Thy Thinker on Mr. X by Carl Sagan

in #cannabis2 years ago


Carl Sagan wrote (anonymously at the time) an essay about his positive experiences with marijuana, and his experiences matched mine so perfectly that I wanted to write about it (also anonymously).

(Excerpts in bold from “Mr. X” by Carl Sagan)

“It all began about ten years ago. I had reached a considerably more relaxed period in my life – a time when I had come to feel that there was more to living than science, a time of awakening of my social consciousness and amiability, a time when I was open to new experiences.”

Like Sagan, I also came to cannabis later in life. After suffering from social anxiety and depression earlier in life, in my mid-20s I went through a personal transformation, doing self-work like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation, and improving my diet and exercise. This helped tremendously, and I more or less overcame my anxiety and depression. When I was 30 and in a much better state of health both psychologically and physically, I started using cannabis. I was ready for it. If I’d tried it earlier, in the depths of my anxiety and depression, I don’t know what would have happened. It’s possible marijuana could have made my anxiety worse.

“I had become friendly with a group of people who occasionally smoked cannabis, irregularly, but with evident pleasure. Initially I was unwilling to partake, but the apparent euphoria that cannabis produced and the fact that there was no physiological addiction to the plant eventually persuaded me to try.”

I’d always been interested in cannabis but never used it aside from a couple of times in college because I didn’t have easy access to it (until it was legalized in my state). Back in the day, you needed to know someone to get weed, and as a shy loner, I didn’t.

“My initial experiences were entirely disappointing; there was no effect at all, and I began to entertain a variety of hypotheses about cannabis being a placebo which worked by expectation and hyperventilation rather than by chemistry.”

The same thing happened to me. I did not get high my first few times smoking pot. I don’t know if I was inhaling improperly (possible) or it simply takes time for your body to figure out how to process cannabis (also possible).

“After about five or six unsuccessful attempts, however, it happened. I was lying on my back in a friend’s living room idly examining the pattern of shadows on the ceiling cast by a potted plant (not cannabis!). I suddenly realized that I was examining an intricately detailed miniature Volkswagen, distinctly outlined by the shadows. I was very skeptical at this perception, and tried to find inconsistencies between Volkswagens and what I viewed on the ceiling. But it was all there, down to hubcaps, license plate, chrome, and even the small handle used for opening the trunk.”

Not only does your body need to learn how to process cannabis, your mind needs to learn how to process being high. You don’t really notice it at first. Then, all of a sudden, you notice that you’re noticing things you normally don’t notice.

“When I closed my eyes, I was stunned to find that there was a movie going on the inside of my eyelids. Flash . . . a simple country scene with red farmhouse, a blue sky, white clouds, yellow path meandering over green hills to the horizon. . . Flash . . . same scene, orange house, brown sky, red clouds, yellow path, violet fields . . . Flash . . . Flash . . . Flash. The flashes came about once a heartbeat. Each flash brought the same simple scene into view, but each time with a different set of colors . . . exquisitely deep hues, and astonishingly harmonious in their juxtaposition.”

This doesn’t happen every time I’m high, but it has happened to me several times when I was especially high. I’d have rapid flashes of memories from my entire life. Each flash of memory would lead directly to another, all extremely vivid—memories that I didn’t even realize I remembered. It was like watching the greatest movie ever—the movie of my own life.

“Since then I have smoked occasionally and enjoyed it thoroughly. It amplifies torpid sensibilities and produces what to me are even more interesting effects, as I will explain shortly.”

Seconded, though for me, it’s been more than occasionally—almost every day (or night, technically). Though I do wonder if I’d be better served only using cannabis once a week, but on that one occasion, getting as high as possible. Terrence McKenna talked about this. It’s while highest that I have my most profound insights, but I cannot handle being that high every day. The dose and frequency of cannabis use is still something I’m experimenting with.

