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The Science of Ayahuasca—Gathering Momentum By Simon G. Powell I was recently fortunate enough to attend the European Ayahuasca Research Symposium. The academic event took place in the University of Amsterdam and was attended by about 200 people or so, mostly Dutch students as far as I could tell. My overall impression was that the science of ayahuasca is in its infancy and that more questions were raised by the content of the speakers’ talks than were answered. In other words, it seemed clear to me that the long revered psychological impact of ayahuasca, as with the impact of similar substances like psilocybin, is rife with research potential and that science has yet to really get to grips with the psychedelic visionary state. Science may know much about the various South American peoples who employ ayahuasca, it may know about its physical and chemical nature, it may even know which brain receptors are the principal site of its powerful neurological action, yet the bottom line is that we understand very little about consciousness itself and how consciousness can, with the right chemical intervention, expand into spectacular life‐changing visionary realms. Which implies that this ayahuasca symposium may well herald the start of a bigger research agenda to come. The first speaker at the event was anthropologist Bia Labate who has studied ayahuasca use for over a decade and who recently wrote a book about ayahuasca and health. Labate explained how the ayahuasca phenomenon cuts across a dizzying array of scientific disciplines— psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, neuroscience, neurochemistry, anthropology, ethnobotany, phenomenology—you name it, ayahuasca touches upon all these fields of investigation. Not to mention religion and metaphysics of course which are modes of knowledge and enquiry also relevant to the ayahuasca experience. She went on to point out the various problems associated with conducting scientific research with ayahuasca—problems like its prohibition in most countries of the world along with the pejorative connotations inevitably associated with illegal drugs. And even in countries where ayahuasca is legal, this is generally only the case under the ritual auspices of a religious organisation such as the Santo Daime church. Given such widespread illegality, any scientific researcher out to seriously explore ayahuasca has a daunting task ahead of them. Labate also pointed out problematic issues such as the context (i.e. the setting) of the ayahuasca experience and the dosage used. Science requires a standardised methodology. Thus, if you want to investigate the healing efficacy of ayahuasca (and we should bear in mind that the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelics is very much in vogue at the current time), then it makes sense to standardise dose and setting as much as possible. With slightly uncomfortable candour, Labate went on to mention that in situ ayahuasca use is not always concerned with healing but may be about shamanic warfare. Obviously it sounds more romantic to Western ears that ayahuasca is used primarily to heal the sick rather than to conjure up visionary poisonous darts to injure some enemy. Labate made it clear that the pop understanding of indigenous ayahuasca use is incomplete and that it is not all about dazzling healing visions but has a darker side. She also noted the conflicts that arise between the various kinds of logic involved in accounting for ayahuasca phenomenology— anything from the logic of psychiatry to shamanic logic. With so many ways and styles of describing what happens during a therapeutic ayahuasca session, which explanatory approach should science utilise? The second speaker was Jorg Daumann. His particular take on the subject was clear right from the start. He kicked off by talking about the neurochemistry of schizophrenia and how psychedelics like DMT (the principal vision‐inducing ingredient of ayahuasca) could be used to understand the abhorrent neurochemistry associated with mental disease. I was rather surprised by this approach as I thought this kind of thinking had gone away in the early 1960s. With so much literature available on the spiritual and healing effects of substances like psilocybin, ayahuasca, and MDMA, is it really necessary to return to a conceptual approach that harks back to the work of Kraepilin (dating back over 100 years) that seeks similarities between entheogenesis and psychosis? The idea that psychedelics can mimic psychosis is a tad insulting to anyone who has partaken of them and experienced transcendental states of consciousness. Moreover, the gist of the entire symposium, or at least the most prominent thread, was that ayahuasca possesses valuable medicinal and therapeutic properties. So if Daumann’s approach is to be taken seriously then we would have to conclude that people under the influence of ayahuasca become temporarily psychotic in order to get well. That sounds like a contradiction to me, especially when one considers the tutorial nature of ayahuasca visions widely reported by Western users. Anyhow, Daumann was interested in the attention disorders that manifest in schizophrenia and how drugs like DMT (and ketamine) can elicit similarly degraded attention in certain experimental situations. The idea was that, under the influence of psychedelics, the filters of the human brain/mind do not function properly and therefore attention is less focused and more prone to be caught up in ostensibly trivial environmental information. In other words, attention gets focused in alternative ways and, according to Daumann, this mimics what happens in schizophrenia. