High Love, Empathy, and the Mirror Neuron System

Is Marijuana really good for sex? Recent debates around this question have mostly taken place in internet portals or in psychological e-journals like “Psychology Today”, with hundreds of users telling about their experiences. Generally, commentaries fall into two groups: while one group argues that marijuana can actually at as an enhancer for sexual pleasure, many others insist that marijuana does not really help or has actually negatively affected their sex life.

Importantly, however, many of the critics are marijuana consumers who complain that a heavy long term use with an ensuing tolerance diminished their sexual appetite. Other critical voices often come from obviously inexperienced users who have only tried marijuana few times complain that they got too confused or anxious for sex.

Now, of course it is interesting to know about the possible negative impact of marijuana for heavy abusing consumers and beginners, but I think for most of us the much more interesting question is this: What is the potential of marijuana to enhance our sex life? While this may sound to you like the same question rephrased, it is actually different – and the answer to it seems to me to be much more interesting. Let me explain why.

If we ask about the potential of marijuana, it does not make much sense to just ask anybody and to make a poll, counting votes for or against a possible enhancement. If you would want to know about the potential of a new type of surfboard, would you give it to just anybody, swimmers, non-swimmers, kids, grand parents, and water phobics alike and then start a poll on it? Would you care if half of that group would dislike the new board? Wouldn’t you want to have experienced professionals testing the board?

If we really want to know about the potential of marijuana when it comes to its possible enhancement of sex, then, we have to listen to what experienced users say, users who know how much to smoke for which purpose and under which conditions. These users will have learned to ride a high, to choose the best strain for the respective activity they want to engage in. They will know facts about which strains give them a more cerebral, uplifting high, and which strains of will put them in a more reverie pre-dream state of mind and affects their body more. Aficionados will also know how various strains affect them with a certain route of administration – bong, vaporizer, or ingested – and which is the best dosage for them to enjoy sex.


Marijuana and Tantra

Cannabis using experts have usually learned from living in a certain cannabis (sub)culture, a culture that has given them the skills and knowledge to use marijuana for sex. Reports about marijuana as an aphrodisiac go back as far as 3.000 years ago, when the Indo Persians (or, “Aryans”), brought their Cannabis culture to India. Cannabis was used to enhance sexual enjoyment, but it was already considered to go way beyond a mere function as an enhancement for sex as many of us understand it today. For the Aryans, Marijuana was sacred. Later, its use was integrated in many rituals in their society, as for instance for wedding ceremonies, but also in some forms Tantra, a philosophical framework including a set of spiritual and physical practices which developed in the Hindu-Buddhist culture under Aryan influence. Unlike the distorted Western image of Tantra as merely involving sexual practices suggests, the framework offers are whole array of practices and guidelines for living. The ultimate aim is to break free from uncontrollable repetition problems and to reach enlightenment, a state that helps you to help others as best as you can.

Temples of Khajuraho, famous for their erotic sculptures

In the west, many people know Tantra only from seeing or hearing about the sexual practices described in Tantra teachings like the Kamasutra. But even when we focus at the sexual techniques addressed in Tantra, it must be stressed that they were much more than practical guide to just improving sexual pleasure. They were supposed lead to “lead to enlightenment through to Liberation (moksha) taking the path of enjoyment (Pravritti) to an understanding of the real nature of reality. For the early Indians, Cannabis was not only use as a simple aphrodisiac that simulates sexual appetite or enjoyment. It was – and, for many, still is – used to enhance much deeper feelings of intimacy and lovemaking, and many holy sadhus have used it for centuries to achieve spiritual freedom and enlightenment in their meditations.


