Carl Sagan: How Cannabis Deepened His Creativity, Empathy and Mindset

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Carl Sagan is one of the most well-known and admired scientific celebrities of the 20th century. As a planetary scientist, he brought visionary insights into the atmospheres of Mars, Venus and Jupiter’s moon Europa. As the host of the documentary series Cosmos, he took millions of viewers on a guided tour of the universe. Sagan has written on a wide variety of topics, including the need for truth in public discourse, world peace, and climate change, topics that resonate today.

As a cannabis advocate, he was also decades ahead of his time.

However, he wisely kept his pro-cannabis positions to himself, the “war on drugs” reigning supreme. On the other hand, in a small group, he professed his love of the plant with passionate eloquence – even going so far as to write an anonymous essay (under the pseudonym “Mr. X”) for the book Marihuana Reconsidered by his friend Lester Grinspoon in 1971, which you can find translated into French here.

Much of Sagan’s correspondence on cannabis has only come to light in recent years, revealing a long-hidden facet of this man’s complex life – a facet in which cannabinoids have helped him reconnect with memories of his early childhood, to find new mathematical ideas, to broaden his appreciation of art and music, and to deepen his empathy and love for his wife Ann.

New levels of perception

Sagan’s first experience with cannabis turned out to be a little disappointing. Around 1959, his anonymous essay recounts, he had reached a “period of relaxation in life” after years of intensive scientific work. During this period, he befriended a group of people who smoked cannabis “irregularly, but with obvious pleasure”. For months, Sagan politely refused every joint that came his way, until one night he finally decided to experiment.

After about half an hour, Sagan felt “no effect”. However, the “euphoric” seshs from his friends convinced Sagan to keep trying – and on his sixth or seventh attempt, the chemistry was set:

“I was lying on my back in a friend’s living room, idly examining the pattern of shadows cast on the ceiling by a potted plant… I suddenly realized I was examining a miniature Volkswagen in detail complex, distinctly outlined by shadows… When I closed my eyes I was amazed to see a movie playing inside my eyelids… a simple countryside scene with a red farmhouse, blue sky , white clouds, a yellow path winding over green hills to the horizon… hues of exquisite depth, and surprisingly harmonious in their juxtaposition. »

Although he clearly understood that he was hallucinating, Sagan was still “convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception with cannabis. He quickly became a regular – albeit relatively light – smoker and would remain so until the end of his life.

As his public persona continued to write popular science books and host television specials, Sagan pursued his own line of research in complete secrecy, diligently documenting the extraordinary mental phenomena that he experimented under the influence of cannabis.

Flashes of introspection

Sagan’s travelogues sometimes feel more like software manuals than spiritual texts, but that’s a big part of their unique appeal. Above all else, Sagan was a clear and precise science communicator, and that’s the perspective he brought to his cannabis travels. What other human being, for example, would describe in these terms the visions he had with his eyes closed?

“Another interesting aspect of information theory is the prevalence… of cartoons: just the outlines of figures, caricatures, not photographs. I think it’s just a matter of information compression; it would be impossible to capture the full content of an image with the informational content of an ordinary photograph, say 108 bits, in the fraction of a second occupied by a flash. »

And then there was the time he took a shower while stoned, and ended up drawing statistical diagrams in soap on the wall tile – and then translating those ideas into college essays:

“I had an idea about the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves…I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work, I discovered that I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. »

Of course, cannabis was not solely responsible for these productions. According to Sagan, the plant helped streamline mental cross-pollination between the various scientific and mathematical disciplines he had studied at the university level.

Sagan was particularly keen to refute the “widespread myth about this type of high: the consumer has the illusion of great insight, but it doesn’t survive the morning exam.” He was “convinced that this is a mistake, and that the…hunches you get when you’re stoned are real”.

The main problem, he said, was “putting those ideas into a form that was acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we land the next day.” He solved this problem by logging his ” highdeas in great detail, then analyzing and refining the good ones in the days that followed.

Sagan’s prodigious memory, curiosity and rationality provided the raw materials, while cannabis tied them together and molded them into meaningful accomplishments.

Art, music, empathy and love

As thought-provoking as Sagan’s scientific heights can be, some of his most moving travel reports focus not on rational calculations, but on emotional and aesthetic experiences: discovering music, exploring art, reliving childhood memories and a deeper connection with his wife through the magic of cannabis.

For much of his life, Sagan was – by his own admission – quite ignorant when it came to music. But with the help of cannabis, he wrote: “For the first time I was able to hear the different parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. »

Along the same lines, he writes, “The cannabis experience greatly enhanced my appreciation of art, a subject I had never enjoyed much before. He discovered a new ability to translate real-world scenes into colorful abstract paintings in his mind – an ability he had never imagined, let alone tried to develop, before cannabis awakened him.

His view on cannabis is similar to that of Aldous Huxley on psychedelics. Both men believed that mind-altering drugs could alter our perception and shift us from our usual, survival-oriented mode, to one that allows for unique sensory perception and thoughtful thought patterns that society and our psychology are structured for. keep away. Huxley wrote an entire book, The Doors of Perceptionon this phenomenon which he called “Mind at Large”.

Sagan also found that using cannabis he could “step into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, toys, streets, smells, sounds and tastes of a bygone era. “. He found he was able to “reconstruct real childhood events that were only half understood at the time. In other words, cannabis allowed him to relive his childhood memories in vivid detail, from the perspective of the adult he was, giving him new insight into half-baked episodes. forgotten in his life.

“Cannabis brings us a consciousness that we spend a lifetime being trained to neglect, forget and push out of our minds. –Carl Sagan.

Perhaps more profoundly still, Carl Sagan found that cannabis increased his empathy for the people around him, especially his wife Ann, a consumer and legalization advocate, with whom he spent many happy hours ” share discussions, perceptions and humour”. In the bedroom, they discovered that cannabis gave sex “an exquisite sensitivity” that also strengthened their physical bond. At times like these, Sagan writes, cannabis allows him to “give his full attention to every sensation” and stay focused in the present.

For all of these reasons, Sagan strongly believed that the “serenity and insight, sensitivity and camaraderie” fostered by cannabis were “desperately needed in this increasingly crazy and dangerous world.”

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