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin alter consciousness in oft curious and strange ways that may mimic in some way the strangeness associated with a psychotic mind, all this really demonstrates is that in both cases—in both schizophrenia and entheogenesis—large scale changes are occurring at the most complex and ‘higher end’ aspects of consciousness. With both psychosis and the psychedelic experience, the very core of what it is to be a consciously minded human being is modified and altered from the norm. As is the core of one’s relationship with culture, the environment and the rest of the reality process. So the most likely reason scientists first opted for the ‘psychotomimetic’ approach to psychedelics is because of the sheer unusualness of psychedelic consciousness compared to normal consciousness and not because psychedelics drive you mad. Having said as much, certainly it is the case that ‘bad trips’ can seem to the experiencer to be a kind of temporary madness. But I suspect similarities like this are minimal and are simply the result of complex psychological restructuring processes. In any case, the real question is whether Daumann’s approach helps us get to grips with something as strange as the DMT experience. As it was, Daumann concluded that the effects of ketamine upon attention seemed to be more closely related to the attention deficits found in psychosis than were the effects of DMT. Brian Anderson was up next and he talked about ayahuasca’s role in psychiatry and he again brought up the psychotomimetic approach to the ayahuasca experience as opposed to the therapeutic approach. Does ayahuasca lead to a “harmful break with reality”? If so, then how to account for the growing number of popular testimonies concerning the curative visions that ayahuasca can potentiate? Anderson asked if some kind of biochemical change was the chief causal healing factor or was it the psychological nature of the visions themselves that caused the healing? As I intimated at the outset, ayahuasca raises many questions that pertain to consciousness, mind and body. Given that we have yet to really define what consciousness is and the relationship of the physical brain to the mind, is it any wonder that ayahuasca confounds science? Until we get some kind of handle on what the mind, or consciousness, is exactly and how it relates to the more familiar world of matter and energy, we will be hard pressed to get to grips with the kinds of transcendental consciousness potentiated by ayahuasca. In many ways, we are fumbling in the dark even though we may divine that something big and interesting is in our vicinity. Anderson ended his discourse by mentioning a tentative ongoing study in which ayahuasca is being used to treat depression. Two subjects have apparently reported positive effects. Some audience questions at this point concerned what was new in the field of ayahuasca research. The two main items of interest appeared to be the growing interest in therapeutic studies along with more and more court cases concerning the legality of using ayahuasca. When you may have to go to court in order to keep your research study alive, it is not surprising that psychedelic science is so sluggish. This kind of socio‐political problem also raised the spectre of how religion is defined. Since most ayahuasca court cases seem to revolve around whether or not ayahuasca can be taken as part of a legitimate religious practice, the actual definition of a bona fide religion is called into question. Anthropologist Rama Leclerc was next on stage and she talked about her studies of the Shipibo‐ Konibo people of the Peruvian Amazon and the various kinds of person who visit them to partake in ayahuasca ceremonies. She went into a lot of detail about special diets and the relationship of the shaman with their apprentices. She also brought up the notion of plant spirits. She then made a comment that, although uttered rather casually, was actually quite loaded. Apparently there is a difference between (Western) males and females regarding the source of the healing/guiding force of ayahuasca, or the source of the Other as we can call it (i.e. the felt presence of an intelligence that one is in psychedelic communion with). According to Leclerc, males tend to interpret the guiding Other as something external to the self, whereas females tend to interpret it as something internal to the self. This implies that the common notion in psychedelic circles that the Other is some kind of entity separate from the self is but one interpretation of the ayahuasca experience, an interpretation that might be male‐ orientated and might only be popular because males tend towards more prominence in ayahuasca writings and such. I personally find this