Beckley Foundation collaborator Jordi Riba and his team at Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona have just published a study in the journal Psychopharmacology, co-authored by the Beckley’s Executive Director, Amanda Feilding, which shows that one of the ways ayahuasca achieves its reported therapeutic effects is by increasing people’s capacity for mindfulness – the same capacity that is cultivated through regular meditation practice.
Ayahuasca is the DMT-containing psychedelic plant brew from the Amazon that has been traditionally used for religious, magical, and healing purposes by indigenous peoples, but is now rapidly gaining popularity in the Western world. It can produce introspective and dream-like experiences, visions, and reliving of personal and emotional memories, and many people experience improved insight, personal growth, and emotional healing as a result of their ayahuasca experience. Not surprisingly, these features are beginning to be harnessed for therapeutic purposes (albeit not government-approved), including treatment of addiction and depression.
This newly published study, which is part of a larger research programme exploring the mechanisms of action behind ayahuasca and DMT, provides some insight into exactly which psychological mechanisms underlie the beneficial effects. It examined 25 experienced ayahuasca users before and after an ayahuasca session, using questionnaires to assess, among other traits, their mindfulness capacities. Following ayahuasca, participants rated themselves as being less judgmental about their inner experience and less emotionally reactive, and better able to ‘decentre’ themselves (i.e., observe thoughts and emotions as temporary events of the mind). Amazingly, the post-ayahuasca scores were comparable to those observed in experienced meditators, suggesting that similar benefits may be gained from a pharmacological intervention as from meditation. This probably doesn’t mean that one can replace the other, but it would be an immense benefit if they could work in combination.
While this is a relatively simple study showing a pre/post-ayahuasca effect in a non-controlled trial (i.e., there was no ‘placebo’ group to compare against), it is part of a nascent but persistent effort to build a scientific evidence base for the usefulness of ayahuasca in addressing mental health conditions, and it certainly lends legitimacy to the idea that there are meaningful therapeutic benefits that could, and should, be explored further.
Background: Ayahuasca is psychotropic plant tea originally used for ritual purposes by the indigenous populations of the Amazon. In the last two decades its use has expanded worldwide. The tea contains the psychedelic serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) and sigma-1 receptor agonist N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), plus β-carboline alkaloids with monoamine-oxidase (MAO)-inhibiting properties. Acute administration induces an introspective dream-like experience characterized by visions, and autobiographic and emotional memories. Studies of long-term users have suggested its therapeutic potential, reporting that its use has helped individuals abandon the consumption of addictive drugs. Furthermore, a recent pilot study in patients with treatment-resistant depression found that a single ayahuasca dose induced a rapid antidepressant effect that was maintained weeks after administration. Here we conducted an exploratory study of the psychological mechanisms that could underlie the beneficial effects of ayahuasca.
Methods: We assessed a group of 25 individuals before and 24 hours after an ayahuasca session using two instruments designed to measure mindfulness capacities: The Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) and the Experiences Questionnaire (EQ).
Results: Ayahuasca intake led to statistically significant increases in two facets of the FFMQ indicating a reduction in judgmental processing of experiences and in inner reactivity. It also led to a significant increase in decentering ability as measured by the EQ. These changes are classic goals of mindfulness training and the scores obtained are in the range of those observed after extensive mindfulness practice.
Conclusions: The present findings support the claim that ayahuasca has therapeutic potential. They additionally suggest that this potential is due to an increase in mindfulness capacities.
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