“I can remember another early visual experience with cannabis, in which I viewed a candle flame and discovered in the heart of the flame, standing with magnificent indifference, the black-hatted and -cloaked Spanish gentleman who appears on the label of the Sandeman sherry bottle. Looking at fires when high, by the way, especially through one of those prism kaleidoscopes which image their surroundings, is an extraordinarily moving and beautiful experience.”

I haven’t had much experience watching flames while high. I prefer to close my eyes and be in a room as dark as possible. Bright lights disturb my eyes while high.

“I want to explain that at no time did I think these things ‘really’ were out there. I knew there was no Volkswagen on the ceiling and there was no Sandeman salamander man in the flame. I don’t feel any contradiction in these experiences. There’s a part of me making, creating the perceptions which in everyday life would be bizarre; there’s another part of me which is a kind of observer. About half of the pleasure comes from the observer-part appreciating the work of the creator-part. I smile, or sometimes even laugh out loud at the pictures on the insides of my eyelids. In this sense, I suppose cannabis is psychotomimetic, but I find none of the panic or terror that accompanies some psychoses. Possibly this is because I know it’s my own trip, and that I can come down rapidly any time I want to.”

I don’t hallucinate things in the real world while high. I only tend to hallucinate if I close my eyes, in which case I know the things I see are not real. Like Sagan, I’ve never had frightening visions that caused panic or terror. I think cannabis can manifest images already lurking in your mind. So if you are already predisposed to psychosis, being high on cannabis may contribute to psychosis, but I don’t think it will do so in someone psychologically healthy.

“While my early perceptions were all visual, and curiously lacking in images of human beings, both of these items have changed over the intervening years. I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high.”

I don’t know if marijuana was weaker back then, or I am just more sensitive to it, but I cannot smoke an entire joint myself. Smoking a full bowl is my absolute max at one time. It gets me as high as I can handle without passing out. It takes about three bowls worth of marijuana to fill a joint, so that’s out of the question for me. Then again, the times I have tried smoking joints, I don’t get as high as I do from smoking bowls. Either joints don’t get you as high or I haven’t figured out how to properly inhale them.

“I test whether I’m high by closing my eyes and looking for the flashes. They come long before there are any alterations in my visual or other perceptions. I would guess this is a signal-to-noise problem, the visual noise level being very low with my eyes closed.”

This is actually a good practice. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re high unless you stop everything you’re doing and close your eyes. Really focus and try to feel the high. This is why I prefer staying home when smoking cannabis. If I’m out doing things, I can’t really focus and enjoy the high.

“Another interesting information-theoretical aspects is the prevalence – at least in my flashed images – of cartoons: just the outlines of figures, caricatures, not photographs. I think this is simply a matter of information compression; it would be impossible to grasp the total content of an image with the information content of an ordinary photograph, say 108 bits, in the fraction of a second which a flash occupies.”

I also tend to see animated images while high: vivid memories of cartoons I watched and video games I played as a child. I wondered why that was at the time, and Sagan’s explanation makes sense.

“And the flash experience is designed, if I may use that word, for instant appreciation. The artist and viewer are one. This is not to say that the images are not marvelously detailed and complex. I recently had an image in which two people were talking, and the words they were saying would form and disappear in yellow above their heads, at about a sentence per heartbeat. In this way it was possible to follow the conversation. At the same time an occasional word would appear in red letters among the yellows above their heads, perfectly in context with the conversation; but if one remembered these red words, they would enunciate a quite different set of statements, penetratingly critical of the conversation. The entire image set which I’ve outlined here, with I would say at least 100 yellow words and something like 10 red words, occurred in something under a minute.”

I’ve never had an experience quite like this, but every time I get high seems to be a different experience. So maybe one day…

“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before.”

I’ve always appreciated art in the form of movies, music, and photography, but less so fine art such as painting. But while high, I finally get it. I see the mastery of the paintings of great artists. I notice every brush stroke and the subtlety of colors. Whereas while sober, I’d look at a painting for a second and move on, while high, I can stare at a single painting for minutes—maybe even hours—and just admire the artistry.

