The Brain Science of Ayahuasca Experiences

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The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's long running science program The Nature of Things, with David Suzuki recently presented a forty-five minute documentary on Dr. Gabor Mate's use of ayahuasca in treating addiction (and not just to chemical substances). I recommend watching the full episode

Dr. RibaHere's a quote from the documentary to give a brief picture of what someone on ayahuasca undergoes:


"Most people report revisiting the most significant events of their lives, like sequences in a chaotic film. The drinker [ayahuasca is a tea] is vaulted from one subconscious vision to the next, and as buried memories rise to the surface, it often leads to acute emotional catharsis."


Mate meets with Dr. Jordi Riba of the University of 
Sant Pau in Barcelona, a leading researcher on the the neo cortexneuroscience of ayahuasca experiences. Here are some of Dr. Riba's findings as described in the documentary, written by Mark Ellam and Mark Johnston:


"Dr Riba and his team have found that ayahuasca hyper-actives the highly evolved neo-cortex, the area of the brain that makes us human. This is where wethe amygdalaperceive, reason and make decisions.


"Ayahuasca also activates regions like the amygdala, which acts as a storehouse for early emotional memories, specifically the most traumatic orthe Insulasignificant ones, like the loss of a parent.


"Finally, ayahuasca activates the insula [also known as the insular cortex], which is believed to create a bridge between our emotional impulses and our decision making capacities.


"According to many neuroscientists, our decision making process has a powerful emotional component. When any stimulus enters the brain, the brain tries to understand it based on previous experience.


Synapse making a repeated connection"In early life, powerful or traumatic events, create an imprint on the brain, a pattern. This pattern is like a shortcut, activated every time we face a similar situation. For example, if we were once attacked by a dog, our brain might harbour a set of these pathways that associate that dog with all dogs, making us fear them in general. We might even react adversely to a distant bark. Repeated events cause these neural patterns to reinforce their connections, binding them with protein, and building them up like scar tissue.


Synapse making a new connection"If this is how these traumas are rooted in our brains, how does ayahuasca affect those ingrained patterns? Ayahuasca hyper-activates the entire brain region where we store and process emotional memory, often uncovering long forgotten memories. This hyper-activation enables the conscious part of the new brain to temporarily override previously entrenched patterns, allowing new connections to be made. Dogs, for example, may no longer be feared as these new connections are created and memories, reevaluated. In field studies, ayahuasca users typically describe having new perspectives on past experiences, and deeply rooted patterns of behaviour."


Psychiatrist and addiction expert Dr. Josep Fabregas has conducted the world's largest study on the long term effects of ayahuasca use, and found that it's not addictive, and regular users scored higher on some cognitive tests than the control Gabor Mate talks with Dr. Josep Fabregasgroup. But to look at ayahuasca simply as a chemical compound that produces chemical effects misses an important part of the picture. "It's not the ayahuasca," he says, "It's the ritual use of ayahuasca."


Dr. Jacques Mabit, a French doctor who lives and works at an addiction treatment centre in Peru, says "Addiction is a typically Western pathology. It didn't exist in traditional cultures until Westerners arrived. The Western pathology transformed and profaned the use of these sacred plants by taking them without context, ritual preparation or intention. The result was that the effects of those medicines were twisted, even reversed."


Our law enforcement system in North America, strangely enough, doesn't prize evidence in creating its drug laws. The Gabor Matedocumentary puts forward that "if extracted, some of the compounds of the tea are illegal, placing it in a gray area of the law. Mate is aware the experimental program he is planning to implement may attract controversy, but he's willing to take the risk involved to help his patients." Mate has since been contacted by Health Canada, and threatened with criminal prosecution if he continues to administer ayahuasca. He has agreed to stop giving this treatment. This is a shame, as any evidence-based program would be interested by the fact that, as the documentary states, standard detox treatment centres in North America have an effective long term success rate of about eight percent. By contrast, the Peruvian treatment centre headed by Dr. Mabit, in which patients stay for nine months, live communally, undergo traditional psychotherapy and a variety of traditional healing practices, including numerous ayahuasca ceremonies, report that among patients who complete the treatment, sixty percent remain drug free three years after leaving.


Let's write to our elected reps and let them know we're in favour of an evidence based approach to drugs and addiction treatment.


And to briefly reiterate all of the previous in the Integral Four Quadrant model:


Upper Left/Individual Subjective: the personal experiences a person has flash through their consciousness on ayahuasca, the feelings those experiences bring up, the realizations they lead to.


Upper Right/Individual Objective: the specific parts of the brain stimulated by ayahuasca, the chemical activity within the brain, the connections that are made anew within the brain.


Lower Left/Collective Subjective: the cultural, social and therapeutic context in which ayahuasca is ingested. (Having participated in one of Dr. Mate's retreats, I can attest to the fact that if I'd experienced what I had in isolation, or even in the company of others but without the intense therapeutic context of that kind of retreat it would have been a radically different experience, and probably not a beneficial one.)


Lower Right/Collective Objective: the laws that make the stuff illegal, as well as the system of Canadian public broadcasting that allowed a documentary to be made on such a subject, broadcast nationally, and made available online, for free.

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