OPEN Foundation

Religious studies

Psychedelics in Western culture: unnecessary psychiatrisation of visionary experiences

Abstract

Historical research about the use of psychedelics in specific religious contexts can provide rational explanations for visionary experiences that could otherwise be cause to question the mental health of religious actors. Reversely, if historians ignore or overlook empirical evidence for the use of psychedelics, the result can be that normal and even predictable reactions of healthy subjects to the effects of psychedelic substances are arbitrarily interpreted as ‘irrational’.

AIM: To describe the meaning of the psychedelic factor in historical visionary experiences.

METHOD: Discussion based on three examples of selective use of historical sources on psychedelics.

RESULTS: This theme is of broader relevance to cultural history and scientific theory because we are typically dealing with religious practices that have traditionally been categorized as ‘magic’ and thereby classified in advance as irrational and potentially pathological. The article discusses three historical examples: the so-called Mithras Liturgy from Roman Egypt, early modern witches’ ointments, and spiritual use of hashish in the nineteenth century.

CONCLUSION: Established academics often deny the significance of psychedelics in visionary experiences. Discussion of pre-Enlightenment source material appears to be of considerable importance for the correct interpretation of important religious and cultural traditions. Critical empirical source research without prejudices or implicit agendas is the appropriate method.

Hanegraaff, W. J. (2020). Psychedelics in Western culture: unnecessary psychiatrisation of visionary experiences. Tijdschrift Voor Psychiatrie62(8), 713-720.
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Neurochemical models of near-death experiences: A large-scalestudy based on the semantic similarity of written reports

Abstract

The real or perceived proximity to death often results in a non-ordinary state of consciousness characterized by phenomenological features such as the perception of leaving the body boundaries, feelings of peace, bliss and timelessness, life review, the sensation of traveling through a tunnel and an irreversible threshold. Near-death experiences (NDEs) are comparable among individuals of different cultures, suggesting an underlying neurobiological mechanism. Anecdotal accounts of the similarity between NDEs and certain drug-induced altered states of consciousness prompted us to perform a large-scale comparative analysis of these experiences. After assessing the semantic similarity between 15,000 reports linked to the use of 165 psychoactive substances and 625 NDE narratives, we determined that the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist ketamine consistently resulted in reports most similar to those associated with NDEs. Ketamine was followed by Salvia divinorum (a plant containing a potent and selective κ receptor agonist) and a series of serotonergic psychedelics, including the endogenous serotonin 2A receptor agonist N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). This similarity was driven by semantic concepts related to consciousness of the self and the environment, but also by those associated with the therapeutic, ceremonial and religious aspects of drug use. Our analysis sheds light on the long-standing link between certain drugs and the experience of “dying“, suggests that ketamine could be used as a safe and reversible experimental model for NDE phenomenology, and supports the speculation that endogenous NMDA antagonists with neuroprotective properties may be released in the proximity of death.

Martial, C., Cassol, H., Charland-Verville, V., Pallavicini, C., Sanz, C., Zamberlan, F., … & Tagliazucchi, E. (2019). Neurochemical models of near-death experiences: A large-scale study based on the semantic similarity of written reports. Consciousness and cognition69, 52-69., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2019.01.011
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A Jamesian Response to Reductionism in the Neuropsychology of Religious Experience

Abstract

The neuroscience revolution has revived interpretations of religious experiences as wholly dependent on biological conditions. William James cautioned against allowing such neurological reductionism to overwhelm other useful perspectives. Contemporary psychologists of religion have raised similar cautions, but have failed to engage James as a full conversation partner. In this article, we present a contemporary, applied version of James’s perspective. We clarify the problem by reviewing specific James-like contemporary concerns about reductionism in the neuropsychological study of religion. Then, most centrally, we employ three of James’s conceptual tools—pragmatism, pluralism, and radical empiricism—to moderate contemporary reductionism. Finally, we point to a constructive approach through which neuroscientists might collaborate with scholars in the humanities and psychosocial sciences, which is consistent with our conclusion that it is often no longer fruitful to separate neurobiological studies from studies that are psychosocial or sociocultural.

