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 tholos of the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi, Greece
The tholos of the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi, Greece

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 psilopsybin 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”.20

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:

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.“21

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.“22

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“23

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 musculature in blood vessels and other viscera (…).“24

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 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.”25

A visual representation of the human body, where the size of the respective body parts correspond to the number of sensory neurons which represent these parts


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.


Enhancement of „Reflective Contemplation“

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 us 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 have not done so. 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.”26

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 again 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.“

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.”27

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.

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