel as if they are being transported into the past. We have numerous reports of the enhancement of pattern recognition, where marijuana users describe how they suddenly discover new patterns during a high; patterns in a taste experience, in the behavior of other people, in art, in music, or in nature. Many users have also reported that they become more creative, that their ability for introspection and empathic understanding becomes enhanced or that they can generate great insights during a high.

As we all know, most of these cognitive enhancements can only be experienced given the right “set and setting”. Also, the dosage must be appropriate and the user has to know how to “ride a high”, which is an ability that involves theoretical knowledge as well as some skills. Importantly, this knowledge on the side of the user will involve knowing for which activity marijuana can be best used. This latter point becomes more obvious when we look at the downside of the enhancement of some cognitive abilities.


The Downsides

Of course, there are discussions even between users if marijuana can really enhance our cognition temporarily in those ways. In my book High. Insights on Marijuana[1], I have tried to show that under favorable conditions a marijuana high can in fact lead to all those enhancements. One thing seems obvious though, these enhancements are never a complete enhancement of all of our cognitive abilities. Just as in real life, the intensification or enhancement of one cognitive ability usually comes at the cost of the worsening or slowing down of others. Here are three examples for some cognitive enhancements during a high and their downsides.

First, ‘mind-racing’ during a high allows a cannabis user to quickly travel through memories, imaginations or chains of thought. Certainly, this enhancement can be used for many purposes; but in my view, it might also contribute to the infamous short-term memory disruptions. So far, the following is only a hypothesis, but I believe that mind-racing might actually be one of the reasons why we are loosing the thread during a conversation when we are high. In sports photography, if you take many photos in a quick succession, your chip shuts down for some moments at a certain point – it needs to take a break to process and store the large amounts of data. Likewise, fast associative thinking might lead to working memory disruptions, where you actually forget at some stage what the point of your story was.

Second, hyper-focusing during a high can intensify whatever comes within the focus of your attention and allows, for example, an enhanced analytic perception and understanding of the complex structure of a Miles Davies trumpet solo. On the other hand, the reinforcement of what cognitive scientists call “selective attention” during a high might make you act “dopey” like Norbert Wiener, causing you to phase out real world navigation tasks.

Gaugin painting
Gauguin painting Annah the Javahnese (1893)

Third, many marijuana users have observed that during a high their ability to perceive patterns is enhanced. Some see new patterns in art (“I suddenly understood the influence of Paul Gauguin’s work on Vincent Van Gogh”) or in the behavior of their friends. However, a marijuana high might lead to pattern over-interpretation, where we “see” faces in mountain tops or clouds. This may be useful for many purposes, but it might sometimes lead to misinterpretations of what is really out there.

The enhancement of pattern recognition is a “two edged sword”, as Charles Tart observes:

“The patterns that are formed from visual data are organized into a degree of complexity and familiarity that is optimal for surviving in the world around us. Detecting a potential predator concealed in some bushes has survival value; seeing a potential predator in every ambiguous visual input is not conductive to survival of the organism. Thus we may conceive of some optical level (…) of pattern-making activity, of organization of ambiguous (and not so ambiguous) visual data into meaningful concepts. Raise this level too high and we have illusion and hallucination. Lower this level too much and we have stupidity. Marijuana seems to raise this level a fair amount, more so with increasing levels of intoxication.“[2]

In brief, then, we can see that cognitive enhancements coming from a marijuana high usually lead to the weakening of other cognitive processes, just as we might expect it from our everyday lives. As trivial as this insight might seem, it has important implications both for marijuana users as well as for scientists.


Lessons to be learned

If used under favorable conditions, a marijuana high can lead to significant enhancements of specific cognitive functions and abilities. But these usually bring with them the weakening of specific other functions. Users have to learn how various strains can bring respective characteristic cognitive enhancements but also a temporary slowdown or other negative effects upon other cognitive functions. They have to learn for which specific activities to use a certain strain so that they can get the best out of the overall cognitive alterations deriving from its respective high.

Scientists should be careful with the implications of their studies when it comes to the evaluation of the effects of marijuana on cognition. If you only look for negative effects on cognition in specific situations (like, for example, performance in multitasking, various standard short-term memory tests, etc.), you will certainly find nothing else. We know that after decades of irrational prohibition, scientists were encouraged to obtain such conclusions. That’s what they usually get paid for. Some of these tests may show that some cognitive functions during a high are disrupted or weakened in various situations. Yet, that does not imply that the reports of hundreds of marijuana users and their positive cognitive enhancements are wrong. Norbert Wiener might have been habitually bad at orientation, but that does not contradict the fact that the highly concentrated thinking and the resulting ideas causing his “silly” behavior were pretty stunning.


[1]    Marincolo, Sebastián (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana. Dog Ear Publishing, Indiana.

[2]    Tart, Charles T. (1971) On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxica­tion. Palo Alto, Cal.: Science and Behavior Books, p. 59.


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