Created By: Tuomas on February 21, 2013 Last Edited By: Tuomas on March 12, 2013
Troped

Higher Understanding Through Drugs

Drugs help someone understand things better.

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Trope

"In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness."
Princess Irulan, in the movie adaptation of Dune

Most fiction that deals with recreational drugs either explicitly states that they are bad, or uses them as a neutral plot element. However, there is also fiction where the use of drugs is shown to have positive effects. One way of doing this is having someone gain a deeper understanding by taking drugs.

In these kind of stories drugs can help a character in adjusting to her situation and understanding the things around her better, or they can even make her gain some new knowledge she couldn't have otherwise acquired. In the latter case drugs are usually implied to have supernatural or mystical qualities, and using them gives the character a temporary access to what amounts to Psychic Powers.

When this trope is used, the drug in question is usually either cannabis, ecstasy, or some type of hallucinogen, such as LSD, peyote, mescalin, or psilocybin. A Fantastic Drug may also be used, but its effects are often portrayed similarly to those of real life drugs. For obvious reasons, drugs that make one act selfishly or aggressively such as cocaine or amphetamine are rarely depicted as pathways to deeper understanding.

If the story focuses on a drug with a long history of ritual use (such as peyote), it's common for the characters to imitate these ancient rituals while taking the drug, sometimes with the help of a native mentor. In visual media, if the drug use entails a hallucinatory trip, it's usually illustrated with bright colours and surreal imagery. If a human mentor isn't there to guide the character through the trip, a Spirit Advisor may appear and serve as a guide.

If Higher Understanding Through Drugs is used as a defining character trait, the character is typically an Erudite Stoner. Junkie Prophet is a subtrope where the use of drugs specifically helps someone foresee the future.

Drunken Master is a Sister Trope where an intoxicant temporarily enhances someone's physical (instead of mental) capabilities. If a drug grants someone actual physical superpowers, we're dealing with a Super Serum.

No Real Life Examples, Please! The point here is to outline a trope used in fiction, not to take a stance on whether or not drugs can have positive effects in real life.


Examples:

[[foldercontrol]]

