Henri Michaux, Cannabis, and The Flying Carpet, Part II

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Enhanced Episodic Memory, Imagination, and Transforming Imagery

Apart from perceptual changes during a high, Michaux describes the enhancement of cognitive abilities like the enhancement of the ability for episodic memory retrieval:

“Later on at home I begin vaguely going over in my mind a scene of a motion picture seen a few days before, when suddenly the noises and the voices from the episode – ‘burst out’ and violently throw themselves at me. A memory revived, but stronger than the original expression.”[1]

Michaux’s experience with an intensified imagery supposedly comes from ingesting a large dosage of hashish, which can cause visual ‘trips’:

“These images were distinct, stayed quietly in place. I had enough time (just enough) to see them clearly. It was like a series of very short scenes in color, very well composed (…).”[2]

Interestingly, Michaux also notes how these images can go through associative transformations, a process which can easily be seen to be a rich source of creative exploration for an artist:

“A rope I was watching, coiling there, suddenly ended in the red muzzle of a little feline, (a sort of ocelot, it looked to me, (…) its neck being made of rope, although its muzzle was very life-like and menacing). (…) Another time a complicated assemblage of metal pieces I am examining suddenly turns into a machine gun pointing at me.”[3] 

Henri Michaux, photo taken in Buenos Aires ca. 1936-1938 by Walter Benjamin’s friend Giséle Freund
Henri Michaux, photo taken in Buenos Aires ca. 1936-1938 by Walter Benjamin’s friend Giséle Freund

Enhanced Empathic Understanding

We have countless reports from inspirational users of marijuana about how a high helped them to empathically understand others, to better imagine to be in the situation of somebody else and to feel this person’s feelings. For a few years now adults as well as children with various forms of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have been reported to profit greatly from consumed cannabis. Under the influence of a high, they seem to be better able to understand the emotions and needs of others around them.[4]

Reading a text during a high, Michaux finds that hashish can help to understand and “feel” the author’s personality:

“You can hear the authors in person (….) Words no longer play any part. The man who is behind them comes out in front. (…) The text, at whatever point you pick it up, becomes a voice, (…) and the man speaks behind this voice. The man who wrote it is there. Hashish opens the inner space of sentences (…). The author thus unmasked never altogether recovered his mantle or his former retreat ”[5]

In another passage, Michaux indicates that during a high his perception of others is what other cannabis users have described as “telepathic”:

“(w)ith a look that thinks, thinks and goes through the other person’s head”.[6]

On another day, Michaux is walking on the street and his attention is arrested by the voice of a girl passing by. Again, he feels as if he could “read” the girl’s mind:

“I continued to dwell in it amorously – a voice, hardly mature, and genuinely shy, that made you forget everything else, a voice that implored protection, so wary of the phenomenon of speech, advancing so cautiously like a foot at the edge of a precipice, or fingers held out towards the fire. (…) I really should have (…) got to know this girl, so elegant in her apprehensions, so touching and distinguished in her tiny boldness, which must have seemed enormous to her, so delicately adventurous in her loss of reserve as she took her first tentative step.”[7] 

Is it plausible that Michaux can read all this from the mere sound of her voice, of a girl he writes he did not even see? In my book High. Insights on Marijuana I have argued that a cannabis high can indeed lead to various cognitive enhancements such as a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced ability for episodic memory retrieval, and an enhanced pattern recognition, which could explain Michaux’s ability to ‘read’ as much of the girl’s voice. He focuses strongly on the voice and recognizes sound patterns he remembers from other voices; typical sound patterns similar to those of other people he experienced as expressing insecurity, boldness, and shyness.

Contemporary ‘simulation’-theories of empathic understanding stress the importance for us to imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others, to simulate them in their situation in order to understand them better.[8] This ability seems to be often strongly enhanced during a high. Michaux describes this process clearly. Looking at a photography during a high he observes:

“I was looking (…) at some photographs of those amazing divers of the New Hebrides who, held back by long lianas, leap head-first from a rustic tower fifty feet or so high, landing on the ground slowed down … I was conscious of the distances, I estimated as though I were up there on the top of the tower, myself the man, (…), even having the sensation of dizziness, and even after turning the page, still feel myself on top of the tower, still at that terrifying height.“[9]

’The Tower’, Pentecost Island Vanatu”, by Paul Stein
’The Tower’, Pentecost Island Vanatu”, by Paul Stein

Poets, Psychonauts, and the Value of Anecdotal Evidence

The majority of past scientific studies designed to research the acute effects of cannabis on consciousness were seriously flawed in their design. Usually, the participants of those experiments had no previous experience with the substance, came with negative convictions or were fearsome because they did not know what to expect. Many of the resulting anxious and negative reactions were caused by a sterile clinical set and a setting in which observing scientists would control their dosages. Also, the participants of those studies had no special introspective abilities to observe and report their own mental states.

More than forty-five years ago, the Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and the Harvard psychologist Charles Tart concluded that they could better study the effects of marijuana on the mind and body by collecting and analyzing anecdotal reports of habitual marijuana users. In his seminal book Marijuana Reconsidered (1971), Lester Grinspoon was bold enough to include and to evaluate many reports from writers and artists, like Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Baudelaire, and Michaux.

Lester Grinspoon reminded us that we have to carefully evaluate these reports, because poets like for instance Baudelaire had often consumed several substances at once.

Michaux, however, seems to have clearly distinguished between his mescaline and hashish experiences. Like other writers and fellow psychonauts, he left us beautiful and rich descriptions of many of the perceptual and cognitive enhancements a cannabis high can bring. Many of his observations have been supported by countless detailed anecdotal reports of other users, including many medical patients like those with autistic spectrum syndrome who profited from the use of cannabis. It is time that scientists of various fields look at these reports again to better understand how consumed cannabis can effect and enhance our mind and body – and, connectedly, to understand which role the endocannabinoid system might play in those processes.

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[1] Henri Michaux, Miserable Miracle, Lycaeum, translated by Louise Varese 1963, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp, http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Compare my essay „Marijuana, Empathy, and Severe Cases of Autism“, http://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/marijuana-empathy-severe-cases-autism-part/

[5] Henri Michaux (1961), Light Through Darkness, Orion Press, New York pp.124-127.

[6] Henri Michaux, Miserable Miracle, Lycaeum, Translated by Louise Varese 1963, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp, http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Compare for instance Alvin Goldmann (2006) Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mindreading, Oxford University Press, USA.

[9] Henri Michaux, Miserable Miracle, Lycaeum, translated by Louise Varese 1963, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp, http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

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