Ayahuasca Visions in the Peruvian Amazon

As a psychological anthropologist interested in alternative healing options, I recently traveled to Peru to experience ayahuasca with a shaman I had been corresponding with for some time. Ayahuasca is being used to help treat war veterans and others suffering from PTSD and depression. Its use as a treatment option for addicts has also become widespread. For thrill seeking millennials ayahuasca tourism has become a trendy activity.

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Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca was first described outside of indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. When sending his advisee, Wade Davis, to the Amazon he told him not to come back without trying it. The word “ayahuasca” comes from the Quechua who have used it for thousands of years. Ayahuasca is made by combining Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana, with Psychotria viridis, a perennial shrub. P. viridis contains about 0.10-0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of psilocybin. DMT is not activated when ingested unless a MAOI is added. B. caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both MAOIs and beta-carboline harmala alkaloids. People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and gaining insights into their lives. Individuals also report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and contacting spiritual or extra-dimensional guides and healers.

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Virginia

Feeling the need for a break from a year of fieldwork in the Costa Rican jungle, I decided it was time to satisfy my academic curiosity and experience ayahuasca. I traveled to Peru where it is legal and where shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo woman named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo, were to meet me. There was also a local woman, Carmela, who cooked for me. That night we continued the discussions we had started through email about my interests and desires concerning the ayahuasca ceremony. We decided I would participate in three ceremonies over a one week period, beginning the following evening.

The ceremonies began with cleansings and prayers before the ayahuasca was administered. Each time I was a little scared- as Tim Plowman told Wade Davis “(it) is many things, but pleasant isn’t one of them.” However, for me, after the initial uneasiness passed I found the experiences not only enjoyable, but blissful. I experienced profound altered states of consciousness and gained novel insights concerning my life goals and existence. Each ceremony was unique- my mind focusing on different domains of my life each time.

From my journal following the first ceremony:

 I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio began singing an icaro. Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness. Soon my sense of self began to dissolve and all I could do was breathe and listen to the icaros- which they alternately sang, accompanied by various shakers and rattles- at one point Antonio played the guitar. I could see and feel the music. I had the sense that other people were there with us, as the sounds seemed to be coming from all around me. Sometimes I felt people standing over me- all with positive and healing intent.

The ceremony lasted from 7:00 pm to 1:00 in the morning. Some of the few thoughts I remember are “wonder” and “wonderment” and later “gratitude.” When I came down from the high I felt a little melancholy (if that is the right word- it was more like the Japanese term “mono no aware”) and I still feel a little like that today- but at peace. Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was. He said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.”

gb-3Research suggests ceremonial use of ayahuasca can provide mental health benefits. Da Silveria and colleagues conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. They measured frequencies of substance abuse disorders, anxiety, depression, body image disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As compared to the control group, ayahuasca-using adolescents scored on average seven times less likely to experience these problems. Harris and Gurel surveyed individuals who had used ayahuasca at least once in North America. They found similar spiritual experiences amongst the ayahuasca users and a comparison group of worshipers who had attended a Catholic spiritual retreat. They also found that the ayahuasca users had made life changes after their experience with ayahuasca- they had reduced their alcohol intake, ate healthier diets, gb-4experienced greater self-acceptance and improved mood as well as reporting an increase in the experience of love and compassion in their relationships. They also stated that they received ongoing guidance and support from the spirit of the ayahuasca.

There are, however, problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing it who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and/or inept shamans. In the past few years alone, a young woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her and two people died while staying at ayahuasca lodges. Stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses.

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Antonio and Carmela

As anthropologists know, the set and setting of healing rituals involving altered states of consciousness are of vital importance. My experience took place in an aesthetically pleasing location with shamans who were attentive and nurturing. To protect people who seek out this ancient medicine as a healing modality, regulation may be necessary. Anthropological, psychological, and botanical research can aid in defining how best to regulate the booming ayahuasca business, creating a safe option for those desiring alternative mental health treatment.


Greg Batchelder studied counseling psychology at Colorado Mesa University, psychological anthropology at Colorado State University, and is currently conducting doctoral research among the indigenous Bribrí in the Costa Rican rain forest of Talamanca.

 

 

 

 

How Social Networks Shape Cultural Consonance

The Embeddedness of Cultural Knowledge

The relationship between social networks and health has been established in anthropology since Émile Durkheim identified a link between social isolation and suicide. Medical anthropologists have also long recognized that people with more diverse social ties and greater emotional and economic support are typically healthier, but how this association is intensified by culture remains under-explored. Specifically, how does “embeddedness” in a social network influence health and interact with internalized cultural beliefs?

Author (middle) with Dr. Kathy Oths (left) collecting data in the Peruvian highlands (Courtesy Adam Booher).

Author (middle) with Dr. Kathy Oths (left) collecting data in the Peruvian highlands (Courtesy Adam Booher).