[[folder:Comic Books]]
  • In an issue of Animal Man, a peyote trip helps the eponymous character realize he's a character in a comic book, though he forgets it once the trip is over. Animal Man is accompanied by a Native American called James Hightower, and the peyote ritual is depicted in stereotypical Native American terms, but with the twist that Hightower is a scientist and a not a shaman of any sort. Both of them also get an totem animal guide for the trip.
  • In The Invisibles, there are several occasions where characters gain deeper knowledge via drugs, both real and imaginary ones. The most notable example of the latter is the blue mold the protagonist Dane and his mentor Tom smoke, allowing Dane to contact the Barbelith, though it's later revealed that the mold was just regular mold with no narcotic qualities at all.
  • In V for Vendetta, officer Finch takes a dose of LSD, which gives him some rather creepy visions, but also helps him figure out various things, including the whereabouts of the terrorist he's tracking.
  • In Watchmen, Adrian Veidt eats a ball of hashish and has a vision that eventually leads to his plan of "conquesting the evils that beset men".
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Fan Works]]
  • In the fan-written Shadowrun supplement called "Better Living (and Dying) Through Chemistry", The Awakened (magical) version of peyote allows the user to astrally perceive and project as if they were a mage, and gives bonuses for the use of magical skills, thus allowing them to act as if they understood magic better.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Film]]
  • In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the protagonist goes to a house party, and eats a cannabis brownie without knowing what's in it. Soon after, the otherwise quiet and reserved character is sitting in a lotus position babbling all sorts of stuff, some of it silly, some of it quite insightful. As a result of this, he gains a bunch of new friends.
  • Human Traffic, a movie that focuses on British rave culture, doesn't shy away from showing the comedown, but it still gives a rather positive portrayal of how the empathy-inducing effects of ecstasy help the various characters bond with each other.
  • In the indie film When Do We Eat?, a patriarch who's fallen out with his family gets slipped ecstasy in the middle of a Passover seder. He goes on a bridge-building spree and the family is in a much happier place by the end of the night. The ecstasy turns out to be fake.
  • In Altered States, experimenting with drugs and sensory deprivation tanks can lead to de-and-evolution.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Literature]]
  • Inverted in the Philip K. Dick story Faith of our Fathers. The main character, a loyal member of a People's Republic of Tyranny, takes a drug that makes him perceive his country's dictator as an evil, inhuman being. Except it turns out this isn't a metaphor; the dictator really is an inhuman monster, and everyone in the world is drugged so that they hallucinate he's a human being. The main character was actually given an anti-hallucinogen, and so, for a brief time, was the only non-drug addled person on the planet and able to see the dictator for what he really is.
  • Sherlock Holmes uses cocaine (legal in Victorian London) when he doesn't have a case, because otherwise his mind will burn out like a powerful engine running without a load. Played straight with tobacco: he famously calls one case "quite a three-pipe problem" and stays up all night smoking to solve it.
  • The story "Carcinoma Angels" in Dangerous Visions features someone trying to do this in an attempt to use the higher understanding of his own body functions and mental state to cure cancer. It works, but now he can't find his way out into the physical world again.
  • Frank Herbert used this at least twice:
    • The appendix to Dune listed several "awareness-spectrum narcotics" that increased the user's understanding and mental abilities, including melange (by Guild Navigators), the Fremen "Water of Life" (which affected Paul Atreides and his sister Alia), and the drugs used by Bene Gesserit Truthsayers (who were Living Lie Detectors).
    • In The Santaroga Barrier the drug Jaspers increases the comprehension and understanding of anyone who consumes it.
  • Around the end of The Last Continent, Rincewind drinks a lot of beer so that he can think better and guess what he has to do.
  • In Memory, a scientist is questioned under "Fast Penta", a kind of truth serum, and discovers it helps her think outside the box in order to figure out a complex scientific mystery.. After being cleared of the charges against her she asks if she could try Fast Penta again in order to help her creativity.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Live Action TV]]
  • The BBC's modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes riffed on the Sherlock's "three-pipe problem" (see the entry in Literature) with him wearing three nicotine patches because the case was "a three-patch problem".
  • Another Sherlock Holmes example: This trope was discussed and averted in an episode of CBS's Elementary. In this adaptation Holmes was once hooked on drugs, but is currently sober. A former friend and practicing drug dealer comes for Holmes' help when his daughter is kidnapped and being held for ransom. The drug-dealer spends a good deal of the episode trying to convince Sherlock to use cocaine again, because he believes the detective works better and can close cases quicker when his mind is under the influence. Sherlock refuses and eventually loses his temper and nearly strangles him, then proceeds to solve the case sober. An inversion is also suggested in the series, in that Sherlock uses drugs in hopes of dulling his ever-active deductive senses.
  • This trope is invoked in the late '60s Dragnet, where at least one criminal of the week espouses it. In a different episode, Friday recommends that a teenage boy try the local library instead.
  • House fully encourages the use of drugs in some cases in order to reach an epiphany he thinks is already trapped in his mind. Well, drugs and in one case electric shock therapy. Also House sometimes encourages drugs or experiments or dangerous procedures to be performed on patients in the hope of revealing symptoms they may have.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Tabletop Games]] [[/folder]]

[[folder:Western Animation]]
  • The stereotypical enlightening peyote trip is parodied in the Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer". In it, Homer eats some "merciless peppers of Quetzalzacatenango" and goes on a hallucinatory trip, complete with colourful Mayincatec imagery and a coyote Spirit Advisor, who urges him to "find his soulmate". Homer eventually figures out, unsurprisingly, that Marge is his soulmate. It remains unclear whether his trip had supernatural qualities, or whether it was just a regular hallucination.
[[/folder]]

