Matthew Parris

Skunk has changed me. But art has changed me, too

How strong experiences imprint themselves on our minds and alter the way we see things

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Two recent preoccupations have led me to the same reflection. The first is a Channel 4 programme on the effects of the super-strength cannabis known as ‘skunk’, in which I’ve been participating: about to be broadcast as I write. The second is the artist inmate of Dachau, Zoran Mušic, whose life my guest for one of my Great Lives programmes on BBC Radio chose to celebrate. We recorded that discussion some weeks ago for transmission later.

Both have led me to reflect on the nature of templates, and the theory of Gestalt.

A template (for those unfamiliar with carpentry or metalwork) is a pattern to follow: the pattern takes the form of an accurately shaped example of the thing to be made (typically cut from thin metal, cardboard or wood) so that the artisan can copy the shape. In dressmaking, for instance, if a particular shape is required, the dressmaker might trace it out on the cloth, using a piece of card pre-cut to the right shape. A template says (as it were) ‘this is what one of these should look like’.

The idea of Gestalt is related. This is a psychologists’ theory about the way we ‘join up the dots’ — fill in the blanks, as it were — from partial data, and thereby visualise the whole. The most ancient example are the star signs, tiny points of light in whose constellation the Ancients saw, or thought they could, hunters, bears, lions or scorpions.

Perhaps you can see the connection between these two ideas? If an example of a thing for which you’re looking is held in the mind, your eye and brain can quickly ‘recognise’ another case of it amid what might otherwise be a meaningless jumble of data. Searching for a particular book in a bookshelf, visualise its spine and scan the shelf and the right book may then jump out at you, saving you the bother of scrutinising them one by one. African game-spotters will tell you something similar: hold in your mind’s eye an image of a kudu, and you’ll more easily spot the antelope camouflaged in the bush.

Or what might be the antelope. Or, star-gazing, Orion the Hunter. But you might of course be wrong. For the jumble of data available to you may be consistent with other constructions, but you will tend to leap to the template you’re familiar with and, if it’s not inconsistent with the dots, join them up in that way.

And now to drugs. When at Yale I sampled the hallucinogen LSD. After eating a tab of (apparent) blotting paper I went walking alone in the New England winter. There were voices, people’s voices — in busy New Haven there always are — but I now heard in them the sound of my own name. I knew it was the drug and took no notice. But back in my room when I closed my eyes, the swirly dark we always see resolved itself into faces — grotesque, intricately drawn faces, like Dürer prints.

For years after, I was able to see those faces on shutting my eyes. I knew they weren’t real and found the effect interesting, but gradually it faded. Then some years ago I took the anti-malarial drug Larium, and the faces came back. They have never since left. One of my brothers sees them too — but has never taken drugs.

Has my brain been altered? Or did LSD just help me form templates, so I can descry the now familiar shapes from swirly data available to all of us? Another friend became temporarily paranoid, searching (as the human survival instinct must teach us to) for signs of threat or hostility, searching for matches to templates, but too intensely.

For my Channel 4 skunk programme I spent hours in the dark tunnel of an MRI scanner, scanning my cannabis-addled brain while I performed mental tests. It’s noisy in there, with a kind of rhythmic, soft thump, and — enhanced by the drug — this morphed into an almost musical, rhythmic pattern in my mind. I liked it — but was surprised to encounter it again last week when a friend with a talent for mimicry mimicked the sound of a farmers’ milking machine. All at once, there I was again, in the scanner. I had learned the template under the influence of cannabis, and it stayed with me.

Finally, then, to Zoran Mušic. In Dachau in 1944-45, he made sketches of corpses, open-mouthed skulls and heaps of the dead. He survived and in later life, as a moderately successful landscape painter, those sketches started coming back to him. He stared at a dry, stony, limestone hill and saw in the rocks the bones. In his mirror he saw the skull beneath the skin. And he started to paint again the horrors he’d once witnessed.

To prepare for the programme about Mušic I studied dozens of his paintings and drawings. I began to see more easily the things he saw. And later put the experience from my thoughts.

Or so I supposed. But weeks later in northern Spain I walked in the beech woods, winter-bare, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Tree trunks were almost white in the weak sun, and shaped like twisted arms. And all at once, like Mušic, I saw the bones. As I noted in my Times diary, now I always will.

I don’t know everything that drugs can do to the mind, but I wonder whether one thing may be less sinister than we think. By enhancing the imaginative processes by which we learn to interpret the world, drugs (and many other intense experiences) may leave us with templates — paranoid, morbid, beautiful or scary — that we store among all the other templates that memory keeps.

So in a way, yes, drugs do change us. But perhaps only in the way that mere experience can change us.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    I was at college with Snowie, before the incident of the water pistol. I recall a few somewhat ‘fuelled’ parties before we became very sedate and claimed that we did not inhale in order to guarantee the pension scheme. I miss my colourful ties; glad they have had such an extended length of life.

    • balance_and_reason

      er OK Terry…back in your chair.

    • William_Brown

      You sold him your ties?

      • Terry Field

        No, I wish I had, for all the years they appeared on the box. I GAVE them to him.