Marijuana and Empathy

Independently of this tradition, modern users of marijuana have also reported that marijuana stimulated deeper feelings in them, as this American husband explains in a letter to his wife, who does not use marijuana and is a bit anxious about his use:

Speaking of sexual relations, remember all of those times when you have told me, “Wow, I have never felt like that before.” Where, at the end of our love making, a simple touch would leave you trembling on the bed, shaking and laughing because it all felt so good? Where two hours of foreplay was followed by hour-long love making sessions that left us holding each other tightly and remembering the love that we have for each other? That was, oddly enough, a product not only my love for you, but also pot. Don’t get me wrong, the sex is great without it, but when I’m under the influence of this “horrible” substance, I slow down and really enjoy each moment, making particular sure to give attention to everything you need and completely satisfy you.”28

Lovemaking is more than sex, and this letter gives us a wonderful description of what really makes the difference: ”making sure to give attention to everything you need and completely satisfy you.” Under the influence of marijuana, the author of this letter became more empathic and able to feel and understand the needs and desires of his wife much better.

The last three thousand years have brought us a good amount of literary descriptions and personal reports of marijuana as an aphrodisiac. They describe that it helps to loose inhibitions, to intensify feelings of touch and the feeling of an orgasm, to subjectively slowdown time, which can be used for a more prolonged experience of one’s sexual experience, and to keep the user focussed and in the here-and-now, excluding disturbing factors during sexual encounters. But could it really be true that it helps a user to better empathically understand another person? Does marijuana really hold a potential for us to enhance our empathic understanding?

Without doubt, the human ability to empathically understand others is one of our most advanced cognitive skills, evolutionary speaking. No other animal species beats us at that or comes even close. The human success story is based on the development of empathic skills, and humans who lack empathic skills have a radical disadvantage in society. As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman puts it,

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Marijuana users have reported various ways in which their empathic understanding becomes enhanced during a high. The Harvard psychologist Charles Tart’s study On Being Stoned (1971) names the following two descriptions effects confirmed by many students who participated in the survey as characteristic for the marijuana high:

I have feelings of deep insight into other people, how they tick, what their games are, when stoned (…)’”. “’I empathize tremendously with others; I feel what they feel; I have a tremendous intuitive understanding of what they are feeling.”29

For moderate levels of a high, Tart also found that fairly frequently consumers would agree with the following statement:

I feel so aware of what people are thinking that it must be telepathy, mind reading, rather than just being more sensitive to the subtle cues in behavior.” 30

Here is a report from a marijuana user cited in another book, “High Culture. Marijuana in the Lives of Americans”, by William Novak, which also mentions “mental telepathy”:

When I’m stoned with a very good friend, we just sit there and watch messages bounce back and forth between us, like neutrons. It happens rapidly, and we can feel it in an almost physical way. I often get onto a higher plane of communication with good friends when we smoke together. It almost seems as if we are experiencing mental telepathy, with communication going on rapidly (…)” 31

Another report in Novak’s book gives us a hunch how marijuana might lead to the enhancement of empathic understanding during a high:

After a joint or two, I find myself paying more attention to what the other person is really saying, rather than hearing only the words he uses in trying to get his point across. By keeping track of his mannerisms and his tone of voice in a more concentrated way than usual, I can more fully understand his point, and can respond more directly than normal.”32

This user report mentions a shift of attention to the “his mannerism, and his tone of voice”. We know from other reports that a marijuana high can lead to hyperfocusing and to a shift in attention, and we know that often, a shift in attention to body language helps to understand others more than just focussing on the meaning of words. This is why dogs understand us so well, feel our sadness, joy, or pain without being able to understand our language; they attend to and understand our body language. Note, also, that to read a “tone of voice” or a certain mannerism, you have to be able to decipher a complicated pattern. We have numerous reports from marijuana users for all kinds of occasions that they are able to perceive patterns during a high that they have not perceived before; patterns in music, art, nature, or in a behavior.

Hyperfocussing, a change of the direction of attention to body language, and an enhanced pattern recognition are all effects which have been independently and in detail reported by marijuana users, and the above reports show that these effects could in combination lead to an enhancement of our empathic understanding.

