This presentation analyzes from an anthropological perspective some of the ways that ayahuasca’s curative potentials have been portrayed in conventional psychiatry from the 1950s until today. Through considering seldom-cited and difficult-to-access publications and other forms of academic psychiatric productions, it is shown how different cultures within psychiatry have shaped the construction of scientific ‘facts’ of how ayahuasca can affect and heal the mind. Suggestions are made for how such a historical and cultural analysis of psychiatric discourse can be applied to the development of the contemporary ethnopsychiatric study of ayahuasca.
EARS 2011 Talks
All video talks from EARS 2011
The Shipibo-Konibo people from the Peruvian Amazon are part of the Pano ethnolinguistic family. Distributed within more than one hundred villages, the inhabitants live along the Ucayali River and its tributaries, on both sides of Pucallpa city. The Shipibo women are recognized for their handicrafts (especially pottery and textiles) decorated with magnificent geometrical drawings. The curandero sees these same patterns in his visions during the night-sessions of ayahuasca. The curandero is a practitioner, a shaman who thanks to his initiatory apprenticeship, has developed the capacity to make the link between the human beings in the physical world and the spirits in the world above. These spirits are endowed with volition and intentionality just like human consciousness. Moreover, they can find embodiment in an animal, plant, mineral or even in a geographical structure. The knowledge of the curandero is based on the incorporation of powerful plants called rao. The strength of these rao is linked to their double nature: a material aspect, the physicality or the body of the plant, juxtaposed to the spiritual aspect, the interiority or the spirit of the plant. After ingestion, these plants pass on some knowledge to the curandero during dreams or visions. He will learn to understand and to use them according to his progress along his initiatory route. After the initiation diet, he can see his recently acquired powers through the ingestion of the ayahuasca decoction.
For several years, and this movement accelerates, a greater number of Westerners visit repeatedly Shipibo curanderos in their small villages. They come from diverse horizons and their reasons are varied: a disease, a need for exoticism, a mystic quest, etc. By studying this growing tendency, we can observe a reappropriation of the speech of the other like a kind of knowledge crossing. Shipibo curanderos get better organized in order to welcome better these people in a more adapted way to their culture; whereas, in Europe, the followers of ayahuasca recreate a small community, developing a kind of subculture that integrates this non-native practice into particular processes of therapies. Making a link between both continents, I am interested to analyze elements absorbed, incorporated, and even thrown back in these new syncretic therapy practices as well as the transformation of the Shipibo curanderos’ speech. Moreover, I will approach other interesting peculiarities to understand better the functioning of the Shipibo shamanism; such as consubstantiation, the finished conception of the self-contained universe, the notion of niwe (energy), olfactory perception as a particular hermeneutic, etc.
The presentation starts with an overview of the research on the psychotherapeutic effects of ayahuasca and presents in details an investigation into the integration process of ayahuasca experiences. Eleven individuals participating in a series of ayahuasca rituals were followed for the period of one year in a study carried out in Hungary. A core theme was identified from each participant’s intentions and emerging psychological issues and the changes on such themes were tracked during both the participants’ ayahuasca experiences and their day-to-day lives. A methodology aiming to assess therapeutic change was used for the analysis, dividing the therapeutic process into seven phases from problem definition to termination. By the end of the research, almost all participants attained and began to practice a new behaviour pattern to their problems, all of them at varying levels and pace. Participants provided rich subjective reports involving remarkable breakthroughs as well as crises. Another Hungarian study carried out by Dr. Ede Frecska, aiming to investigate ayahuasca’s effects on creativity, will also be touched upon.
The often-used term ‘healing ritual’ for nearly all kinds of ayahuasca rituals (Santo Daime rituals, neo-shamanistic rituals, and even do-it-yourself-rituals) attracts people searching for an alternative method for treatment. In this study, fifteen people with first-hand experience with ayahuasca ‘therapy’ for a special disease (like chronic pain, cancer or tumours, asthma or allergic reaction to food, depression, alcohol abuse, Hepatitis C, tinnitus, glaucoma) were interviewed twice about their ideas and beliefs on ayahuasca and healing, and about their subjective theories on the etiology of disease and change. In most cases, people were convinced their illness was influenced in a positive way by ayahuasca. ‘Healing’ is not limited to the cure of physical and mental diseases but extends to a lot of psychological and even spiritual problems. Often ‘ self-transformation’ and ‘self-healing’ went hand-in-hand.
Although ayahuasca was an important help for all people coping with illness and self-actualization, it is clearly not a ‘universal remedy’ which provides healing for free – it involves a lot of personal work to succeed. Therefore there must be a critical discussion of some healing concepts and their implications. An idea commonly found – not only in the field of ayahuasca users – was that so-called ‘positive and negative thinking’ can influence the course of a disease. Likewise, ancient wisdom (“millennial indigenous knowledge”) was taken for granted and often used for legitimation and to deny negative effects or difficulties. These and other problematic issues will be questioned and discussed.
Deficits in attentional functions are counted among the core cognitive symptoms in schizophrenic patients. Pharmacologic challenges with hallucinogens have been used as models for psychosis. In this talk, I give an overview of our studies on the pharmacological modulation of DMT and ketamine on different aspects of attentional functions. We investigated prepulse inhibition of the startle reflex (PPI), mismatch negativity (MMN), and visual and auditory alertness as well as spatial orienting of attention combined with fMRI. Data of fifteen healthy subjects were collected in randomized, double-blind, crossover studies. Ketamine increased PPI, whereas DMT had no significant effects on PPI. Ketamine decreased and DMT tended to decrease startle magnitude. Furthermore, we found blunted MMN after both drugs. However, the reduction in MMN activity was overall more pronounced after ketamine intake, and only ketamine had a significant impact on the frontal source of MMN. Administration of DMT and ketamine led to different cortical activations during the performance of both tasks. The ketamine model and the DMT model of psychosis display distinct neurocognitive profiles. These findings are in line with the view of the two classes of hallucinogens modeling different aspects of psychosis.