Ayahuasca, Psychedelic Studies and Health Sciences: The Politics of Knowledge and Inquiry into an Amazonian Plant Brew
Kenneth W. Tupper, and Beatriz C. Labate
Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2014, 7, 71-80
This article offers critical sociological and philosophical reflections on ayahuasca and other psychedelics as objects of research in medicine, health and human sciences. It situates 21st century scientific inquiry on ayahuasca in the broader context of how early modern European social trends and intellectual pursuits translated into new forms of empiricism and experimental philosophy, but later evolved into a form of dogmatism that convenienced the political suppression of academic inquiry into psychedelics. Applying ideas from the field of science and technology studies, we consider how ayahuasca’s myriad ontological representations in the 21st century — for example, plant teacher, traditional medicine, religious sacrament, material commodity, cognitive tool, illicit drug — influence our understanding of it as an object of inquiry. We then explore epistemological issues related to ayahuasca studies, including how the indigenous and mestizo concept of “plant teacher” or the more instrumental notion of psychedelics as “cognitive tools” may impact understanding of knowledge. This leads to questions about whether scientists engaged in ayahuasca research should be expected to have personal experiences with the brew, and how these may be perceived to help or hinder the objectivity of their pursuits. We conclude with some brief reflections on the politics of psychedelic research and impediments to academic knowledge production in the field of psychedelic studies.
Keywords : Ayahuasca, cognitive tool, epistemology, ontology, psychedelic, science and technology studies, selfexperimentation.
Ayahuasca has become an object of growing popular and scientific interest around the world in the past few decades. Prior to the 1990s, ayahuasca was a relatively obscure cultural artifact in the global North, known mostly to anthropologists, travelers or aficionados of psychoactive plants. However, with the rise of reliable and affordable air travel to the Amazon and the information revolution of the internet, as well as increasing interest in alternative healing practices and the expansion and diversification of the New
Age movement, the last twenty years have been a period of what has been characterized as the globalization or internationalization of ayahuasca [1-3]. Spiritual seeking has been a significant part of this trend, as illustrated by the transnational growth of Brazilian ayahuasca religions, the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (or UDV), as well as spiritually-oriented hybrid or “neo-shamanic” practices drawing on mestizo Amazonian folk traditions [4, 5]. Among the key reasons people give for their interest in drinking ayahuasca in these various settings is its purported health benefits [5, 6], including helping to overcome addictions to alcohol, other drugs, or other harmful or self-destructive behaviours . This has led to an increase both in people seeking opportunities to experience the brew, and in
researchers who wish to conduct scientific studies for its physical, psychological and public health impacts.
The scientific study of ayahuasca and its effects on health is a comparatively new yet steadily burgeoning field of inquiry. Once limited to a few sub-disciplines of botany, pharmacology and anthropology, ayahuasca research now extends into many corridors of the academy, including the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities . Medical researchers in particular are increasingly showing interest in conducting scientific studies on ayahuasca. As McKenna, Callaway and Grob put it in the late 1990s, “the focus for the scientific study and understanding of ayahuasca has shifted from the ethnographer’s field notes and the ethnobotanist’s herbarium specimens, to the neurophysiologist’s laboratory and the psychiatrist’s examining room” [9, 73]. Studies conducted on ayahuasca over the last few decades have
included work in the fields of human pharmacokinetics, psychopharmacology, neuropsychology, transcultural psychiatry and addiction medicine. Specific illnesses or ailments for which ayahuasca is being investigated as a potentially valuable therapeutic intervention include substance dependence, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, identity issues, and overall improvement to quality of life . These trends illustrate a notable contribution to the renaissance of psychedelic science more generally, also exemplified by well-attended thematic tracks devoted to ayahuasca at several international scientific conferences , and a steady growth of publications about ayahuasca in established medical and health science journals. Yet, as we will argue, in the process
of this increasing academic and scientific interest in ayahuasca, researchers are being challenged not just by the complex interactions of the brew, its ritual uses and its effects on drinkers, but also by how their object of study may confound some conventional assumptions in biomedicine and even science itself.
This article undertakes a brief historical, sociological and philosophical analysis of ayahuasca as an object of scientific research, particularly as it is a topic of interest in medicine and public health. It frames ayahuasca research within the broader fields of science and technology studies (STS) and the sociology of knowledge, to consider how the pursuit of scientific understanding of the brew provokes questions, raises issues and challenges assumptions about longenduring ideas in the history and philosophy of science. Some of the STS themes we explore have also emerged in recent sociological studies of early 21st century psychedelic laboratory practices and research frames [11, 12]. Our
analysis begins with consideration of ontological questions about ayahuasca, or what “ayahuasca” is, as a thing in the world, and how it is categorized as an object of inquiry for modern science. We next take up epistemology with respect to ayahuasca and psychedelics more generally, and how the traditional indigenous concept of “plant teacher,” or alternatively, an instrumental “cognitive tool” frame for
these kinds of substances, may have heuristic value for broadening conceptions of knowledge. This leads us to questions of scientific empiricism and disciplinary demands for objectivity, which reveal tensions with respect to expectations that scientists engaged in ayahuasca or other psychedelic research should (or should not) have personal experiences with the “objects” of their research. Finally, we
conclude by briefly considering some of the political challenges of ayahuasca research, and the ramifications of why and how ayahuasca is being scientifically objectified in the early 21st century.