Category Archives: Evolution

Ayahuasca Visions: The First Experience

Long ago there was a Quechua man hunting in the forest. He can across a jaguar and was preparing to shoot it with his bow and arrow when he saw the beast beginning to chew on a vine wrapping itself around a tree. He thought this was strange and instead of shooting stood silently and watched the jaguar. Next, the animal began to chew on a leafy, green plant that was nearby. The jaguar then lay on the ground without moving. The hunter came close and saw that the beast’s eyes were open even though it appeared to be sleeping. The hunter came forward and nudged the jaguar with his foot. The animal did not respond. “How strange, that the beast will not attack me even though I can tell it is not dead and its eyes are open!” thought the hunter. The hunter realized this must have something to do with the plants the animal had eaten, and he collected some of the two plants and brought them to his village. He told the people what he had saw and they were curious, so they ate some of the two plants- nothing happened. The shaman of the village decided to cook the two plants together, which shamans often do. He then gave the tea to the villagers and they entered a state of wonder and saw many visions and experienced profound revelations about life. The shaman and the people realized this was a strong, spiritual medicine and it was cherished and valued among the people.

Quechua myth concerning the discovery of ayahuasca

More than once I was fascinated by the discovery of mixing these two plants together. I had heard that shamans state that the plants sing to them. On one level I can accept this, on another level I cannot. One morning I was talking with Antonio, who was my shaman for my three ayahuasca ceremonies, and he related this story the Quechua tell of the hunter in the forest and the jaguar. This remains one of the great mysteries of anthropology.

My Casita

My previous post gave some background information on ayahuasca; in this post I would like to relate my experience with the brew on April 23, 25, and 27 of 2016. I had met two backpackers while conducting research in the Bribrí community of Yorkín, and they told me of the amazing experience they had taking ayahuasca in Peru. I had been interested in the healing powers of ayahuasca (and indeed other psychoactive plants) for quite some time and decided to make a reservation, take a much needed break from fieldwork and grant writing, and head to Peru where ayahuasca is legal. I arrived at the lodge I would be staying at above the small community of San Roque, in the mountains above Tarapoto and was informed I could participate in a ceremony with the shaman Antonio Bracero and his teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo. I was to be the only other person at the ceremony. I had a meeting with Antonio, who speaks English as well as Spanish, about what I could expect to experience and what my intentions were. He suggested that I remain open to whatever happens, as the medicine works in different ways with different people and different ways at different times.

Below is my word for word account of my first ceremony taken from my journal which was written the next day:

Rio Cumbaza

I am sitting by the river (Cumbaza); I just soaked for a while- it was colder than I expected- I am feeling pretty shaky- only slept a couple of hours- took a shower, ate some food, laid around listening to the Dead. Last night was fucking intense, I was lucky, as Antonio’s teacher, a Shipibo indian named Virginia was here and it was only me and them at the ceremony. I walked down the hill to the ceremony lodge, a thatch-roofed open-walled structure where Antonio lives upstairs. He gave me some pointers- focus on my breath if I start to freak out, try to remain quiet, ask for more if I want it (there will be a “last call”), keep my purge bucket handy, keep my body “open”, and if things get hard- know that it will pass.

When I arrived, Virginia was massaging Antonio with some oil and blowing mapacho (local pure tobacco) smoke over him. Antonio then purified the space with mapacho and called me to him to give me a shot glass of ayahuasca. I actually did not mind the taste- kinda sweet and bitter at the same time. I went and sat on my mat- before long I could start to feel it starting to take effect and I laid down flat on my back. I soon began to see black and white geometric patterns. Antonio then began to sing an icaro (song). Then Virginia sang- her icaro sounded almost Japanese; I had the impression it was very ancient, like from the dawn of human consciousness.

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

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 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. I could barely move my hands to wipe sweat from my brow and eyes.

At some point Antonio asked me if I wanted more, I could barely answer “no”. I had no sense of time- sometimes it felt as if minutes went by between each breath. I sometimes perceived myself as being like one inch big- then in the next instant massive- then completely flat- then round- then no longer there. Then Antonio asked me if I wanted to sing, it took me a while to register what he said- but then I started to sing- I do not know how- I do not know the words or if they were words- it wasn’t English- I just kept going until Antonio exhaled loudly and my singing automatically stopped.