Community Feedback Replies: 43
  • February 21, 2013
    nitrokitty
  • February 21, 2013
    Tuomas
    ^ An interesting fact, but I'm not if Full Throttle could be listed as an example, if the spiritual experience doesn't appear in the actual work. And in Psychonauts the various trippy visions come from the characters' traumas and psychological disorders, not from drug use.
  • February 21, 2013
    Chabal2
    As I recall, Ozymandias in Watchmen got his Evil Plan underway when he took hashich in the desert after a world tour.
  • February 21, 2013
    Tuomas
    Yeah, I think you're right about that. I'll check my copy for details, and add that as an example.
  • February 21, 2013
    StarSword
    TV:
    • At least one Criminal of the Week in the late '60s Dragnet espoused this (LSD and heroin days, Drugs Are Bad, etc.). On a different episode, Friday recommended that a teenage boy try the local library instead.
  • February 21, 2013
    RavenWilder
    Subverted in the Philip K Dick story "Faith of our Fathers". The main character, a loyal member of a Peoples Republic Of Tyranny, takes a drug that makes him perceive his country's dictator as an evil, inhuman being. Except it turns out this isn't a metaphor; the dictator really is an inhuman monster, and everyone in the world is drugged so that they hallucinate he's a human being. The main character was actually given an anti-hallucinogen, and so, for a brief time, was the only non-drug addled person on the planet and able to see the dictator for what he really is.
  • February 21, 2013
    Stratadrake
    It would be awesome if we could make a pun on getting "higher" understanding ...
  • February 21, 2013
    robinjohnson
    • Sherlock Holmes uses cocaine (legal in Victorian London) when he doesn't have a case, because otherwise his mind will burn out like a powerful engine running without a load. Played straight with tobacco: he famously calls one case "quite a three-pipe problem" and stays up all night smoking to solve it.
      • The BBC's [[Sherlock modern-day adaptation]] riffed on this with Sherlock wearing three nicotine patches because the case was "a three-patch problem".
  • February 21, 2013
    thewriter
    To add to the Sherlock Holmes examples:
    • This was discussed and averted in an episode of CBS's Elementary. In this adoption Sherlock was once hooked on drugs, but is currently sober. A former friend and practicing drug dealer comes for Holmes' help when his daughter is kidnapped and being held for ransom. The drug-dealer spends a good deal of the episode trying to convince Sherlock to use cocaine again because he believes the detective works better and can close cases quicker when his mind is under the influence. Sherlock refuses.
    • It's also suggested in the series an inversion in that Sherlock uses drugs in hopes of dulling his ever-active deductive senses.
  • February 21, 2013
    Ekuran
  • February 21, 2013
    Yongary
  • February 21, 2013
    Tuomas
    Yongary: could you maybe elaborate on that a bit more, now it's almost a Zero Context Example.
  • February 22, 2013
    Arivne
    Tabletop Games
    • A fan-written Shadowrun supplement called "Better Living (and Dying) Through Chemistry". The Awakened (magical) version of peyote allowed the user to astrally perceive and project as if they were a mage and gave bonuses for the use of magical skills, thus allowing them to act as if they understood magic better.
  • February 22, 2013
    SKJAM
    • The story "Carcinoma Angels" in Dangerous Visions features someone trying to do this in an attempt to use the higher understanding of his own body functions and mental state to cure cancer. It works, but now he can't find his way out into the physical world again.
  • February 23, 2013
    Arivne
    Literature
    • Frank Herbert did this at least twice.
      • The appendix to Dune listed several "awareness-spectrum narcotics" that increased the user's understanding and mental abilities, including melange (by Guild Navigators), the Fremen "Water of Life" (which affected Paul Atreides and his sister Alia) and the drugs used by Bene Gesserit Truthsayers (who were Living Lie Detectors).
      • In The Santaroga Barrier the drug Jaspers increases the comprehension and understanding of anyone who consumes it.
  • February 23, 2013
    Arivne
    It's likely that some of the drugs on The Other Wiki's page on fictional drugs under "Performance and Lifestyle Enhancers" are examples of this trope.
  • February 25, 2013
    Tuomas
    I skimmed through that list, but most of the examples seem to fall under Super Serum (a drug grants someone physical superpowers), or Drugs Are Bad (the drug has dangerous side effects and/or is very addictive). If someone spots an example that would this trope, feel free to post it here.
  • February 25, 2013
    morenohijazo
    Isn't this Drunken Master? Anyway...

    • Around the end of The Last Continent, Rincewind drinks a lot of beer so that he can think better and guess what he has to do.

  • February 25, 2013
    Stratadrake
    That's more or less a fighting trope, and only about alcohol.
  • February 25, 2013
    StarSword
    ^What he said, though they are related. Drunken Master is to fighting what this is to thinking; I'd call them Sister Tropes.

