Higher Understanding Through Drugs

"In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness."
–- Princess Irulan, 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 drug use is shown to have benevolent 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.

Higher Understanding Through Drugs is often combined with Vision Quest, though the two tropes do also appear separately. 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 related trope, where alcohol temporarily enhances someone's physical skills. If a drug grants someone actual physical superpowers, we're dealing with a Super Serum.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Grant Morrison is a big fan of this trope:
    • 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.
    • All-Star Superman ended with Lex Luthor tripping balls on the ground, reformed at the conclusion that this is how Superman sees the world.
  • Alan Moore likes this trope too:
    • 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".
  • Discussed Trope in Cartoon History of the Universe, on how ancient Indian philosophers got in touch with the universe:
    [They] did it the old-fashioned way: with drugs.
  • In Preacher, the protagonist Jesse Custer finds out the truth about his past, and that of some other characters, through a peyote vision.

    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.

    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.
  • Used heavily throughout Naked Lunch with a wide variety of drugs: beginning with an exterminator's bug powder of all things, the protagonist then moves onto powders made from the meat of giant centipedes, then a local Moroccan hash resin... and then the fluid that emerges from the skull-mounted tentacles of the alien head that has replaced his typewriter. All of these things may or may not open your mind to the fact that the world's being controlled by giant bugs that speak out of their anuses. But then again this may have something to do with it being loosely based on a book that was written almost exclusively under the influence.
  • Central to the plot of Limitless, with the protagonist using a designer drug to learn and achieve in a limitless manner.
  • The titular protagonist in Lucy encounters a synthetic blue powder which unlocks unknown portions of her brain, causing expanded awareness and eventual ascension to a higher plane of existence.
  • Low-key example: the protagonists of The Breakfast Club go from being at each other's throats to bonding and sharing deep personal revelations after sharing some marijuana.

