A phenomenology of subjectively relevant experiences induced by ayahuasca in Upper Amazon vegetalismo tourism, Tom John Wolff et al., 2018

A phenomenology of subjectively relevant experiences induced by ayahuasca in Upper Amazon vegetalismo tourism

Tom John Wolff, Simon Ruffell, Nigel Netzband and Torsten Passie

Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 2018

Doi : 10.1556/2054.2019.007


Aims : This heuristic study reports observations on the phenomenology of ayahuasca experiences of nine foreign tourist participants of an ayahuasca retreat in Peru.

Methods : Narrative interviews, reflecting individual experiences after ayahuasca “night ceremony,” have been analyzed by qualitative content analysis using a data-driven strategy in order to extract themes and categories inherent in the interviews. Previously, a demographic questionnaire was given. The dose–response connection was uncontrolled, which is typical for this naturalistic setting. Results: The typical structure of spontaneously reported experiences includes: personal preparation, physical symptoms, visual phenomena, cognitive and emotional phenomena, reactions of the individual within the psychedelic “world” as well as within ordinary reality, and appraisal to the process. Emotional reactions were subsumed under pleasant (psychotherapeutic “target emotions” and hedonistic emotions) and unpleasant emotions. For a majority, the presence of psychotherapeutic target emotions seemed to involve the presence of unpleasant emotions in the same session – possibly as transitional emotional states. Conclusions: This suggests that psychodynamic processes, for example, possible activation of emotional conflicts – can take place spontaneously, during ayahuasca intake in this particular setting. Some participants attributed symbolic meaning to the visionary content, which was more likely to take place in psychotherapeutically motivated clients. The specific setting influence as well as corresponding expectations of the participants in native wisdom could have considerable influence on experiences and interpretations, such as communication with entities as well as receiving personal teachings.

Keywords : ayahuasca, DMT, phenomenology, qualitative research, hallucinations, subjective experiences



Over the past 20 years in Peru, ayahuasca tourism has developed into a thriving business (Grunwell, 1998). Several studies have assessed the reasons of use and found that this is in part due to the increasing demand from western tourists for experiences that can offer spiritual insights and epiphany, emotional catharsis, psychosomatic healing, and an “adventurous experience” (De Rios, 1994; Fiedler, Jungaberle, & Verres, 2011; Fotiou, 2010; Hudson, 2011; Kristensen, 1998; Losonczy & Mesturini, 2010; Schmid, 2010; Winkelmann, 2005; Wolff, 2018).

“Ayahuasca” is a Quechua word for South American beverages containing several species of the vine Banisteriopsis (B. caapi and B. muricata). It often also includes Psychotria viridis or Diplopterys cabrerana leaves, which cause psychoactive experiences sought out in psychedelic ethno-tourism. That psychoactive effect is also part of traditional healing practices in the Upper Amazonian vegetalismo (Beyer, 2009; Incayawar, 2007; Luna, 2005). N,N-Dimethyltryptamine is a naturally occurring psychoactive compound that mainly affects the serotonergic system in the CNS. The reversible MAO A-inhibiting indolalkaloids – harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline – prevent it from being deaminated in the digestive tract (McKenna, Towers, & Abbott, 1984; Riba, 2003). During the peak plasma level of DMT, ayahuasca drinkers are known to experience vivid and colorful imagery, changes to their thought processes, and a state of heightened awareness. Perceptual and “inner experiences” – mainly cognitive and emotional – undergo changes while the sensorium remains intact (Callaway et al., 1999; Grob et al., 1996; Riba et al., 2001). Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are the common effects of drinking ayahuasca, sometimes categorized as side-effects or “adverse symptoms” in pharmacological literature (Riba, 2003, p. 57); however, for many ayahuasca practitioners, these effects, along with their corresponding visual, synesthetic, emotional, and interpretative experiences, are considered to be intended main effects since the beverage is often called “la purga” (Spanish: the purge; Beyer, 2009, pp. 209, 213–214; Labate & Pacheco, 2011; Shanon, 2014, pp. 62–63).

Members of the Brazilian ayahuasca churches “Santo Daime” and “União do Vegetal” have reportedly experienced “extraordinary visuals, kaleidoscopic lights, geometrical forms, tunnels, animals, humans and supernatural beings coinciding with sensations of peace, harmony and inner calm” (Barbosa, Giglio, & Dalgalarrondo, 2005). Synesthetic phenomena such as simultaneous visions, sounds, and smells have also been reported (Luna & Amaringo, 1999). Shanon (2002, p. 431) found that animals, phantasmagoric creatures, royalty and religious figures, magic and art objects, and divine beings are often reported. Autobiographical content appears to occur less frequently for experienced drinkers (Shanon, 2002, p. 432) but can reveal patterns of personality to the drinker (Shanon, 2002, p. 114). Benny Shanon provides a typology of visions that includes two-dimensional pop art or comic book style imagery, complex geometry and architecture with fluorescentcolored lines, expansive panoramic views of landscapes and worlds, visuals in the style of the painter Henri Rousseau, as well as baroque style or “fairy tale” visual experiences (Shanon, 2002, pp. 96–97). He also describes interactions with phantasmagoric beings (Shanon, 2002, p. 97). Some individuals, however, reported few or no visions (Shanon, 2002, pp. 96–98).

