The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience
Oxford University Press (2002)
Practically all the scientific research on Ayahuasca falls into two categories. The first is that of the natural sciences – botany and ethnobotany, pharmacology, biochemistry and brain physiology; the second is that of the social sciences – notably cultural anthropology. The disciplines of the first category set themselves to determine the identity of the plants of which Ayahuasca is made, analyze the active chemical constituents in them, and discover the pharmacological action these generate and the physiological effects they produce in human beings. Anthropologists, in their turn, study how Ayahuasca is used in various societies and groups. They record the rituals–religious or medicinal–in which the brew is consumed and the behavior of the people who participate in them. They also study how Ayahuasca and its rituals are related to various other facets of the cultures at hand – their social structure, mythologies, music, religious beliefs, art and artifacts.
The research presented in this book is grounded in the assessment that the real puzzles associated with Ayahuasca pertain neither to the brain nor to culture but rather to the human psyche. It seems to me that the reason this brew is so intriguing has to do with the extraordinary subjective experiences it generates in people’s minds. As such, the study of Ayahuasca belongs first and foremost to the domain of psychology, and more specifically cognitive psychology – that is, with that scientific discipline which is engaged in the empirical and theoretical study of the mental life of human beings.
I have been studying the phenomenology of ordinary human consciousness for twenty-five years. In 1991, by chance, I encountered Ayahuasca and felt that it deserved a serious cognitive-psychological investigation. It further dawned upon me that, by probing into the far reaches of the mind as they are manifested in the non-ordinary state induced by this brew, we, students of cognition, can significantly further our understanding of the workings of the human mind in general. Guided by the belief that such an endeavor requires substantial firsthand experience, I travelled for a year and a half throughout Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, acquiring extensive experience with Ayahuasca and the various contexts and practices of its use. Since then I have returned to South America numerous times.
The research reported in this book is the first–and so far, only–scientific cognitive-psychological study of Ayahuasca. It is an independent project based both on the systematic recording of my own experiences and on the interviewing of a large number of informants – indigenous persons, shamans, members of different religious sects using Ayahuasca and foreign (that is, non-South Americans) visitors. All the data collected were subject to a categorization scheme that I have developed. To my knowledge, my corpus is the largest and most systematic ever collected of the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experience.
My book comprises three parts. The first presents the case for the cognitive-psychological study of Ayahuasca and lays down the theoretical and methodological grounds for such an investigation. The second, and main, part is devoted to a comprehensive charting of the phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experience. Included is a thorough analysis of the types of visions that may be induced by the brew, their contents, themes and the ideations associated with them. Also included are analyses of hallucinatory effects in the non-visual sensory modalities, the various modifications pertaining to drinkers’ state of consciousness, transformations in identity, time and phenomena pertaining to meaning and to mystical experiences. The third part addresses theoretical issues. In it, I examine several aspects of the Ayahuasca experience from the perspective of contemporary cognitive science. More general philosophical issues, notably ones pertaining to epistemology, are examined as well. All told, the book consists of 23 chapters plus an introduction, an epilogue and an appendix devoted to quantitative data.
The scientific significance of this research extends beyond the domain of Ayahuasca proper. The methodology, conceptual framework, and theoretical argumentation and modeling presented in this book lay the foundations not only for the serious, academic cognitive study of one special state of mind, but for the study of states of consciousness in general. Indeed, this research offers a totally novel understanding of the very phenomenon of human consciousness. In particular, the non-ordinary phenomenology of the Ayahuasca experience reveals curious facts about the mind, and makes us appreciate the underlying structural parameters of the system of consciousness at large. Indeed, the methodologies and conceptual distinctions developed here may very well be used in future investigations of other psychoactive substances and of other non-ordinary states of consciousness.
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