Altered States and the Study of Consciousness – The Case of Ayahuasca

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The Journal of Mind and Behavior Spring 2003, Volume 24, Number 2 Pages 125-154

Altered States and the Study of Consciousness – The Case of Ayahuasca

Benny Shanon The Hebrew University

This paper is part of a comprehensive research project whose aim is to study the phenomenology of the special state of mind induced by the psychoactive Amazonian potion ayahuasca. Here, I focus on those aspects of the ayahuasca experience that are related to basic features of the human Consciousness. The effects of the potion are discussed in terms of a conceptual framework characterizing Consciousness as a cognitive System defined by a set of parameters and the values that they take. In various theoretical contexts, these values have been assumed to be basic, paradigmatic properties of human Consciousness. The phenomenological data pertaining to ayahuasca indicate that the features at hand can be modified. Following earlier suggestions by William James and Aldous Huxley, I conclude that any general theory of Consciousness should be based not only on the study of so-called ordinary Consciousness, but also on that of non-ordinary states.

In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James (1929) observes:

[O]ur normal waking Consciousness, rational Consciousness as we call it, is but one spe­cial type of Consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of Consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, defïnite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. (pp. 378-379)

These lines are famous and they are quoted often, but not so often cited are the two sentences that introduce them:

Some years ago I myself made some observations on [the basis of a personal] nitrous oxide intoxication.... One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that....

And there follow the lines that I have cited above (for more information, see James, 1882).

The novelist-philosopher Aldous Huxley (1959/1971) made similar obser­vations following his personal experience with another psychoactive sub­stance, mescaline. The mescaline experience led Huxley to write two essays, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. The following quotes are from the opening pages of the latter.

Like the earth of a hundred years ago, our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins. In relation to the fauna of these regions we are not yet zoologists, we are mere naturaliste and collectors of the specimen .... Like the giraffe and the duck-billed platvpus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation; and as such, they cannot be ignored by anyone who is honestly trying to understand the world in which we live. (p. 71 )

A man consists of what I may call an Old World of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds – the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious ... ; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday con­sciousness, the world of Visionary Experience, (p. 72)

Thus, when exploring the geography of the mind, claims and suppositions based only on ordinary states of consciousness (notably, the states of normal wakefulness, sleeping, and dreaming) are not sufficient. Any general, comprehensive theory of cognition has to encompass both the ordinary and the non-ordinary facets of mind.

The observations made in this paper are part of a research program in which I attempt to draw a comprehensive systematic chart of the special state of mind induced by ayahuasca, a powerful psychoactive potion from the upper Amazonian region. The phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience is multifarious. Here, I discuss only those of its aspects that relate specifically to modifications in one's state of consciousness. My discussion focuses on a series of non-ordinary phenomenological patterns, each associated with features that are often taken to be basic, characteristic – if not defining – properties of human consciousness. In the special state of mind that ayahuasca induces, it appears, all these features fail to apply. Thus, these patterns indicate that some very basic assumptions regarding human conscious­ness have to be questioned. This supports the assessment made by James and Huxley, namely, that any general theory of consciousness should be based not only on the study of so-called ordinary consciousness, but also on that of non-ordinary states.

Ayahuasca – General Background

The potion ayahuasca is made out of two plants. Usually, the first is Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the Molpighioceoe family, whereas the second is Psychotria viridis, a bush of the Rubtocoea family. In common parlance, the term ayahuasca is used to refer not only to the potion but also to the first of the two constituent plants. Chemically, the main active ingredients in the potion are the alkaloids N,N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine. For information about the botany and pharmacology of ayahuasca, the reader is referred to Callaway et al. (1999), Ott (1993, 1994), Schultes (1982), Schultes and Winkelman (1995), and Spinella (2001).

Amerindians have used ayahuasca for millennia. In the tribal cultures of the upper Amazon region ayahuasca played a central rôle. In the past, ayahuasca was used for all major tribal decisions, particularly declaring war and locating game for hunting; it also served in initiation rites (for anthropological studies of the use of ayahuasca in the indigenous context, the reader is referred to the classical works by Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1975, 1978; and to the more recent works by Fericgla, 1998; Lagrou, 1998; Langdon, 1979, 1992; Luna, 1986; Mader, 1999; as well as the various contributions in Harner, 1973; Langdon and Baer, 1992). Today, the brew is still the basic instrument of shamans and medicine men in the entire region. It is said to enable healers to see the inner constitution of their patients, and thus establish a diagnosis and perform treatment (for general discussions of the healing practices associated with ayahuasca, see Dobkin de Rios, 1972; Langdon, 1992; Luna, 1986; as well as the contributions in Langdon and Baer, 1992). In the twentieth century, as a result of interracial contacts, several syncretic sects have been established in Brazil in which the indigenous ayahuasca traditions are coupied with Christian and other non-indigenous (in particular, African) cultural elements. The most important of these sects are the Church of Santo Daime and the Union do Vegetal (the plant union). In the last decade both groups have expanded significantly throughout the urban centers of Brazil and recently they have established communities overseas as well (for general information regarding these groups, see MacRae, 1992; Polari, 1984, 1992, for the first group; and the Centra de Memoria e Documentaçao, 1989; Brissac, 1999, for the second).

