Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Cannabis Community Sees the World Differently

"Umwelt": A new concept for understanding the cannabis community.

Key points

  • The cannabis community and the scientific community view cannabis very differently.
  • Nonmedical cannabis use focuses on the subjective experience, while scientists focus on objective data.
  • The concept of "umvelt," meaning an animal's perceived world, increases respect for both objective and subjective perspectives.

In my recent book, Marijuana on My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis, I looked beyond the objective facts about cannabis and its interactions with the brain discovered by science. I contrasted this objective perspective with the equally important subjective experience of using cannabis, especially recreationally and socially.

Cannabis users directly sense a profound shift in the texture of their experience. I am indebted to Michael Pollan for this exquisite phrase, which he coined in The Botany of Desire to encompass a range of mystical-like alterations in consciousness many cannabis users enjoy.

In addition to the slowing of time, physical and emotional relaxation, and a general sense of wonder, awe, and numinous connectedness to one’s surroundings, cannabis also freshens and intensifies many sensory experiences, including sound (especially music), taste, color, and physical movement (flow). At a minimum, cannabis increased appreciation for these sensory experiences.

This all happens without there being any measurable increase in the acuity or sensitivity of our hearing, taste buds, vision, touch, or proprioception. The change is internal, the result of altered brain function, and therefore altered mental experience and bodily reactions to stimuli. People figuratively “see” the world with different “eyes.” This is enjoyable for most people, but not all—the difference between people’s reactions to cannabis is due to the diversity that exists in human brains and psychologies.

I believe one of the most important alterations in brain function produced by THC involves what is called dishabituation. When we see, hear, or feel anything enough times, we begin noticing it less and less. We habituate to it. We no longer feel the ring on our finger or notice the small rainbow on every bubble in soap suds.

THC reverses this process of habituation. It lowers the bar for the brain area (the amygdala) responsible for comparing current stimuli to those in the recent past. When there is little or no change, the amygdala remains quiet. But when a change occurs, the amygdala adds a “zing” to the new sensation, bringing sounds and sights that we have habituated to back into our awareness. The amygdala’s added ‘zing” draws our attention to change. Dishabituating refreshes our perception of the world, similar to how meditation helps us “smell the roses” again.

Marcel Proust, who is well known for sampling many drugs throughout his life, summed all this up in his famous quote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’’ I imagine this is what is being expressed by aficionados of fine herb when they call it “trippy.”

A single word for this concept—umwelt—applies to sensations of the world perceived by all animal species. The word was coined in 1909 by the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. He introduced the concept to explain how different animals in the same environment perceive and react to different signals.

While the environment is the same for everyone, different sensory systems and different central nervous systems result in animals perceiving the world differently. THC alters brain function and creates a different umwelt when high.

Therefore, the scientific perspective on cannabis and the cannabis culture’s subjective perspective on cannabis necessarily differ. A more spiritual narrative describes the cannabis umwelt better than it would describe the scientific umwelt. Both perspectives are valuable if you want to understand cannabis—and both perspectives must be respected if each is to be understood. They are two sides of the cannabis coin.

Cannabis users alternate between two umvelten—one when they are straight and one when high. A problem exists when people emigrate too completely to the cannabis umwelt. At that point, they have lost perspective, lost respect for the objective umwelt, and too often lose their way in the practical world. A healthy relationship with cannabis requires a balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

You can check how safely you use cannabis by visiting "20 Questions to Tell if You're Using Cannabis Safely."

More from Timmen L. Cermak MD
More from Psychology Today