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The Science of Ayahuasca—Gathering Momentum By Simon G

VIEWS: 2 PAGES: 5

									                         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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