It's been called life changing and mind-altering. A muddy brown liquid with an earthy taste, ayahuasca is a herbal drink created from plants in the Amazon. Used for centuries in healing and cleansing ceremonies, the tea — which is illegal in the United States — has recently has discovered by tourists, who seek out shamans hoping to enlighten them with eye-opening experiences.
Google the term and you'll find first-hand accounts of amazing yet frightening experiences. You'll also read horror stories about people who got incredibly sick and reports suggesting people have died after trying the herbal drink.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature, scientists have shown how DMT (or dimethyltryptamine) — the brew's primary active ingredient — changes brain waves. They found that the DMT caused a significant drop in alpha waves, which are prevalent when we are awake. They also trigger a quick increase in theta waves, which are triggered by dreaming. In a statement, researchers compared the compound in ayahuasca's powerful effects to "dreaming while awake."
Dr. Robin Rodd, an anthropologist at James Cook University in Australia, has spent more than a decade studying ayahuasca. He's studied it as an element of shamanic practices of the Piaroa ethnic group in Venezuela, and recently has researched the Australian ayahuasca drinking ritual in relation to spirituality.
We asked him about the brew and the experience it conjures.
MNN: What is ayahuasca?
Dr. Robin Rodd: Ayahuasca refers to both the plant, Banisteriopsis caapi, and a decoction made from B. caapi and a wide range of admixture plants. B. caapi is a vine that grows throughout the Amazon region.
Why do people use it? What do they hope to achieve?
Ayahuasca use has moved out of the Amazonian rainforests and into cities around the world. A wide variety of people have become interested in ayahuasca. Some are attracted to its mind-expanding possibilities, others associate it with spiritual growth or awakenings, some seek answers to important life questions, and others might be looking to be healed.
What sorts of effects can it have on the body? Is it always hallucinogenic?
Ayahuasca involves a range of psychoactive compounds that alter perception and change mood. Ayahuasca effects are highly variable and, like other hallucinogenic drugs, are contingent on the person's mindset and the social and physical setting in which it is consumed. Some people report extremely vivid visions, others report no visions at all. Sometimes people feel nausea or simply vomit, and other times people may feel a deep sense of joy, wonder, fear or connection with other people or even other species.
Ayahuasca brews in a pot in Peru. (Photo: Apollo [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Most of the stories about ayahuasca talk about either its healing, curative properties or its dangers. In your studies, where does it fall on the spectrum? Are there possible benefits?
Ayahuasca can have very variable effects, which is why people have tended to approach it with caution. A lot of medical research has already been conducted that demonstrates that long-term use does not, on its own, produce any negative health effects and in some cases seems to indicate health benefits (sense of well-being, cessation of smoking). There is a lot of medical research currently underway to explore ayahuasca's potential health benefits, including in relation to treating addiction and depression. While there have been promising results, there is much more yet to understand about how ayahuasca might heal. On the other hand, it is a powerful mind-altering substance that should not be entered into lightly (or at all) if a person has a mental illness history. Ayahuasca can reawaken traumatic events and it can lead to radical thoughts that can tax an individual's ability to reconcile them with their daily life.
How do people describe what it is like, as far as taste and experience? Is it more like the effects of a drug or a spiritual experience?
Ayahuasca is bitter to taste. It is certainly a powerful drug, but also one frequently associated with spiritual experience, beauty, truth, meaning and connection with oneself and nature. Some people explain terrifying experiences, others rapturous beauty, some explain ayahuasca as a tool for reconnecting with the vitality of life in a disenchanted world.
Is it very common in Australia? Do tourists come specifically to experience it?
Popular awareness of ayahuasca has probably grown more rapidly than actual ayahuasca use has in Australia. Many more people may have tried it once or twice than would choose to drink it regularly. I wouldn't say it is on the verge of becoming mainstream. Australians (and Europeans and North Americans) go to Peru especially, and other South American countries, to drink ayahuasca, and there are many tours and tourist packages that cater to this.
Do most of the shamans who hold these ceremonies have backgrounds with the drug? Or are there also others who are taking advantage of the interest who might not be so well-versed in it?
As the global popularity of ayahuasca has grown, so there are many more people calling themselves shamans. There have claims of "false shamans" who don't have the training their predecessors may have. Without doubt, in some places in particular, e.g. Iquitos Peru, there are people whose interest in ayahuasca is principally servicing the tourist economy. The global economy produces many contradictions.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in May 2017.