By JACQUES MABIT, JOSE CAMPOS, and JULIO ARCE
Originally published in Spanish in the Revista de Neuro-Psiquiatría in 1992, based on research done at Takiwasi Rehabilitation Center for Drug Addicts and Research of Traditional Medicines, in Tarapoto, Peru, in collaboration with the National Institute of Traditional Medicine, Ministry of Health, Lima, Peru.
Mabit, J., Campos, J. y Arce, J. (2013) Consideraciones acerca del brebaje ayahuasca y perspectivas terapéuticas, Revista de Neuro-Psiquiatria, 55(2), pp. 118-131. doi: 10.20453/rnp.v55i2.1281.
The aqueous extract of the mixture of Banisteriopsis Caapi, Psychotria Viridis and Brugmansia sp., better known as “ayahuasca beverage” with purgative and psychotropic effects, constitutes the axis of shamanism in the Amazonian region. Anthropological, psychological and phytochemical studies show that this brew can be used with beneficial results in the treatment of drug addictions and certain mental disturbances, provided it is adequately administered. Furthermore, it was discovered that the treatment of patients during the healing sessions was not only influenced by the active principles of β-carbolines and tryptamines, but also modified by the psychosomatic condition of the patient, the natural surroundings and other factors involving the therapist.
Research on traditional medicines has been carried out in Tarapoto and San Martin Department, since 1986. The main idea was to evaluate the therapeutic alternatives proposed by the indigenous ancestral medicine, with priority for the treatment of cocaine addicts. This meant from the beginning to give great respect to the empirical medicine and to accept oneself as ignorant in the matter, as a student of the healers and shamans.
After a phase of making contacts, it very quickly became evident that the ayahuasca concoction constituted the key to empirical knowledge and an obligatory way to try to understand some of the highly complex and elaborate traditional knowledge. Therefore, we decided to resume our medical studies another university, which is the Jungle. We have then focused our attention on ayahuasca, its preparation, its uses, its therapeutic results. In addition, learning how to handle it meant giving oneself in personally, to accept a self-experimentation under the control of the most experienced healers.
Ayahuasca is a purgative decoction of a mixture of psychotropic plants (Banisteriopsis Caapi, Psychotria Viridis, Brugmansia sp.). Its use in indigenous jungle groups has therapeutic and ritual purposes. It is ingested in collective night sessions managed by a “maestro”.
To this date, we can account for the participation in more than 300 nocturnal ayahuasca sessions and the follow-up of the initiation steps as indicated by the “maestros”, such as diets, isolation in the jungle, fasting, sexual abstinence, song learning, etc. Finally, we ourselves have reached the point of being able to lead therapeutic sessions supplied with ayahuasca. In total, this means the first-hand observation of more than 2000 subjects under the effects of ayahuasca.
Researchers from different disciplines came together to form a multidisciplinary team: Dr. Julio ARCE (phyto-chemist, University of Iquitos), José CAMPOS (empirical ethnobotanist), Lic. Clara CARDENAS (IIP – psycho-anthropology), Lic. Sacha DOMENECH (clinical psychology), Dr. Rosa GIOVE (biomedical evaluation), Dr. Fernando CABIESES (neurophysiology), Forestry Technician Juan RUTZ (Botanical identification, Iquitos), Dr. Jacques MABIT (Medical Coordinator).
METHODOLOGY AND JUSTIFICATION
Given the peculiarities of the chosen topic, we had to redefine the basic axioms for an atypical scientific observation. We decided, with the advice of the healers “maestros” specialized in the subject, to explore ayahuasca in situ, in the empirical conditions in which ayahuasca is taken, and commit ourselves to a systematic self-experimentation. Our decision to do so is based on the following elements:
A. Deficiency of indirect studies
All of this clearly means that both ethnoanthropological studies and medical-pharmacological studies lack a fundamental datum, which is direct observation under natural conditions.
B. Validity of the empirical approach
On the other hand, it seemed valid to us to study the phenomenology of ayahuasca in situ, for the following reasons:
The pragmatism that characterizes primitive cultures does not allow us to conceive that a practice would have been maintained for such a long time, in such a vast geographical area and despite the tenacious opposition of Western Christian culture, without it having very solid foundations supported by curative effects proven by empiricism.