He then came to me and asked me to sit up and move forward on my mat. – It was a real struggle. He said he was going to purge the medicine from me and sang an icaro while he was tapping me with his feather bundle (shacapa).


They both then sang another icaro and I told him I was going to go to the bathroom. I started to crawl and he helped me stand up and I staggered to the outhouse and released diarrhea for a short time. I came back to the lodge and sat on my mat, then threw up just a little bit- they both began to sing another icaro. Then Virginia came over and rubbed me with oil- it felt very loving and nurturing.

Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo
Shamanka Virginia Vasquez Alavuelo

After a bit I stood up and felt like I wanted to head back to my casita. Antonio suggested I sit with them a bit longer- I am glad because I started to feel more grounded. Virginia commented that I was now more “abajo” (low) and had been very “arriba” (high). I then gathered my stuff and slowly, shakily, walked up the hill to my casita, stopping once at the bathroom by the communal kitchen to have some more diarrhea.

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. I am now going to head back up the hill and get something to eat.

p.s. – Last night I told Antonio how intense, but how ecstatic, joyful, and caring the medicine was and he said, “The medicine is just a reflection of yourself, it was a real good first ceremony.” I replied that makes me feel good about myself.

It just occurred to me that today I have been in a “liminal stage”- halfway between the physical and spiritual worlds. End quote from journal.

So, that was my first experience with the medicine. Looking back I see that the first experience was all about the wonder of being alive and the power of the medicine. I also felt gratitude at being a human and being able to experience such wonder. My next two ceremonies would prove to be similar, but also different in what I was thinking, feeling and the revelations which occurred to me. Read about them in my next post.

Ayahuasca: “La Medicina”

Ayahuasca was first described outside of Indigenous communities in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had originally worked with the Kiowa in the U.S., participating in peyote ceremonies. Schultes was famous for ingesting all types of plants and their derivatives while traveling throughout the amazon. He was Wade Davis’ advisor, and sent Davis to the amazon to study coca. Ayahuasca is the Hispanicized style spelling of a word in the Quechua languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Speakers of Quechua languages or of the Aymara language may prefer the spelling “ayawaska.” This word refers both to the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means “spirit, soul”, “corpse, dead body”, and waska means “rope” and “woody vine”, “liana”. It is often referred to as “La Medicina”- the medicine.ayahuasca

People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, as well as attaining insights into their lives. Individuals also sometimes report connection to “spiritual” dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who act as guides or healers. In my experience, I did not sense other beings, but instead experienced aspects of my own mind which were very different from normal waking consciousness. I experienced profound emotional joy and bliss and insights into my life goals and behaviors. I will describe my three experiences (all somewhat different) in upcoming posts.

Ayahuasca is made by mixing Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana of the family Malpighiaceae, with Psychotria viridis, a leafy plant, and cooking it down to create a dark, bitter tasting liquid. Banisteriopsis caapi contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, all of which are both beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and MAOIs. The MAOIs in B. caapi allow the primary psychoactive compound, DMT (which is introduced from the other primary ingredient in ayahuasca, the Psychotria viridis plant), to be orally active. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are chemicals which inhibit the activity of the monoamine oxidase enzyme family. MAOIs have been found to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder with agoraphobia, social phobia, atypical depression or mixed anxiety and depression, bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. MAOIs appear to be particularly effective in the management of bipolar depression.Banisteriopsis caapicaapi

Psychotria viridis is a perennial shrub of the Rubiaceae family. In the Quechua languages it is called chacruna. It contains about 0.10–0.66% alkaloids, approximately 99% of that is dimethyltryptamine (DMT). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT). DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria viridis) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. DMT can produce powerful psychedelic experiences including intense visuals, euphoria and hallucinations.psychotria viridis

DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in rat brain, human cerebrospinal fluid, and other tissues of humans and other mammals. A biochemical mechanism for this was proposed by the medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who suggested in 1988 that DMT might be connected with visual dream phenomena. A role of endogenous hallucinogens including DMT in higher level sensory processing and awareness was proposed by J. V. Wallach based on a hypothetical role of DMT as a neurotransmitter. Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM sleep – a function now lost. The dependence potential of oral DMT and the risk of sustained psychological disturbance are minimal (Gable 2007).psychotria viridis 2

People often report profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca. Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be an essential part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The first time I used the medicine I had diarrhea after the ceremony and vomited a little bit, the second time I had diarrhea only, and the third time had neither.