Kime, K. G., & Snarey, J. R. (2018). A Jamesian Response to Reductionism in the Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Archive for the Psychology of Religion40(2-3), 307-325., 10.1163/15736121-12341357
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Classic Psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, mystical experience, brain network function, and therapeutics

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to provide an integrative review and offer novel insights regarding human research with classic psychedelics (classic hallucinogens), which are 5HT2AR agonists such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, and psilocybin. Classic psychedelics have been administered as sacraments since ancient times. They were of prominent interest within psychiatry and neuroscience in the 1950s to 1960s, and during this time contributed to the emergence of the field of molecular neuroscience. Promising results were reported for treatment of both end-of-life psychological distress and addiction, and classic psychedelics served as tools for studying the neurobiological bases of psychological disorders. Moreover, classic psychedelics were shown to occasion mystical experiences, which are subjective experiences reported throughout different cultures and religions involving a strong sense of unity, among other characteristics. However, the recreational use of classic psychedelics and their association with the counterculture prompted an end to human research with classic psychedelics in the early 1970s. We review recent therapeutic studies suggesting efficacy in treating psychological distress associated with life-threatening diseases, treating depression, and treating nicotine and alcohol addictions. We also describe the construct of mystical experience, and provide a comprehensive review of modern studies investigating classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences and their consequences. These studies have shown classic psychedelics to fairly reliably occasion mystical experiences. Moreover, classic psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences are associated with improved psychological outcomes in both healthy volunteer and patient populations. We also review neuroimaging studies that suggest neurobiological mechanisms of psychedelics. These studies have also broadened our understanding of the brain, the serotonin system, and the neurobiological basis of consciousness. Finally, we provide the most comprehensive review of epidemiological studies of classic psychedelics to date. Notable among these are a number of studies which have suggested the possibility that nonmedical naturalistic (non-laboratory) use of classic psychedelics is associated with positive mental health and prosocial outcomes, although it is clear that some individuals are harmed by classic psychedelics in non-supervised settings. Overall, these various lines of research suggest that classic psychedelics might hold strong potential as therapeutics, and as tools for experimentally investigating mystical experiences and behavioral-brain function more generally.

Johnson, M. W., Hendricks, P. S., Barrett, F. S., & Griffiths, R. R. (2018). Classic Psychedelics: An integrative review of epidemiology, mystical experience, brain network function, and therapeutics. Pharmacology & therapeutics., 10.1016/j.pharmthera.2018.11.010

 
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An exploratory study of experiences with conventional eating disorder treatment and ceremonial ayahuasca for the healing of eating disorders

Abstract

Purpose

Ayahuasca is a traditional Amazonian medicine that is currently being researched for its potential in treating a variety of mental disorders. This article reports on exploratory qualitative research relating to participant experiences with ceremonial ayahuasca drinking and conventional treatment for eating disorders (EDs). It also explores the potential for ayahuasca as an adjunctive ED treatment.

Methods

Thirteen individuals previously diagnosed with an ED participated in a semi-structured interview contrasting their experiences with conventional ED treatment with experiences from ceremonial ayahuasca. The interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis.

Results

Participant reports were organized with key themes including that ayahuasca: led to rapid reductions in ED thoughts and symptoms; allowed for the healing of the perceived root of the ED; helped to process painful feelings and memories; supported the internalization of greater self-love and self-acceptance; and catalyzed spiritual elements of healing.

Conclusions

The results suggest that ayahuasca may have potential as a valuable therapeutic tool, and further research—including carefully controlled clinical trials—is warranted.

