Some Experiences with Language Facility and Learning by T.D.
The author is a graduate student in his mid-30s at an East Coast University who has smoked marijuana for over 10 years. As in the essay “Lady Chatterly Stoned”, a moment of insight yields increased coherence in reading ability. The pervasiveness of marijuana use within the programming community is revealed, as is the persistence of insights yielding enhanced language proficiency in the normal state.
I grew up in a fairly sheltered environment in New England, and in the late Seventies and early Eighties can remember being bombarded with anti-drug use propaganda. I can remember as a high school student a certain group of fellow students whom I knew only as “the stoners,” who lurked under the trees outside the cafeteria everyday at lunch time, ostensibly smoking tobacco cigarettes and with whom I had very little interaction. I can also remember however, encountering certain inconsistencies in the sum total of material I was being exposed to in high school. I thought it quite strange that while being told of all the health risks of sexual activity and doing drugs in “Health class,” I would one scant hour later be shuffled off to English Literature class to study the literary products of the some of the English-speaking world’s greatest drug addicts and sexual adventurers. I would wonder sometimes if I was the only one who saw the irony in it.
While the exploits and imagery which appeared in these poems and plays painted an exciting and at times, unnerving vision of reality which I nonetheless found alluring, I discovered that I had a greater propensity for logical thought than for literary skill or critique. And having learnt of the existence of computers in my high school threw myself into understanding them and taught myself the fundamentals of computer programming rather than any of the more “creative” arts. This, of all the things to happen to me in high school, was to have the most lasting repercussions for my life. When I left for college, I decided to pursue my abilities in working with computers and symbolic logic. Though I had retained a certain degree of curiosity concerning marijuana, it was many years later, after I had sought out as many books as I could, both pro and con on the issue, that I felt confident that trying marijuana would be a good idea.
Consequently, the first time I ever got stoned was in graduate school. When I eventually left graduate school, I took a job as a system’s programmer in a research laboratory. It was here that I had the opportunity to explore issues in computer programming in the variety of states-of-mind that my salary could afford me. In this environment I discovered a very useful application of the marijuana-induced state of mind for computer code construction.
The day-to-day functioning of my laboratory involved the processing of large quantities of data in a variety of ways, depending upon the type of analysis being performed. Each of the various tasks was sufficiently different from the others as to require a degree of ingenuity to efficiently perform the data reduction. My approach then, was always to spend a day or two mulling over the problem, becoming familiar with the desired output of the program and functional requirements of each individual component. On many occasions I would return home at the end of the day and, in a recreational context, “partake of the sacred herb,” as one of my long-term friends would refer to it. Invariably there would be occasions where I would be stoned and thinking about work. What I discovered was that sometimes it was during these periods that I would have insight into approaches to a programming problem. In this state of mind, I found that I could visualize the solution to a problem as a complete whole, a dialog or the script of a conversation between myself and the computer, rather than as individual functional lines of code, wherein each major component was like an act in a play furthering the plot development of the “story” until it reached its conclusion. The next day or two later, I would go into my office, sit in front of my computer and write the entire program line by line entirely from the visual image of the composite whole formed in my mind earlier. The code might take a week or two to write and compile, but the finished product almost always remained an instantiation of the initial marijuana-induced vision. 1
As I began to use this approach more and more, I found myself thinking about the nature of the mind and mental states. Clearly it seemed that I was inducing a state of mind which facilitated the manipulation of a finite set of tools (the elements of the programming language) for the construction of a means to a known end. Theorizing about how this was possible, I decided to think of the marijuana-induced state of mind either as suppressing logical thought to allow a different form of consciousness to arise, or as loosening the strictness of the application of logical criteria to any given proposition. In either interpretation, the net effect was a moderately controlled exercise in free association of pre-defined computer functions with tasks. In this state of mind, I found that I was less inclined to assert a one-to-one mapping between particular command-sequences and desired results, but rather remained open to the multiplicity of methods at my disposal for achieving any single goal. It is from a consideration of the various different ways of doing the same thing, I feel, that efficiency and elegance of computer code is achieved. The end result of this code optimization is not merely aesthetic, but utilitarian as well: elegant code presumes reusability. The type of code which I have received the greatest personal satisfaction from writing is code where the smallest part has had the highest functionality. Almost without exception, I have found that I have achieved this level of programming by first “pre-processing” the task under the influence of marijuana.
As I continued to employ this approach, I became more and more interested not only in the manner in which the mind functioned, but in particular the role played by language within the mind. This was instigated by an event one evening when, in the middle of the night, I awoke with the need to urinate, and yet awake, found myself “thinking” in assembly language. Though I entirely understood the import of the message as “Get out of bed. Walk down the hall. Urinate.” The form of the message was in assembly codes. 2 The next morning, fascinated by the prospect of thinking in a different language, I decided I wanted to study a language as remotely removed from my own native English in order to observe its effects on my mind, and so began a study of Asian languages.