The consumption of ayahuasca usually induces powerful visions as well as hallucinations in all other perceptual modalities (depictions of ayahuasca visions are presented in the paintings shown in Luna and Amaringo, 1993). Pronounced non-perceptual cognitive effects are also manifest. These include personal psychological insights, intellectual (notably, metaphysical) ideations, and powerful religious and spiritual experiences. Moreover, ayahuasca introduces those who partake of it to what seem to them to be other realities. Those who consume the potion may thus feel that they are gaining access to new sources of knowledge and that the mysteries and ultimate truths of the universe are being revealed.

Practically all the scientific research on ayahuasca falls into two categories. The first is that of the natural sciences '– botany and ethnobotany, pharmacology, biochemistry and brain physiology. The second category is that of the social sciences – notably anthropology. The disciplines of the first category try to determine the identities of the plants of which ayahuasca is made, analyze their active chemical ingredients and discover the pharmacological action these generate and the physiological effects they produce in human beings (see, for instance, Callaway et al., 1999; Grob et al., 1996; Strassman 2001). Anthropologists, in their turn, study how ayahuasca is used in various societies and groups. They record the rituals – religious or medicinal – in which the potion is consumed and the behavior of the people who participate in them. Anthropologists also study how ayahuasca and its rituals are related to various other facets of the cultures at hand – social structure, mythologies, music, religious beliefs, art and artifacts (see references above).

To my mind, the real puzzles associated with ayahuasca pertain neither to the brain nor to culture but rather to the human psyche. Ayahuasca is so intriguing because of the extraordinary subjective experiences it generates in people. As such, the study of ayahuasca belongs first and foremost to the domain of psychology, and more specifically cognitive psychology. My own research program is the first scientific effort to study the ayahuasca experience from a cognitive-psychological perspective (for more information, see Shanon, 1997a, 1997b, 1998a, 1998b). It is guided by the appraisal that the alliance of ayahuasca research and the study of mind is beneficial to both. On the one hand, cognitive psychology presents a new, most pertinent perspec­tive for the study of ayahuasca. On the other hand, ayahuasca, with the unusual mental phenomena it generates, opens new vistas for the study of mind in general and of human consciousness in particular. Furthermore, studying ayahuasca from a cognitive-psychological perspective can shed light on topics that are within the province of other scientific disciplines, notably anthropology and philosophy.

Empirically, my study of ayahuasca is based on several sources of data. The first is the compendium of my own diaries in which I have written down full accounts of all ayahuasca sessions in which I have participated. Guided by the belief that the ayahuasca experience cannot be studied without firsthand experience, I have spent long periods in South America partaking of the potion in different locations and in different contexts of use; by now, I have done so more than 140 times.1 Second are interviews in which I asked people about their ayahuasca experience. Overall, I have interviewed more than three hundred individuals – indigenous shamans, indigenous lay persons, residents of South America who are members of various syncretic sects using ayahuasca, independent drinkers (that is, individuals with extensive experience who are not members of any sect) and Europeans and North Americans with no prior experience with the potion.

Scope of this Paper

As indicated above, in this paper I review several phenomenological patterns encountered with ayahuasca which, I think, have major theoretical import for any general theory of human consciousness. Each pattern discussed corresponds to one aspect of consciousness (in some cases, several) that is usually taken as fundamental, and each reveals that the features in question need not necessarily apply. The theoretical import of this is that some very basic conceptions regarding consciousness have to be questioned and modified.

Both the theoretical characterization of consciousness and the study of altered states of consciousness are vast topics. Before I proceed, I would like to demarcate the scope of this paper and clarify what it is not. First, the paper is not meant to be a general theoretical discussion of human consciousness, Admittedly, a theoretical framework of consciousness is sketched here, but this is only by way of providing a skeleton and a conceptual refer­ence system for grounding the phenomenological analysis. In principle, every theoretical statement made in this paper can be challenged and subjected to further discussion; but this is not the place for such a comprehensive discus­sion. Nor is this a general treatment of all altered states of consciousness and their import to the study of consciousness. Not even the domain of substance-induced altered states of consciousness is to be covered here in full. My concern is only one particular psychoactive substance, ayahuasca. In fact, this is not even an exhaustive study of the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience as such. As indicated above, that phenomenology is multifaceted and involves practically all aspects of cognition. Here, however, I examine only those aspects of the ayahuasca experience related to what may be defined as the basic parameters of the system of consciousness. For a comprehensive charting of the various facets of the state of mind that ayahuasca induces, the reader is referred to Shanon (2002). Finally, the pre­sent article is not a philosophical treatise. Certainly, many of the findings presented here and the observations and claims associated with them have philosophical ramifications. Moreover, it may very well be that the most important questions about consciousness pertain to metaphysics. However, this paper is a phenomenological, cognitive-psychological one: what it sets itself to do is present empirical data pertaining to one particular non-ordinary state of mind and to spell out psychological implications these data have. Metaphysical questions are outside the scope of this framework.2

The foregoing remarks pertained to the aim and scope of this paper. Related to them are substantive considerations of exclusiveness, or rather non-exclusiveness. By no means am I claiming that the effects surveyed here are encountered only with ayahuasca. Very likely, all these effects are encountered in altered states of consciousness induced by other psychoactive substances, and most probably, also in states that do not involve the consumption of any such substance. As said, here I am offering only those data with which I have firsthand familiarity. Along with similar studies conducted with other psychoactive substances and non-ordinary states, this one could eventually contribute to a comprehensive understanding of altered states of consciousness in general.

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