Science Explains How Cannabis Inspires Awe
Regular cannabis users often report an important side effect of smoking marijuana — everything in your life seems amazing. Pizza becomes heavenly. Nature walks seem like you’re exploring the Garden of Eden. Mediocre Netflix shows elevate to masterful works of art.
This is by design — your brain’s design, more specifically. We don’t usually talk about awe as an emotion in public. Negative feelings like anger, sadness, and fear crowd the discourse space instead. But awe is an essential ingredient to the experience of being alive.
The emotion derives from a novel sensation or moment in your life. A feeling that you can’t believe you’re lucky enough to witness something you might describe as magical.
Awe occurs because of an almond-shaped ball collection of cell bodies called the amygdala. Previously you may have heard of the amygdala described as the brain’s “fear center.”
That vastly oversimplifies it. The amygdala regulates many of your emotions and behaviors, including pleasurable feelings like awe. As explained by Timmen L. Cermak, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction medicine, one way the amygdala facilitates awe is by organizing incoming stimuli.
“When an unfamiliar stimulus arrives, for example wearing a new ring, the amygdala adds a special ‘zing’ of alertness to the feel of the ring,” Cermak writes. “This draws our attention to the new sensations on our finger. After a while, when the feel of the ring becomes the unchanging norm, the amygdala stops adding the zing. We accommodate, or habituate, to the ring’s feel and it falls into the background of our awareness.”
Guess what disrupts that familiar feeling of the same-old, same-old? Your body’s natural endocannabinoid system, which is triggered by an uptake of cannabinoids — or, put simply, by puffing a joint. It lowers the barrier to what your amygdala, which has a dense collection of cannabinoid receptors, considers novel or new. It then instructs your brain to release neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, causing pizza to taste like the best thing you’ve ever tasted.
“We dishabituate to the world and many stimuli rise up out of the background and back into awareness,” Cermak writes of this effect.
But cannabis also produces awe in a more subtle way. A 2015 study published in Emotion analyzed the relationship between inflammation and negative emotions. Researchers noted that poor mental health often leads to poor physical health.
One example was that high inflammation correlated with clinical depression. However, researchers discovered the strongest relationship was between inflammation levels and awe.
“Why would awe be such a potent predictor of reduced proinflammatory cytokines?” researchers wrote. “One reason is that proinflammatory cytokines encourage social withdrawal and reduce exploration, which would serve the adaptive purpose of helping an individual recover from injury or sickness.”
“On the other hand, awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore, suggesting antithetical behavioral responses to those found during inflammation,” they added. “In this sense, experiences of awe may be part of an integrated response that includes emotional and biological responses that facilitate approach and social exploration.”
Multiple studies have noted marijuana anti-inflammatory abilities. It is within reason that by reducing inflammation, cannabis also opens up users to experiencing awe. Sometimes, you hear marijuana causing users to feel like a kid again. This can be meant jokingly, as in you can’t function well enough to perform adult activities, like laundry or cooking.
But it can also highlight those big-eyed wonders we associate with childhood — how new and abundant life seems.
Put another way, marijuana helps remind users how full and possible life can be.