Renelli, M., Fletcher, J., Tupper, K. W., Files, N., Loizaga-Velder, A., & Lafrance, A. (2018). An exploratory study of experiences with conventional eating disorder treatment and ceremonial ayahuasca for the healing of eating disorders. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 1-8., 10.1007/s40519-018-0619-6
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Plant Knowledges: Indigenous Approaches and Interspecies Listening Toward Decolonizing Ayahuasca Research

Abstract

The ayahuasca research community is familiar with the concept of plant intelligences; however, they have yet to be adequately accounted for by commonly used research practices. This chapter is a call to examine the ontological and epistemological assumptions that underlie research practices and how these practices and assumptions may reinforce hierarchies of knowledge and animacy. The first part of this chapter describes some absences created by following a “methods as usual” approach when researching ayahuasca, based on ethnographic fieldwork at the World Ayahuasca Conference in 2016 (AYA2016). This highlights the need for researchers to acknowledge the methodological, disciplinary, and identity-based limitations on our abilities to produce and represent certain knowledges. Secondly, this chapter is a call to seriously and humbly engage with Indigenous sciences and epistemologies. This requires an honest reckoning with how research has contributed to colonial appropriation and marginalization of Indigenous knowledges. Indigenous ways of knowing have precedent for collaborating with teacher plants in producing knowledge and have much to contribute to discourse on multispecies perspectives. Lastly, I discuss possibilities for including multispecies sensibilities and Indigenous standpoints in research practices to create more collaborative and decolonial knowledges.

Dev, L. (2018). Plant Knowledges: Indigenous Approaches and Interspecies Listening Toward Decolonizing Ayahuasca Research. Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives, 185-204. 10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_11
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Bubbling with Controversy: Legal Challenges for Ceremonial Ayahuasca Circles in the United States

Abstract

The use of ayahuasca has been spreading rapidly worldwide; however, no current statistics are available to provide a comprehensive understanding of the scope or pace of this expansion. In the United States, the expansion has included the appearance of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV), underground ceremonial circles, workshops with itinerant Amazonian shamans, and spiritual retreat centers. This trend has included the recent emergence of groups and organizations that publicly advertise “legal” ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats. This chapter maps the existence of a series of organizations and actors who have controversially claimed legal protection through incorporation as “branches” of the Native American Church (NAC). The legality, religious character, and sincerity of these churches are reviewed in light of governing law, such as the First Amendment of the US Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and pertinent court cases involving the UDV and the Santo Daime, as well as ethnographic accounts of the historical Native American Church. Finally, it examines a petition for a religious exemption from the CSA from Ayahuasca Healings and speculates on the possibilities of the future of ayahuasca legality in the United States.

Feeney, K., Labate, B. C., & Hudson, J. H. (2018). Bubbling with Controversy: Legal Challenges for Ceremonial Ayahuasca Circles in the United States. Plant Medicines, Healing and Psychedelic Science: Cultural Perspectives, 87-111. 10.1007/978-3-319-76720-8_6
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Ceremonial "plant medicine" use and its relationship to recreational drug use: an exploratory study

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

The ceremonial use of psychoactive/hallucinogenic plant based drugs, such as ayahuasca, psilocybin and others, is a growing trend in the United States (US) and globally. To date, there has been little research documenting how many people are using psychoactive substances in this context, who the users are, what benefits/risks exist in the use of these drugs and the relationship between ceremonial drug use and recreational drug use.In this paper we describe a cohort of plant medicine facilitators in the US and explore how they differentiate plant medicine use from recreational drug use.

METHODS:

Using modified ethnography, individual interviews were conducted in 2016 with 15 participants who are currently facilitating plant medicine ceremonies in the US. Descriptive content analysis was performed to discover themes and to inform a larger mixed-method study.

RESULTS:

Ceremonial drug use was seen by participants as a natural healing and treatment modality used in the context of community and ritual. Three main themes were identified relating to participants’ differentiation between ceremonial plant medicine use and recreational drug use: 1) participants see a clear delineation between plant medicine use and recreational drug use; 2) plant medicine is seen as a potential treatment for addiction, but concerns exist regarding potential interference with recovery; and 3) plant medicine use may influence recreational use.