essentially hermeneutic issue (hermeneutics is the study of interpretation) of interest because it makes one question our assumptions about what the Other is. Undoubtedly psychedelics like DMT and psilocybin unleash visions that can seem to be tutorial and guiding, that have a life of their own, so much so that they may seem to be something separate from the self. But if this is simply an interpretation that comes in the wake of an extraordinary and unfamiliar state of consciousness, then it is equally plausible that what psychedelic plants do is to activate what can be referred to as a ‘higher aspect’ of the self, a kind of living inner wisdom if you will, a potential of the human mind to reorder itself and attain a more healthy and coherent state. So dramatic is this re‐ordering process that we may infer the process to be the work of an Other when, in fact, it is us, or at last a hitherto latent ‘higher’ potential of the human psyche. Such speculation was actually affirmed by the following speaker, transpersonal psychologist Petra Bokor, who, in her studies of ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects in numerous Hungarian ceremonies, cited the “emergence of the higher self” as an indicator of therapeutic success. Bokor also noted that an important factor in the healing process was to integrate the ayahuasca experience via lifestyle changes and that this kind of process was equivalent to long term psychotherapy. This brought to mind the therapeutic role of ibogaine in treating drug addicts. A single visionary session with ibogaine (derived, like ayahuasca, from a shamanic plant) can be so powerful as to break a drug habit that, with traditional treatments, might take months or even years to cure. The extreme power of ayahuasca probably explains why many psychotherapists baulk at the very thought of utilising shamanic plants. The effects are so profound and so little understood, that it may be deemed safer to practice with more traditional medicines and therapy regimens. Last to speak was psychologist Janine Schmid who, to her credit, managed to complete a study of ayahuasca self‐therapy in fifteen European subjects. This self‐therapy with the shamanic brew took various forms—such as visits to Peru, DIY ceremonies, involvement with the Santo Daime church, and so on. All the subjects suffered various ailments, mainly physical such as pain, tumours, depression, etc. Most felt better after their ayahuasca sessions—remissions were reported along with a decline in symptoms, even an apparently complete recovery. This kind of astonishing result—particularly physical healing as opposed to just feeling mentally better—clearly demands further study. If verified, ayahuasca might prove to be a medicine more powerful than we realise. So what are to conclude from this tentative ayahuasca symposium? It seems to me that, as with similar psychedelics like psilocybin, the ayahuasca experience—so radically different to our normal frames of mind—is bursting with potential scientific research opportunities. In fact, given the eclectic array of disciplines involved that I alluded to at the outset, I can well envisage a multi‐disciplinary journal dedicated solely to ayahuasca. After all, we find journals dedicated solely to phenomena like cell biology, fluid mechanics, neurons, and obesity. What warrants any given dedicated journal is a subject rife with import and potential knowledge. And what can be more profoundly rife with potential knowledge than ayahuasca? In any case, if vigorously controlled ayahuasca experimentation is ever to begin in earnest, then precise dosages of its active ingredients would need to be available. Is this possible? I asked pharmacology professor Dave Nichols about this, as he has synthesized all manner of psychedelic drugs for official research purposes. He told me: “Certainly I think it would be possible to make capsules with variations in amounts of DMT and the various harmala alkaloids and have them evaluated by ayahuasca drinkers as to their efficacy. Then, use that as a ‘standardized’ formulation for clinical studies. I think it might even be possible for someone (probably in another country) to do a study like that with the pure alkaloids and publish it somewhere, then those data could be used to propose a study in the U.S. with that same formulation.” So, the gauntlet has been laid down. There is a definite way ahead for science to explore ayahuasca’s widely attested healing potential. Do the groundwork in Europe (where restrictions may be easier to surmount) and then eventually extend the research into the USA. What may become of such a radical science agenda? If, that is, ayahuasca’s healing efficacy and safety were clearly ascertained and endorsed? Might we see therapy centres dotted about the globe, places where one could go to find a kind of healing not available elsewhere? Centres to refresh and revitalize the spirit and potentiate one’s ‘higher self’. Perhaps the real question is why ever not? Simon G. Powell is the author of the The Psilocybin Solution which has just been published by Park Street Press. He would like to thank Bill Linton for supporting the creation of this piece.
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