Also, Marijuana users have consistently reported that they are able to vividly remember past events, that they can retrieve memories which seemed to be long gone, and to almost “re-live” them. The following report of an anonymous 19-year old computer programmer about his high experiences beautifully illustrates this:

Memories seemed to force themselves upon me, very rapid but very gentle. I started to remember things in my childhood that made me truly happy and joyful. Things I had either forgotten or just simply didn’t give the time of day to. I remembered raising my hands up as a signal for my mother that I wanted to be carried and the utter joy I felt when she would reach down and pull me up to her chest. I realized how much she really did, in fact, love me when I remembered how I longed for her goodnight kisses, of which never ran dry. I remembered the very simple joys of my very simple existence and marijuana helped me relive them all over again.”33

It is easy to see how an enhanced episodic memory retrieval during a high can help to understand other people better empathically. If you remember episodes of your feelings of teen angst during your last years of high school, you will probably understand your 15 year old son better in a similar situation. If you vividly remember how you felt during the day of your wedding, you will better understand the reactions of the young couple you are seeing at their wedding, pale, stressed and yet happy, clutching their hands and smiling nervously.

These cognitive skills – episodic memory retrieval, attention, and pattern recognition – are some of the crucial cognitive abilities for empathic understanding, and many independent user reports from various centuries suggest that all these can at some point become enhanced during a high.

But these are of course not the only skills important to empathic understanding. The most decisive cognitive skill for empathic understanding of others, for our ability to read the minds of others and to understand their feelings and moods, is our ability to “slip into their moccasins”, as the the native American indians say. For more than twenty years now, so called “simulation theorists” in the philosophy of mind and in psychology argued that our capacity to understand other people, to predict, explain and describe their feelings and behavior, is crucially based in a special capacity to simulate the feelings and the situations of others, to imagine being in their skin and to feel their feelings, to think their thoughts.


The Discovery of the Mirror Neuron System

The simulation theory received new supporting empirical evidence when Italian neuroscientists actually found a class of neurons that seems to be responsible for mimicking some behavior that a subject perceives in another. The revolutionary discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ began in the early 1990’s when Italian neuroscientists accidentally stumbled upon what seemed to be a weird phenomenon in an experiment with macaque monkeys. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his research team at the University of Parma in Italy had originally only intended to study motor neurons in the frontal cortex – neurons which are known to be responsible for our motor control system. With tiny electrodes attached to individual cells in a monkey’s brain, they wanted to find out how certain hand grabbing movements are initiated in the brain. These motor neurons showed the expected activity when a monkey moved his arm and picked up a peanut.

Surprisingly, however, the Italian research team witnessed how those monkey motor neurons also fired when the monkey just watched a lab assistant picking up the peanut. At first, the scientists could not believe what they saw: the monkey did not move at all, so why did the motor neurons fire? Was there something wrong with the cable connections or their measuring instruments? More tests, however, showed that there was nothing wrong with the wiring or the measuring system. These monkey’s motor neurons “mirrored” the activity that the monkey perceived in somebody else. They mirrored the perceived activity, even when the monkey only heard an activity without performing the act itself.

A baby makake imitating the mimic of a human
A baby makake imitating the mimic of a human

From our daily life, we all know about processes of mirroring the feelings and sometimes even the behavior of others. When you observe somebody in pain, you tend to mirror his feelings to some extent and often, to some degree even his behavior, like the his facial expression of grief. Yawning is so contagious to others that if somebody yawns in a class room, many others will follow and mimic the behavior and “mirror the action.” I actually bet that you feel like yawning like now even only reading this. In toddlers, this unsuppressed motor mimicry can be observed up to the age of about two and a half years. If a toddler sees another toddler cry, he will often cry himself, too. The toddler sees the crying behavior of the other and mimics not only the behavior, but feels the feeling of the other as if it was his own feeling. He literally is in pain himself.

