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Matthew Parris

Skunk has changed me. But art has changed me, too

How strong experiences imprint themselves on our minds and alter the way we see things

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Two recent preoccupations have led me to the same reflection. The first is a Channel 4 programme on the effects of the super-strength cannabis known as ‘skunk’, in which I’ve been participating: about to be broadcast as I write. The second is the artist inmate of Dachau, Zoran Mušic, whose life my guest for one of my Great Lives programmes on BBC Radio chose to celebrate. We recorded that discussion some weeks ago for transmission later.

Both have led me to reflect on the nature of templates, and the theory of Gestalt.

A template (for those unfamiliar with carpentry or metalwork) is a pattern to follow: the pattern takes the form of an accurately shaped example of the thing to be made (typically cut from thin metal, cardboard or wood) so that the artisan can copy the shape. In dressmaking, for instance, if a particular shape is required, the dressmaker might trace it out on the cloth, using a piece of card pre-cut to the right shape. A template says (as it were) ‘this is what one of these should look like’.

The idea of Gestalt is related. This is a psychologists’ theory about the way we ‘join up the dots’ — fill in the blanks, as it were — from partial data, and thereby visualise the whole. The most ancient example are the star signs, tiny points of light in whose constellation the Ancients saw, or thought they could, hunters, bears, lions or scorpions.

Perhaps you can see the connection between these two ideas? If an example of a thing for which you’re looking is held in the mind, your eye and brain can quickly ‘recognise’ another case of it amid what might otherwise be a meaningless jumble of data. Searching for a particular book in a bookshelf, visualise its spine and scan the shelf and the right book may then jump out at you, saving you the bother of scrutinising them one by one. African game-spotters will tell you something similar: hold in your mind’s eye an image of a kudu, and you’ll more easily spot the antelope camouflaged in the bush.

Or what might be the antelope. Or, star-gazing, Orion the Hunter. But you might of course be wrong. For the jumble of data available to you may be consistent with other constructions, but you will tend to leap to the template you’re familiar with and, if it’s not inconsistent with the dots, join them up in that way.

And now to drugs. When at Yale I sampled the hallucinogen LSD. After eating a tab of (apparent) blotting paper I went walking alone in the New England winter. There were voices, people’s voices — in busy New Haven there always are — but I now heard in them the sound of my own name. I knew it was the drug and took no notice. But back in my room when I closed my eyes, the swirly dark we always see resolved itself into faces — grotesque, intricately drawn faces, like Dürer prints.

For years after, I was able to see those faces on shutting my eyes. I knew they weren’t real and found the effect interesting, but gradually it faded. Then some years ago I took the anti-malarial drug Larium, and the faces came back. They have never since left. One of my brothers sees them too — but has never taken drugs.

Has my brain been altered? Or did LSD just help me form templates, so I can descry the now familiar shapes from swirly data available to all of us? Another friend became temporarily paranoid, searching (as the human survival instinct must teach us to) for signs of threat or hostility, searching for matches to templates, but too intensely.

For my Channel 4 skunk programme I spent hours in the dark tunnel of an MRI scanner, scanning my cannabis-addled brain while I performed mental tests. It’s noisy in there, with a kind of rhythmic, soft thump, and — enhanced by the drug — this morphed into an almost musical, rhythmic pattern in my mind. I liked it — but was surprised to encounter it again last week when a friend with a talent for mimicry mimicked the sound of a farmers’ milking machine. All at once, there I was again, in the scanner. I had learned the template under the influence of cannabis, and it stayed with me.

Finally, then, to Zoran Mušic. In Dachau in 1944-45, he made sketches of corpses, open-mouthed skulls and heaps of the dead. He survived and in later life, as a moderately successful landscape painter, those sketches started coming back to him. He stared at a dry, stony, limestone hill and saw in the rocks the bones. In his mirror he saw the skull beneath the skin. And he started to paint again the horrors he’d once witnessed.

To prepare for the programme about Mušic I studied dozens of his paintings and drawings. I began to see more easily the things he saw. And later put the experience from my thoughts.

Or so I supposed. But weeks later in northern Spain I walked in the beech woods, winter-bare, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Tree trunks were almost white in the weak sun, and shaped like twisted arms. And all at once, like Mušic, I saw the bones. As I noted in my Times diary, now I always will.

I don’t know everything that drugs can do to the mind, but I wonder whether one thing may be less sinister than we think. By enhancing the imaginative processes by which we learn to interpret the world, drugs (and many other intense experiences) may leave us with templates — paranoid, morbid, beautiful or scary — that we store among all the other templates that memory keeps.

So in a way, yes, drugs do change us. But perhaps only in the way that mere experience can change us.

The era of stable governments is over

lpJoin us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.

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