    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.
  • Norman Spinrad's 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.
  • In The Culture series of science fiction novels by Iain Banks, the titular Culture makes liberal, indeed everyday, use of a variety of drugs for a variety of purposes. In fact, the use of psychoactive drugs is so common that humans born within the Culture are geno-fixed with drug glands in their brains, what amount to sophisticated biopharmacology labs capable of secreting a bewildering diversity of side-effect-free and non-habit-forming designer drugs and neurochemicals with just a little bit of conscious effort. Not only are these used recreationally - Culture people regularly get zonked out of their heads for the fun of it, and dosing yourself is considered a great way to take the edge off, or enhance the experience of, everything from dreadful boring faculty parties to polyspecific bacchanalian orgies - but there are also a wide variety of so-called utility drugs which can boost cognition, perception, wakefulness, energy levels, or enable the user to enter altered states of consciousness, such as meditative trances characterised by accelerated time-perception and profound mindfulness. While these sorts of drugs may seem to skirt the line between a Higher Understanding Through Drugs and a Super Serum, the stories always maintain that even with drug-fuelled performance enhancement, the users are always still just temporarily getting doped, and not actually being made distinctly or permanently better.
    • In The Player of Games for instance, the protagonist, strategy-gaming übermaestro Jernau Morat Gurgeh, plays a world-class game of ultra-high stakes Azad, during the championship match of which he dopes himself up to his hair follicles with a cocktail of potent cognition-and-perception modifiers, spending the weeks-long title game secluded in a haze of drugs and games theory, unsure if he is holding his own or merely so blasted and burnt out that he can't see that he's already losing.
  • Frank Herbert used this at least twice:
    • The appendix to Dune listed several concentrations of the "awareness-spectrum narcotic" melange that increased the user's understanding and mental abilities, including spice, the "normal" version (by Guild Navigators), the Fremen "Water of Life", much more concentrated (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.
  • Discworld
    • Around the end of The Last Continent, Rincewind drinks a lot of beer so that he can think better (or at least bendier) and guess what he has to do. Apparently, the state of mind where you can understand what happened to the wizards is very similar to the state of mind where Dibbler's meat pie floater sounds like a good idea.
    • According to Pyramids the best way to see the different colours of black when not in a magical field is to "smoke something illegal and look at a starling's wing".
    • In The Light Fantastic, the shamans of Skund consume fly agaric in the hope of getting a vision of Topaxci, God of the Red Mushroom, Skelde, Spirit of the Red Smoke, or even Umcherrel, the Soul of the Forest. Exactly how much wisdom and understanding these visions actually contain is another question; The Last Hero says that Topaxci is also God of People Who Tell Other People That "Dog" Is "God" Backwards And Think This Is Somehow Revelatory.
    • Implied in Small Gods, which says that if people could really see how amazing the universe is, their mental state would be very similar to the sort of people whose plastic greenhouses are seriously inspected by the authorities.
  • In Komarr, 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.
  • The Cthulhu Mythos story "The Hounds of Tindalos" by Frank Belknap Long centers on a man who tries to use an obscure drug as a form of Mental Time Travel. At first it works brilliantly, until he goes a little too far into the past...
  • This is one of the themes of Aldous Huxley's Island (as well as his essays The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell). Contrast with Brave New World, where drugs are only used for intoxication.
  • Mentioned in the book version of 2001 in The Space Odyssey Series, where Dave Bowman recalls an experience he'd had under the influence of an unnamed mind-expanding drug (implicitly LSD) that he'd been given as part of his training. The implication is that all of the astronauts are given psychedelics to boost their intelligence.
  • The eponymous gunslinger in the first book of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series takes mescaline to allow himself to access the spirit world. It's treated as an uncomfortable but necessary evil; the gunslinger doesn't enjoy the loss of self-control, but it's hardly the worst compromise he makes.
  • Characters in H.P. Lovecraft stories have variously used opium or hashish to enhance one's connection to the Dream Lands, or keep from thinking about the horrors they've seen in this world. In "Celephais", the dreamer uses hashish because he wants to get back to Celephais, and ends up going everywhere but there.
  • In another Lovecraft short story, "Hypnos", the narrator and his companion must consume unnamed illegal drugs to astral travel to forbidden dreamscapes. Later they end up relying on drugs to stay awake to keep the horrors they unwittingly summoned away.
  • The pollen of the kiriseth flower in the Darkover novels. The cause of the "ghost winds" that occur during periods of warm weather on the otherwise cold planet, which results in the flowers blooming and spreading their pollen into the air. As the humans that colonized Darkover discovered, the pollen triggers temporary manifestation of psychic powers in most people (and can permanently trigger them in others who have the potential). However, it also lowers inhibitions and causes hallucinations, making it difficult to tell psychic visions from delusions. Darkovans use it for a number of medicinal purposes, including assisting psychic manifestation.
  • In Wet Goddess, smoking marijuana helps Zack to communicate telepathically with Ruby.
  • The Night of Wishes: The notion potion's recipe has a part that can only be understood when read in the 4th dimension. To get there, each wizard needs an injection of Lucifer's Salto Dimensionale
  • In Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus!-trilogy the consumption of LSD can break a person's psychic barriers and make them more receptive to telepathy and other astral signals. In an interesting subversion it also messes up the user's head enough to make it almost impossible for a hostile psychic to read their minds accurately. There's also AUM, a fictional drug cocktail which doesn't produce a noticeable high, but makes one incredibly receptive to new ideas. It can make even the dullest person highly creative for a short period of time, which is often enough to completely turn their life around; examples include a Flat Earth-truther who ends up becoming a respected astrophysicist and a conservative judge who switches to a career in higher mathematics.

