Ayahuasca and Psychology

May 3, 2004

The shamanic practices of “primitives” conducted in dark isolated caves, has long been a subject of extreme curiosity to western academia. Mysterious rituals have been put beneath the lens of scientific scrutiny since the beginning of conquest. Some described shamanic leaders as being psychopathic, while others have found them to be completely intriguing. Shamanism is as broad as the world’s languages, both in form and purposes, for this reason it is necessary to say that I will be focusing on psychological elements found in shamanic practices of the South American Amazon. These traditions span mind, body and spirit; they are holistic approaches to mental health, ultimately health in general. I wish to address the complex rainforest pharmacy, ceremonies and altered states of consciousness that loosely define psychology in the forest of the Amazon.

The Ancient Pharmacy Dispenses D.M.T.

The Amazonian rainforest has long been known for it’s richness of botanical medicines. In 1851 an English botanist, Spruce collected the first samples of ingredients used for making an unknown inebriating beverage called Ayahuasca, meaning “vine of the dead” in the indigenous language of Quechua. The drink was observed as having divination, healing and psycho spiritual properties (Shultes, Hofmann & Ratsch 1992).

Ayahuasca is a chemical wonder. Many researchers have been astounded by the pharmacology of this medicine. Strassman (2001) says that the very conception of ayahuasca was an unexplainable feat of indigenous bio-chemical technology. The drink contains an extremely potent hallucinogen D.M.T. This endogenous hallucinogen is present in a vast number of plants, animals and even the human brain. Being the only known hallucinogen in which the brain recognizes it as a native biological substance. It is made inactive orally by MAO enzymes present in the human digestive process.

Ayahuasca brewing

Strassman (2001) was amazed to find that indigenous tribes had long ago created a formula of plants that deactivated these enzymes to release the full effects of this mind altering substance. D.M.T. is so mysterious, and its effects are so profound that Strassman conducted some of the first human hallucinogenic research in the U.S. since the late 60’s. He explored its effects on normal and abnormal brain functions. He referred to animal test data that showed D.M.T. to be actively present in newborn animals. Although infant human data had not been collected, his research led him to hypothesize that D.M.T. was present at birth, death and during mystical experiences (Strassman, 2001). Perhaps the people of the Amazon imbibe in the ritual use of natural D.M.T. to confront the cycle of birth and death, and to concretely experience divinity within life’s struggles.

The research project was discontinued as he learned that he was an inadequate administrator for this potent substance (Strassman, 2001). Indeed an Amazonian Shaman undergoes an exhaustive training prior to administering medicine to others.

An Evening of Healing; “Fiesta de Amor”

While ayahuasca it’s self is known by over 72 different names in the western Amazon alone, there are certain themes present in all Ayahuasca ceremonies (Shultes, Hofmann & Ratsch 1992). The ceremony is affectionately regarded as the “Fiesta de Amor” in Spanish, or celebration of love in English. It’s important for the sake of this composition to provide a brief overview of the events occurring in a ceremony. I will be drawing on personal research to provide a rough concept of what occurs in an ayahuasca ceremony. Though the ceremony is employed by a vast number of cultural heritages, it is amazing to find similarities from tribe to tribe. Whether the ceremony is performed in the Shipibo language of Pano, Quechua, or Spanish, many mechanics are the same from locale to locale. Photo of art work at Iquitos Zoo

An ayahuasca session is almost always conducted at night, for the purposes of healing, training, and broadening of consciousness. The session is “driven” by a shaman or group of shaman’s working in unison. Many healers make reference to the idea that they are “reenacting the first Ayahuasca ceremony”; this idea may contribute to the continuity found in various ceremonies.

The session is “steered and driven” by tunes whistled or sung by the presiding shaman or shamans. Tobacco smoke is the equivalent of the surgeon’s scalpel in the Ayahuasca ceremony. Shipibo curers of the upper Ucayali River use it as a therapeutic agent in ceremony (Wilbert, 1987). It’s widely believed that the blowing of smoke on a patient provides protection and cleanses the body and mind.

The session is extremely emotional and can take one through a broad range of emotions within the human psychological vocabulary. Ayahuasca is thought of as an

emotional, spiritual and physical purgative, vomiting is common. Modern research is demonstrating that disease exists not only in the physical plane but in the emotional structure of an individual (Temoshok and Dreher, 1992). This is the exact perspective of “primitive” healers in the Amazon, where a tumor is a collection negative emotion

Altered States of Consciousness

While the average person in a state of the “war on drugs” may find prehistoric drug use of little psychological importance, the study of altered states of consciousness (ASC’s) has yielded a tremendous amount of valid information. Some of the main features of ASC’s are very powerful therapeutically. Ludwig (1969) stated that “The induction of these states has been employed for almost every conceivable aspect of psychological therapy”(p.19). An altered state of consciousness is often a prerequisite for healing. These states are characterized as; alterations in thinking, loss of control, changes in emotional expression, perceptual distortions and changes in meaning (Ludwig,1969). These altered states have immense implications for people seeking psychological attention, those seeking to balance their inner disturbances, and those who are not particularly ill, but want to grow personally.

In the Amazon, an ayahuasca shaman is a trained professional. He/she can manipulate these altered states with the help of the D.M.T. rich brew in which they employ to bring about these ASC’s. What the ego defends, ayahuasca makes surface. As Pahnke and Richards stated; “The renewed sense of self-esteem noted in some patients after such experiences may be due to a realignment of ego defenses and boundaries” (1969 pp.423).