“The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse.”

I also find I’m able to achieve deeper insight into understanding the intent and meaning of art. This is why, ironically enough, I don’t enjoy “stoner comedies” while high. I gravitate towards higher art (no pun intended), and mind-bending movies of the 2001: A Space Odyssey variety (a movie that I didn’t fully appreciate the first time I saw it, younger and sober).

“There also have been some art-related insights – I don’t know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate. For example, I have spent some time high looking at the work of the Belgian surrealist Yves Tanguey. Some years later, I emerged from a long swim in the Caribbean and sank exhausted onto a beach formed from the erosion of a nearby coral reef. In idly examining the arcuate pastel-colored coral fragments which made up the beach, I saw before me a vast Tanguey painting. Perhaps Tanguey visited such a beach in his childhood.”

Being high makes me notice the art in nature and the nature in art.

“A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me. Again, the learning experience when high has at least to some extent carried over when I’m down.”

I have always loved music, but after listening to music on cannabis, I feel like you’ve never really heard music until you’ve heard it high. Whereas before, a song sounded like one whole piece, when high, I can hear each individual instrument—down to every single note—which enhances the overall experience. Music always seemed so complicated and nebulous to me, but when high, it all makes sense. It makes me want to make music myself because I finally understand how to do it. Marijuana inspired me to start making my own electronic music with software where I can play every instrument myself.

“The enjoyment of food is amplified; tastes and aromas emerge that for some reason we ordinarily seem to be too busy to notice. I am able to give my full attention to the sensation. A potato will have a texture, a body, and taste like that of other potatoes, but much more so.”

People always talk about “the munchies” while high, but for me, cannabis doesn’t make me hungry. However, if I am hungry and eat while high, the food tastes so much better that I can’t help myself from eating more. My taste buds are enhanced so I notice textures and flavors I never noticed before.

“Cannabis also enhances the enjoyment of sex – on the one hand it gives an exquisite sensitivity, but on the other hand it postpones orgasm: in part by distracting me with the profusion of image passing before my eyes. The actual duration of orgasm seems to lengthen greatly, but this may be the usual experience of time expansion which comes with cannabis smoking.”

Like music, I also feel you’ve never truly orgasmed until you’ve orgasmed while high. I can feel the sensation fully and longer. I don’t know if it’s my perception of time, or if it really does last longer, but if I’m high, I can make an orgasm last for seemingly a full minute, whereas before it would only last for a second or two. It’s like night and day. Masturbating while high feels so real that it reduces my craving for real sex. (Which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.)

“I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate.”

I likewise am not religious, but I get what Sagan means. While high, I feel a oneness with nature. I am awed by the mere existence of trees, and I realize they are living and breathing and giving me life with their oxygen.

“Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I’ve had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.”

When high, I realize how fabricated all of society is. Everything we think and do was just made up by somebody long ago. I recognize how absurd so much of what we do is. Including so much of what I do—or did. Cannabis has made me stop doing and believing much of the absurd things I used to.

“A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word ‘crazy’ to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: ‘did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy.’ When high on cannabis I discovered that there’s somebody inside in those people we call mad.”

Cannabis has definitely made me question, “What if the people we call insane are actually sane, and we’re the insane ones?” Really, we’re all a bit insane if you think about it. Humans construct society and its rules, and anyone who doesn’t play along is labeled “insane.”

“When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.”

I don’t have these memory trips all the time while high, but I’ve definitely experienced them occasionally. I’d re-experience memories from my life, seeing them from a new perspective, and gain deeper insights into myself and others.

“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it’s a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I’ve made the effort – successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.”

That’s basically what I’m doing on this blog: trying to synthesize the thoughts and insights I have while high. Sometimes I am better able to do that than others. I’ll often have so many ideas while high that I’m unable to write them all down. By pausing to write, I lose my train of thought. It’s more fun to let my mind run free, constant deep thoughts rapidly arising one after another, but then I won’t be able to remember the thoughts. There are definitely some high thoughts I’ve had that didn’t hold up to scrutiny while sober, but many of my high insights have truly been profound. (I think?)