    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 the Elementary episode "A Loaded Gun, Filled With Drugs". 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.
  • Mad Men: Peggy in "My Old Kentucky Home" (with marijuana).note  Roger and Jane in "Far Away Places" (with acid). Don has an unpleasant variation in "The Crash" (with a cocktail of stimulants and Vitamin B12).
  • Doctor Who:
    • Being that it was the mid-to-late 60s, this is snuck past the radar as Does This Remind You of Anything? in Patrick Troughton's era as much as the writers could get away with. For example, "The Krotons" ends with the Doctor teaching people brainwashed by education how to make (literal) acid so they can free themselves from their oppressive masters and understand the true meaning of the universe. The Doctor's first regeneration itself was related to an acid trip in the production documents, shot with plenty of strange psychedelic effects, and led to him developing a host of new personality traits and skills (like a knack for disguises, social acuity, musicality and a more mellow and righteous attitude) at the cost of some permanent psychological scars from the traumatic experience.
    • In "The Brain of Morbius", the Doctor only makes the leap of inspiration to recognise the face of Morbius when high on wine laced with anaesthetic. While asleep in the drugged state he also makes a subconscious psychic connection with Morbius so profound that he even has confused memories that they were drinking together, although it's only when he's sober that he realises what had actually been going on. This is the first clue he gets in the story that Morbius is still alive.
    • "Snakedance" has the Doctor use hallucinogenic snake venom to help him work out how to defeat everybody's Enemy Within the Mara.
    • The Expanded Universe novel The Left-Handed Hummingbird involves the Doctor using various entheogenic drugs, including LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms, in order to communicate with an alien Aztec god.
    • The Telos Novella Wonderland features the Doctor making 'a form of LSD with no side effects' and feeding it to the book's temporary companion to allow her to see the hallucinatory alien he's trying to save.
  • In the Angel episode "Orpheus", Faith and (nonconsensually) Angelus go on a telepathically-shared Fantastic Drug trip while Angel's soul is being restored. While the intention wasn't to seek enlightenment (the drug was intended solely to incapacitate Angelus while the ritual happened, which was administered through Faith, near-suicidally, taking it and letting Angelus bite her) Faith does come to a greater level of mental stability and acceptance of her evil past through the trip. Probably to avoid endorsing drug use too controversially, she nearly died from the physical side effects of the substance, which wasn't intended for humans.

     Music 
  • Lots and lots of examples of this trope emerged from the Psychedelic Music era of The Sixties.
    • The Moody Blues recorded Legend of a Mind, a nine-minute long paean in homage of drugs pioneer Dr Timothy Leary, who advocated for Higher Understanding Through Drugs.
    • Jefferson Airplane reinvented Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland as White Rabbit, in which all the things Alice drinks, eats and secondary-smokes when she goes down the rabbithole bring on the mother of all mind-expanding trips.
    • The Beatles Tomorrow never Knows is about turning on to higher planes via drugs.

    Stand Up Comedy 
  • Bill Hicks was a big proponent of this.
    “Not only do I think marijuana should be legalized, I think it should be mandatory. I’m a hardliner. Think about it, man. You get in traffic behind somebody like: huuuh, huuuh. (making car horn noises) ‘Shut up and smoke that; it’s the law.’ ‘Oh sorry, I was taking life seriously. Oh, man! Who’s hungry?’”
    “I think it’s interesting the two drugs that are legal, alcohol and cigarettes, two drugs that do absolutely nothing for you at all, are legal, and the drugs that might open your mind up to realize how badly you’re being fucked every day of your life? Those drugs are against the law. He-heh, coincidence? See, I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, ’cause I took ’em one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, Now, if that isn’t a hazard to our country... how are we gonna justify arms dealing if we know we’re all one?!”

    Tabletop Games 
  • Psionics: The Next Stage In Human Evolution is a fan of this trope. A select few of the normal humans with psipotential gain access to their talents through special drugs.
    • An esper that doesn’t have any natural ability for a talent tree can gain access to it by taking the appropriate PPEC. They can also increase a character’s affinity for an existing talent tree.
  • Exalted has Celestial Crack, which is often used by mortals to temporarily (and sometimes permanently) Enlighten their Essence.
  • Several Traditions in Mage: The Ascension use various drugs as Foci.
  • In Pathfinder, Alchemists get access to Mutagens, which increase physical stats at the cost of their mental stats. However, they can gain access to (and at least one class variant starts with) the ability to make a cognatogen, which increases their intelligence, wisdom, and/or charisma at the cost of temporary penalties to their physical abilities, playing this straight.
  • In Magic: The Gathering, blinkmoth serum. When used is grants the user super senses and superintelligence, but it is also highly addictive and can cause mutations if used for long enough.
  • The "Mystic Visions" card in Munchkin: Cthulhu shows a munchkin drunk off his ass.

     Visual Novels 
  • During Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star much of the cast is trapped in a shared dream created by a vengeful spirit. Yuuya is wired up to one of them and enters the dream to save them, but can't find the math professor. So Leone injects him and the professor with psychotropics. Noting that he's high, Yuuya manages to stay perfectly coherent and steady through a confrontation and finds the guy.

    Western Animation 
  • The stereotypical enlightening peyote trip is parodied in the 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.
    • In The Simpsons Movie, he had another Vision Quest when he was given some kind of (apparently spicy) herbal tea by an Inuit woman and did throat-singing with her. He ends up getting ripped apart by trees until he figures out that he's been totally selfish, And That's Terrible.