2. We also find a congruence that we have already pointed out on another occasion (MABIT, J., 1988) between traditional knowledge and modern science: they have common logical foundations that allow indigenous knowledge to be qualified as “science”. Thus, both are based on concrete, observable facts (e.g., a sick subject, treated and then cured); they proceed rigorously; they demand efficacy, that is, that knowledge must “work”; are supported by a coherent body of knowledge; they use a precise, structured methodology; define the conditions that allow experimenting and reproducing the observations; determine a learning methodology for the transmission of knowledge. This empirical knowledge is then revealed to be accessible to the student and shows compatibility with the scientific criteria of modern science.
C. Attitude of the Researcher
Both pragmatism and common sense tell us that the best way to study a subject is to receive knowledge from specialists in the field, in this case healers or shamans. This requires the researcher to abandon prejudices, overcome the traditional inhibitions of a “respectable scientist” and obtain the necessary means to respond to the peculiarities of the subject. In this case, more than anything, it requires sufficient time, a personal dedication, and accepting to momentarily put critical and derogatory pretensions between parentheses, and rather preferring respect and humility.
In this field, we too find ourselves confronted with taboos in the academic community that have little or nothing to do with the development of science and rather reveal an unconscious fear of directly confronting the unknown. In effect, it is a matter of not dwelling on the “normal” or rather the “regulated” and daring to engage one’s self in an observation that requires personal dedication. Kabire FIDAALI, in his studies of the Bangre in Africa, found these same resistances and specified that “the human self has a non-regulated structure, which differentiates him from scientific origins: the observer in science is a normalized channel” (FIDAALI, K ., 1991).
Once we admit to place on an equal position two different sciences that have: a) compatible foundations although they proceed and have a different explanatory mode; and b) common goals (knowledge of nature and human beings, elaboration of solutions for the well-being of the community), it seems possible to establish a fruitful exchange.
We want here to refer to two examples of mutual data collection and reciprocal enrichment.
The ayahuasca brew takes its name from the ayahuasca plant (Banisteriopsis caapi), which thus assumes the central role in the potion and in the therapeutic ritual. Of the various components of the plant mixture (different, depending on the healers and the geographical areas), the Malpighiaceae ayahuasca vine always plays the most important role according to the maestros. It is she which teaches through visions, it is she which facilitates “seeing” and thus concentrates the greatest hallucinogenic effect.
Until recently, chemists and pharmacologists have persisted in insisting that Psychotria viridis (chacruna), which contains DMT (dimethyl-tryptamine), was the hallucinogen in the mixture, causing the visions, while Banisteriopsis acted only as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO). Thus, McKENNA & TOWERS state in 1984 that their experiments “provide strong evidence for the hypothesis that the hallucinogenic properties of ayahuasca are due to the inactivation of visceral MAO and therefore the facilitation of the oral activity of DMT in the brew” ( McKENNA & TOWERS, 1984).
However, in 1990, McKENNA himself recognized the hallucinogenic function of Banisteriopsis alone: “Numerous tribes of the same region prepare a hallucinogenic drink from the bark of Banisteriopsis caapi or other plants of the Malpighiaceae genus. This concoction, which contains high levels of MAO inhibiting ß-carboline alkaloids, is by itself a hallucinogen, sometimes even taken alone” (McKENNA, JOHNS, RYALL, 1990).
Thus, the initial contradiction with empirical knowledge is resolved: modern researchers always have the advantage in considering a priori the information of the true maestros of ayahuasca as reliable. What’s more, these data can guide the investigation and make it possible to shorten the paths.
2. From modern science to traditional science
An extreme variety is noted in the Amazonian indigenous groups on how to prepare the ayahuasca brew. For our purposes of studying its effects in the treatment of addicts, we had to look for a suitable potion for those exact purposes. For this, the data provided by shamanism through ethnographic literature, the direct observation and finally our personal experiments served us. In this last stage, it helped us enormously to be able to count on the pharmacodynamics advice.
Indeed, there is no specific preparation to treat addicts in the autochthonous therapeutic tradition. The knowledge of pharmacodynamics led us to gradually introduce improvements in the preparation in order to achieve a greater extraction of alkaloids. We were thus able to specify the amounts to use, the most convenient containers, the way to preserve the vine between its harvest and its cooking, the intensity and duration of the cooking, the best stems to use, the way of conserving the concoction.
