Anyone who has ever felt the effects of cannabis will agree that their perception is somewhat altered while partaking. For the most part however, the effects of marijuana are relatively mild compared to other mind-altering drugs.
Typically, most users would say that cannabis enhances pre-existing thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions, rather than completely changing them. So, what is the science behind that?
The science of how cannabis works on the brain
The cannabis plant contains dozens of different cannabinoids. These are chemical compounds responsible for various neurotransmitter release functions when they interact with receptors in our brain called cannabinoid receptors 1 and 2.
One of the most recognizable cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive element in marijuana.
Not all cannabinoids have psychoactive properties; others may have more of a calming effect on the consumer, such as that of cannabidiol (CBD). The “high” you feel when you ingest marijuana comes from the effect of THC on cannabinoid receptor 1, found in different areas of the brain.
These regions include the basal ganglia, parts of the limbic system—specifically the amygdala and hippocampus—as well as cerebellum, reproductive systems, and even within the eye. The regions of the brain where these are found are largely responsible for processing emotion, behavior, and memory.
Additionally, as the limbic system is stimulated, dopamine is released to what is known as the “pleasure center” of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, which stimulates pleasurable experiences, including sexual arousal and the high experienced from ingesting marijuana.
Simply put, as soon as you ingest marijuana, your body starts to process it right away. The THC in the marijuana consumed triggers the cannabinoid receptors found throughout the brain and body to be stimulated, subsequently releasing dopamine into specific other regions of the brain and body, which ultimately produces the familiar feeling we all refer to as being high.
Getting high before having sex
For those who are comfortable with the effects of marijuana, sex can be more pleasurable when under the influence of the drug. This happens because cannabinoids heighten sensitivity in regions where the receptors are found, and they are found in the reproductive systems of both males and females.
The reward system also plays a major part in this process when various forms of stimuli motivate us to engage in a given behavior, in this case sex, that produces a desired outcome.
The release of dopamine encourages people to repeat the action that caused the pleasurable sensation in the first place. With the goal of procreation being at the root of our nature, sex was always meant to be pleasurable. It just becomes more so when enhanced by the effects of THC.
One of the most famous experiments conducted in the early 1900s by Doctor Skinner, best known as the “Skinner Box,” was the start to identifying how the pleasure center of the brain works and how it manifests in our behavior.
Basically, Dr. Skinner put rats in a box with two levers they could press: one to deliver food and the other to deliver a shock to their feet. They quickly learned to avoid the lever that produced the shock, and continued to press the food lever over and over, an example of how the reward system operates.
Years later, James Olds and Peter Milner put a spin on Dr. Skinner’s OG box. Instead of pain versus pleasure, there was a lever that was connected to their brain that would deliver pleasureable brain stimuli when pressed, and another lever that would deliver food when pressed.
The researchers were surprised to find that rats continued to choose the brain stimuli every time over the food, even when they were hungry. This happened because of the reward system and the pleasure circuit experienced by the lab rats.
Based on these results among other scientific studies, it seems that we are prewired to pursue pleasurable experiences based on our brain functions, even if it takes precedence over actions in pursuit of survival.
Enjoying food, music and more after getting high
Similar to sex, marijuana also heightens the pleasure derived from already pleasurable experiences, such as eating tasty foods, listening to your favorite band, or viewing your favorite artist’s portfolio.
A study conducted by Maria Antonietta De Luca from the University of Cagliari in Italy in 2012 concluded that marijuana does enhance the effects of our preferences, but does not necessarily cause us to change our minds about something we didn’t like previously.
With or without marijuana, when we eat, view, or listen to something we like, our brains release dopamine from the nucleus accumbens, which signals to us that this is something we enjoy, and encourages consumption of the stimuli more often.
When you add marijuana to the mix, this sensation is exacerbated, producing a feeling of euphoria, furthering our decision to continue “consuming” this pleasure-inducing action again.
So, to answer the question, why dope is so dope, the explanation is clear. Our brains are wired to consume and process the effects of cannabis naturally. With brain receptors specifically present for the recognition of cannabinoids alone, we can all feel good about feeling good about the good old herb we refer to as dope.