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On Being Stoned, by Charles Tart

  On Being Stoned

    Charles T. Tart, Ph. D.

        Chapter 31.    Summary


    ALTHOUGH MARIJUANA has been known to man for countless centuries, our scientific knowledge of its effects is meager. A major source of confusion that has hindered research has been the general failure to recognize that most effects of marijuana are potential effects rather than inherent properties of the drug itself. That is, a variety of non-drug factors can markedly influence which potential effects manifest at any given time (see Chapter 2). Thus most laboratory studies and personal anecdotes are of limited value, because the limited range of laboratory conditions and the particular personality characteristics of the writers, acting on the state of consciousness produced by marijuana, produced only some of the potential effects and inhibited others. The personal anecdotes often tell us more about the writer than anything else, and the laboratory studies have produced effects generally unrepresentative of those found in ordinary marijuana use.



    The aim of the present study was to find out the total range of potential effects that could be experienced and described by experienced users of marijuana. By systematically asking them about their experiences over a six-month period, the non-drug factors, which determine the manifestation of potential effects, would have assumed practically all possible combinations of values many times, thus eliciting the total range of effects. By asking the users about the frequency of various effects, it was possible to classify various potential effects as characteristic, common, infrequent, or rare, under conditions of ordinary marijuana use. Similar questioning about minimal level of intoxication (see Chapter 2 for details of this model) allowed rough classification of effects by the level of intoxication above which most experienced users could experience them (if the various non-drug factors assumed the right configurations).



    The 150 experienced users who returned satisfactory questionnaires (see Chapter 4) had all used marijuana at least a dozen times in order to be eligible for the study. Thus the effects of learning to cope with the unfamiliarity of marijuana intoxication were deliberately eliminated from the present study (although worthy of study in their own right), and the results presented here should not be applied to naive users.
    Our 150 users are a predominantly young, highly educated group of Californians, primarily students, but with a fair number of older persons and professionals among them. Overall they have a high interest in self-improvement (meditation or therapy), considerable experience with more powerful psychedelic drugs like LSD, and little experience with hard narcotics. Most of them used marijuana once a week or more during the six-month period of the present study. By combining various self-reports on marijuana use, we can estimate that they have used marijuana about 37,000 times, for a total of 421 years of experience.
    The remainder of this summary chapter will cover the major effects of marijuana intoxication (in terms of the users' self-reported experiences) under five major headings, namely, the perception of the external environment, interpersonal relations, internal mental processes, the perceiver (self-concept and identity of the user), and levels of intoxication. To keep this chapter brief, I shall not summarize the various miscellaneous effects of Chapters 20 to 23 nor the analyses of various relationships and background factors covered in Part III.




    With respect to vision, seeing forms, meaningful patterns in visual material that normally is ambiguous, and finding visual imagery more vivid than usual are characteristic effects. Common effects include contours seeming sharper, seeing new shades of color, having visual imagery automatically accompany thoughts and reading, being able to see a third dimension in pictures, and experiencing a sensual quality to vision.



    For hearing, hearing more subtle qualities of sound is one of the most characteristic effects found, as well as understanding the words of songs better and finding a greater spatial separation between sound sources. Common effects include auditory images being more vivid, finding that space becomes organized according to sound characteristics rather than visual characteristics, and synesthesia, or sounds producing visual images in the user's mind.


Touch, Taste, Smell

    The sense of touch taking on new qualities and becoming more sensual are characteristic, and experiencing vivid tactual imagery is common.
    New qualities to taste and enjoying eating very much are characteristic effects. Again, taste imagery is markedly enhanced is a common effect, as well as craving for sweet things. It is also common for the sense of smell to become enhanced and richer.


