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|On Being Stoned, by Charles Tart|
On Being Stoned
Charles T. Tart, Ph. D.
Chapter 15. Cognitive Processes: Thought
THE ABSORBINGNESS, intensity, and peculiarities of thought are highly valued by users of marijuana as a better or more efficient way of thinking; thus the common use of the phrase "being high" for describing marijuana (or other psychedelic drug) intoxication implies that the thoughts and experiences are more profound, more insightful. In this chapter we shall consider the absorbingness of intoxicated thinking, its orientation, the change in the quality of thought, and its experienced consequences.
Absorption in ThoughtA common experience is "I can get so wound up in thoughts or fantasies that I won't notice what's going on around me or won't hear someone talking to me unless they attract my attention forcibly" (9%, 21%, 40%, 23%, 6%). This is experienced more frequently by the younger users (p <.05) and by the College-educated (p <.01) and less frequently by Users of Psychedelics (p <.05). It generally occurs at the Strong and Very Strong levels of intoxication (3%, 9%, 33%, 32%, 12%), with Light and Moderate Total users experiencing it at lower levels than the Heavy Total users (p <.05, overall).
This kind of extreme absorption can apparently occur without some physical actions being stopped: "I can get so wound up in thoughts or fantasies while doing some physical task or job that I lose awareness of doing it, yet suddenly find that I have finished the physical task even though I lost track of it mentally." This is also a common experience (17%, 16%, 42%, 21%, 4%), more so among the College-educated than among the Professionals (p <.05). When experienced, it begins most frequently at the Strong and Very Strong levels (3%, 11%, 38%, 25%, 5%). Moderate Total users may experience this absorption at somewhat lower levels of intoxication (p <.05, overall).
An essentially similar common effect, getting so lost in fantasy that it takes a while to reorient, has already been mentioned in Chapter 9.
Although these three ways of being lost in thought occur with about equal frequency, they do form a continuum of absorption with respect to level of intoxication. Finishing a physical task without awareness of what one is doing occurs at lower levels than being so absorbed that others must attract one's attention by rather forcible means, albeit not significantly so; while having been so absorbed that reorientation is needed afterwards occurs at higher levels than finishing a task nonconsciously (p <.0005) or than needing to have one's attention gotten forcibly (p <.01). These differences are shown in Figure 15-1.
Blank PeriodsIn spite of the absorbingness of thought, and the changes in its nature discussed below, it also seems possible for thought to cease for periods: "I suddenly realize that nothing has been happening for a long time; my mind has been blank and nothing has been going on." This is an infrequent effect (31%, 33%, 27%, 5%, 0%), especially among Users of Psychedelics (p <.05), which occurs at very high levels (2%, 4% 18%, 27%, 11%).
Occurring significantly less frequently (p <.0005) is the rare effect of prolonged blank periods: "My mind goes completely blank for long periods (15 minutes or more); even though I'm not asleep, I have no thoughts or images or anything going on in my mind" (56%, 27%, 13%, 2%, 0%), also a phenomenon of the very high levels of intoxication for those who could rate it (1%, 2%, 8%, 16%, 13%). Females experience prolonged blank periods more frequently than males (p <.05). The young and the College-educated need to be more intoxicated to experience prolonged blanks than the older users (p <.01) or the Professionals (p < 05).
As discussed in Chapter 20, it is possible that these prolonged blank periods are actually periods of sleep with sudden onsets and terminations, even though the users do not label them as such.
InsightsThe content of thought when intoxicated is commonly felt to be insightful into one's own psychological processes and those of others. "Spontaneously, insights about myself my personality, the games I play come to mind when stoned and seem very meaningful" is a characteristic effect (3%, 9%, 31%, 40%, 15%), which begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels of intoxication (7%, 28%, 37%, 17%, 4%). It is reported as occurring at lower levels of intoxication by Users of Psychedelics (p <.01). One would assume that, if insights characteristically come spontaneously while intoxicated, adding conscious effort to the process would help it. "If I deliberately work on it, I can have important insights about myself my personality, the games I play," while a common effect (6%, 17%, 31%, 23%, 19%), occurs less frequently than spontaneous insights (p < .05), as shown in Figure 15-2. Whether this means that the users do not deliberately try to have insights very often or whether they try but it does not work as well as letting insights occur spontaneously is unknown, although my informants' comments incline me to the former hypothesis. Deliberate insights also begin to occur at the Moderate to Strong levels of intoxication (12%, 26%, 34%, 9%, 5%).