“I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for.”

Me too. I become obsessed with evolutionary psychology while high, and I see how much of everything we do is programmed by evolution to survive and reproduce. Also, I don’t know if I would have been able to see through the left vs. right political brainwashing and groupthink and become a libertarian without weed.

“I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”

I have thoughts while high about politics, race, evolution, and philosophy—topics I was never very interested in before. Cannabis helps me see the connections between different subjects that I never put together before.

“But let me try to at least give the flavor of such an insight and its accompaniments. One night, high on cannabis, I was delving into my childhood, a little self-analysis, and making what seemed to me to be very good progress. I then paused and thought how extraordinary it was that Sigmund Freud, with no assistance from drugs, had been able to achieve his own remarkable self-analysis. But then it hit me like a thunderclap that this was wrong, that Freud had spent the decade before his self-analysis as an experimenter with and a proselytizer for cocaine; and it seemed to me very apparent that the genuine psychological insights that Freud brought to the world were at least in part derived from his drug experience. I have no idea whether this is in fact true, or whether the historians of Freud would agree with this interpretation, or even if such an idea has been published in the past, but it is an interesting hypothesis and one which passes first scrutiny in the world of the downs.”

Using cannabis has definitely made me reconsider the idea of “drug” use. I’ve become more interested in psychedelics, though I haven’t personally used them because they’re still illegal and more difficult to obtain. But I think psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and MDMA should all be legalized. I’ve learned about the medicinal benefits of these substances. Plus, drugs can help scientists gain insight in their work. Watson and Crick were apparently on LSD when they discovered DNA, which does not surprise me. I have had some experiences while especially high on cannabis that are similar to those of psychedelics.

“I can remember the night that I suddenly realized what it was like to be crazy, or nights when my feelings and perceptions were of a religious nature. I had a very accurate sense that these feelings and perceptions, written down casually, would not stand the usual critical scrutiny that is my stock in trade as a scientist. If I find in the morning a message from myself the night before informing me that there is a world around us which we barely sense, or that we can become one with the universe, or even that certain politicians are desperately frightened men, I may tend to disbelieve; but when I’m high I know about this disbelief. And so I have a tape in which I exhort myself to take such remarks seriously. I say ‘Listen closely, you sonofabitch of the morning! This stuff is real!’ I try to show that my mind is working clearly; I recall the name of a high school acquaintance I have not thought of in thirty years; I describe the color, typography, and format of a book in another room and these memories do pass critical scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs. Such a remark applies not only to self-awareness and to intellectual pursuits, but also to perceptions of real people, a vastly enhanced sensitivity to facial expression, intonations, and choice of words which sometimes yields a rapport so close it’s as if two people are reading each other’s minds.”

I have had similar insights while high that I simply never would have had without cannabis. And, sure, not all my high thoughts are winners. I have some truly crazy thoughts that don’t make sense the next day. Cannabis seems to activate the left hemisphere of my brain—the creative side—so I think more creatively. Some of my creative ideas are brilliant, while others are too creative—so much so that they’re insane. Which is okay. There’s a fine line between creativity and insanity. Cannabis helps you traverse it.

“Cannabis enables nonmusicians to know a little about what it is like to be a musician, and nonartists to grasp the joys of art. But I am neither an artist nor a musician. What about my own scientific work? While I find a curious disinclination to think of my professional concerns when high – the attractive intellectual adventures always seem to be in every other area – I have made a conscious effort to think of a few particularly difficult current problems in my field when high. It works, at least to a degree. I find I can bring to bear, for example, a range of relevant experimental facts which appear to be mutually inconsistent. So far, so good. At least the recall works. Then in trying to conceive of a way of reconciling the disparate facts, I was able to come up with a very bizarre possibility, one that I’m sure I would never have thought of down. I’ve written a paper which mentions this idea in passing. I think it’s very unlikely to be true, but it has consequences which are experimentally testable, which is the hallmark of an acceptable theory.”