Therapeutic mechanisms of ASC’s activate the interface that permits recognition of normally unconscious processes. Integration allows the conscious mind to access certain understandings of the unconscious mind. Conflicts become resolved by tiring the dominant hemisphere of the brain and allowing the unconscious hemisphere to express repressed aspects of the self. ASC mechanisms target the left hemisphere which fatigues rapidly, relinquishing control of the right hemisphere. Ritual reprogramming in an unconscious, non verbal state is enhanced when the unconscious mind becomes awake. Suspension of the screening processes of the dominant hemisphere facilitates reprogramming of emotions through chanting, suggestion and psychodrama created by the shaman (Winkleman, 2000). “Therapeutic effects can be achieved by rapid collapse into parasympathetic dominant state that can lead to an erasure of previously conditioned responses, to changes in beliefs, to loss of memories and to increased suggestibility”(p.195).

Many people suffering from addiction and depression are lacking meaning in their lives. Frankl (1959) wrote that it is the quest for meaning in life that is of paramount importance to the human being. Much of this quest is today being brushed aside for less significant pursuits.

A common goal for a shaman is to help their patients realize meaning. A significant article (Lizarzaburu 2003) covered an addiction clinic in Peru. Dr. Jaques

Mabit has combined the elements of ayahuasca and psychology for the purpose of helping people overcome drug addictions. Patients stay at the clinic for 9 to 12 months, partaking in ayahuasca ceremonies at night and psychoanalysis during the day. Mabit too believes that it is a lack of meaning in life that generally leads to drug addiction.

A Shaman’s role is greatly enhanced by his/her ability to practice supreme empathy. ASC’s are induced in the shaman for his/her benefit as therapist. These states of mind often serve as a primary diagnostic tool. Upon Ayahuasca’s first discovery, one of the primary alkloids of the brew was named “telepethine”, later to be changed to “harmaline” due to the prior name’s suggestion of telepathic power (Shultes, Hofmann & Ratsch 1992). The shaman unbound from personal psyche enters into a transpersonal existence in which he/she can feel and experience much of what a patient is struggling with in life.

Such extreme altered states are not easy to master. Drug induced altered states are even more dangerous for an inexperienced patient. Without practice, the patient can find being launched into an altered state of mind very shocking.

The shaman steers the patient’s experience using many tools, the primary one aside from tobacco is the “icaro”, a sacred song learned from the plants and sung by the shaman. Music has a broad psychological action on the brain. Neurological sensory systems, glandular systems, the autonomic nervous system, involuntary muscles and reflexes are all affected by music. Music is suggested to function on the id, ego and super ego creating a number experiences and aid in the release of emotions (Winkleman, 2000). Rider (1985) has shown that music can manipulate brain waves, and reduce pain.

Plants, People and the Mind; a Conclusion

Psychology has many forms in various parts of the world. For the indigenous resident of the Amazon, an elaborate system of psychological healing has emerged for their benefit. The jungle yields unexplainable plant formulas, like ayahuasca, in which ceremonial use has evolved. With the qualified facilitation of the Amazonian shaman, altered states of consciousness can help one become liberated from the separation of self, terror of being and possibly deliver them to their intrinsic meaning.


Frankl, Viktor (1959) Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston MA: Beacon Press (p.105)

Lizarzaburu, Javier (2003) Peru Seeks Tribal Cure for Addiction. On B.B.C. Radio 4’s

Crossing Continents. Retrieved: June 2, 2004 from:


Ludwig, Arnold (1969). Altered States of Consciousness. In C. T. Tart (Ed), Altered

States of Consciousness.(Chapter 1, pp. 13-19) N.Y., London, Sydney, Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Pahnke, W. N. & Richards, W, A. (1969) Implications of L.S.D. and Experimental

Mystism.. In C. T. Tart (Ed), Altered States of Consciousness. (Chapter 27, p. 423)

N.Y., London, Sydney, Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rider, M. (1985) Core Shamanic ASC Therapy: Music. In M. Winkleman, Shamanism:

The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. (p. 196)

Shultes R. E., Hoffmann A., Ratsch C. (1992). Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred,

Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers .Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press. (pp.124-131)

Strassman, Rick (2001). D.M.T.: The Spirit Molecule. Rochester, VT: Park St. Press. (p.p. 53-57, p. 350)

Temoshok & Dreher (1992). Stress. In J. S. Halonen & J. W. Santrock (Eds.), Human

Adjustement (2 nd ed., Chapter 4 p. 87). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill

Wilbert, Johannes (1987). Tobacco and Shamanism in South America. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.(p.93)

Winkleman, Michael (2000). Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. (pp. 193-197)

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3 Responses to Ayahuasca and Psychology

  1. Tricia says:

    Thank you for that concise yet expansive explanation of what is happening psychologically in an ayahuasca ceremony. I thought “What the ego defends, ayahuasca makes surface.” was a beautiful encapsulation of what gets worked through.

  2. Alex says:

    WOW. This is enlightening, thought-provoking, affirming. With so much clarity, you have described both the internal experience of an ayahuasca ceremony and the external process that unfolds between shaman, patient, and plant. It really knocked my socks off to read this.

  3. Michael says:

    Sorry I missed your comment for 4 years, but thank you kindly for your words.

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