Charles Baudelaire and the Club des Hashashins
The „Club des Hashashins“ was founded in 1844 in Paris, only four decades after the Napoleon’s troops had retreated from their catastrophically failed occupation of Egypt, bringing hashish as their new discovery with them. Napoleon’s troops had first encountered the use of hashish through local muslim dealers, and kept consuming it during the occupation despite the harsh prohibitionist orders imposed by the French government. In a few decades, the use of hashish for recreational as well as medicinal purposes had found its way deep into the societies of France and other European countries.
Many of the members of the Club des Hashashins belonged to the French literary and intellectual elite of their time: Dr. Jaques-Joseph Moreau, Théophile Gaultier, Charles Baudelaire („The Flowers of Evil“), Gérard de Nerval, Eugène Delacroix, as well as Alexandere Dumas („The Three Musketeers“), to name only a few. Their goal was to experiment and explore the hashish experience for various intellectual and artistic endeavors – and they did so ingesting large doses of hashish concoctions.
Interestingly, Baudelaire’s conclusion concerning hashish as an enhancer for creative purposes was rather critical, claiming that it would only „magnify“ impressions and thoughts of a user which are already there. In another passage he seemed to be more positive, but also warned:
“…that hashish gives, or at least increases, genius; they forget that it is in the nature of hashish to diminish the will, and that thus it gives with one hand what it withdraws with the other; that is to say, imagination without the faculty of profiting by it.”9
Little did he know, however, that he stumbled over one of the key effects of cannabis responsible for the creative enhancement during a high when he described that „sounds take on colors and colors contain music.”10 While his description of this altered state of mind is fascinating, it sounds just as exotic as hard to believe. However, as we will see that only recent findings in the neurosciences revealed the validity and significance of Baudelaire’s observation for the understanding of the marijuana experience.
The Phenomenon of Synesthetic Experience
Baudelaire’s statement about sound and color describes what we would now call a synesthetic experience. The expression synesthesia stems from the Greek words syn (“together”) and aesthesics (“sensation”). Today, synesthesia is known as a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway automatically results in correlated experiences in a second sensory pathway.
In a synesthetic experience i.e. during an LSD trip you might have a corresponding smell coming with the tactile experience of touching a metal object, or you may see corresponding colors when listening to a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo – an effect simulated by music visualizing software like Milkdrop or G-Force. Synesthetic experiences can be induced by a psychoactive substances like cannabis, psylopsybin mushrooms, or LSD, but there are also natural synesthetes experiencing various forms of synestesia.
The phenomenon of synethesia had not been described in the scientific literature when Baudelaire experienced this phenomenon, so Baudelaire invented a name for this phenomenon: „equivocations“ („équivoques“).11 The first detailed description of synesthesia would only come a few decades later from the Victorian multi-talented genius Francis Galton in 1883, a half cousin of Charles Darwin.12 Since then, synesthesia has been largely ignored – only in the last decades did neuroscientists rediscover this phenomenon to find how crucially important it is for the working of the human mind in general.
Synesthetic experiences have been described by many users of marijuana only following the intake of large doses. It is not surprising, then, that not only the hashish eating Baudelaire, but also the famous marijuana users and writer Fitz Hugh Lludlow would describe this effect; both of them experimented with copious amounts of ingested hashish concoctions or hash oil. Ludlow famously wrote: “Thus the hasheesh eater knows what it is to be burned by salt fire, to smell colors, to see sounds, and, much more frequently, to see feelings.” 13
But these two are certainly not the only ones who described synesthetic experiences during a strong marijuana high. For his study „On being Stoned“ (1971), Harvard psychologist Charles Tart sent out questionnaires to hundreds of students to ask them about their high experiences and found that the phenomenon of synesthesia is a commonly reported effect of marijuana for high dosage levels.14
Now, while it seems interesting to see vexing colors during a high when listening to music, why should this explain the often reported enhancement of creativity during a marijuana high? Also, if this effect only occurs under higher doses of marijuana, could it be relevant when it comes to the usual high modern consumers usually experience? In order to understand how the synestetic effect can actually play a role in the enhancement of creative thinking, let us take a short look at the groundbreaking work of Vilaynur Ramachandran and other neuroscientists, who recently changed our understanding of the phenomenon.