    TV:
    • Defied in Elementary when Sherlock's former drug dealer turns up to get his help finding his kidnapped daughter. The dealer claims Sherlock was at his best when high and continues to push him to try it out of desperation. Sherlock eventually loses his temper and nearly strangles him, then proceeds to solve the case sober.
  • February 25, 2013
    Tuomas
    Yep, Drunken Master seems to cover only alcohol, and only cases where it enhances someone's innate physical skills, making it sort of a variant of Super Serum. Because of it's different effects and different social status alcohol tends to be treated differently in fiction than other recreational drugs.
  • February 25, 2013
    Tuomas
    ^^ Starsword, someone already mentioned that example and I added it to the draft.
  • February 25, 2013
    StarSword
    What am I, blind?
  • February 27, 2013
    Tuomas
    I think this entry is starting to look pretty good, but I'd like to hear your opinions on the name... Is it good, or would there be some better name? Also, any suggestions for the page image?
  • February 27, 2013
    StarSword
    Hatted: name's fine, description's way better than any efforts I've ever made. As for images, try making a thread in the Image Pickin' forum.
  • February 27, 2013
    thewriter
    • House fully encourages in some episodes the use of drugs in some cases in order to reach epiphany he thinks are already trapped in his mind. Well drugs and in one case electric shock therapy. Also House sometimes encourages drugs or experiments or dangerous procedures to be performed on patients in the hope of revealing symptoms they may have.
  • February 28, 2013
    willthiswork
    Hmm, I am pretty sure fourth edition Shadowrun has an awakened drug that causes mundies to astrally preseive in the offical materials (vs the fan made stuff I mean), but I would have to poke around some to confirm that.

    Does the Magic Cake in Earthbound count? They treat it kinda like drugs, but it not really explicite...
  • February 28, 2013
    Tuomas
    If it's called "Magic Cake" and it's treated kinda like drugs, I think it falls under I Cant Believe Its Not Heroin.
  • March 1, 2013
    morenohijazo
    ^ So, it doesn't fit here?
  • March 1, 2013
    Tuomas
    I guess it can fit here, depending on what "Magic Cakes" do. I'll need a bit more information before adding it to the examples.
  • March 2, 2013
    robinjohnson
  • March 2, 2013
    morenohijazo
  • March 2, 2013
    JoeG
    In Memory, a scientist is questioned under "Fast Penta", a kind of truth serum, and discovers it helps her think outside the box in order to figure out a complex scientific mystery.. After being cleared of the charges against her she asks if she could try Fast Penta again in order to help her creativity.
  • March 3, 2013
    DomaDoma
    In the indie film When Do We Eat?, a patriarch who's fallen out with his family gets slipped ecstasy in the middle of a Passover seder. He goes on a bridge-building spree and the family is in a much happier place by the end of the night. The ecstasy turns out to be fake.
  • March 3, 2013
    Djanchorhead
    An alternate title for consideration.Drug Induced Intelligence
  • March 5, 2013
    Tuomas
    That's not the best possible title, because with this trope, drugs can enhance other mental capabilities besides intelligence, or even give the user psychic or magic powers.
  • March 5, 2013
    Tuomas
    And while High Understanding has a nice pun, I don't think the word "high" alone conveys clearly enough that drugs are involved here.
  • March 5, 2013
    Lavalyte
    The movie 'Altered States' shows that experimenting with drugs and sensory deprivation tanks can lead to de-and-evolution.
  • March 5, 2013
    Arivne
  • March 5, 2013
    Sparrowhawke
  • March 6, 2013
    Tuomas
    Again, this trope isn't only about increasing someone's intelligence, but also about enhancing other mental processes too. So a trope name with the word "smart" or "intelligence" is too narrow. Mind Expanding Drug is better, but I think the name shouldn't focus on the drug itself, as the effects of the drug are what this trope is all about. Sometimes, as with the Simpsons example, such effects can even result from a supposedly non-narcotic substance.

    So, I'm starting to feel Higher Understanding Through Drugs is a good enough name.
  • March 6, 2013
    Tuomas
    I added a quote and a page image, but suggestions for alternate ones are welcome.
  • March 11, 2013
    Tuomas
    I'll try to launch this later today, so any final suggestions?

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=ejaax2d6gkmwksrzufawik2u&trope=HigherUnderstandingThroughDrugs