The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress. Long-term negative effects are not known. A few deaths due to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. The deaths may be due to preexisting heart conditions, as ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interaction with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants, and in some cases possibly a result of the addition of toé in the brew. I made sure that this plant was not included in the mixture I was going to consume beforehand, as I had read is it dangerous to ingest it orally. The mixture I ingested only contained the caapi and Psychotria. MAO-A inhibition reduces the breakdown of primarily serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Agents that act on serotonin if taken with another serotonin-enhancing agent may result in a potentially fatal interaction called serotonin syndrome. Therefore, persons using prescription drugs for bipolar disorder or depression should discontinue use before using ayahuasca. However, persons using dopamine blockers, often used for some forms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may not be under the same risk, but in my opinion should also discontinue use to avoid potential interactions.

Da Silveria et al. (2005) conducted a comparative study of adolescents subscribing to an indigenous Amazonian belief system that sacramentally used ayahuasca and their urban Brazilian counterparts. Da Silveria et al. measured psychological functioning on participants who used ayahuasca in a culturally specific manner twice per month and started doing so just at the onset of adolescence. These included 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.

MAOIs can also be used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by targeting MAO-B in particular (therefore affecting dopaminergic neurons), as well as providing an alternative for migraine prophylaxis. MAOIs appear to be particularly indicated for outpatients with dysthymia complicated by panic disorder or hysteroid dysphoria, which involves repeated episodes of depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.

The legal status in the United States of DMT-containing plants is somewhat questionable. Ayahuasca plants and preparations are legal, as they contain no scheduled chemicals. However, brews made using DMT containing plants are illegal since DMT is a Schedule I drug. Some groups are challenging this, using arguments similar to those used by peyotist religious sects, such as the Native American Church. A Supreme Court decision allowed the União do Vegetal Church to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case the Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I went to Peru to use the tea legally; On June 24, 2008 the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that ritual ayahuasca ceremonies are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru and are to be protected.WP_20160427_001

All this sounds great, however there are problems concerning the booming ayahuasca tourism business. With the influx of money, there are now people providing the tea who have poor training or bad intent. There have been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence at the hands of predatory and inept shamans, if they really are shamans. In the past few years alone, a young German woman was allegedly raped and beaten by two men who had administered ayahuasca to her, two French citizens died while staying at ayahuasca lodges, and stories persist about unwanted sexual advances and people experiencing difficulties after being given overly potent doses. I would like to warn people who want to experience the medicine to only use it under the supervision of someone they know they can trust. I got the name of my shaman from friends who had worked with him and had positive experiences. I would be more than happy to connect people with this shaman at their request.

Stay tuned for a post about my personal experiences with ayahuasca.

Below are some references for further reading. I would also suggest Wade Davis’ “The River.”

Ayahuasca visions
Ayahuasca visions

Barbosa, PC; Cazorla, IM; Giglio, JS; Strassman, R (September 2009). “A six-month prospective evaluation of personality traits, psychiatric symptoms and quality of life in ayahuasca-naïve subjects.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41 (3): 205–12.

Strassman R.J. (1996). “Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine” (PDF). Behavioural Brain Research 73 (1–2): 121–4.

Rick Strassman (2001). Dmt: the Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of near-Death and Mystical Experiences.

Schultes R.E., Raffauf R.F. (1960). “Prestonia: An Amazon narcotic or not?”. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 19 (5): 109–122.