The Senses in General

    In looking at the sensory changes, we should remember that sensory perception is not, as we commonly assume, a passive process of "seeing what's there," but an active process of constructing percepts from the physical stimuli that come in. The level of this constructive or pattern-making process is generally optimal in terms of providing a good signal-to-noise ratio; i.e., we make few mistakes about what is there. I suspect what marijuana is doing is increasing the level of functioning of this patterning activity, making it work in a more active way. This may result in a genuine increase in the ability to pick signals out of noisy backgrounds, but it probably also increases the number of mistakes; i.e., it organizes things that are not actually related in the real world into a coherent percept.


The Space/Time Matrix

    Perceptions of the external environment are not isolated percepts; they occur in the context of the space/time matrix. This space/time matrix is normally background for perceptions—we take it for granted. Marijuana intoxication can cause some radical changes in the way the space/time matrix is perceived. For example, greater separation between sound sources as, say, a pair of stereo speakers, has already been mentioned as a characteristic effect, and the distance experienced in walking some place being radically changed is also characteristic. Common effects on space are for distances per se to seem greater or shorter, and for near things to seem even nearer and for far things to seem even farther, a depth-magnification effect. Infrequently, air or space may take on a "solid" quality, or the user may completely lose track of his physical body and seem to float in limitless space.
    Changes in time perception are striking. Characteristically, time seems to pass more slowly, and the user feels much more in the here-and-now, totally immersed in the present situation without thinking about its relation to the past or its possible future developments. Commonly, events seem to flow more smoothly in time, although they may flow rather jerkily at higher levels. Deja vu, the feeling that one has done this before, may be experienced, and time may seem to stop, i.e., it's not just that things take longer but certain experiences are simply timeless; they seem to occur "outside" of time. At high levels of intoxication, particularly, the users' experiences are less and less structured by the ordinary physical space/time matrix. Events and experiences become more and more difficult to communicate as their relationship to the usual space/time matrix is lost.


Paranormal Perception

    Another mode of perceiving the environment is by experiences of ostensible extrasensory perception, phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. The users believed that they had experienced a great many ostensible paranormal phenomena. Seventy-six percent of them believed in the reality of extrasensory perception. Feeling so aware of what other people were thinking that the users thought it was telepathy was a fairly frequent effect, with only 30 percent of the users saying they had never experienced this. Precognition, foretelling the future by more than a logical inference, was a rare effect, but not absent.
    An even more exotic ostensible paranormal phenomenon was out-of-the-body experiences, which 44 percent of the users indicated they had experienced at least once, although not always in conjunction with marijuana. This incidence of out-of-the-body experiences is much higher than has ever been reported for any other population sample, so marijuana use is probably instrumental in promoting this experience.



    Marijuana intoxication is seldom a solitary activity, where the user just sits around perceiving the external world and his own body. Users feel it is a social drug par excellence. What does it do to social interaction?


Social Interaction

    Characteristic effects on social interaction are being less noisy at parties than when either straight or drunk on alcohol, finding ordinary social games hard to play, picking up on and saying much more subtly humorous things, and having feelings of great insights into others. Other common effects are feeling more sociable at low levels of intoxication, less sociable at higher levels, talking more at low levels and talking less at higher levels, having more feeling of group solidarity, playing either very childish or very elaborate and involved games with others, saying things that seem more profound and appropriate, and having a great deal of empathy with others. Giggling a lot is also a common effect.
    It seems as if marijuana acts as a potentiator of social interaction from Low to Moderate levels of intoxication. At high levels, marijuana may have two quite different effects on social interaction because of the great intensification of inner experiences. The user may become less social and withdraw from group interaction in order to fully appreciate his inner experiences. If, on the other hand, he continues to interact with others, he may feel this interaction to be particularly profound, occasionally including such things as feelings of merging with the other person or feeling so aware of them that he believes it to be a kind of telepathic interaction.