        • William_Brown

          Ultimately then, it’s you who is responsible… How do you sleep?

          • Terry Field

            Yes, sleep is difficult; it is another of those butterfly wings causing a tornado events.

  • balance_and_reason

    If you are a first time lightweight…then puffing on a cigarette is going to give you a woofy rush…what do these BBc women expect from a big schwang on some premium grade hot shit….course they went down; bunch of lame arse pussies couldn’t wrestle their way out of a paper bag.

  • trace9
  • JSC

    I seem to remember an interview with the late, great chemistry professor Alexander Shulgin who, when queried “are you not afraid that the drugs you experiment with might irreversibly alter your brain?” he retorted to the effect “You mean like doing a undergraduate degree? Because you’re never the same person when you finish one, as when you started one.”

  • MikeH

    Brilliant, insightful third paragraph.

    Word of the Day is template [tem-plit].

  • Nele Schindler

    Two close friends use cannabis fairly regularly. I know the effect it has on their brains. Both are pathologically demotivated, oftentimes depressive, insecure underachievers. I say this with the greatest love for both of them, both intelligent, beautiful human beings with huge pools of real talent. It’s almost unbearable, to think what could have become of them if that horrid drug didn’t zap them of their energy. The damage is very real and very lasting. If you catch your kid puffing a joint, give them a beating they’ll never forget.

    • Helen of Troy

      If you catch your kid puffing a joint, give them a beating they’ll never forget And with that line of moronic cruelty you have just lost most readers, including me.

    • Richard Baranov

      My nephew (deceased) had a successful career in the city. He did math in his head that would require most people to sit down with pencil, paper, and calculator and still fumble getting the answer. He could do this stoned or straight and since he smoked almost every day, it was mostly stoned. He was cheerful, gregarious and far from insecure. Simply put, a persons reaction to marijuana depends on the individual and, for that reason, anecdotal evidence is of no use at all.
      I have long thought that marijuana simply enhances traits that are innate and nothing I have witnessed convinces me otherwise. It is now fashionable to relinquish responsibility for ones behaviour onto someone or something else and dope becomes a useful ‘whipping boy’ for that. Your friends may have problems but I seriously doubt that it has anything to do with smoking. There difficulties are probably psychological and likely existed prior to their use of marijuana, they use dope, more than likely, as self-medication.

      • Nele Schindler

        I’ve never, ever, EVER met a capable, energetic stoner, although I accept there might be exceptions.

        The evidence is far more than anecdotal. The fact that smoking dope exacerbates pre-existing traits and problems should spur us into action to protect those who are vulnerable.

        It has become fashionable to be laissez-faire about all sorts of drug abuse, from heavy drinking to dope to porn to hard drugs. All these things can be hugely destructive in the very people who need every ounce of strength, clarity and focus.

        The hidden cost of this is huge – broken relationships, underachievement (both those friends have been on benefits … which you and I finance), depression, addiction, wasted lives.

        I’m not in favour of outlawing everything but a harsh counter-campaign would be welcome. Instead, what do we get? Cries for legalisation. It’s disgusting how we collectively have given up on each other, selfishly enclosed in our little bubbles, demanding ‘freedom’ while others end up under the wheels.

        • Richard Baranov

          You are wrong on several counts. The reason you have not met an ‘energetic stoner’ is because you have not recognized them as people who are stoned. In other words they fail to meet your stereotype and therefore are discounted. Simply put you are self selecting in order to fit your perception of marijuana users.

          It is lazy to mix up smoking marijuana with ‘drug abuse, per se, heavy drinking, and porn. In fact it is simply silly and emotive, therefore irrational. I lived, most of my life, in the San Francisco/Bay Area. I can assure you that almost to a man those people churning out ideas in silicone valley are marijuana users and perfectly well adjusted, phenomenally creative and holding down jobs in which they make money hand over fist. Of all the people I knew, mostly academics at U.C. Berkeley, few of them didn’t smoke marijuana. That such people were working at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world hardly suggests that they were suffering from brain rot or in need of help from ‘broken relationships’ and all that nonsense.

          What you evidently don’t know is that marijuana was made illegal not because it was “dangerous” it is not, but because J Edger Hoover did not like the fact that Mexicans were making money out of it by selling it to white people. In short its illegality has to do with racism, not some inherent property of marijuana as a danger. As Professor nutt pointed out, it is far less dangerous than alcohol and that its use linked to psychosis etc. are quite simply false.

        • Damn right. Legalise weed, but only in conjunction with a campaign against its social acceptance. It is every bit as disgusting as tobacco, and should be treated as such.

    • Bloody well said (except for the last sentence). I rue the quarter century I wasted on that stupid stuff.

  • Mc

    Why exactly is Parris so wedded to the old fart concept of building an article around a parable?

  • Atanas Krussteff

    So, if you can, be careful what you see, who you meet, what you read, what you listen to, what you put into your mind and body. Because you are all these things together and you can choose or the Gestalt chooses you. You are either who you want to be, what you were forcefully shaped to be or a shit of mass culture.