Synesthetic experiences are not always triggered by psychoactive Substances only. Naturally synesthetic people experience various forms of synesthesia because of a genetic predisposition. Famous natural synesthetes include composers Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Leonard Bernstein, jazz legends Duke Ellington and drummer Elvin Jones, the painter David Hockney, and the writer Vladimir Nabokov, a “color-to-grapheme”-synesthete. A synesthetic person with this often-occurring variety of synestesia experiences normal black letters as colored. For example, a synestete might experience the letter “a” as red and the letter “g” as green, and this will consistently be so for this individual throughout his lifetime.
As opposed to Nabokov’s genetically triggered synesthesia, synesthetic experiences caused by psychedelic substances, or by a stroke, are called “adventitious synesthesia”. As observed above, the effects of adventitious synesthesia are more common for “trips”under the influence of psychedelic substances like LSD or psilopsybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), but are also frequently reported by cannabis users for higher doses.70
In their highly influential article named “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes” published in Scientific American in 2003, the neuroscientists Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard stated:
“When we began our research on synesthesia, we had no inkling of where it would take us. Little did we suspect that this eerie phenomenon, long re garded as a mere curiosity, might offer a window into the nature of thought.”15
According to Ramachandran and Hubbard, natural synesthesia is caused by cross-activation of neighboring brain regions. Cross-activation concerns through the chemical exchange of neurotransmitters, which travel between various brain regions. Usually, neighboring brain regions like the “hearing center” in the temporal lobes and the color signal procession – area produce inhibiting neurotransmitters to minimize cross-activation of those regions. Our brain manages to actively inhibit chemical interchange between these signal processing areas and, thus, helps to keep our senses separate.
Ramachandran and Hubbard assume that synesthetic experiences occur when these biochemical inhibitors are blocked, thus allowing two neighboring brain regions such as the hearing center and the brain area that receives color signals to exchange signals. As a result, on the subjective level this leads to cross-sensory channel experiences – thus, an auditory experience of a Shostakovitch symphony may stimulate the visual area and lead to the experience of an accompanying firework of colors.
It is well known that psychedelic drugs such as LSD or marijuana can produce synesthetic experiences in otherwise normal people, but the neurophysiology of this process does not seem to be explored much yet. Still, on the basis of the discoveries of Ramachandran and Hubbard, it makes sense to claim that these substances have a short-term effect on those inhibiting neurotransmitters and allow for the unusual cross-experiential phenomenon of synesthesia.
The Relevance of Synesthesia for the Understanding of Human Consciousness
“Fine,” you may say now, “but in the end, what’s the freak show good for? It certainly makes for a beautiful and unusual firework of the senses, but can’t we get that easier if we go and watch MTV, where we find music transposed into images in thousands of videos? Apart from being entertaining for a while, is it not just useless and disturbing to have those sensual crossovers? It may be fascinating to smell a movie, but can we learn anything here?”
The answer is an emphatic “yes”. I am convinced that the effect of synesthesia is one of the most central and interesting effects of marijuana. As Ramachandran and Hubbard observe, natural synesthesia is seven times more common in creative people as in others. They suspect that this may have to do with the enhanced ability of the synesthete to set up links between seemingly
unrelated domains, a capacity that importantly subserves the ability for inventing metaphors, when we for instance say that “the pigeons fountained into the air.” Remarkably, many of our every day metaphors are synesthetic in nature: common synesthetic metaphors would be ‘loud colors, dark sounds or sweet smells’, but of course, they can find much more sophisticated expressions in literature and poetry.