The appearance of supportive entities (Beyer, 2009, pp. 239–244; de Rios, 1972; Luna, 1986) and receiving teachings from the personified ayahuasca have been reported following traditional ayahuasca ingestion. The reports of these “teachings from entities” play a significant role in traditional Upper-Amazon vegetalism (Beyer, 2009, pp. 110–111; Luna, 1986; Shanon, 2014, pp. 65–67). It also has been reported to occur in an ibogaine-induced state of consciousness (Schenberg, 2013) as well as occasionally from western substance-supported psychotherapy, for example, guiding spirits from family members during psilocybin ingestion (Belser et al., 2017, pp. 365–366). Psilocybin and (to a lesser extent) ketamine are also known to produce similar complex imagery (Studerus, Gamma, & Vollenweider, 2010). This may indicate the significance of individual circumstance and the setting in which psychoactive substances are ingested, in terms of influencing similar perceptional content.

To clarify, for the purpose of this paper, we will be distinguishing visions from hallucinations. Hallucinations, in contrast to the visions induced by ayahuasca, give the subjective impression that what is being seen is a part of reality, to the extent that the person can hardly distinguish between a shared reality and the hallucinatory experience.

In a study using semi-structured questionnaires, Kjellgren, Eriksson, and Norlander (2009) found that when reflecting on the process of experiencing an ayahuasca trip, participant’s reports included the following stages: (a) motivation to take ayahuasca (prior to ingesting), (b) contractile frightening state, (c) a sudden change or transformation of the experience, (d) a limitless expansive state with transpersonal experiences, (e) reflection on the experience, and (f) changed worldview and new orientation to life. The final stage of the process feeds back into the first stage, as at this point they are able to recognize the potential psychotherapeutic benefits.

Based on analyses of a great number of LSD and mescaline trips, Masters and Houston (1966) described a general psychedelic model of depth stages: (a) sensory stage with perceptual changes and altered awareness of the body; (b) recollective-analytic stage with in-depth thinking about personal problems, relationship problems, life goals, past experiences, and emotional abreactions; (c) symbolic stage with visualized landscapes and architecture, historical, mythic, ritualistic, and archetypal scenes and communication with beings; and (d) integral stage with transcendent and mystical experiences.

As Franquesa et al. (2018) point out, documented improvements in different pathologies have been attributed to the introspective qualities of ayahuasca, although the possible underlying psychotherapeutic processes are not yet well understood. Anecdotal benefits often include dissolution
of the ego, a reprioritization of what is important, understanding oneself better, improved ability to understand others, acceptance of oneself and past life events, and personal growth (Bresnick & Levin, 2006 quoted in Franquesa et al., 2018).

Mystical experiences such as oneness, ego-dissolution, and connectedness may predict a long-term increase in well-being, as well as clinical improvements after psychedelic therapies (Carhart-Harris & Goodwin, 2017; Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006). Carhart-Harris, Erritzoe, Haijen, Kaelen, and Watts (2018) believe that a feeling of connectedness is a key factor for good mental health. There is evidence that a feeling of connectedness facilitates psychological well-being (Cervinka, Roderer, & Hefler, 2012), and that a sense of disconnectedness is a factor in depression (Karp, 2017). Experiences of connectedness have commonly been reported by people who have used ayahuasca (Shanon, 2002, p. 205).

Franquesa et al. (2018) found evidence of therapeutic processes in ayahuasca inebriations, which are also known in other psychotherapies: decentered introspection, attribution of meaning (which was also proposed by Shanon, 2003) as well as alterations in meaningful, guiding values in life (also discussed by Kavenská & Simonová, 2015; Liester & Pricket, 2012 and others). Some psychedelic therapies aim to create “meaningful visual phenomena,” as well as changes to the personal narratives of patients (Belser et al., 2017, p. 372). Concepts of generating and altering meaning are common in psychotherapy and have been described under various terms (see Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Cade, 1992; Frankl, 1986; Lichtenberg, Lachmann, & Fosshage, 2016; Mattila, 2001; Mittelmark et al., 2017; Roediger, 2011;
Ruf & Schauer, 2012; Yalom, 1980). They have also been generalized as a psychotherapeutic effect factor; “new selfnarration” in a broader sense is defined as the development of a coherent rewording of the patient’s life history, as well as a new assessment of their identity and relationship to the
environment (Jørgensen, 2004).

Emotional release is not only a typical effect of ayahuasca (Shanon, 2014, p. 64), but also of other psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin in psychotherapeutic settings (Belser et al., 2017; Gasser, Kirchner, & Passie, 2014). It indicates typical process-elements that have been previously described from therapies with entactogens, and are typically accompanied by emotional activation; “acceleration of
psychological processes,” “regression,” “rescripting of past behaviors,” “problem actualization and corrective new experience,” as well as “transpersonal experiences” (Passie, 2012). Emotional release is seen as closely related to meaningful experiences, especially those described as “alternative simulations of formative situations from the past, encapsulated in an inner realm” (Passie, 2012).

Gaining diagnostic insight into other peoples’ social and psychosomatic issues may be of particular interest in medical anthropology, as ethnographic literature documents that local vegetalistas of the Amazon claim to gain insight into the causes of the diseases through ayahuasca (Luna, 1986), diseases often being thought of as physical symptoms of social ills (Beyer, 2009, pp. 178–180).

Due to the study’s heuristic aim and qualitative paradigm, no particular explicit hypothesis was tested. The heuristic study aims to contribute to the investigation of the phenomenology of ayahuasca in western clients, as well as possible implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. For this, the study aims to explore more comprehensively, the common structure of acute subjective experiences and emotions elicited by ayahuasca in the context of ceremonial western ayahuasca tourism in the Amazon.