Marijuana played a big role in my coming of age, and coming into my own in terms of my beliefs, my identity, my taste in art and music. In my early youth I was happy to listen to whatever my friends were listening to (which in America, in the 90’s, was mostly punk rock, grunge, alternative, etc), to talk like them and dress like them. I just wanted to fit in, to belong, to be a part of the crowd.
But when I was around 16, something shifted. I was no longer content to buy the same clothes and CDs as other kids. My music was no longer a social statement about which clique I was in. I was listening for the pure pleasure of it. I no longer cared what others thought or what they liked. I had started to form my own idea about what was cool.
It’s no coincidence that this was around the same time I discovered pot. Suddenly I had this pharmacological portal to another dimension where I was free to think outside the box; a way to relax and let go of my crippling teen angst, and appreciate the depth and beauty of the world; an altered state of mind where food tasted better, novels and poems came to life, movies and plays became profoundly moving, and music could carry me away to a state of timeless rapture and bliss.
I spent countless hours stoned, alone in the dark within headphones on, listening to entire albums on repeat, seeking out artists and genres I’d never heard before, exploring new worlds of sound and emotion. I’m sure that most of you can relate.
Cannabis does, undoubtedly, make music sound better, as anyone who’s tried it, ever, will attest. But we know very little about how or why marijuana effects the way we hear music. Because of the lingering federal ban on cannabis, research studies have thus far been limited to mice and other animals, or surveys and interviews of volunteers, with little or no control over dosage, set and setting.
What we can glean, from the scientific evidence thus far accumulated, is that THC and other molecules in the plant are similar to naturally occurring chemicals in our brains. They interact with our endocannabinoid system, lighting up certain regions which are associated with mood, memory, appetite and metabolism, and our responses to pain and stress.
The effects of cannabis can vary wildly based on the particular strain consumed, the manner of consumption, the set and setting in which it is used, and the expectations, mood, mindset and biochemistry of the individual user. But generally speaking, marijuana is a pain reliever, stress reducer, and mood enhancer, which makes us feel relaxed, happy, dreamy, thoughtful, etc. This is, of course, the ideal state of mind in which to appreciate music or any kind of art.
Cannabis changes the way the brain distinguishes between relevant and irrelevant stimuli, and screens or filters sense data accordingly. Marijuana suppresses that filtering process, so that when high we are subjected to a fuller range of sensory input, instead of the narrow spectrum deemed important by our subconscious mind.
Cannabis also suppresses the short term memory, altering the way we experience time. We stop analyzing the moments that have just passed by, and anticipating what is yet to be. We find ourselves more fully immersed in the present moment, savoring and appreciating each sensual detail as it unfolds, feeling like time has slowed down or even stopped.
Normally, in our sober, everyday waking state of consciousness, besides all our constant internal chatter (worrying, planning, going over and over things, random thoughts), there is also a lot of unconscious screening and processing going on, all of which affects what we hear, notice and remember. It affects how we hear music, and how we experience the world around us.
When we’re stoned, we aren’t caught up in cognitive analysis. We aren’t filtering out “irrelevant” sounds. We aren’t obsessing over the stressors of daily life. Rather, we’re fully in the moment, in a state of rapt attention; surrendered to the music, hanging on each and every note, and the spaces between them, moved by subtle variations of tone and tempo, and the emotions that they convey.
The truth is that we don’t completely understand why cannabis makes us feel the way we do, or why it makes music sound so damn good. With the changing legal landscape surrounding marijuana, we are bound to see some fascinating studies being done in the near future, that will reveal a great deal. But we will probably never understand it completely, anymore than we fully understand the brain, or human consciousness. The bottom line is that it works. So why ask why?
Just sit back and relax, put on some good tunes, light up… and enjoy.