Ramachandran and Hubbard point out that inventing metaphors and the linking of seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas are an integral part of creativity. They also suggest that enhanced creativity may explain the advantageousness of the synesthetic trait, which in turn would explain the survival of the genetic predisposition in some individuals from an evolutionary perspective.
The synesthesia specialist Richard Cytowic, as well as Ramachandran and Hubbard, believe that in essence, all humans are “closet synesthetes”. Cytowic suggests that our perception may be
inherently “holistic”, but that after a pre-conscious information process, only the distinct sensual information enters our consciousness. Ramachandran and Hubbard point out that synesthetic effects can be observed in “normal” (and non-drugged) humans as well. They use an example from the famous German Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler to illustrate their hypothesis:
When normal people have to decide between “Bouba” and “Kiki” as names for these two graphics, 98% judge the left one to be Kiki and the right one to be Bouba.
If you look at these two inkblots, which one would you call ‘Bouba’ and which one ‘Kiki’? I hope you have made the right choice, because if not, there may be something seriously wrong with your angular gyros region. Ninety-eight percent of probands would call the left hand blot ‘Kiki’ and the other ‘Bouba’. Ramachandran and Hubbard believe that the angular gyros region is responsible for ‘extracting’ the abstract common denominators between the graphic shape of the blobs and the names, like the gentle undulation of the sound of the name Bouba and the gentle curves of the inkblot. Further, they note that the angular gyros is usually considered the brain region where sensorial information from touch, vision and hearing flow together and is involved in the synesthetic condition. They further believe that the natural synesthetic trait may bring with it not only excess communication between the sensual information centers, but could also help to ‘link’ seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas:
“It has often been suggested that concepts are represented in brain maps in the same way that percepts (like colors or faces) are. One such example is the concept of a number, a fairly abstract concept, yet we know that specific brain regions (the fusiform and the angular) are involved. Perhaps other concepts are also represented in non-topographic maps in the brain. If so, we can think of metaphors as involving cross-activation of conceptual maps in a manner analogous to cross-activation of perceptual maps in synesthesia.”16
Marijuana and Synesthesia
If we take this assumption seriously, then we will also have the beginning for a neurological explanation of an enhancement of creative thinking under the influence of marijuana. With a
decent marijuana high, a user may not experience full blown synesthetic experiences such as seeing colors corresponding to a guitar solo. Subconsciously, however, a pre-synesthetic effect may allow for facilitated communication between brain areas which represent structurally similar (or ‘isomorphic’) percepts or notions. In other words, during a high we can more easily find associations between structurally similar images, concepts, ideas or patterns, like the linking of the visual curved form of the “blob” and the auditory representation of the word “Bouba”.
This observation is fundamental. This kind of excess communication does not only allow us to create metaphors, but generally enhances our ability for what I would like to call “isomorphism extraction”. “Isomorphy” is a technical term for similarity. Less technically speaking, isomorphism extraction is the abstraction process that allows us to find a similarity, or a ‘common denominator’, between various patterns, structures, forms, events, and concepts. This could be an abstract similarity between our representation of the sound of “Bouba” and the visual representation of the actual ‘blob’; which could be subsumed as “soft and round”. But it could also be a much more complex similarity. For instance, you may perceive a similarity between the feeling depicted in a song of the recording of Miles Davies’s Kind of Blue to the mood of a scenery in the city in the evening with a deep blue sky.
We have many of detailed reports from marijuana users which report how their ability to recognize new patterns was enhanced under the influence of marijuana. We usually think of visual patterns, when we think about pattern recognition, but of course patterns are everywhere, and patter recognition is one of the most fundamental of human abilities: we can smell the pattern of something burnt, we recognize the pattern in the taste of a great cabernet wine, recognize a pattern in the way a friend plays chess, feel a pattern of the soft lips of a woman when we are kissing, and we hear recognize the sound of John Coltrane playing his saxophone in various recordings.