    One of the most intimate kinds of interaction possible with another person is sexual love. The majority of the users indicated that marijuana greatly enhances sexual pleasure. Relevant characteristic effects were: new qualities to touch and taste (with new smell qualities being common)—what one might consider the intimate senses—and new, pleasurable qualities to orgasm. It was common for the user to feel more need and desire for sex, and, particularly, to feel more sexual desire if the situation was appropriate. That is, marijuana is not an aphrodisiac in the sense of forcing sexual drive, but rather it makes sex more desirable if there is already an initial attraction. It was common for the users to feel that they were better lovers when intoxicated, to have much closer contact with their partner in making love, it being much more a union of souls rather than just of bodies, and to be much more responsive to the sexual partner. Some users described making love at high levels of marijuana intoxication as so ecstatic as to be beyond words in many respects, a blending and fusing of essence and energy that took them beyond the bounds of space and time, and into one another.
    It should be noted, however, that one quarter of the users thought they were worse lovers when intoxicated than when straight, for, they reported, they became so immersed in their own intensified and pleasurable sensations that they paid little attention to their lovers.




    A characteristic effect of marijuana intoxication on memory is to forget the start of a conversation; that is, there is a decrement in memory for things occurring over the last few minutes. Nevertheless, it is a common effect for users to feel that they can converse intelligently despite this shortening of their memory span. It is also common to have a good memory for events in general occurring during the period of intoxication, but poor memory for this period is also just as common, depending on unknown psychological factors. Long-forgotten events commonly pop into memory. At high levels of intoxication it is common to forget even the start of one sentence, and thoughts may slip away before being fully grasped. Users often make special efforts, apparently successfully, to continue to function well in spite of this large loss of memory.
    State-specific memory occurs; intoxication experiences apparently forgotten can be recalled the next time the user is intoxicated.



    There are many effects of marijuana on thought processes. Characteristic effects are: accepting contradictions more readily, not getting upset just because things do not make immediate sense, and having spontaneous insights into one's own personal functioning, as well as being more here-and-now. It is also characteristic to find it harder to read, and to appreciate more subtle humor, as mentioned earlier. It is common to feel that one has ideas that are much more original than usual, to feel thinking is more intuitive, to find thought automatically accompanied by visual images, to see new significance in things that ordinarily seem dull or commonplace, to skip intermediate steps in problem-solving, and to get so absorbed in thought that one's attention must be forcibly gotten. At Low levels of intoxication, it is common for the user to feel his mind is working more efficiently on problem-solving activities, but at higher levels it is common to feel that the mind begins to work less efficiently.



    The only characteristic effect of marijuana on emotional mood is to almost invariably feel good, which is what we would expect in a group of experienced marijuana users. It is common to feel emotions more strongly, to be more aware of bodily components of emotion (muscle tensions, heartbeat, etc.), and to have one's mood just before becoming intoxicated considerably amplified. For these experienced users, there is a generally good emotional tone to being intoxicated that can override mildly negative emotions just before becoming intoxicated. If they are in a very negative mood, however, there is a chance of this emotion being greatly amplified and producing a very bad trip. Most of the users had never had a severe negative emotional crisis while intoxicated. Of those users who had experienced such a crisis, most indicated it had subsided by itself or that they had been talked down by friends, with only one user needing professional help. In retrospect, some of the users felt their emotional crises had been a good thing in making them aware of aspects of themselves they had not wanted to face.



    To what extent can experienced users control the effects of marijuana intoxication sufficiently well to generally avoid negative experiences? It is characteristic that users feel less need to be in control of things, and that they can come down at will, i.e., suppress most of the effects of intoxication when necessary. Experienced users have a wide variety of psychological techniques for increasing their level of intoxication at will. Experienced users feel that most of the instances of strong negative effects of marijuana are due to rigid, over-controlled, or unstable people trying it and not being able to tolerate the change in their experiences.



    Experiences do not just happen; they happen to and are caused by a unique individual with likes and dislikes, a past and hopes. How might a user's feeling of who he is change during marijuana intoxication?


