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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
, 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 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.
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
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.
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- 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.
- 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 an exterminator's bug spray of all things, which 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. This may have to do with it being loosely based on a book that was written under the influence of drugs.
- Central to the plot of Limitless, with the protagonist using a designer drug to learn and achieve in a limitless manner.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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).
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?!”
- 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.
- 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.