If you’re a user of any mind altering substance—be it alcohol, cannabis, MDMA or magic mushrooms—you’ve probably noticed occasions where it's been excellent. Where it’s lubricated the situation and done what it says on the tin. But you’ve probably had occasions where your experience has been very different. Sometimes you can drink all night and not really feel like you’ve gotten drunk, perhaps just feeling tired and irritable and so sacking the rest of the night off.
Sometimes after a couple of drinks you get right in the zone and have a great time. Drowning your sorrows with alcohol is so common that it’s a cliche, but how many times have you done that on your own, only for it to resuscitate them instead? How many times has alcohol made you angry and aggressive rather than the life and soul of the party? How many times has cannabis caused anxiety and paranoia rather than fits of giggles and the munchies?
We’ve known about the effects of context when taking a mind altering substance—anecdotally at least—for as long as we’ve been taking them, but science has taken a hell of a long time to catch up.
As far as the science of drug taking in context is concerned, a good place to light up is at Club de Hashishchins in Paris at the end of the 19th century, where a gang of French writers, philosophers, and a few psychiatrists started getting together to get stoned on hash. These Parisian pot-heads realised that their experience of the drug varied dramatically from person to person and occasion to occasion, and they quickly figured out that the crucial determinant to the quality of the experience was the context in which you had it. Your surroundings, both inanimate and human, your “constitution,” your upbringing, your beliefs and cultural attachments all play a crucial role in whether or not you’re going to have a good time.
One of the psychiatrists among them, Jean Joseph Moreau, recognised the importance of surroundings, observing that they were crucial in explaining the wildly different experiences on cannabis:
“Everything that strikes his eyes and ears. A word, a gesture, a look, a sound or the slightest noise, by demanding his attention, will confer special character on his illusions.”
Psychedelics like mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD are widely understood to be context-dependent in their effects—we’ve all heard of bad trips—but science was late to the party on this one too. The earliest experiments with LSD in the 1950’s determined that the drug served only as a means to explore psychosis and schizophrenia, since the effects experienced in patents were universally recorded as profoundly unpleasant and scary. But there was a very good reason for this. The earliest human trials of LSD weren’t, shall we say, conducted with the patient's welfare in mind. They were often sponsored by intelligence agencies, conducted on patients who had no choice in the matter and were not informed of the kinds of effects they should expect. These less-than-willing guinea pigs were examined under buzzing neon lights, in clinical hospital rooms with a bunch of indifferent scientists poking, prodding and testing them; which doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. When asked, no patient desired a repeat experience—no surprises there.
However, in later experiments under Timothy Leary, when surroundings were taken into account, when the participants were voluntary, when they were carefully prepared for the experience, and crucially, not subject to a battery of tests while tripping, the experiences were almost universally reported as having been positive. Most participants elected to repeat the exercise (the 60’s acid boom was very much born in Leary’s “lab”).
Whilst non-psychedelic experiences are not as malleable by their surrounding context, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that context makes a real difference here too.
If music be the food of life, maybe it could do with some spice
It has been shown in testing that if people consuming alcohol are distracted repeatedly by their surroundings they have a much more pleasurable experience than participants who were drinking alone in silence. Solitary drinkers seem to focus on the physical symptoms of intoxication and have a less pleasurable time because of it.
Scientists have conducted EEG scans of users of cannabis and benzodiazepines (whose effects mimic alcohol) listening to music. They found that cannabis users’ brains indicated that their perception of time, space and visual depth were increased. Apparently there is something to the idea that the “Jazz cigarette” played a role in creating its namesake. Conversely, the brains of users on benzodiazepines showed an increasing indifference and disinterest in the aesthetic appreciation and emotional resonance of music—it seems that alcohol can help you put up with music you hate!
The Funhouse Mirror
But something more profound is going on when people gather in groups to drink, dance, and party on down. When a Rhesus monkey sees one of its compatriots pick up food or a tool, the same parts of its brain are activated as those in the monkey doing the eating or picking up. This stimulation of what are known as mirror neurons plays an important role in the bonding of mothers or other caregivers with their children. The brain rewires itself through reward responses based on observation and imitation. This is one of the ways we learn, but it doesn’t stop there.
Studies have shown that facial expressions produce similar results. If someone is having a good time, and showing it, your mirror neurons trigger the same response in your brain. It turns out that laughter and yawns are contagious.
Cognitive scientists have discovered that subjects involved in mimicking rhythmic behavior—that’s a very academic way of saying dancing—experience feelings of empathy and altruism towards not just other dancers, but to anyone else in the proverbial nightclub. If you’ve ever been in a mosh pit at a metal gig, you’ll know the feeling. To an outside observer it may look like a medieval battle to the death, but in the pit everyone is looking out for everyone else.
The implications that mirror neurons have for drinkers is that when you’re together, having a good time and showing it, the effect is contagious. Therefore, the surroundings you’re in have a double-whammy, reinforcing effect. And this is not new. For thousands of years solitary drinking was basically unheard of; it's only more recently, since the industrial revolution and the increasing social isolation of modern capitalism, that drinking alone and having no fun doing it is becoming more prevalent.
So, to live your best life, and have the most fun, drink your Sentia, beer, and wine; smoke your cannabis, or drop your MDMA with friends. Then put on some music and maybe ditch the psychiatric hospital, because, not only is that the way to get the most out of it, your brain is programmed to reward you when you do.