Thus, we have determined the need to let the vine pieces dry for a few days before cooking, macerate them in water the day before preparation, cook in two waters, do not peel the pieces, build an oven to concentrate the heat and cook at low heat, keep the brew in a dark bottle, etc. In the latest preparations in the laboratory, the high concentration of alkaloids has made it possible to obtain crystals, which was not possible in our previous preparations or those of other maestros.
LIMITATIONS OF PHYTOCHEMICAL RESEARCH
At the risk of being a bit schematic, but for didactic purposes, we can group the studies of ayahuasca into two groups, apart from the journalistic stories. The western dichotomy between human sciences and exact sciences is reflected in the dual approach to ayahuasca. On the one hand, we have the studies of phytochemistry, pharmacology, and botany, which pretend to act objectively and place their focus on the substance, on the concoction, on the raw material. On the other hand, the anthropologists, ethnologists and sociologists who stop primarily at the cultural context and seek explanations above all in the social dynamics.
In both cases, reality is fractioned, reduced to the field of observation that is the responsibility of the observer. However, at the moment that the curandero and the patient are under the effects of ayahuasca, this artificial discontinuity dissolves and the analytical separation of the observer loses validity. The ayahuasca makes the ayahuasquero and vice versa.
Just as the dance is born with the dancer’s movements, the dancer ceases to be a dancer when the dance ceases. They are extinguished together and there is no longer a dancer or a dance. In other words, ayahuasca and ayahuasquero reveal each other and are inseparable. Proceeding separately greatly impoverishes the issue if it does not completely dissolve it.
Thus, the chemical analysis reveals the presence of alkaloids in the concoction that can account for the existence of visions but that are revealed to be powerless to explain the very content of the visions. An ultra-materialist opinion can claim that all mental phenomena are determined by chemical mechanisms, to which HALDANE replies: “If materialism is true, it seems to me impossible that it be known to be true. If my opinions are the result of chemical processes that take place in my brain, they are determined not by the laws of logic but by those of chemistry” (HALDANE, JBS, 1937).
Karl POPPER made explicit the limits of deterministic theories that try to maintain “the causal enclosure of the physical world”: “They are all self-destructive to the extent that they establish – unintentionally – the non-existence of arguments” (POPPER, K., 1953). And elsewhere he adds that this can be applied to scientific determinism.” Taking as his starting point man’s ability to predict the world, a capacity he conceives of as being, in principle, unlimited, his conclusion no longer leaves any room for rational argumentation. “(POPPER, K., 1984). And he concludes that if scientific determinism is true, it cannot be rationally known that it is: “one believes in it or does not believe in it, not because he freely judges that the arguments or reasons in his favor are well-founded, but because one is determined to believe it or not to believe it and also to believe that one rationally judges this matter” (POPPER, K., 1984).
We base our assertion that the active principles in no way can pretend to explain by themselves the effects of an ayahuasca session, not only with epistemological arguments but also by the constantly repeated observation of the following phenomena:
To summarize, the nature of the brew is insufficient to be able to explain the enormous variations of effects from one subject to another, from one session to the next. There is no response of the subject strictly proportional to the dose ingested or the concentration of alkaloids in the concoction.
These facts clearly indicate the limits of phytochemical research. The raw material, the concoction, constitutes a key element in these healing techniques, but many other conditioning elements intervene without the study of which a full understanding of the ayahuasquero shamanism is utopian. The causal scientific linear logic only appears improper here.
While obviously, the quality and quantity of the concoction constitute a conditioning factor, so is the psychosomatic disposition of the patient at the time of the session. The emotional-affective situation in which the patient finds himself potentiates or neutralizes the effects of ayahuasca, whether consciously or unconsciously.
The voluntary and trusting surrendering, the proximity of an emotional or traumatic complex, the commitment in the therapeutic group, are many other factors that facilitate the induction of the effects or the response to the ingestion of ayahuasca. Conversely, a lousy diet, intoxication by drugs or other medicines, a chronic pathology, can oppose resistance. But all these factors given the type of illustration can intervene in the opposite way to what is generally expected. Once again, one cannot isolate elements and establish strict cause-effect relationships.
It is estimated in principle that psychosomatic conditions are optimal for a “good session” when the patient has confidence in the therapist and follows his advice, which almost always includes basic rules of life (avoid eating pork, chili and drinking alcohol; not having sexual intercourse prior to the session, etc.)