CONCLUSIONS:

More research is needed on who is using plant medicine, motivators for use, perceived and real risks and benefits of plant medicine use and harm reduction techniques regarding safe ingestion.

Dorsen, C., Palamar, J., & Shedlin, M. G. (2019). Ceremonial ‘Plant Medicine’use and its relationship to recreational drug use: an exploratory study. Addiction research & theory27(2), 68-75., 10.1080/16066359.2018.1455187
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Ceremonial “plant medicine” use and its relationship to recreational drug use: an exploratory study

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

The ceremonial use of psychoactive/hallucinogenic plant based drugs, such as ayahuasca, psilocybin and others, is a growing trend in the United States (US) and globally. To date, there has been little research documenting how many people are using psychoactive substances in this context, who the users are, what benefits/risks exist in the use of these drugs and the relationship between ceremonial drug use and recreational drug use.In this paper we describe a cohort of plant medicine facilitators in the US and explore how they differentiate plant medicine use from recreational drug use.

METHODS:

Using modified ethnography, individual interviews were conducted in 2016 with 15 participants who are currently facilitating plant medicine ceremonies in the US. Descriptive content analysis was performed to discover themes and to inform a larger mixed-method study.

RESULTS:

Ceremonial drug use was seen by participants as a natural healing and treatment modality used in the context of community and ritual. Three main themes were identified relating to participants’ differentiation between ceremonial plant medicine use and recreational drug use: 1) participants see a clear delineation between plant medicine use and recreational drug use; 2) plant medicine is seen as a potential treatment for addiction, but concerns exist regarding potential interference with recovery; and 3) plant medicine use may influence recreational use.

CONCLUSIONS:

More research is needed on who is using plant medicine, motivators for use, perceived and real risks and benefits of plant medicine use and harm reduction techniques regarding safe ingestion.

Dorsen, C., Palamar, J., & Shedlin, M. G. (2019). Ceremonial ‘Plant Medicine’use and its relationship to recreational drug use: an exploratory study. Addiction research & theory27(2), 68-75., 10.1080/16066359.2018.1455187
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The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology

Abstract

Neuropharmacological effects of psychedelics have profound cognitive, emotional, and social effects that inspired the development of cultures and religions worldwide. Findings that psychedelics objectively and reliably produce mystical experiences press the question of the neuropharmacological mechanisms by which these highly significant experiences are produced by exogenous neurotransmitter analogs. Humans have a long evolutionary relationship with psychedelics, a consequence of psychedelics’ selective effects for human cognitive abilities, exemplified in the information rich visionary experiences. Objective evidence that psychedelics produce classic mystical experiences, coupled with the finding that hallucinatory experiences can be induced by many non-drug mechanisms, illustrates the need for a common model of visionary effects. Several models implicate disturbances of normal regulatory processes in the brain as the underlying mechanisms responsible for the similarities of visionary experiences produced by psychedelic and other methods for altering consciousness. Similarities in psychedelic-induced visionary experiences and those produced by practices such as meditation and hypnosis and pathological conditions such as epilepsy indicate the need for a general model explaining visionary experiences. Common mechanisms underlying diverse alterations of consciousness involve the disruption of normal functions of the prefrontal cortex and default mode network (DMN). This interruption of ordinary control mechanisms allows for the release of thalamic and other lower brain discharges that stimulate a visual information representation system and release the effects of innate cognitive functions and operators. Converging forms of evidence support the hypothesis that the source of psychedelic experiences involves the emergence of these innate cognitive processes of lower brain systems, with visionary experiences resulting from the activation of innate processes based in the mirror neuron system (MNS).
Winkelman, M. J. (2017). The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology. Frontiers in Neuroscience11, 539. 10.3389/fnins.2017.00539
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