Meditating can be hard, lonely work, but if recent research is to be believed there may be a quick-and-dirty shortcut to enlightenment: psychedelic drugs. According to an exploratory study, drinking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca can bring about improvements in mindfulness that would take years of dedicated meditation to achieve. The research found that ayahuasca raised mindfulness abilities to levels equal to or even greater than those of people who have been practising meditation for around seven years.
Another study published last year suggested that long-term consumption of ayahuasca is associated with changes in brain structure similar to those seen in experienced meditators. Ayahuasca and other psychedelics appear to reduce the dominance of the brain’s default mode network, which becomes active whenever the mind is wandering and is associated with a wide range of mental illnesses.
Ayahuasca is a plant tea that has been used for ritual purposes by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for hundreds of years, but in the past couple of decades it has become popular worldwide among seekers of mystical experiences and spiritual transformation. Drinking the tea brings on an altered state of consciousness characterised by introspection, dream-like visions and the re-living of highly charged emotional memories. One particular blend is brewed from the stem of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of the shrub Psychotria viridis. The latter is rich in the psychedelic compound DMT, whereas the former contains an enzyme inhibitor that prevents the chemical’s breakdown after oral ingestion.
Researchers led by Jordi Riba at CIBERSAM, a mental health research centre in Madrid, recruited 25 volunteers, most of whom had taken ayahuasca before. They hadn’t consumed it for at least 15 days before the experiment, and were asked to abstain from drinking alcohol, taking medication or any other drugs either the day before or the day after. Before and 24 hours after a supervised ayahuasca session, the subjects filled out questionnaires designed to assess their mindfulness. Their answers suggested significant improvements in three facets of mindfulness: a greater acceptance of mental experiences, less “inner reactivity”, and an increase in their ability to take a detached view of their thoughts and emotions.
More research will be needed to confirm the results – with control groups and larger numbers of participants who have never consumed ayahuasca – but improvements in mindfulness skills and changes in brain structure may help explain evidence that the brew has potential for treating depression and drug addiction. Mindfulness programmes have proved their worth for preventing relapse in people prone to depression and wean people off addictive drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and cocaine. There is also some evidence that regular ayahuasca users are less likely to be in thrall to drug addiction, and a study published last year found that in patients with treatment-resistant depression a single dose of ayahuasca had a rapid antidepressant effect that was maintained for several weeks.
I recently spoke to Amanda Feilding, one of the co-authors of the new paper. She told me she thought ayahuasca and other psychedelics, by promoting a more accepting, detached perspective on mental events, could help people come to terms with traumatic memories in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “In this world where there just aren’t enough therapists and finances to help everyone who is depressed and traumatised, psychedelics could be a great facilitator of healing. They’re obviously not the only way, but they could be an amazingly valuable tool to facilitate the process.”
Feilding, who meditates herself, believes psychedelics can complement and accelerate the process of transforming the mind. “I’m a short-cutter. I would encourage a little bit of help along the way,” she said. “I think meditation is an incredibly valuable tool to have in your mental satchel, but so are drugs that alter consciousness.”
The organisation she set up in 1998, the Beckley Foundation, funds research into potential therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs and campaigns for reform of international drugs law.
Speaking for myself, I will continue to meditate without any chemical assistance. But these results certainly provide a fascinating insight into why humans through the ages have taken psychedelics such as ayahuasca, and why they find the experience so enlightening.
Image: Jairo Galvis Henao