In addition to the factors related to the potion and the subject drinking it, there are powerful influential external factors on the effects of an ayahuasca session. They act in two stages, perception through the senses and then integration at the central level.
In the first stage, the perceptions of the five senses are manifested. Depending on its intensity, its frequency, its origin, the stimulus will or will not cross the perceptual threshold of the individual. We will then have supra-liminal conscious perceptions and infra-liminal or unconscious perceptions.
The conditions for taking ayahuasca therefore require control of light, environmental sounds, smells, the subject’s posture, etc. Each of these elements is capable of profoundly modifying the effect of ayahuasca to the point of causing hallucinatory intoxication or neutralizing it, giving paradisiacal or terrifying visions, inducing vomiting or pacifying the body and the mind.
Then it is necessary to point out an immense field of conditioning factors of the effects of ayahuasca represented by subliminal perceptions. Depending on the degree of progress in the knowledge of ayahuasca, sometimes extra-sensorial perceptions are developed, but which would rather correspond to a sharpening of the senses in many cases. The perceptual spectrum is amplified and authorizes the uptake of previously subliminal stimuli. Other stimuli remain subliminal, even with the perceptual amplification exacerbated by ayahuasca. However, despite not reaching consciousness, they influence hallucinatory intoxication in the same way: the maestro will take great care of them.
Here we consider, beyond the five common senses, also the internal perceptions: the sense of balance of the inner ear, the internal thermal perception (which can be different and even dissociated from the external perception), the self-perception that allows us to perceive our body and its spatial location.
In a second stage, the integration at the central level of supra-liminal or subliminal perceptions leads us, for example, to define lateralization (right-left, up-down), location in time-space, identification of what is ours and what is foreign (identity), the apprehension of the real and its discrimination with the unreal, the feeling of presence of oneself and the world, the distinguishing of forms, movement, volumes, consistency.
Neurophysiology suggests that ayahuasca causes an excitation of certain brain centers such as the temporal lobes (integrative areas) or the limbic system. In this case we can foresee an emotional increase and a sensory intensification, functions linked, it is assumed, to these centers.
From another angle, ayahuasca can be considered more of a dis-inhibitor. In effect, inhibition, as SACKS points out, “acts at the most elementary perceptual level as if it were necessary to inhibit the protopathic, primordial and full of hedonic quality”, if we want to allow to emerge the “epicritical (HEAD, 1920), complex, categorizing and devoid of affect” (SACKS, O., 1985). Ayahuasca would act as a dis-inhibitor, attenuating the epicritical and allowing the emergence of the protopathic.
For example, the hyperosmia that sometimes manifests itself during ayahuasca sessions corresponds to a probable stimulation of the old olfactory lobe (rhinencephalon), functionally associated with the limbic system, to which a function of regulating the emotional tonality of the subject is attributed. Normal subliminal odors can consequently emotionally alter the perception of a subject during the session.
The integrative level assumes the existence of a “human being”, an emotional being. SACKS thus insists on “the essentially personal dimension inherent in all mnesis, gnosis or praxis” and “the essentially melodic and scenic nature of inner life” (SACKS, O., 1985).
The greater presence of one in oneself derives from this “awakening” to a higher integrative level with the consequent possibility of discovering and correcting coding errors. In this sense, the ayahuasca experience can be a semantic experience: it consists of creating and discovering meanings (BULLA DE VILLARET, H., 1973). This presence of one in oneself and in the world determines what we call a state of consciousness.
Environmental factors are then likely to powerfully modify the states of consciousness of a subject under the effects of ayahuasca.
The observation and self-experimentation of ayahuasca also allowed us to verify the reciprocal influence of the different participants. There are subtle exchanges that clearly manifest, that we cannot clarify better than with the term “energies”.
In the darkness and silence of the session, a community of perceptions is created and the usual continuity between individuals diminishes. Without extinguishing the notion of uniqueness of the self, the participant influences and receives influences from his peers.
An “energetic quality” emanates from each participant that is diffused in the environment and can find a more specific “entry” in another subject. These emanations can be received and integrated in a pleasant or unpleasant, benevolent or malevolent way. In the latter case, it is not uncommon for a participant to make another vomit by transmitting an unbearable influence. This extraordinary fact according to current rational concepts is nevertheless frequently observable: the facts speak for themselves!
