How Cannabis Makes Everything So Interesting

THC stimulates the sense of novelty to everyone’s delight.

Posted Jun 01, 2020

Most people love the experience of novelty. Travel to strange lands brings unexpected new pleasures. New clothes, a new car, new friends delight all but the most constrained. People meditate to freshen their response to everyday experience. Change is often sought for its own reward. 

The experience of novelty arises from the activity of our natural THC-like brain chemistry (the endogenous cannabinoid system, or ECS). As a result, cannabis kicks the pleasure of novelty into high gear, much to most people’s enjoyment.

Understanding the biologic mechanism underlying the brain’s reaction to a novel stimulus is the foundation for understanding cannabis’ power to make our world more interesting. It all begins in the amygdala. This almond-shaped collection of nerve cell bodies lies on each side of the brain in our temporal lobes, a little in front of where earmuffs are worn.

One function of the amygdala is to compare all incoming sensory stimuli to what has come before. When an unfamiliar stimulus arrives, for example wearing a new ring, the amygdala adds a special “zing” of alertness to the feel of the ring. This draws our attention to the new sensations on our finger. After a while, when the feel of the ring becomes the unchanging norm, the amygdala stops adding the zing. We accommodate, or habituate, to the ring’s feel and it falls into the background of our awareness.

Our natural ECS regulates the comparator function of our amygdala. When cannabinoid activity is increased, the bar for recognizing a sensory stimulus as novel is lowered, and the zing is intensified. THC stimulates ECS cannabinoid receptors far more strongly and longer than the natural brain endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-AG. This results in lowering the bar for experiencing novelty. We dishabituate to the world and many stimuli rise up out of the background and back into awareness.

Because a heightened sense of novelty is added to stimuli that are suddenly experienced as new again, the world dazzles. A trip down the hallway to the bathroom becomes an adventure. Many cannabis users relate to the wonder of seeing the small rainbow on exactly the same place on every single bubble in soap suds. Most people stop noticing this rainbow sometime before entering the first grade. But suddenly, under the influence of hugely increased cannabinoid activity in the amygdala that is far above normal, these rainbows capture attention again and are amazing!

Music sparkles. Nature comes alive. The details of flowers fascinate. Fireplace flames inspire awe. Fresh baked brownies are to die for (see previous post on hunger). The whole of life becomes more extravagant.

I say wonder and awe advisedly. In the middle of the last century, a neurosurgeon placed a small electrode in the amygdala of a patient with intractable epilepsy in an effort to control their seizures. With electrical stimulation, people reported feeling a numinous quality, even a sense of spiritual awe, also often experience at the beginning of temporal lobe seizures. Stimulation of no other part of the brain produces this response, only the amygdala, with its dense concentration of cannabinoid receptors.

The experience of enhanced novelty leads many people to repeat their use of cannabis. For some, being high is seen as better than real. Cannabis becomes the primary gateway to this heightened experience. Others learn from the experience of THC’s high that their day to day life has paled by their becoming less aware of music, nature, flowers, dancing flames, and tastes. They work to become more mindful of these pleasures when no longer high. Cannabis has been more of a teacher than the primary avenue.

When I compare how cannabis users, meditators, and joggers describe what they like about each activity, I find a great deal of overlap. Each speaks of experiencing increased vividness in their perceptions, a sense of calm relaxation, well-being, and connection/belonging to the world. I believe these are characteristics of elevated cannabinoid tone in the amygdala. Indeed, meditation measurably increases endocannabinoids in blood. Although runners usually attribute their good feeling to an endorphin high, endocannabinoids are elevated to an even greater degree by jogging. Cannabinoid-based experiences are generally enjoyable no matter how they are produced. 

Although the benefits of meditation and jogging cannot be reduced to increased endocannabinoid activity alone, this increase certainly makes a substantial contribution. There are few negative side effects from either activity beyond the investment of time and possibly arthritic knees. However. there is a potential fly in the ointment when cannabis is used too frequently to produce novelty by increased cannabinoid tone in the brain. That part of the story is critical to hear if cannabis is to be used safely and without unintended side effects. The phenomenon of reduced cannabinoid receptor availability, an inconvenient reality called downregulation, comes in the following post.