Eventually re-entering graduate school for this purpose (among others), I found the effort required to grapple with a foreign language to be challenging. Though I tried to employ marijuana for this purpose, as I had with programming, I met with mixed results. I was well aware of several of my fellow graduate students who advocated and seemed to prefer the marijuana-induced state of mind for developing language proficiency. Now certainly I had gotten stoned, sometimes intentionally, other times unintentionally, prior to studying. On the occasions during which I could focus on my school assignments (usually emphasizing content comprehension), I was deeply engaged in the material and able to gain an understanding of the full import of each and every sentence. On the occasions when I attempted this with language study however, I would experience an inability to focus on the task at hand; the consultation of dictionaries and grammars, and the attendant tediousness which can so beset novice students became unbearable for me in that state of mind.
Given these problems I simply came to the conclusion that what was indeed a highly functional approach to languages for human-computer interaction was simply not applicable to human-human interaction languages. Consequently, though continuing to use marijuana in casual settings for relaxing and recreation, I avoided attempting schoolwork when stoned for over a year.
Eventually some of my out-of-town friends found me in my new setting, and began to visit. On one occasion, I had as a guest a friend whose habits were to start the day with a joint and a pot of coffee. He would routinely awaken around 10 am, walk into my study, sit down and say “What say, we twist up a thin one?” which was his way of asking me to unlock my stash and turn it over to him. The end result was that an hour later he would have finished his “breakfast,” and I, rather than let him smoke all of my pot by himself, would be thoroughly stoned and seated at my desk with texts and schoolwork piled around me.
For several weeks during this semester, I had been struggling with readings in a new genre of literature. Every aspect of the assignments was a challenge: different vocabulary, different sentence structures, and different conceptual content. Up until this point my study habits remained unchanged, involving dictionaries and grammars applied sequentially to each individual word until a composite sentence could be formed. Given very little choice in such a state of mind, I would study as best I could in the same manner I had been. This same basic pattern repeated itself for the couple of weeks during which my friend stayed with me, until one morning when something quite different happened.
My approach when studying stoned was always to bring as much concentration to bear on whatever aspect of the task I was working on, apply sustained effort until I had reached a conclusion, and then hurriedly write it down before forgetting it. Reaching the end of a sentence, I would then re-read all my notes and attempt to piece the meaning together. It would usually require repeated attempts until I could concentrate hard enough to get a complete translation. On one particular occasion however, as I said, something different happened. For some indeterminate period of time I was straining over a sentence and all at once, in a moment, the entire sentence as a single unit “flashed” in my mind and I read not syllable-by-syllable translated, but “read” the sentence as a coherent meaning unit.
Now it is usually hoped that at some point in the career of a foreign language specialist, this will happen. And, I am sure that there are those for whom this more “intuitive” approach to language comes naturally, and for whom strictly logical and rational thought seems painful and equally alien from everyday functional existence. But for me, going through life without a dominant framework of linear thought seemed to court danger, if not madness. Yet as a result of my experience, I could see in clearly demonstrable terms the facility of such occasionally less logically-stringent states-of-mind, in which the progression of thoughts is no longer logically sequential, but rather arise one after another through thematic association. It was in just such a state of mind where the marijuana which induced it had served as a catalyst to galvanize my comprehension of the language. It was simply that it had taken me 1-1/2 years to reach the point in my studies at which I had amassed a sufficient quantity, a “critical mass” if you will, of syntactic and semantic background of the language. When I had this experience the first time it seemed spontaneous; I was so surprised by the experience I consciously did it again and I could actually feel myself using cognitive resources not usually employed in my daily life to comprehend the characters and import of the text. The only analogy I could seem to make was to shifting hand positions on a weight-lifting bar; the sensation was not unlike exercising an unused muscle group to perform a familiar routine.
Following this experience, I found that I was able to retain the ability to read this language employing these newfound abilities in a non-altered state of mind with few if any deleterious side effects. Rather than serving to undermine my previous reasoned-approach to language comprehension, this event served to inform it by providing a basic ability to read texts within my vocabulary, having moved from a state of passive comprehension into a state of active engagement with the language.