Insights into others, mentioned briefly in Chapter 12, are indicated by "I learn a great deal about psychological processes, what makes people tick, i.e., general knowledge about how the mind works (as opposed to specific insights about yourself)." This is also a common effect (11%, 16%, 35%, 24%, 12%), which occurs at Moderate to Strong levels (7%, 21%, 39%,11%,2%). Heavy Total users experience it at lower levels of intoxication (p <.05, overall). As shown in Figure 15-2, it occurs less frequently than spontaneous insights about oneself (p <.01), but with the same frequency as deliberate insights into oneself. Levels of intoxication do not differ for these three phenomena.
Orientation of ThoughtLet us now consider more specific ways in which cognitive processes alter.
"I give little or no thought to the future; I'm completely in the here-and-now" is a characteristic effect (3%, 10%, 34%, 32%, 21%), reported more frequently by Light Total users than by Moderate or Heavy Total users (p <.01). It begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels (11% 21%, 39%, 17%, 5%), at lower levels for Meditators (p <.05, overall). What may be a consequence of this increased here-and-now-ness is "I do things with much less thought to possible consequences of my actions than when straight; i.e., I go ahead and do things without thinking first about 'What will people think? How will this affect me?' etc.," a common effect (14%, 20%, 29%, 24%, 12%). This is also less frequent among Heavy Total users (p <.001, overall). It may occur at Strong levels (9%, 17%, 36%, 17%, 4%), with Users of Psychedelics reporting lower minimal levels (p <.05).
Thinking and Problem SolvingSome aspects of alterations in problem-solving activity concern the dropping of steps in problem solving, the switch to more intuitive modes of thought, increased tolerance of contradictions, and increased use of imagery.
"I think about things in ways that seem intuitively correct, but which do not follow the rules of logic" is a very common effect (7%, 10%, 36%, 31%, 11%), which begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels (7%, 26%, 38%, 13%, 3%). Both Meditators and the Therapy and Growth group experience this at lower levels than ordinary users (p <.05, overall).
Less frequent than things seeming intuitively correct (p <.0005), but at similar levels of intoxication, is "In thinking about a problem of the sort that normally requires a series of steps to solve, I can get the answer without going through some of the usual intermediate steps; i.e., I can start to think about the problem and then just arrive at what is clearly the answer, without being aware of the steps in the thought process I would normally be aware of " This is a common effect (26%, 18%, 39% 13%, 1%), more so with females (p <.05). The modal minimal level of intoxication is Strongly (3%, 16%, 27%, 17%, 5%).
"I am more willing to accept contradictions between two ideas or two views of the situation than when straight. I don't get up tight because the two things don't make immediate sense" is a characteristic effect (11%, 8%,24%,33%, 17%), which begins to occur at Moderate levels of intoxication (13%, 33%, 23%, 9%, 1%). Light and Heavy Total users experience this more frequently than Moderate Total users (p <.01, overall).
"When thinking about things while stoned, there are visual images that just automatically go along with the thinking; i.e., I think much more in images instead of just abstract thought" is a very common effect (8%, 15%, 29%, 31%, 15%), which begins to occur at Moderate and Strong levels (7%, 27%, 35%, 15%, 3%).
Efficiency of ThoughtGiven then that thought commonly is less oriented to the future, is more intuitive, skips intermediate steps, and uses imagery more, is it "higher" or better? The users' feeling about the efficiency of their thought processes while intoxicated were obtained in the next two questions.
"If I try to solve a problem, it feels as if my mind is working much more efficiently than usual (regardless of how you evaluate your solution later)" is a common effect (13%, 19%, 37%, 17%, 11%), which begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels of intoxication (12%, 24%, 35%, 9%, 1%).
"If I try to solve a problem, it feels as if my mind is much less efficient than usual (regardless of how you evaluate the solution later)" is also a common effect (12%, 26%, 40%, 11%, 5%), which begins to occur at Strong levels (3%, 17%, 31%, 22%, 7%). It is experienced less frequently by Heavy and Moderate Total users (p <.05, overall), as well as less frequently by Users of Psychedelics (p <.05). One aspect of thinking seeming less efficient is "I can't think clearly; thoughts keep slipping away before I can quite grasp them," a common effect (11%, 18%, 50%, 19%, 2%), which begins at the Strong and Very Strong levels (3%, 13%, 24%, 31%, 14%). This inability to grasp thoughts occurs less frequently in the Weekly users than in the Daily or Occasional users (p <.05, overall). Users of Psychedelics report this less frequently (p <.05). This may be a phenomenon of memory span shortening, rather than of thought per se; i.e., a complex thought may be partially or wholly forgotten before it is completely worked out.