Sociologist Mark Granovetter coined the term embeddedness to describe how social relations shape economic behavior and institutions. Douglas Massey later applied this idea to migration, pointing out that specific families, groups, and classes of people disproportionately gain access to movement via more diverse network ties and social relations. In other words, embeddedness in a migrant network entails status, prestige, or position, which may influence cultural success and well-being. Cultural success is determined by shared knowledge, such as migration goals and lifestyle expectations, which is cognitively embedded in people who then enact these cultural beliefs to varying degrees, depending on the level of power they derive from their position within a social network.

Chugurpampans Embedded in the Trujillo Migrant Network

I recently concluded two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Peru, amassing social network data for hundreds of people. My research involves a group of internal migrants from the hamlet of Chugurpampa in the north Peruvian Andes (pop. ~600), where my adviser, Kathy Oths, began longitudinal research of sickness and treatment choice over 25 years ago. While serving on a research team she assembled for a 2012 restudy of the village, we discovered that overwhelming economic and political pressures, coupled with effects of climate change on the highland agricultural system, have forced many Chugurpampans to pursue work in the coastal city of Trujillo.

Trujillo is a bustling metropolis of over 1 million residents, many of whom establish residences in informal neighborhoods called pueblos jóvenes (‘young towns’) on the outskirts of the city (Courtesy Author).

Trujillo is a bustling metropolis of over 1 million residents, many of whom establish residences in informal neighborhoods called pueblos jóvenes (‘young towns’) on the outskirts of the city (Courtesy Author).

Across Trujillo, Chugurpampans maintain a network of kinship and social ties, including a hometown association in which members develop collective financial and material resources for their hamlet. However, there is a rising middle-class within the group’s  leadership, while less integrated Chugurpampans struggle to feed their families. Thus, some migrants are more successful than others in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations. My research focuses on whether one’s embeddedness within the migrant network influences their individual capacity to implement shared cultural expectations and how this impacts well-being.

The concept of embeddedness for this group is best illustrated during Chugurpampa’s annual harvest festival (‘fiesta patronal’), an agro-religious celebration in which migrants attempt to gain and reinforce their social status by making large material and financial donations. Each year, the hometown association selects an organizer known as a mayordomo, whose challenge is to surpass previous years, usually at no small expense. During interviews, high-status Chugurpampans like the mayordomo and other collaborators were most likely to be identified by respondents as close family or friends, even if these highly-embedded individuals did not always return the sentiment. Individuals with lower prestige desire to associate with those whom they see as successful in achieving shared migration goals and lifestyle expectations, such as having a secure job with stable pay, owning a house, or having vacation time, all of which communicate socioeconomic achievement. Essentially, more embedded Chugurpampans serve as cultural prototypes of success in migration.

Combining Social Network and Cultural Consonance Approaches

My research explores interactions between social structure and cultural models–or the cognitively embedded cultural information—to understand how culture mediates relationships within social networks to influence health and well-being. Cognitive theory, in particular Bill Dressler’s theory of cultural consonance, provides a way to measure how fulfillment of such cultural expectations can influence health.

The mayordomo of the 2015 harvest festival achieved widespread acclaim for providing free daily meals and hosting all-night dances at a level never before seen in previous celebrations (Courtesy Author).

The mayordomo of the 2015 harvest festival achieved widespread acclaim for providing free daily meals and hosting all-night dances at a level never before seen in previous celebrations (Courtesy Author).

Dressler found that individuals in Brazil with larger perceived social support networks are generally more consonant with an ideal cultural model of social support. My research takes the next step by evaluating cultural consonance in a whole network. This encompasses the entirety of a community’s social relations shared among individuals and households, rather than the ego-centered perspective of a personal network design. I measured the quality and strength of Chugurpampans’ collective social relations to assess whether embeddedness in the migrant network influences consonance in shared models of migration goals and lifestyle expectations.

Cognitive and network approaches are structuralist in nature, meaning that cultural models and social networks exist as part of lived realities. Each method provides the tools to take a ‘snapshot’ (as Dressler calls it) of sociocultural forces in situ, which can then be tested for associations and used to supplement insights from detailed, ethnographic fieldwork. Chugurpampan migrants are strongly-connected via a social network based on shared community origin, and using social network analysis, the power that individuals derive from respective network positions can be compared to consonance with migration goals, lifestyle expectations, and health outcomes. I predict, judging from previous cultural consonance work, that more highly-embedded Chugurpampans will have the highest cultural consonance and lowest blood pressure, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms.

Based on 24 months of fieldwork and preliminary data analysis, it’s clear that combining cognitive and network orientations can improve our understanding of culture’s crucial role in mediating interactions between social networks and health.

Biocultural Systematics is written by members of the University of Alabama Biocultural Medical Anthropology program.

Max Stein is a doctoral student in the department who has conducted research in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Peru.