The psychoactive jungle brew ayahuasca plays a starring role in the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference
During a 1966 congressional hearing on the banning of LSD, Sen. Robert Kennedy famously commented, “Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that [LSD] can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”
At that time, the controversial chemical in question was the most researched psychiatric drug on the planet, considered by many practitioners to hold huge promise as an aid in the treatment of such disorders as psychopathology, drug and alcohol addiction and end-of-life depression and anxiety.
After a long period of prohibition, scientists are once again legally exploring the potential medical and psychiatric applications of LSD and several other psychedelic compounds. At the forefront of these efforts is MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), the Santa Cruz-based organization that has been working for nearly three decades to legalize the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs and marijuana.
“Of course, no matter how many stories we tell about people’s healing experiences over the last 1,000 or 2,000 years, or even 50 years, it’s really the data that convinces,” says Brad Burge, director of communications at MAPS. “With the really powerful story that the data is telling about how useful MDMA, LSD, ayahuasca and all these other compounds can be scientifically, medically and spiritually, more and more people have learned about what’s going on through the media, through film and through television, just by looking at headlines.”
One especially surprising example of psychedelics in present-day media is the appearance of the psychoactive Amazonian tea ayahuasca in mainstream entertainment. Movies like the Jennifer Anniston/Paul Rudd comedy Wanderlust and TV shows like Weeds and Wilfred have carried knowledge of this once-obscure jungle juice to the populace, albeit sometimes in highly caricaturized form. Also helping raise awareness of this so-called “Vine of Souls” was the controversy surrounding the recent banning of British writer/journalist Graham Hancock’s Jan. 13 TEDx talk about the brew’s transformative value.
Ayahuasca will be the subject of nearly a third of the programming at the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference, which will take place at Oakland Marriott City Center from April 18-23 and is co-hosted by MAPS, the Heffter Research Institute, the Beckley Foundation and the Council on Spiritual Practices. Featuring more than 100 speakers, the event will bring attendees up to speed on the latest scientific findings on psychoactive compounds like psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, ibogaine, 2C-B and ketamine. A sequel of sorts to MAPS’ highly successful Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century conference in 2010, this year’s event has already surpassed its predecessor in attendance, with more than 1,500 ticketholders confirmed at press time.
Along with its clinical and interdisciplinary tracks, the conference offers a track specifically dedicated to ayahuasca. Topics of discussion will include the neuroscience, pharmacology and therapeutic applications of the brew, as well as its spiritual and ritual uses and the anthropological and cultural issues surrounding it. According to Burge, the conference will be the largest gathering of ayahuasca researchers to date.
One presenter at the event, José Carlos Bouso, will discuss his recent Brazil-based research on the long-term effects of ritual ayahuasca use on mental health. Unlike other researchers of his kind, whose studies have been based on small sample sizes, some of them without control groups and none of them longitudinal, Bouso examined more than 100 people who have frequently used ayahuasca for at least 15 years, also making use of a control group composed of individuals matched to the participants by gender, age and education. The verdict: Bouso, who conducted a one-year follow-up study to replicate the results of his research, says that by all appearances, ayahuasca is not neurotoxic. While this doesn’t rule out a risk of psychopathology, it indicates that long-term ayahuasca use does not present any danger of brain damage.
“Soon we will publish neuroimaging data developed with long-term users, and we will be able to conclude something more solid regarding brain toxicity—or brain enhancement; who knows?” Bouso offers.
In a separate presentation, Bouso will discuss the results of his research on the use of ayahuasca in the treatment of drug addiction at a clinic in Brazil. “The most important result was their improvement in some psychopathological symptoms and in one dimension of personality: self-direction,” Bouso notes.
Gerald Thomas, Ph.D. is the principal investigator in another recently completed study of ayahuasca’s role in the treatment of addiction and dependence. In the first North American study of ayahuasca-assisted therapy, Thomas and his fellow researchers observed 12 attendees of British Columbia-based retreats conducted by physician Gabor Maté, who used the brew to treat addiction and stress via a combination of talk therapy and ritual ayahuasca use.
He and his associates examined such factors as hopelessness, despair and disempowerment as antecedents to substance abuse, documenting changes in those factors over time.
According to Thomas, ayahuasca works by closing down the frontal part of the brain, “which, in most people, most of the time, is sort of the dominant aspect. By, in a sense, reducing the prominence of that part of ourselves, we create space for the other aspects of our experience, our awareness, to come forward.”
Central to this are the emotional aspects of our consciousness. “When you step into an emotional experience—Freud knew this—there is an opportunity for healing,” he says. “If you are able to get rid of all the conditioning, fear and all the things in the conscious mind that keep you from really experiencing, really feeling something that’s stuck in your body, emotionally, then you have the capacity to work with it, to heal it, to get over it.”
Journalist Rak Razam, whose new documentary Aya: Awakenings will be shown at the MAPS conference on the evening of Thursday, April 18, describes the process similarly. “What it really reveals is that dis-ease and the healing modalities are synergistic within our consciousness and within our bodies, in that quite often there’s an underlying reason,” he says. “And so what ayahuasca can do is to reveal to the person what their real issues are. It helps make permeable the unconscious, and it comes into the conscious mind. You can become very aware of the shadow material you may have hidden from your conscious mind; you may relive moments of hurts, pains or ills that have been suppressed for so long that they have been growing and manifesting as a sickness.”
Razam describes the current upswing in interest in ayahuasca among westerners as the “third wave” of ayahuasca shamanism now penetrating mainstream consciousness.
“As this third wave of ayahuasca shamanism connects and spreads throughout the West, we’re really facing a cultural tipping point where there have to be some leaders within the community and the global scene, and we have to make some very firm fundamental decisions on how to help the culture grow in a safe and integral way,” the journalist says.
Such evaluations are especially important as westerners journey to South America in increasing numbers to participate in medicine ceremonies. Some such travelers have encountered the dark side of ayahuasca tourism, as witnessed in the sexual misconduct of opportunistic shamans, as well as a recent death at Peru’s Shimbre Shamanic Center.
As a means of addressing these kinds of issues, Thursday night’s screening of Aya: Awakenings will be followed by a discussion of ayahuasca ethics and safety co-facilitated by Razam, “Singing with the Plants” author Stephan V. Beyer, Ph.D., J.D. and L.A.-based mitigation expert Sitaramaya, organizer of the Convergence Conference in Iquitos, Peru. Also present at the forum will be several ayahuasca academics, professionals and world leaders who will be giving presentations at the conference. This community discussion is open to the general public as well as to conference ticketholders.
“It’s a bit like a powwow in the old days,” Razam states. “It’s not enough time to make any conclusive decisions, but what we want to do is engender the community to start discussing these issues.”
For more information about Psychedelic Science 2013, visit maps.org/conference.
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