The Body

    One of the most important sources of sensory input that provides a frame of reference for our identity is our own body. Although there are many effects here, only two were characteristic: the user gets very physically relaxed and is disinclined to move about, and if he does move about, his movements seem exceptionally smooth and coordinated. The direction of attention is important in how the body is perceived, a common effect being "if I am paying attention to some particular part of my body the rest of my body fades away a lot...." Getting so absorbed in thinking or fantasies that all perception of the body is lost is also common. With respect to pain, it is common for pain to be easier to tolerate if attention is turned elsewhere and for pain to be more intense if concentrated on. It is also common for the body to feel particularly light.
    A number of common effects deal with becoming aware of internal processes in the body to a greatly enhanced extent, such as feeling a pleasant warmth in the body, being very aware of the beating of one's heart, and being hyper-aware of breathing. Another common experience that does not seem to be simply an enhancement of ordinary sensations is getting feelings in the body that are described as energy or force of some sort flowing.


Sense of Identity

    Marijuana intoxication has a number of effects on a person's feeling of identity per se. For example, a characteristic effect is for the user to feel more childlike, more open to experience, more filled with wonder and awe at the nature of things than he is ordinarily. Common effects on identity include feeling particularly powerful, capable, and intelligent, feeling a lack of separation between oneself and the world, an at-one-ness with the world, and feeling that one's actions and events become archetypal. That is, instead of John Smith doing a particular thing with Mary Jones at a certain time, it becomes Man interacting with Woman in the Way Man has always interacted with Woman.


Spiritual Experiences

    This shift in identity to archetypal levels takes us to a number of experiences, which may be considered spiritual, that is, dealing with the ultimate nature and destiny of man. Some of the users have had important spiritual experiences take place while they were intoxicated, others have had experiences occurring later but considered a result of their marijuana use. Some of these were spontaneous, others were deliberately sought through meditation techniques practiced while intoxicated. Thus 22 percent of the users felt that using marijuana had acquired a religious significance for them. Particular experiences included visions, ostensible paranormal experiences, the infrequent experience of feeling directly in touch with a Higher Power, and some other experiences already discussed but given a spiritual connotation, such as sexual love seeming a union of souls, being more childlike and open to the universe, and the space/time matrix radically changing.



    Practically all the potential effects of marijuana intoxication seem to fit the model (Chapter 2) of the minimal level of intoxication; i.e., after a certain threshold of intoxication has been reached for a given effect, it is potentially available at all levels above that. One consequence of this is that more and more variability as to which effects are experienced at a given time occurs with higher levels of intoxication. Most of the characteristic effects, for example, have common minimal thresholds in the Fair to Strong range (See Chapter 24).
    Categories of potential effects available as we go from Fair up toward Maximal levels of intoxication may be described as follows (these are graphed in Figure 24-3).
    Beginning at fair levels of intoxication, there may be a number of phenomena, which depict a sort of restlessness. This is one of the few categories of phenomena which does not seem to meet the minimal level model noted earlier; these phenomena generally seem to disappear once the user gets more strongly intoxicated rather than staying potentially available at all levels above the minimal one.
    Going somewhat higher, the user may experience a variety of effects that we might call relaxing, quieting, or opening. These involve a general calming down and being receptive to things. Sensory enhancement in the various senses may begin at this level, as well as feelings of greater sensitivity to others and subtlety in interpersonal relationships. At these Low-to-Moderate levels, we may also have the beginnings of feelings of efficiency, being able to focus well on things, being centered in oneself, and being able to work well. This last category is the one other type of effect that also does not seem to meet the minimal level model, but rather to exist only at these Moderate levels and to be later replaced by feelings of inefficiency. Insights into oneself, realization of changes in cognitive processes, and aftereffects, such as finding it somewhat hard to get organized the next day, may begin at this Moderate to Strong intoxication level.
    As the user smokes enough to get up to the Strong levels of intoxication, alterations in his perception of the space/time matrix of existence may begin to occur. Imagery in all sensory modalities may be greatly intensified, fantasy may become extremely real, and it may be possible to experience fantasies so real as to almost be hallucinations. At the Strong level and above we may also begin to get feelings of drifting, losing control of the situation, and, if problem-solving activity is pressed upon a user, feelings that the mind works inefficiently. Greatly enhanced awareness of internal body processes that normally cannot be sensed may start to come in at this level also.
    As the user becomes even more intoxicated, he may begin to experience alterations in memory functions, such as forgetting what he started to talk about, remembering things other than what he is trying to recall, or state-specific memory. Loss of contact with the environment becomes possible, and the user may become absorbed in internal experiences. Identity may change in the ways discussed above, and the infrequent mystical and paranormal experiences may occur at this level.
    Jumping up to the Maximal level, nausea may occur, albeit very rarely. Note again that practically all lower-level phenomena are potentially available at higher levels as well.