Robert S. Gable (2007). “Risk assessment of ritual use of oral dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmala alkaloids”. Addiction 102 (1): 24–34

Thoughts on Shamanism

Often I have marveled about the ubiquity of shamanic complexes throughout the world. In my opinion, variations of the shamanic paradigm were present in all hunter/gatherer/foraging groups. I have also wondered “why is this the case?” After reading work by Michael Winkelman, I have been moved to believe that within the shamanic paradigm aspects of behavior have served to integrate human minds more fully between notions of the individual and its relationship to the social world. Aspects of the shamanic complex can be seen as increasing the adaptability of humans. Winkelman suggests that, and I agree, that the shamanic complex grew out of ancient hominid ritual capacities and practices. There are even similarities between the shamanic ritual complex and activities of chimpanzees. These include community rituals focused on alpha male displays involving vocalizations, drumming, and bipedal charges. Similarities between shamanism and behavior of chimpanzees include: community bonding rituals that involve emotional vocalizations and drumming as social signaling and communication processes; altered states of consciousness (ASC) that involve the elicitation of an integrative mode of consciousness; and healing effects, including ritual effects in eliciting opioid responses and the ASC that provide physiological relaxation and integration (Winkelman 2009, Winkelman and Baker 2008). I was fascinated when I first heard of the accounts of chimpanzees performing a “rain dance” in which males hoot, run up and down a hill, and break branches while a storm is approaching. Winkelman suggests that these rituals reflect a biological basis. “Communal rituals elicit attachment bonds and related physiological mechanisms that reduce endogenous opiates (opioids), producing psychobiological synchrony and community cohesion within the group. Opioid release stimulates the immune system, producing a sense of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills and maintenance of bodily homeostasis, and enhancing stress tolerance and environmental adaptation” (Winkelman 2009).

James McClenon suggests that the roots of shamanic healing may go as far back as controlled use of fire. Sitting around the fire may have enhanced trance states and other altered states of consciousness among early humans. During altered states of consciousness, humans are more open to suggestion and McClenon (1997) suggests that hypnotizability was hardwired into humans and was adaptive. This hypnotizability would increase the impact of shared experiences and knowledge among a group of people, indeed providing the shared knowledge which leads to cultural development. McClennon goes on to suggest that all hunter gatherer groups at some point probably practiced some form of shamanism, and the shamanic complex laid the groundwork for further religious beliefs and practices throughout the world (1997).

According to Lévi-Strauss (1963), the healing that the shaman performs occurs within a shamanic complex which depends on the shaman, the sick person, and the surrounding community to believe in the efficacy of the treatment. The shaman manipulates socially constructed and maintained beliefs and symbols to create a socially authorized translation of the problem causing sickness. Through this process, the shaman reorganizes the reality of the patient and his or her social network. As mentioned above, the performance of the shaman ultimately contributes to the belief in the healing ritual and produces what can be called a meaning effect which can be compared to the case of modern pharmacology in which patients improve even when they are receiving a placebo or sugar pill.

In my opinion, the shamanic paradigm was an important factor in contributing to the complexity of the workings of the human brain. The human brain must orient the individual self and its relationship to its environment and all the social relationships it can encounter. It is no surprise that many people seek out modern-day experiences with ritual and altered states of consciousness to treat drug addiction, chronic pain, and various psychological issues. Aspects of the shamanic complex provide opportunities for healing of the individual and social reintegration.

Levi-Strauss, Claude.   1963   The Sorcerer and His Magic. From Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.

McClenon, James.   1997   Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(3):345-354.

Winkelman, Michael.   2009   Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 458-489.

Winkelman, M., and J. Baker.   2008    Supernatural as Natural: A Biological Theory of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).