The control of thought, its directability, rather than its graspability, is dealt with in "I feel as if I lose control over my thoughts; they just go on regardless of what I want (without reference to whether you like this or not)." This is also a common phenomenon of the Very Strong levels of intoxication, presented fully in Chapter 17.
The relationships between the direction and grasping of thought and the users' feelings about its efficiency are presented in Figure 15-4. Overall differences in frequency of occurrence and level of intoxication are both significant (p <.001 and p <<.0005, respectively). The feeling that thought is more efficient than usual is somewhat more frequent than the other three phenomena, and definitely occurs at lower levels of intoxication. Thoughts slipping away before grasped and losing control of thought begin to occur mainly at the Very Strong level, with thought seeming more efficient beginning at the Moderate and Strong levels.
The feeling that one's thoughts are more or less efficient in problem solving is, as we all know from experience, not necessarily related to actual performance. To get at this distinction, the following two questions were asked.
"If I work on a problem while stoned, I work more accurately than straight, as judged by later real-world evaluation" is a fairly frequent effect (17%, 29%, 28%, 10%, 3%), which begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels (13%, 23%, 24%, 7%, 1%). The converse effect, "If I work on a problem while stoned, I work less accurately than straight as judged by later real-world evaluation" is a common effect (9%, 15% 37%, 17%, 8%), which again occurs at Moderate to Strong levels of intoxication (4%, 27%, 25%, 17%, 2%).
With respect to levels of intoxication, feeling that the mind is more efficient begins at lower levels (p <.0005). A similar trend is apparent in later evaluation, where increased accuracy is rated as beginning at lower levels of intoxication (p <.01). There is a suggestion in the data (p <.10) that decreased accuracy begins to occur at somewhat lower levels of intoxication than the feeling of decreased efficiency.
These relationships suggest that Moderate to Strong levels of intoxication may increase the efficiency of the user in problem solving activity, but higher levels decrease it, judging by both concurrent feelings and retrospective evaluation. A certain amount of false confidence also occurs. Comments by my informants on this indicate that at high levels, what seem to be brilliant chains of thought and insights frequently occur, but are often seen to be false in retrospect. Occasionally they can be very creative, as discussed elsewhere. It is difficult to concentrate and direct thought at these high levels, to keep it centered around a single problem. At low levels direction is relatively easy.
The Sense of MeaningAlthough psychologists have never been able to conceptualize it well, thought has dimensions other than being logical or illogical, correct or incorrect by external standards. One of these dimensions is characterized by words such as depth and subtlety.
"I appreciate very subtle humor in what my companions say, and say quite subtly funny things myself" is a characteristic effect of marijuana intoxication (2%, 5%, 38%, 39%, 15%). Moderate Total users report it most frequently (p <.05, overall). It begins to occur at Moderate levels of intoxication (12%, 40%, 31%, 10%, 2%).
My informants indicate this sense of subtle humor is very pervasive; two intoxicated users can have a conversation that will be incredibly humorous in this subtle way to them, but it might not seem at all humorous to a straight observer. Or an intoxicated user will see very funny implications and connotations in what a straight person is saying, without the latter being aware of them. This general feeling of being able to "tune in" to deeper levels of understanding and meaning is exemplified by the very common phenomenon, "Commonplace sayings or conversations seem to have new meanings, more significance" (4%, 9%, 42%, 35%, 11%), which begins to occur at Strong levels of intoxication (9%, 25%, 43%, 14%, 3%). This is one of the bases of the ability to get involved in very elaborate and subtle social games discussed in Chapter 12.
Another very common effect of marijuana intoxication is "The ideas that come to my mind when stoned are much more original than usual" (5%, 7%, 42%, 33%, 8%). This begins to occur at Moderate to Strong levels (6%, 32%, 41%, 7%, 3%).