A possible suggestion is not enough to explain such facts since:
It remains for us to point out the last and perhaps central conditioning factor: it is the healer or shaman who directs the session. He acts as a conductor for his orchestra. His role consists of modulating, regulating, controlling this complex dance of factors, harmonizing the energies put into play. Undoubtedly, the quality of your own energies highly conditions the outcome of the session. The essential energy modulation is transmitted through the sacred songs. His body is the therapeutic instrument par excellence after constituting the instrument of his own initiation (MABIT, J., 1988b).
We are here at the limit of the conventional conceptual formulation. We need to forge new conceptual instruments, new vocabulary to account for phenomena that escape ordinary experience. Meanwhile, we use the term “energy” to describe the experience: a “bad” energy tires the patient, a “good” one tonifies him; the same energy could be perceived by several patients through different senses (lights for one, smell for another, tremors for the third, sounds for the fourth, etc.). The purgative effect consists of expelling “bad” energies through physical emunctory elimination and more subtle emanations. On a personal level, the self perceives concomitantly and inseparably the elimination of these energies at the different levels: mental (“bad ideas”), emotional (“bad feelings”) and physical (vomiting, diarrhea, hypersalivation, abundant sweating, etc.).
The energetic concept is princeps to all the conditioning factors in the consumption of ayahuasca, according to the empirical tradition, compatible with the most advanced concepts of modern science and experimental at the individual level, for which it seems fundamental to us to deepen studies in that direction.
The ayahuasca session would then be a controlled management of the energies of each of the participants, of the environment and by the maestro. It would serve as a dis-inhibitor of energetic blockages perceived as thoughts at the mental level, feelings at the emotional level and symptoms in the body. On the contrary, it acts as an amplifier and stimulant of the latent vital energies. The foreseen result is the harmonization of those energies that condition a better psychosomatic-somatopsychic dynamic.
The body contains or rather represents the individual memory, an embodiment of a biography, and furthermore it also contains the collective or universal memory. The body represents the “somatic essence of consciousness” (FIDAALI, K., 1991). Ayahuasca authorizes the consciousness to manifest the unconscious, or rather subconscious. Hence, the traditional function of ayahuasca is both therapeutic for the individual and mystical for the community.
The considerations about the ayahuasca brew inevitably lead us, if one does not reject clear and observable facts, to a necessary epistemological revision of modern science and especially of medicine. The conceptual frameworks, the experimental models, the classical paradigms are revealed to be too narrow to account for the experience. The Aristotelian thinking that underpins Western science provides an insufficient system of coordinates.
No academic discipline by itself can claim to “explain” ayahuasca. While a multidisciplinary group enriches the study, it never dispenses one’s obligation to self-experiment in order to reach infra or supra-verbal levels. The levels of abstraction of the scientific language cannot be strictly adapted to non-verbal levels (KORZYBSKI, A., 1933). “Static representations are used to account for a dynamic reality” (BULLA DE VILLARET, H., 1973). Thus, to the pure analytical approach it is essential to add a synthetic, holographic, integral procedure. The observer and the observed merge, subject and object are one. As microphysics has already verified in its field, the simple fact of observing modifies the observation (WOLF, F. A., 1988). The ideal standardization guaranteeing scientific objectivity is revealed not only inadequate but also impossible.
These difficulties do not prohibit the development of a gnosis on the subject but they make space to a new, original and therefore fruitful approach. The traditional methodology of ayahuasca offers the possibility of being present simultaneously to the external reality and the internal reality. This specificity of the ayahuasca experience resembles that of the various ways of knowing based on the induction of altered states of consciousness. Richard MARSH would say of such experiences that “enable one to inhabit the real world, the world of facts, instead of the empty, unreal world of ready-made abstractions; allowing one to experience the world instead of being satisfied to just think about it”, and from there perhaps, finally begin to live it” (MARSH, R.P., 1969).
The ancestral wisdom of ayahuasca challenges us to get out of our routines of life and thinking, to discover new ways of knowledge and wisdom. The promoters of Transpersonal Psychology began to investigate in this direction: it is now probably one of the most promising openings in this field (Cf. GROF, S., TART, C., WEIL, P.). This opens the horizons of tomorrow.