Primate Social Cognition

I am currently reading the book “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology” edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey. These are thoughts I had after reading the chapter “Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology.” It was written by Catherine C. MacKinnon and Augustine Fuentes. The authors begin their discussion with the background of primatology. In the 1930s up through the 1950s researchers were focused on studies of social behavior and ecology of the nonhuman primates. In 1951, Sherwood Washburn called for a “new physical anthropology” in which research would integrate laboratory and field studies, examine comparative anatomy and functional morphology, and describe the links between ecology and behavior. In the 1960s and the 1970s fieldwork was conducted with chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans by researchers such as Jane Goodall, Diane Fosse, and Birute Galdikas. In the field of psychology, Harry Harlow conducted his notorious experiments on the significance of primate mother – infant attachment and social bonding. In the 1970s and the 1980s the focus turned to social biology and evolutionary psychology. Here researchers focused on how human brains gained cognitive components that evolved to solve the reproductive problems faced by our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Primates, including humans, share various general characteristics including; prehensile hands and feet, a reliance on visual and tactile sensory pathways, extended periods of infant dependency and development, and significantly enlarged brain to body size ratios. The expansion of the visual system is seen as being tied to sociality. Primates must be able to read complex social signals and their emotional content. Among primates there is a strong tendency towards sociality and group living. Physical and emotional bonding and social attachment have been determined to be crucial for the healthy development of the central nervous system. Primates employ color vision to help find foods, use their memory in the spatial mapping of resources, and communicate about food sources as well as predators. The authors suggest that our brain and our visual system selectively focus on information which can protect us from potentially dangerous individuals or situations. Advanced cognitive structures allow primates to display a great range of plasticity in foraging behavior and living environments.

Primates also engage in niche construction, which can be defined as the modification of the functional relationship between organisms and their environment by actively changing one or more of the factors in that environment. Through this process primates have significant effects on their environment which then affect their population. For example, responses to the energetic cost of increasing brain size and extended period of child rearing in genus Homo included more cooperation between group members, an increase in the complexity of communication, and increased effectiveness at avoiding predators and an expansion of the types of environments in which they live. This is also seen in other primate species. For example, female capuchins keep track of and maintain large social networks over the course of their lifetimes. Social organization characterized by fission-fusion groups and subgroups common among chimpanzees is another example. It is been observed that some members negotiate rank through aggression while others rely on coalition partners and social bonding. The authors conclude that a highly evolved social cognition is required to keep track of the social networks. The authors suggest that social network analysis can be a fruitful method allowing researchers to examine types of interactions among individuals in a social group. Social network analysis allows for the examination of complex patterns in which primates organize themselves socially.

Primates also share the characteristic of an extended period of dependency after birth. The level of social complexity is correlated to increased sizes of neo-cortices. Among the primates, humans have the least mature brain at birth followed by a period of rapid brain growth, influenced by an environment rich in social stimuli. It is also suggested that an increased consumption of animal protein also brought hominids in close competition with carnivores also resulting in an increase in brain size.

The cultural intelligence hypothesis suggests that humans have a species specific set of social cognitive skills for participating in and exchanging knowledge through particularly complex cultural groups. Among primates, research has found cooperative and altruistic behavior in certain situations with varying results. Chimps have been found that while in adjoining cages they will sometimes give tokens which produce a food reward for both of the animals. It is also been shown in laboratory research that capuchins may value equitable behavior. In conclusion, research suggests that primates display extensive plasticity in sociality and cognitive functioning which results in increasing brain size, social complexity, and evolutionary success via biosocial niche construction.


Into the Unknown

Me and Sonja

In the days leading up to a vacation, be it spring break, fall break, beginning or ending of summer break, and occasionally during winter break, you can find me hunched over maps spread out on my floor, planning a route into the wilderness which will take me and my lucky companions beyond established trails and as far away from anything man-made as possible. The preparation for such a trip is always exciting to me. For days leading up to the excursion you will find various pieces of gear strewn about the house, being checked and double checked to make sure everything is in working order. I live for these excursions. Being deep in the wilderness I find peace. When I am in the wilderness I know what to expect; if I do not pay attention to the map and compass I may get lost, if I do not hang my food appropriately animals may get into it, if I do not dry out my feet after hours of trekking through streams and/or snow, I may get trench foot. When I am not in the wilderness I never know what to expect. I find dealing with humans and modern society highly unpredictable and confusing. I have often wondered, “why do I feel this way, is it something I inherited, is it something that may be/has been adaptive?” According toTinbergen there are four different reasons concerning why an organism does something. Below, I will use these four reasons to attempt to explain why I love these excursions into the wilderness so much.

The first reason can be termed “historical,” my ancestors did it and I inherited it from my ancestors. In this case, I can go all the way back to Homo erectus, a species predating modern humans which migrated throughout the old world. This is also the case with modern humans, who also migrated out of Africa and eventually populated the entire world. I can also point to my less distant ancestors, the Vikings, who are also known for extensive exploration and migration.