I am an artist—a fiction writer and a musician—and cannabis has enhanced my artistic creativity in those areas. But also in other areas. I’m not a scientist, but cannabis makes me immensely interested in science and helps me understand and appreciate it in ways I never had before. The somewhat ironic thing is, all my life I was obsessed with fiction, especially movies and television, which is why I decided to write fiction. But when high, I am less interested in fiction and more interested in reality. I would rather watch science documentaries while high than watch fictional movies.

“I have mentioned that in the cannabis experience there is a part of your mind that remains a dispassionate observer, who is able to take you down in a hurry if need be. I have on a few occasions been forced to drive in heavy traffic when high. I’ve negotiated it with no difficult at all, though I did have some thoughts about the marvelous cherry-red color of traffic lights. I find that after the drive I’m not high at all. There are no flashes on the insides of my eyelids. If you’re high and your child is calling, you can respond about as capably as you usually do. I don’t advocate driving when high on cannabis, but I can tell you from personal experience that it certainly can be done.”

It’s definitely safer to drive high than drunk, though probably best to do neither. At least while high, I am more attentive and focused and tend to drive more slowly and carefully.

“My high is always reflective, peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable, unlike most alcohol highs, and there is never a hangover.”

I was never a big fan of alcohol, mainly because of the hangovers and stomach sickness it caused me, which is why I much prefer cannabis. There is never a hangover unless I do a heavy dose of edibles, which can make me feel fatigued and sluggish the next day. Cannabis is the opposite of alcohol in many ways, and, in my opinion, superior in so many ways. Peaceful vs. angry. High vs. low. Intelligent vs. dumb. More feeling vs. less feeling. Healing vs. poisoning. etc…

“Through the years I find that slightly smaller amounts of cannabis suffice to produce the same degree of high, and in one movie theater recently I found I could get high just by inhaling the cannabis smoke which permeated the theater.”

I don’t know about this. I seem to have built a slight tolerance over time. Though, really my tolerance builds based on consecutive days I use it. If I stop for a week, then smoke, I will get quite high on a small dose.

“There is a very nice self-titering aspect to cannabis. Each puff is a very small dose; the time lag between inhaling a puff and sensing its effect is small; and there is no desire for more after the high is there. I think the ratio, R, of the time to sense the dose taken to the time required to take an excessive dose is an important quantity. R is very large for LSD (which I’ve never taken) and reasonably short for cannabis. Small values of R should be one measure of the safety of psychedelic drugs.”

This is one the benefits of smoking as opposed to edibles. You can more easily control your dosage because the effects are almost instantaneous. Although even while smoking, it usually takes a few minutes for the effects to take hold. But once you reach that “high” level, it’s true, you can’t/won’t want anymore. Not that there’s such a thing as overdosing on cannabis, but when smoking, it’s hard to get too high. Edibles on the other hand…be careful with that.

“When cannabis is legalized, I hope to see this ratio as one of he parameters printed on the pack. I hope that time isn’t too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

It’s outrageous that cannabis was ever outlawed, especially in comparison to substances like alcohol and cigarettes—not to mention so many prescription drugs, especially opioids. I’m sure Sagan would be happy to see that some states have legalized cannabis both medicinally and recreationally, but it really needs to be fully legalized federally—and worldwide. This is a natural plant with little to no harmful side effects. Carl Sagan was a genius and absolutely knew what he was talking about when it came to science and marijuana. LEGALIZE IT!!!! !!


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Great write up. Really enjoyed reading this. In my mind cannabis is definitely one of the greatest plants on earth and Sagan is arguably one of the best people to ever grace this planet. Joining the two in one post was just marvellous, including your own personal experience. Thank you!

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P.S you have to try psychedelics!! The music and art appreciation just goes up even another level. And the insights for me are even more profound than for cannabis. It is criminal in itself that these substances are illegal

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