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Chapter 7

The chemistry of "getting high"

  1. The adventurous experiences of intoxication and religion
  2. The pharmacological basis of getting "high"
  3. "Getting high" - not an effect, but an interpretation.

The adventurous experiences of intoxication and religion

There are numerous colorful descriptions of inner experiences during intoxication:1 In most cases, descriptions of this kind are linked to LSD, cannabis or cocaine. Sometimes, it is alcohol, amphetamine or opiates. The experiences are associated with such concepts as "high", "psychedelic", "euphoria" and "transcendence".

The modern wave of intoxicant use started in intellectual American circles in the sixties. "Psychedelic" or "transcendental" experience was a central element. Ideological leaders like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert asserted that the chemical substances (especially LSD) expanded human consciousness and cognition. They portrayed the effects as heavenly experiences.

Many well-known descriptions of such experiences have been written by authors of poetry or fiction (Baudelaire, de Quincey, Huxley). This is no coincidence. The descriptions are vague, ambiguous metaphors, corresponding to metaphors used in poetry. In fortunate cases, the reader gets a feeling (maybe illusive) that "I understand fully the author's message - I have felt the same way myself". The more abstract a metaphor is, the greater the chance that friendly readers interpret the metaphor as appropriate.

The similarity with religious trance is remarkable. Some former leaders of the psychedelic culture (like Richard Alpert) have replaced drugs with yoga, meditation or other non-chemical paths to corresponding experiences.

Religious sects attain ecstasy, visions or tongue-speaking without chemical substances. Intellectuals often consider it with patronizing skepticism. When proponents of drugs produce similar experiences by ritual intake of chemical substances, the phenomenon often seem to have more appeal. Belief in the chemical heaven may be perceived as more intellectually respectable than belief in the religious heaven.

Do, then, drugs expand human consciousness?

The authors of these enthusiastic descriptions of states of intoxication, have opened their minds to feelings and moods. However, the large majority of people taking opiates, alcohol or ether feel no effects resembing these marvelous descriptions. This is also true for LSD and cannabis, unless the user has learned that the substance has got such effects. Without social learning and peculiar expectancies, most people simply find the effects unpleasant (chapter 5).

The metaphoric portrayals of fantastic intoxicated states bear little resemblance to pharmacological effects. What mechanisms are involved in this phenomenon?

Suggestible individuals use intoxicants as a ritual to obtain subjective experiences resembling experiences achieved through art and religion. The intoxicant produces a feeling of being different from usual. The drug user concentrates upon his inner state, opens up to wide associations and interprets his feelings very freely.

The metaphors are the distinguishing feature of these experiences. It has been maintained that the metaphors trigger the subjective feelings of well-being, that is, that the enjoyable feelings do not occur until the state is labeled by fascinating metaphors.

The appealing narratives operate as instructions, educating novices about the interpretation of the drug's physiological effects. "Psychedelic" effects seem to be most frequent among intellectuals who do not use the drug on a daily basis. The experiences belong to the world of art, religion and para-psychology, not to the world of pharmacology.

The pharmacological basis of getting "high"

All intoxicants have numerous effects upon the human body, including effects on the brain. According to conventional wisdom, pleasant experiences like "getting high" or getting "kicks" are effects of the pharmacological properties of the intoxicants. Research on the effects of drugs does not support the idea that the experiences are directly attributable to pharmacological effects.

Intoxicants may, for example, lower blood pressure, slow down brain processes, impair coordination of movements and so on. When individuals take the drugs without expecting to get "high", they only notice these physical, pharmacological effects. The effects are not labelled as being "high" and are usually not perceived as pleasant.

People do not, of course, use drugs and alcohol in order to impair coordination or lower their blood pressure.

What is the relationship between the objective properties of the drugs, as verified by research, and the subjective experiences motivating drug and alcohol use?