Tinbergen’s second reason can be termed “proximal,” in which an outside cause triggers the behavior. Here I suggest that the hustle and bustle of the modern world and the constant stimuli which we are surrounded with is overwhelming to me and I often seek to escape it. The best way I know of escaping from the stresses of the modern world is to go on extended trips into the wilderness.

Me, brother Scott, and BFF Josh on West Elk Peak
Me, brother Scott, and BFF Josh on West Elk Peak

On these trips there is no TV, radio, cars, or other people. Being alone in the wilderness, I often am able to enter an altered state of consciousness, in which my senses are more in tune with my environment, and instead of trying to block stimuli as is the case when I am not in the wilderness, I find myself paying attention to everything; the colors, sounds, movement, temperature, etc. Usually on these trips we spend our evenings sitting around a small campfire, which is another way to enter an altered state of consciousness and is usually very calming.

Tinbergen’s third reason for behavior is “developmental,” simply the appropriate thing for the organism to do at that stage of its development. Having now spent 50 years alive on this planet I find my excursions into the backcountry much less strenuous than they were 30 years ago. I look back with fond memories on those 10 mile days in which we ascended two or three peaks. Nowadays, I am lucky to put in 5 or 6 miles trekking and spending more time at base camps relaxing.100_0886 I still always see these trips as an adventure, part of the hero’s journey, which Joseph Campbell describes as the “monomyth,” in which a person leaves his community, experiences a magical adventure, learns and grows, and returns to share his new knowledge with his community. Usually this idea of the monomyth applies to people who are leaving the phase of childhood and entering into adulthood. But for some of us, this need to explore and partake in new adventures obviously lasts into middle-age.

The fourth of Tinbergen’s reasons for behavior is “functional,” in that there is an evolved capacity to do the behavior. In this case, I suggest that some people have inherited a genetic pattern which may lead to novelty seeking in general and migration in particular. It has been found that people who have either the 7R or 2R versions of the DRD4 gene, which is connected to dopamine centers in the brain, exhibit impulsive and exploratory behavior as well as the ability to adapt to new situations.

Whatever the reasons for my behavior, it is my sincere wish that my body holds out as I get older and I can continue to take extended trips into the wilderness with my favorite companions; my son Miles, my brother Scott, and my best friend Josh.

Scott, Josh, and Miles. Grand Staircase/Escalante
Scott, Josh, and Miles. Grand Staircase/Escalante

Perhaps my companions and I are following in the footsteps of distant ancestors who led their extended families out of Africa, throughout the old world, and eventually into North and South America. Often as I am leading my companions over a mountain pass and into a verdant valley, I feel a connection to those past explorers who were not afraid to leave behind the comforts of their home and hearth to venture out into the unknown.

Out of Africa and to the New World: Fantastical Musings on the Adaptability of Mental “Disorders” of the Bipolar and Schizophrenic Spectrums

When I read about the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene in an article by Schaller and Murray (2011) my curiosity was raised once again about an idea I have been playing with for a while concerning the possibility of “bipolar” mania and some forms of mental functioning which fall on the “schizophrenia” spectrum as being, in some contexts, “adaptive.” There are two contexts I will discuss in this post: 1) the role of certain mental states in contributing to novel problem solving, and 2) the role of these same states in contributing to human migration.  I will also discuss how therapeutic dissociation, which I suggest is prevalent in these populations, has been an important adaptive strategy, and has been culturally instituted. Finally, I will discuss how people with these forms of mental functioning “signal” their distress (or culturally atypical thoughts/behaviors) in culturally salient ways.

