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Cannabis, Identity and Religion

Please note that the laws on the growing and possession of Cannabis vary from country to country. Shared Care takes no responsibility for any action that the reader may take as a result of reading this article

Last modified 2014-06-11 12:18

The psychoactive nature of cannabis has long caused it be associated with spirituality and religious experience. Many areas of the brain contain cannabinoid receptors, including areas responsible for basic motor skills, impulse and reflexes, such as the cerebellum and basal ganglia. However, their density is higher in areas that influence the more developed brain functions: the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion, memory, behaviour and motivation, and the neocortex, which controls spatial reasoning, complex thought and language.

These structures are more developed in "higher" species, and the neocortex is unique to mammalian species. Certain primitive structures found in all vertebrates, such as the spinal cord, brain stem, hypothalamus and thalamus, are lower in cannabinoid receptors, but are still thought to be significantly influenced by them.

Cannabis, schizophrenia and visual processing

The altered perception of reality experienced by many cannabis users occurs due to the effect of THC in several regions of the brain. Disturbed visual processing is thought to cause the delusions common to schizophrenia as well as the altered states of reality experienced by cannabis users; the area of the brain responsible is the visual cortex, which resides in the occipital lobes in the hind part of the cerebral cortex.

The density of CB1 receptors in the visual cortex increases steadily throughout human development, peaking in adolescence; significantly, it is at this time in life that symptoms of schizophrenia usually present. Furthermore, there is a well-known link between schizophrenia and delusions of a religious nature, and schizophrenics are also far more likely to be dependent on cannabis than the general population. These factors strongly imply that abnormal activity in the cannabinoid receptors of the visual cortex could be a cause of such delusional thought processes.

The significance of the frontal and temporal lobes

Visual disturbances alone do not account for the intensity of the religious fervour experienced by schizophrenics and sacramental users of "entheogens" (substances that "generate the divine within"). A study in 2001 showed that activity in the brains of schizophrenics experiencing religious delusions is reduced in the occipital lobes (where the visual cortex is situated) and increased in the frontal and left temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex.

A study in 2006 demonstrated that also exhibited increased activity in the frontal and left temporal areas. Although the occipital lobe of non-schizophrenic cannabis users remains relatively unaffected, there is one (1) case of a "cannabis-induced" stroke affecting the occipital lobe of a long-term user. Furthermore, a long-term effect of schizophrenia is ongoing brain tissue loss in the cortices; sufferers that use cannabis experience faster tissue loss in the occipital lobes than non-users.

How perception of identity can be affected

The left temporal lobe plays a key role in auditory functions such as speech, comprehension and verbal memory, while the frontal lobes are the centre for dopamine signalling, and help to control functions related to reward, attention span, and motivation. Interactions between the frontal and temporal lobes are also thought to be critical to self-awareness and sense of identity, and damage or malformation in these areas has been documented to cause various related problems.

Capgras syndrome is a famous example of a "delusional misidentification syndrome" linked to schizophrenia, epilepsy and frontal and temporal lobe damage, in which sufferers persist in the belief that other individuals close to them have been replaced by identical imposters. Dissociative disorders, including dissociative identity disorder (DID) and depersonalisation disorder (DPD), can lead sufferers to experience multiple, distinct personalities (DID) or exist in a "dream-like" state, detached from reality (DPD). These conditions often arise as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dissociative disorders and religious "trance"

Dissociative disorders have also been linked to increased activity in the frontal lobes; activity (as well as level of depersonalisation itself) has been shown to increase further when THC is administered. These disorders have also been postulated as a possible explanation for instances of religious "trance" or possession. Disturbingly, a common link between PTSD, dissociative disorders and religious experience is childhood abuse: in a sample of religiously-affiliated adults, those with history of past abuse showed greater tendency to experience transcendant religious visions.

Temporal lobe epilepsy, partial seizures and transcendant visions

Another condition that has been linked to religious visions is temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), which can cause partial seizures that occur unexpectedly, impair consciousness, and cause visual disturbances, while not necessarily impairing motor function. The emotional response to such seizures is complex and intriguing: sufferers , which is the sensation of observing oneself as if in a dream, with no control over events; as well as this, feelings of fear, euphoria and hyper-religiosity are common. One study also showed that sufferers of TLE exhibited a dramatic change in electrical skin resistance when shown examples of religious imagery.

Seizures are caused by abnormal overactivity of neurons; a simple partial seizure implies abnormal excessive activity in the temporal lobe, as is also the case with schizophrenia and cannabis use. If the seizures experienced are complex, they may extend to neighbouring structures in the brain. This hyperconnectivity, between regions responsible for usually discrete functions, can lead to some remarkable side-effects such as synaesthesia, which is often accompanied by intense, ecstatic emotion.

The relationship between the temporal lobe and feelings of religiosity has been noted several times. Ellen G. White, founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, began to experience intense visions after suffering a head injury in childhood. Various other cases of TLE sufferers undergoing religious experiences have been documented, and some believe that historic prophets such as Moses may have also suffered from the condition.

The role of mystics and visionaries within organised religion

While schizophrenia and TLE are of course undesirable conditions, the depth of the delusions causes many sufferers to become entirely convinced of their version of reality, and to exert considerable influence on others. Prior to modern understanding of the illness, it is easy to understand how convincing such individuals may have been to the religiously impressionable, and it is likely that many historic religious visionaries in fact suffered from delusions.

It is also easy to understand how such delusional states, when viewed as true religious experience, became a powerful tool of early religious organizations, to the extent that the priests and shamans of countless denominations would find their artificial realisation a highly convenient way to demonstrate communion with a higher power. Not only this, but for the individual or social user, consuming cannabis and other entheogens can indeed create a feeling of religious bliss, allowing intense emotion that may not otherwise be possible, and potentially strengthening feelings of social cohesion, well-being and existential validation.

However, by the time monotheism was established, such visionaries and herbalists began to be viewed with suspicion, and many would be tried as witches and executed, such as Joan of Arc. Some, like Hildegard von Bingen, were able to manage their visions in an way that was acceptable to the Church, and helped to perpetuate mystic thinking within the establishment throughout horrendously oppressive times.

Now, as psychological research and societal attitudes increasingly accept and understand the nature of delusional illness, sufferers are fortunately far less likely to experience such intense discrimination, although as with any condition perceived as abnormal, a certain level still exists throughout society. With time, it is to be hoped that their (often hugely creative and artistic) contribution to society can be more fully realised and appreciated.


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