A striking example of the apparent facilitation of creative processes in conjunction with marijuana intoxication was offered by one user, a 40-year-old physicist:
I smoke marijuana once or twice a week for recreation, but a couple of times I've started thinking about my work when stoned and had real breakthroughs as a result. Once, when I had been in the process of setting up a new laboratory for several months, I got stoned one evening and started thinking about things at the lab and suddenly had all these ideas popping into my mind of little things I had to do if the laboratory was to function on schedule, little details about equipment that were unspectacular but essential. I listed about twenty ideas in an hour, and every one of them checked out the next day. They were all sorts of things that had been pushed to the back of my mind by more obvious problems in setting up the laboratory. Another time I got thinking about a problem area in my work, and all sorts of theoretical ideas came popping into my head. They fit together into a coherent theory which looked damned good the next morningI have since published the theory and organized a lot of research around it, to my great advantage.
Thus users find that marijuana intoxication allows a new depth of thought to be experienced, adding meaning, humor, subtlety, and originality to their thought processes on occasion.
ReadingReading is a type of thought process that is fundamental to modern technological civilization. A very characteristic effect is "I find it difficult to read while stoned" (9%, 6%, 23%, 24%, 33%). This occurs less frequently among Heavy Total users and the Therapy and Growth group (p <.01 and p <.05, overall, respectively). It begins to occur at Moderate and Strong levels of intoxication (11%, 29%, 27%, 13%, 5%). The converse phenomenon, "It is easier to read than usual while stoned" is infrequent (43%, 26%, 20%, 1%, 2%) and occurs at Low and Moderate levels (18%, 20%, 7%, 2%, 1%) among those who could rate it. Moderate and Heavy Total users experience reading ease more frequently (p <.05, overall).
The relationships between ease and difficulty of reading are shown in Figure 15-6. Finding reading difficult occurs much more frequently (p <<<.0005). Reading ease is a phenomenon that occurs primarily at the lowest levels of intoxication and is then replaced by reading difficulty (p <.0005).
As discussed in Chapter 14, recall of what has been read while intoxicated is generally poorer after the period of intoxication is over, although it may be somewhat better at very low levels of intoxication. Note also the common effect of visual imagery automatically accompanying reading (Chapter 6).
Thought and MemoryThe process of thinking and problem solving involves continual use of memory functions. Sensory input data must be compared with information in memory for recognition and classification, and compared with stored data (values, desires) to see if the input is congruent with the goals of the person. If not, the person must think about what to do, a process involving comparison of the current situation with memories of past situations and the outcomes of various courses of action in those past situations. Memories must be sorted as to degrees of relevance.
The shortening of memory span noted in Chapter 14 clearly affects the thought processes, even though some or much of the shortening may sometimes be overcome with special effort on the user's part. Long-term memories may not be as readily available for comparison with the present situation, or the "wrong" old memory may be retrieved. With shortening of intermediate-and short-term memory, the nature of the current situation may not be grasped clearly throughout problem-solving activity, so the thought processes are no longer guided by the goal of being relevant to the situation. Thus decreased efficiency of thought may be a common effect of marijuana intoxication.
This is very much a matter of level, however. At low levels there is little effect on memory, and users often feel their thought processes are more efficient.
When it comes to a consideration of creativity, the shortening of memory span may be a distinct advantage. To the extent that creativity is defined as unlikely chains of associations, a common pragmatic definition in much research on the subject, the shortening of memory span and the erraticness of retrieval will produce unlikely associations and facilitate the creative process. Whether this will appear "genuinely" creative after the intoxication has ended is another question; we usually require a certain coherence and "fit" with other conceptual systems or reality before we consider something creative. The users generally recognize this, enjoying the feeling of creativity that occurs at high levels of intoxication without taking it too seriously until checked out later.
This view of the effects of marijuana on creativity has been expounded in detail elsewhere (Anonymous, 1969).
An intriguing research question then centers around the effects, particularly creative effects, of marijuana intoxication on users who were especially disciplined or had trained themselves to be able to concentrate much more than the normal person. The only account of this sort of thing I know of is by Crowley (in Regardie, 1968), although Krippner's studies of artists influenced by psychedelic drugs is also relevant (Krippner, 1969a, 1969b). Both suggest that a highly disciplined and goal-directed individual can guide a drug experience as he wishes, even at very high levels of intoxication.
ADDITIONAL EFFECTSMany specific effects of marijuana intoxication on thought processes were offered:
"I am aware of multi-leveled thought processes, often not related" (Very Often, Strongly).
"My concentration is longer and stronger" (Usually, Fairly).
"I notice and become engrossed in details" (Usually, Just).