In some very interesting research, Dein and Littlewood (2011) examined the relationship between schizophrenia, religion, and everyday cognition. There are similarities between schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar disorder (BD), in fact some forms of BD are treated with the same antipsychotic medications as schizophrenia. They suggest “Both religion and schizophrenia perhaps derive from an over attribution of agency and an overextension of Theory of Mind (2011:329). Both religion and schizophrenia may have evolved together. In families with a member with schizophrenia, there is an increased likelihood of creativity, leadership qualities, musical skills, and religiosity (Horrobin 1998). Horrobin also suggests that schizophrenia was present in the earliest stages of Homo sapiens, around 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, accompanying the explosion of art and religion. Schizophrenia and genius perhaps manifested as a result of evolutionary pressures that triggered genetic changes in our brains, allowing humans to make novel connections and solutions to events, leading to enhanced mental capacities. Thus, schizophrenia and its related bipolar disorder may have been a result of, and contributed to, these new cognitive abilities.

Referring back to the article by Schaller and Murray (2011), it has been shown in some studies that a particular variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene is predictive of a novelty seeking. By looking at the distribution at this gene across various aboriginal populations in North and South America it has been shown that the frequency is much higher among populations in the southernmost regions of South America. The frequency of the gene is also found to be relatively low among populations that live close to Beringia, were Clovis people made their entry into the new world. I see a connection between novelty seeking and the atypical mental states found in people diagnosed with bipolar mania and some forms of schizophrenia. Could it be, like Meriwether Lewis leading the Corps of Discovery across America, that novelty seeking individuals led migrations out of Africa and journeys leading to the populating of North and South America? Do individuals with these atypical mental states carry the gene?

Although Bargatzky (1984) states that the “adaptionist programme” is only applicable on the genetic and phenotypic levels, I will side with Petersen’s response to Bargatzky in that culture is the means of adaptation for human kind. According to Lasker’s model (in Schell 1995) there are three modes of human adaptation: natural selection of genotypes, plasticity, and individual acclimatization. Adaption can be seen as the changes an organism makes to surmount challenges in the environment. I agree with Frisancho (2010), who suggests that adaptation applies to organisms and social groups. Cultures also create adaptive strategies which may augment physiological changes (McElroy 1990). In our case, the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene may have served a purpose to get folks moving, and a material culture based on high mobility followed for humans coming out of Africa, Solutreans moving across Atlantic ice and populating the east coast of America, the Clovis people who traveled across Beringia and spread throughout the west and Great Plains, and whoever got to South America and settled at Monte Verde. This adaptation may be beneficial in the short term, but become less so in the long run. This applies to our atypical individuals leading migrations. Mania and novelty seeking may move groups of people to a new environment, but once they settle down it becomes necessary to integrate these atypical mental states into a settled culture.

I repeat, as populations settle down, these novel mental states became integrated into culture. It is a popular notion that shamans and other religious figures may have been influenced by these atypical mental states. In my research with a bipolar support group, I found many people who discussed having hyper-religious experiences during episodes of mania. I also found among the same population examples of therapeutic dissociation, either in the context of prayer/meditation and marijuana use. Lynn (2005), Snodgrass (2011), and Seligman (2005), have all published papers on the therapeutic quality of certain dissociative states. Perhaps individuals who experience more dissociative states become “dissociative experts” and operate as specialists, whether shaman, priest, or other spiritual specialist. Being a shaman or other type of religious figure allows the individual to operate within a culturally acceptable context.

Aside from becoming a spiritual specialist, individuals with atypical mental functioning are also compelled to express their differences or “dis-ease” in culturally salient ways. According to signaling theory, people are attracted to healthy appearing individuals and avoid individuals who they see as unfit or as carriers of disease, and people signal their commitment to the group in acceptable ways (Shaller and Murray 2011; Waynforth 1998). Labels such as “bipolar” or “nervios” allow for ways to express atypical mental states in manners acceptable to members of their culture.

I will now close this post by concluding that atypical mental states may have arisen in human history as a response to environmental pressures which forced novel solutions. This short-term adaptability becomes compromised when the population settles into a new context. These atypical mental states are then renegotiated into forms which are socially acceptable to varying degrees. Atypical mental states become “illness” or “disorders” when the expression does not fit the sociocultural context. To me this suggests the importance of examining atypical mental states and patterns in their particular cultural context. Ultimately, one size does not fit all when it comes to describing and treating atypical mental functioning.


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Frisancho, A.R. 2010. The Study of Human Adaptation. In MP Muehlenbein (ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology. Pp. 17-28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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