Many marijuana users have reported how they have found new patterns during a high. Here is the curious report of an anonymous contributor “Rob” to the Lester Grinspoon’s website “marijuana-uses.com,” who writes in a letter to his parents how he once became aware of a pattern of “timid rigidity” in his walking style:
“I was also fortunate in that I got high that night, as many reefer virgins report not getting high the first time they smoke. An amazing understanding came to me while walking home. As I strolled along the tree-lined sidewalk carrying on a conversation with a friend, I felt an awkward stiffness in my stride, realizing with each step a timid rigidity. I have since altered my manner of walking to a confident, open gait of long strides and silent footsteps. I have since altered my manner of walking to a confident, open gait of long strides and silent footsteps.“17
In another report, a woman “Martha” got high and suddenly recognized a pattern in her friends behavior and in her character:
“During the conversation with Alice and Karl, I realized that she was being very self-conscious, and kept stepping back out of herself. I looked at her and thought, “That’s a whole new way of looking at Alice.” I had never seen her insecurities so palpable before. (…) I suddenly understood that her insecurity was a key to her personality (…)“ (from: William Novak, „High Culture. Marijuana in the Lives of Americans“)18
If Ramachandran and Hubbard are right, then this enhanced pattern recognition during a high might be due to a pre-synesthetic effect. I find it interesting to note in this context that both Rob as well as Martha would use remarkable synesthetic metaphors in their descriptions. While Rob names his walking style ‘timid’, Martha says that she „never seen her insecurities so palpable before.“ The use of those metaphors here may well be a coincidence, but I think that in the light of this essay and its implications, we can see how it might not be fully coincidental after all.
Let me sum up. We can see how marijuana might even at lower doses have a subliminal synesthetic effect that does not show in full blown conscious cross modal sensory activation as in seeing a guitar solo, but also leading to a better ability to make associations between seemingly unrelated concepts or structures, to invent metaphors and to recognize patterns. The research on synesthesia, then, actually gives us a possible explanation of the hundreds of reports of artists, musicians, writers, scientists and comedians who have reported not only various creative enhancements during a high, but also, how generally, their pattern recognition ability was enhanced.
Nevertheless, we have to be careful with the concept of enhancement: an enhancement of our ability to make far fetched associations and to link seemingly unrelated concepts can certainly be useful for creative enhancement, but permanent consumption and abuse may also get in the way of our learning processes necessary to acquire skills and knowledge necessary for creativity on a high level. A high school student who is constantly stoned may be unable to process the information he needs to learn. This abuse can undermine his ability to work creatively as a poet, musician or painter because he misses out on learning the necessary skills for an expertise in his area. The pre-synesthetic effect of marijuana can only help you in your creativity if you learn to „ride your high“ and to integrate the high experience your life.
Many marijuana using writers find that marijuana helps them to generate some great ideas, but that they have to actually sober up first to develop these ideas in their writing, because they are not good at writing during high. I would like to stress, then, that the pre-synesthetic effect of marijuana constitutes a great potential for marijuana to be used for creative purposes and to see recognize patterns in all kinds of structures – but, again, we need skills and knowledge to use this potential.
Baudelaire, then, understated the potential of cannabis to enhance our creativity. Marijuana does not only „magnify“ ones own thoughts and sensation, but it causes an interesting processes in our brains that can truly help us to come up with new ideas and perceptions.
Surprisingly, however, when we go back and take a closer look at Baudelaire’s statement about „equivocations“, we find that he not only clearly described the now well know synesthetic cross modal sensory effect, but he also seemed to have intuitively grasped the intellectual creativity enhancing affect described by Ramachandran and Hubbard himself:
“The most singular equivocations, the most inexplicable transpositions of ideas take place. Sounds have a color, colors have a music. Musical notes are numbers …““19
In a way, then, the great poet Baudelaire not only left us one of the first descriptions of synesthetic experience, but he also hinted at how this phenomenon could actually be involved in the enhancement of creative thinking during a marijuana high