"The ability to see things (society, the world, interpersonal relationships) from a different perspective, unclouded by the fog of our sociological upbringing and the usual ego-trip" (Very Often, Strongly).
"People and irrelevant events seem synchronized" (Very Often, Strongly).
"Considering in ultimate detail every aspect of my own personal involvements" (Usually, Fairly).
"I become very philosophical..." (Usually, Strongly).
"I find myself trying to do something ordinary and pay too little attention so that I do it wrong (e.g., dial the wrong phone number for my home telephone)" (Sometimes, Very Strongly).
"Helpful in putting writings or ideas in perspective" (Sometimes, Fairly).
"I can foresee the future possibilities of my life and its patterns" (Usually, Maximum).
"Discover dramatic new ways of looking at problems when stoned" (Very Often, Strongly).
"See subtle harmony and interplay between diverse subjects, e.g., math and music" (Usually, Strongly).
"Able to comprehend the most abstract concepts" (Very Often, Strongly).
"Thought process is very fast, yet you see things as happening slower than they actually are (at least you think you do)" (Rarely, Very Strongly).
"Very complex connections are made between two or more unrelated events or comments or scenes" (Usually, Fairly).
"Everything (sounds, objects, people, total environment) seems to be just exactly right! All related and perfectly in place" (Usually, Fairly).
"I have a feeling, during and after, of an integration of thoughts and emotions" (Sometimes, Strongly).
"Grasp of total situation widened and strengthened (seeing things whole)" (Sometimes, Very Strongly).
"I am able to sit still and attend to things carefully if I want to" (Very Often, Fairly).
LEVELS OF INTOXICATION FOR THOUGHT PHENOMENAThe various alterations of thought processes and some of the relevant memory process are arranged by level in Figure 15-7. The overall grouping is highly significant (p <<<.0005).
Beginning at the lowest levels of intoxication, we have a "relaxation" of thought such that contradictions are tolerated and feelings of increased subtlety and efficiency are noticed. Moving toward the Strong level of intoxication, reading becomes difficult and the direction of thought becomes less controllable, but the richness of thought continues to increase; it may seem more intuitive, original, and significant, and is commonly accompanied by more visual imagery than usual. The user begins to feel he is less efficient at problem-solving thought and is more oriented to the here-and-now.
Above the Strong level, shortening of memory span begins to affect thinking, so the user may become completely absorbed in the experience of long chains of what seem brilliant thoughts, but not recall where he started from. The intense pull of enhanced sensations and intensified feelings and fantasies at these high levels makes direction of thought difficult. Rarely, blank periods may occur at the very high levels.
MODULATING FACTORSThe effects of relatively linear background variables are summarized in Table 15-1.
Several background variables had non-linear effects. Moderate
Total users were less intoxicated for the experience of finishing
some physical task without realizing it, and they accepted contradictions
between ideas less frequently than the Heavy or Light Total users.
The Weekly users experienced thoughts slipping away before they
could grasp them less frequently than the Occasional or Daily
SUMMARYMarijuana intoxication can produce intensified awareness of thought processes such that the user can get very absorbed in his thinking, have insights into himself and others, appreciate very subtle humor, and feel his thoughts are more original, intuitive, and profound. At low levels of intoxication, the user may feel his thought processes are more efficient and accurate; but as he becomes more intoxicated, this may be replaced by a feeling of inability to properly direct his thought processes so that he becomes less efficient at problem-solving activities, although creative thought may continue to be enhanced. Shortening of memory span at high levels of intoxication also makes the direction of thought difficult. Users do not feel that this shortening of memory span or difficulty in consciously directing thought is necessarily a hindrance in coping with the world, however, and may consider the more intuitive approach to thought while "high" superior in many situations. More experienced users are less affected by some of the apparently debilitating changes in thought patterns.
Footnotes1. One of the most intriguing and practically exciting studies of creativity ever carried out (Harman, McKim, Mogar, Fadiman & Stolaroff, 1966) found a substantial enhancement of creativity, both in terms of psychological tests and actual job performance, when carefully prepared subjects (professionals whose work involved creativity, such as designers and physicists) were given moderate doses of LSD in the proper setting. I strongly suspect marijuana could have the same effect under proper conditions and consider this a high research priority. (back)
2. "Wrong" is highly situation-specific; retrieving a memory other than the one desired may be seen as non-adaptive, entertaining, or creative, depending on the situation. (back)