In retrospect, I can see that in my initial attempts to reduce my learning curve with a new language I was confusing facility with a language (what I had experienced with computer programming), with the pre-requisite to this, the acquisition of additional linguistic tools (what I was attempting). Moreover, I realized that this application of the marijuana-induced state of mind had less to do with the manipulation of a fixed quantity of symbols and their inter-relations in an expanded context, than with the generation of a clearly orthogonal state of mind. Initially occurring under a much greater dosage of marijuana, the logical aspect of this resultant state of mind was either entirely suppressed or sufficiently diffuse as to be effectively non-functional. In this state of mind, thoughts seem not to be piece-wise continuous, but rather single, self-contained units of meaning. From this perspective, I could understand why the ancient Grammarian school of India considered the fundamental unit of meaning in language to be the complete utterance or sentence (in Sanskrit, spo_a). For them, anyone who engaged a language through analysis of grammar and words did not really know the language. Full knowledge of a language was evinced by the conception and expression of ideas as single units on the part of the speaker or writer, and demonstrated on the part of the listener or reader through comprehension of the message as a whole, understanding it as “an instantaneous flash of insight (pratibha). 3 ” Whether or not I would agree entirely with the propositions of the Grammarians, the acquisition of the ability to comprehend language in precisely this manner was a milestone in my education. Having generated this cognitive faculty repeatedly when stoned, it became a familiar means of engaging a text, and I could eventually generate it at will, either without recourse to marijuana or sometimes in dependence on only the slightest whiff of smoke. Nonetheless, still when I do this I am acutely aware of generating a state of mind discretely different from my “ordinary” state of mind.
Taking into account the advantage of the reverse tolerance effect in the case of an experienced marijuana user, when properly employed I believe it is possible to use marijuana in a task-oriented training environment to increase language facility. By first employing traditional study practices in an ordinary state of mind, the semantic basis above and beyond basic grammar training is established. By repeatedly attempting to read selected passages which employ only the previously studied vocabulary and grammatical structures, the basis for patterning a new state of consciousness is established. Given enough time and serious effort, it is possible to generate that new state of mind, and eventually integrate it into the repertoire of tools used in one’s ordinary state of mind.
In the years that have passed since I had these experiences, I have had the opportunity to interact with many people far removed from the relatively homogeneous intellectual graduate-student environment. Until such times I had never known anyone with a seriously debilitating drug problem or who experienced permanent psychological trauma as a result of drug use. Since then however, I have realized that most people are goal-oriented, and those who find themselves driven towards a specific end, will use whatever means at their disposal to achieve it. Consequently, someone who is self-destructive will use any tool at their disposal to injure themself. It is most unfortunate that this is the case, though it is only slightly less unfortunate that such events are focused upon by society in a well-meaning effort to prevent such incidents. The concentration of the government’s effort to prevent such self-destructive acts has thus far been focused on removing access to tools, such as marijuana, which can be employed either for one’s benefit or harm, and not on addressing the issues which give rise to such behavior. This book, and the numerous other materials written and compiled by Lester Grinspoon, go a long way towards dispelling the cloud of ignorance which still seems to persist in many parts of the world, and in the United States in particular. Only an honest and proper understanding of the functioning of marijuana can dispel the ignorance associated with it.
When Lester initially approached me about being a contributor to this volume I felt quite honored by the opportunity to share my own personal experiences with marijuana with the growing community of people in this country open to such ideas. Given the nature of academic politics and the tenuous nature of untenured researchers in academia, I regret being unable to sign my name to this brief contribution but simultaneously look forward to the day when volumes such as this one will be seen as a historical curiosity, reflecting a period in time when what will be common knowledge was forbidden truth, and my identity can be stated without fear of reprisals.
1. I am not making a claim as to the uniqueness of this approach to computer programming; if anything, quite the opposite. I am reminded of the not very widely advertised story of a federal sub-contractor who, in the late-1980s, bought into the paranoia of the federal government’s concern over drug-usage and implemented a drug-testing program in their central facilities. An outside consulting firm was brought in and drug-testing of all current employees began. By the time the first few batches of the employees and staff had been tested, one upper management official noticed that a large percentage of their programming staff tested thus far had been fired for positive drug-tests, and that it was only a matter of weeks before the entire facility would be effectively without computer staff. The testing program was halted, all the fired staff were requested to return to work, and nothing more was ever said of the matter.
2. Assembly language is a “low level” language for dictating precise instruction to a computer at the level of the central processing chip and other hardware. The language therefore, is comprised of commands for moving data from one memory location to another and performing binary arithmetic. Having been working on a project written entirely in assembly language for the previous three weeks, I had become quite accustomed to thinking about the program in both the symbols and syntax of assembly language. Thinking about anything else in that manner was a novelty for me.
3. Harold G. Coward and K. Kunjunni Raja, “Introduction to the Philosophy of the Grammarians” in The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton: Princeton University Pr. (1990), pp.3-97 (p.10).