Research indicates that the pharmacologic effects of intoxicants are highly non-specific, and that the effects are mostly emotionally neutral or unpleasant. A number of different mechanisms seem to contribute to the subjective experiences.2

  1. Pure expectancy effects play a significant role. Several experiments with alcohol and some with cannabis demonstrate that the placebo effect is a powerful factor in eliciting the subsequent experiences. Users often consume moderate quantities of intoxicants, and at modest doses, expectancy effects alone can account for the subjective experiences.
  2. People can learn to appreciate the chemical effects. In the same way as social indoctrination and practice can make us appreciate a peculiar taste (for example, coffee, beer or tobacco smoke), people can learn to appreciate the inner cues produced by intoxicants. This was clearly demonstrated in Andrew Weil's pioneer experiment with marijuana (chapter 5) and has also been established for morphine and heroin (chapter 5).
  3. People can learn to interpret the chemical effects as specific feelings. Schachter and Singer's experiment with epinephrine (chapter 4) demonstrated that physical reactions as such are normally emotionally neutral. Our labelling redefines the bodily reaction into a specific feeling. In the same way, we can learn to associate internal cues with specific emotions, for example joy or relaxation.
  4. Internal cues may be labeled as being "high". Several people take morphine, solvents and other intoxicants without labeling the experience as "high" or demonstrating unrestrained behavior. In order to get "high", the individual not only needs the chemical influence, but also a socially learned interpretation of the effects as pleasant and "high". Becker's well-known study (chapter 4) demonstrated the learning process. The novice perceives certain physical effects, which by the help of experienced users is labeled "high" and defined as attractive.
  5. When a state is labeled as "high" or intoxication, the association with related experiences and behavior takes place. The social role of being "high" or "intoxicated" is a role with certain privileges and fewer obligations.
  6. When internal cues indicate chemical influence, the individual use the cues as a measure of the degree of "high". The strength of the cues influences the experience, behavior and possibly further consumption of the intoxicant.

"Getting high" - not an effect, but an interpretation.

In several cases, a change has occurred in people's perception of a chemical substance which has been in use for a long time - the substance becomes labeled as (promoted to?) an intoxicant. Cannabis, a medical drug, was turned into an intoxicant. Amphetamine was changed from an "energy pill" to an intoxicant. Solvent vapors, which painters perceived as offensive, became the pleasant intoxicant for groups of adolescents.

When a chemical substance is adopted as an intoxicant, conventional belief regards it as the discovery of an innate property which the drug has possessed all the time. But people consuming the drug without having learned the label "intoxicant", respond differently from other users of the drug. The definition of the substance as an intoxicant operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"High", "kicks" and "intoxication" are essential concepts in our thinking of drug and alcohol use. Such words and concepts shape our ideas and guide our comprehension of the world around us.

"Getting high" exists as a reality in our language and in our thoughts. In the objective world around us, there are physical reactions, drug concentrations in blood, and various subjective experiences. Some of these phenomenons are classified as being "high", which is believed to describe a certain biological phenomenon. The attempts to explain intoxicant use as a result of the biochemical effects of intoxicants are ignoring the research on perception of drug effects in people who have not been through the social learning process (chapter 6.)

A psychologist who has studied the relationship between drugs and "euphoria", writes:3

"... the propensity of any drug to produce euphoria is problematic. It is problematic to the extent that a drug becomes euphorogenic or dysphorogenic through its social and cultural learned use. In other words: drugs are not euphoric in and of themselves, but may become so through socialization."
The anthropologist Mac Marshall has scrutinized the use of alcohol in different cultures. He concludes:4
"... the pharmacological effects of alcohol make people feel different than when they haven't imbibed. The meanings given to this experience, i.e. how one interprets these feelings and orders his experience, are provided by the culture in which one is a participant."
In a textbook on intoxicants by Andrew Weil, he expressed it this way:5
"No substance automatically makes people feel high. The individual must learn to interpret the physical effects of the drugs as occasions for being high. The expectancies of individuals and societies make people associate internal experiences with the physical sensations produced by the drugs. If this association does not occur, or if it comes to an end, people may take the highest doses of drugs without getting high. They only feel drugged."
A brief summary may be put this way:

Getting "high" is not a pharmacological effect of certain chemical substances, but a socially learned interpretation of the pharmacological effects.


1.Wilmot,R (1985): Euphoria. J Drug Issues 15:155-191.

2.Maisto,SA et al (1981): Expectation as a Mediator in Alcohol Intoxication. A Reference Level Model. Cogn Ther Res 5:1-18.

3.Wilmot,R Op.cit.

4.Marshall,M (1983): "Four hundred rabbits": An Anthropological View of Ethanol as a Disinhibitor. Pp.186-204 in Room,R & Collins,G (eds.): Alcohol and Disinhibition: Nature and Meaning of the Link. Research Monographs No.12, NIAAA, Rockville, Md.

5.Weil,A & Rosen,W (1983): Chocolate to Morphine. Understanding Psycho-Active Drugs. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

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