What Happens to Your Brain When You're High?
According to one etymology website, the term “high” was first used for alcohol in the 1620s, and it meant to experience a state of euphoria. It’s more commonly used with drug taking today, and was widely used in the 1950s and 60s when subcultures such as the beatniks, following in the footsteps of the Beat Generation, and later the hippy movement, experimented with what we might call ‘altered states of consciousness’. The father of LSD, Albert Hoffman, famously rode his bicycle during a strong LSD trip and later writers would emerge, such as William Burroughs, who dedicated much of their lives to getting high as well as detailing aspects of the drug culture and the high itself. It’s complicated what happens to us when we are high, but we’ll attempt to explain it, in this episode of The Infographics Show, What Happens to Your Brain When You’re High?
First all we should say that certain drugs can do things that perplex science. An ayahuasca shaman in the jungles of Peru might tell you, you enter a spirit realm after ingestion of the magic brew, whereas science is skeptical but still curious. Drugs also seem to affect people differently, so we’ll try and stay with simple, general explanations of what is going on when you ingest certain substances we know as drugs. As we don’t generally say we are getting high when drinking a coffee, smoking a cigarette or even sipping on a margarita, we will focus on commonly taken drugs that are illegal in most countries.
We should probably start with marijuana, a psychoactive drug from the cannabis plant. It’s arguably one of the least dangerous drugs, and so its illegality is controversial. It’s been called a “medical miracle” and even as we write this a new report from the Economic Journal tells us that the frequency of violent crime is down in several US states that have made it available to buy as medical marijuana. Still, you can see plenty of studies that link cannabis smoking, or eating, to psychiatric disorders including psychosis, depression and anxiety.
Marijuana contains lots of types of cannabinoids, which are the chemical compounds that will make you feel high. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or, THC, is the chemical that does most of the work. THC acts like another naturally occurring chemical in our brains known as anandamide. This chemical affects our mood, our memory, perception, and even our hunger for food. It affects mood and emotions in small doses and can provide the user with feelings of relaxedness or elation, but if one is prone to anxiety or paranoia, it can also heighten those feelings. When THC engages with the cannabinoid receptors in your brain it could give you a feeling of pleasure, or fear. Some advocates of cannabis smoking have explained that the bad high could also be therapeutic in a way. Why does it change the way we feel? One doctor explained it this way, “In the endocannabinoid system one of its main roles in the brain is to regulate neurotransmitter function and again, if there’s too much of one kind of neurotransmitter it will bring it down, if there’s too little it will bring it up.” Some people believe this drug can create balance in the brain, a reason it’s sometimes used to control pain. Studies are ongoing, but it seems the plant may be good for some people whose brains lack certain chemicals. Other research tells us developing brains of teenagers should perhaps wait until they are older till they smoke marijuana.
Now we will turn to lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, a drug that may have inspired beautiful musical and literary creations but may also have driven a lot of people around the bend. It’s certainly a very controversial drug. After ingestion it will affect your dopamine and serotonin levels, which will change how you feel mood-wise. But the most significant change is how you will feel disconnected from your everyday reality. Researchers have called this “ego-dissolution”. This can be quite scary, especially if the hallucinations that come with LSD are powerful. On the other hand, users sometimes experience great joy for weeks after the experience likely because they have for all intents and purposes taken a break from themselves for a few hours. The problem is, people will not to be able to tell if their trip will be a “bad trip”, which could have a negative impact on their life. Time magazine published an article on what actually happens when we take LSD; why we hallucinate, and why we perceive things differently. Time writes that the networks of the brain responsible for our perception are a lot more active when our brains are scanned after taking the drug. What’s amazing is that the researchers found that “LSD changes visual information in the brain”, so you essentially see what you are thinking. That’s why you hallucinate. Others report you can sometimes smell colors, or music can give certain visualizations. They agree it can be a window to another world, but then again, if you have a lot of suppressed, negative thoughts you’ve been hiding, it’s likely you’ll have a difficult time. On the other hand, people with very debilitating depression or PTSD have found opening-up these windows or “doors of perception” have helped them to feel happiness again. As it’s illegal, it’s not easy to do more research.
And now for something completely different: cocaine. This is perhaps much easier to explain than marijuana and LSD. This is also a psychoactive drug and will affect your mood, but it certainly won’t lead to ego-dissolution… far from it. If snorted, smoked or injected as cocaine – not turned into crack cocaine – our dopamine levels will increase dramatically. This will give you a feeling of having more energy and for most people will make them more talkative. Small doses, or bumps, may even help people to focus more on tasks. One doctor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London said this massive rush of dopamine makes cocaine the second most addictive substance after heroin and other opioids. It’s a complicated matter to explain, but when you take cocaine it stimulates part of the brain’s reward system. We need this stimulus to help us to gain pleasure from tasks we need to do to survive. What happens with cocaine is that it plays a trick on the brain. Usually when you get a dopamine and serotonin rush those hormones are re-absorbed by the transporter from where they came. Cocaine blocks these transporters and there is a big build up. This will lead to a rush that will give the user a feeling of pleasure. On the downside, all those hormones being released could induce anxiety. The drug also affects our sympathetic nervous system, which is related to what we call fight or flight. This kind of heightened stimulation is hard on your heart, making it work harder and tightening your blood vessels. Even young people have been known to have heart attacks after taking cocaine.
Let’s now talk about perhaps the most addictive drug of them all: heroin. The heroin high is very different from the cocaine high, in that it usually relaxes the user rather than make them energized and sometimes manic. When someone takes heroin, the drug binds to what we call protein receptor sites for opioids. While our brains can thankfully already produce their own opioids such as endorphins, when someone takes heroin, their opiate-receptors block out more pain than usual. For heroin users, this not only means physical pain, but also mental pain as release of dopamine gives a feeling of well-being and sometimes euphoria. Unlike the short-term effects of cocaine, heroin’s effects may last for a few hours. The problem for users is they may soon tolerate the drug better, meaning they will need more. While addiction may take some time, once addicted it is very hard for the person to stop as they will experience difficult withdrawal symptoms. After long-term use the brain tells the user it can’t function without the drug, and so even after the user has come off there will be a period of emotional imbalance. This is what makes it so addictive, and sometimes devastating, although most researchers believe that it doesn’t damage your body as much as some other drugs do. Unless of course you overdose. In that case your brain basically forgets to breathe. As one doctor told CNN, “Usually when you are sleeping, your body naturally remembers to breathe. In the case of a heroin overdose, you fall asleep and essentially your body forgets.” With newer, more powerful opioids finding their way onto the streets, such as Fentanyl, the USA has recently seen a spike in overdoses. While the drug propaganda of the 80s featuring the words “This is your brain on drugs” accompanied by an egg being fried, might have been misleading or not very educational, there is no doubt that overdosing on opioids is very much a worrying reality.
There are many other drugs out there we missed, but these seem to be the most common or at least interesting. Another one we could have mentioned of course is amphetamine. What is your opinion on these drugs? Let us know in the comments!