    What are some major questions for future research?
    First, how can we get an even better understanding of the nature of marijuana intoxication? Replication and extension of the present study is called for. With such a design, we could devise better questions to ask, better in terms of having more specific meaning to both users and investigators and better in terms of psychometric properties that would allow more sophisticated statistical analyses. Similar studies could be carried out with different populations and tell us valuable things about how cultural factors shape experience; I doubt that the young black in the ghetto has the same spectrum of effects with marijuana as the white college student or professional.
    Still within the systematic questioning format, we could investigate the interrelationships of intoxication phenomena within a single individual, trying to do justice to the uniqueness of individual experience. From such case studies one could then compare individuals and possibly find similar types of users, i.e., there might be very little overlap between the experiences of some users, even though all their experiences fall within the total spectrum of potential effects of marijuana intoxication. The reasons for these individual differences could tell us a good deal about the functioning of the mind.
    The results of the present study and replications of it can also be used to guide laboratory research and perhaps avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued previous laboratory studies. Many questions can be studied in the laboratory that are not very suitable for the field study approach. For example, how well do users' ratings of their level of intoxication correlate with actual amount of marijuana or THC consumed? Which is more useful for predicting other aspects of intoxication, experience or behavior, self-report of level or knowledge of amount of chemical consumed? Undoubtedly, some users will not be able to rate the amount of THC well, whereas others will do so very well. What makes for good raters and poor raters? Does the ability to "come down at will" or have a "contact high" make knowledge of THC levels meaningless? How does a new user "learn" to become intoxicated? How do experienced users "learn" new effects? Could completely new effects be produced under the special conditions possible in a laboratory setting? Could a "disciplined" use of drugs be taught, say in conjunction with bio-feedback techniques, making entirely new intoxication effects available?
    A second important direction for future research is understanding other states of consciousness in general and eventually, consciousness itself. The type of overall look presented in this book for the phenomenology of marijuana intoxication has not been carried out for the other states of consciousness, yet many people make facile assertions such as, "Meditation is just a form of self-hypnosis," based only on surface knowledge of different states of consciousness.
    This lack of data on other states of consciousness makes it impossible to answer some important questions about marijuana intoxication, e.g., what effects of marijuana intoxication can be identically experienced in other states of consciousness? Might we learn to experience some of the desirable effects of being stoned in our ordinary state?
    A third important direction for future research is on the practical uses and benefits of marijuana intoxication. Obviously, pleasure is the main benefit of marijuana for most users most of the time. But does it really aid creative thinking? Might it have specific applications in personal growth or psychotherapy through its many effects on thought, emotions, memory, identity? Might there be useful medical applications in selected cases, such as a tranquilizer or sedative in low doses?
    Finally, a good deal of research is needed on what the real costs or dangers of occasional or chronic marijuana use might be. So much propaganda has been put out, officially and unofficially, on this question that the waters are very muddied. I think it unlikely that we ever get something for nothing, but let's find out the actual physiological or psychological costs of marijuana use so we can weigh them against the benefits and make an intelligent decision about whether the benefits are worth the cost.

Appendix A

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