Many neuroscientist today are convinced that the mirror neuron system is crucially involved in the process of empathy. If this is so, could it be that this mirror neuron system gets enhanced during a marijuana high? Such an enhancement could lead to the subjective feeling that we can more easily slip into the moccasins of others, that we can actually feel what they feel, that we almost slip into the skin of another person. Many users have noted a better ability to imagine situations in general, visually as well as auditory or in other sensory categories; but we also have many very specific reports from users about how they were better able to imagine themselves in the shoes of other people, to “slip in their moccasins”:

Whilst stoned, I found it easier to put myself in the place of others. I could understand how people might believe any number of seemingly “irrational” or dense, impenetrable ideas. Marijuana opened me up to the existence of so many different views of the world, views I need not share to fathom or empathize with. (…) Let me give you one recent example. (…) One night, in the midst of a marijuana-induced reverie, I got to thinking about the real person we call Jesus. These days, we think of him as some ethereal figure in some far off land shrouded in historical mists of time. (…) I found myself imagining that at one time in history, this Jesus character was a living, breathing human like myself. Intellectually, I already knew this, but I increasingly felt as though I might be capable of fathoming what his disciples and apostles felt. His followers were in his presence, they looked into his eyes and heard his words and believed they were looking at God. It was only in this state of consciousness that I could truly imagine what it might have been like to be in the presence of this man and truly believe, and by extension, possibly experience what so many people on Earth experience during moments of great religious feeling and devotion. (…) In this case, being stoned allowed my mind to circumvent its ordinary non-religious bent, and if only for a few moments, come to know what the truly religious feel. While I don’t subscribe to the tenets of Christianity proper, I have come to understand how real it can all seem for people (…).34


Marijuana and Autism

Faced with these reports of marijuana users and with those new findings about the mirror neuron system, I suggested some years ago that cannabis might in some way stimulate the mirror neuron system in normal people during a high, thus leading to an enhancement of their empathic ability to understand others. If this would be true, it might have interesting consequences for people with autism spectrum disorders, too. Autistic people have various deficiencies, but the most striking one is their lack of empathic understanding for others. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder and children diagnosed with this mysterious syndrome show an in ability in developing human relationships, they have abnormal speech or cannot speak at all, are often engaged in almost ritualistic repetitive behaviors instead of imaginative play, and do seem to have special problems to understand the feelings and needs of others. Researchers therefore soon began to look for deficiencies in their mirror neuron system, and while this is still an ongoing debate amongst neuroscientists, there is evidence that the mirror neuron system in autistic children is at least developmentally delayed.

Now, the next question is rather obvious: if a cannabis induced high can be helpful to stimulate the mirror neuron system in normal people, could it also help autistic children? A few years ago, stories of a few mothers surfaced in the news, mothers who reported they had given medical marijuana to their kids and thereby radically improved their condition. When I heard about these stories I was of course curious to find exactly how marijuana helped those kids. At first, I was somehow disappointed when I read mostly details about how marijuana made the autistic kids calm and more happy, or how it helped them to loose some ticks or to regain appetite. All this is wonderful, but it was not exactly what I was looking for. Then, I was amazed to read descriptions about marijuana helping them to some degree “free” them of their repetitive behaviors, which reminded me a lot of the use of Indian sadhus, who have always used marijuana to free themselves from the repetitiveness and the routines of our thinking.

But reading further, I was then really amazed to read the following description of Marie Myung-Ok Lee, a Korean-American mother author and essayist, who wonderfully described the following change in her son “J”, a 9-year old boy who – despite being on several heavy prescription drugs showed from 50 up to 300 violent aggressions in a school day. After the removal of almost all other drugs and – helped by marijuana expert Lester Grinspoon – medicating him with a special marijuana strain, “J” showed few aggressive behaviors, sometimes for a day or two not even once. His mom reports:

The big test, so far, has been a visit from Grandma. The last time she came, over Christmas, J hit her during a tantrum. This time, we gave him his tea, mixing it with goji berries to mask any odor, although it occurs to me that my mother, a Korean immigrant, probably doesn’t even know what pot smells like (and it actually smells a lot like ssuk, a Korean medicinal herb). She remarked that J seems calmer. As we were preparing for a trip to the park, J disappeared, and we wondered if he was going to throw one of his tantrums. Instead, he returned with Grandma’s shoes, laying them in front of her, even carefully adjusting them so that they were parallel and easy to step into. He looked into her face, and smiled.”35

J’s behavior shows a remarkable act of empathy, given the severeness of his autism; it needs some understanding of his grandmother’s needs and feelings to neatly arrange the shoes like this, and his smile must have been priceless for her. Another extremely important detail told by his mother is this episode:

J. still can get overexcited if he likes a food too much, so sometimes when he’s eating my husband and I leave the room to minimize distractions. The other day, we dared to experiment with doenjang, a fermented tofu soup that he used to love as a baby. The last time we tried it, a year ago, he’d frisbeed the bowl against a tile wall. (…) We left J. in the kitchen with his steamy bowl and went to the adjoining room. We waited. We heard the spoon ding against the bowl. Satisfied slurpy noises. Then a strange noise that we couldn’t identify. A chkka chkka chkkka bsssshhht doinnng! We returned to the kitchen, half expecting to see the walls painted with doenjang. Everything was clean. The bowl and spoon, however, were gone. J. had taken his dishes to the sink, rinsed them, and put them in the dishwasher – something we’d never shown him how to do, though he must have watched us do it a million times. In four months, he’d gone from a boy we couldn’t feed to a boy who could feed himself and clean up after.” 36

This activity may sound trivial to us normal people, but the fact that J was able to engage in that kind of mimicry behavior and clean up the dishes might actually show a better functioning of his mirror neuron system during the influence of marijuana. We have seen above that the mirror neuron system may be the neural basis for mental mimicry, and that mental mimicry serves as a basic skill for empathic understanding.

The findings about the mirror neuron system and their role in empathic understanding and in autism are still being hotly debated in the scientific community. Still, I think that the reports of marijuana users give us enough reason for an initial suspicion, a hypothesis that needs to be taken to the laboratory with brain imaging techniques. Does a marijuana high really temporarily affect the mirror neuron system? Or does marijuana help in some other way to stimulate other neuronal systems? If yes, what would the implications be for the treatment of autism or other disorders, for the use of marijuana in psychotherapy, or for the personal use of marijuana?


Of course, if we take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture, we should ask similar questions about other psychoactive substances like MDMA (“ecstasy”) which have been classified as “empathogens” or “entactogens” because they produce effects on our feelings of empathy.

I will leave this for scientists to pick up here. These questions are urgent, and the answers could have an enormous importance for millions of people – patients and normal users alike. With or without stimulation of the mirror neuron system, marijuana has obviously been successfully used by myriads of people for millennia to not only intensify their sexual experiences, but also to enhance their empathic skills. The answer to our initial question, then, whether marijuana enhances sex should be this: marijuana, if used correctly and under the right conditions, does not only hold a potential for us to enhance our sex live, but also to significantly enhance and develop our empathic understanding of others, to create real and unique moments of intimacy, and to deepen and intensify friendships and other human relationships, and to enrich our love lives.

Maybe it is true that, as the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa says:

The world belongs to who doesn’t feel. The primary condition to be a practical man is the absence of sensitivity.”

This might also be one of the reasons why many “practical men” are so afraid of a psychoactive substance like marijuana, which stands for “hippies, love, and peace”. The “practical men” are afraid that the substance’s influence might undermine their power, to bring an inhumane system down, by bringing people back to their senses, taking them in to the here-and-now of the extended experience of the wonder of love and empathy, and, thus, to remember the truth that the great mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once expressed:

The most valuable things in life are not measured in monetary terms. The really important things are not houses and lands, stocks and bonds, automobiles and real state, but friendships, trust, confidence, empathy, mercy, love and faith.”