Cultural Neurophenomenology of Psychedelic Thought : Guiding the “Unconstrained” Mind Through Ritual Context
Michael Lifshitz, Eli Sheiner, and Laurence J. Kirmayer
The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought : Mind-Wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming, Edited by Kalina Christoff and Kieran C.R. Fox
This chapter explores psychedelics as catalysts of spontaneous thought. Classic serotonergic psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca can induce potent alterations in cognition and perception. The chapter reviews research on these substances through the lens of cultural neurophenomenology, which aims to trace how neurobiology and sociocultural factors interact to shape experience. After a decades-long hiatus, the scientific study of psychedelics is rediscovering the potential of these substances to promote creative insight, evoke mystical experiences, and improve clinical outcomes. Moreover, neuroimaging experiments have begun to unravel the influence of psychedelics on large-scale connectivity networks of the human brain. Tapping perspectives from the social sciences, the chapter underscores how culture and context constrain the flexible cognitive states brought about by psychedelics. This integrative approach suggests that seemingly spontaneous psychedelic thought patterns reflect a complex interaction of biological, cognitive, and cultural factors—from pharmacology and brain function to ritual, belief, and expectation.
Keywords : psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, psychedelic, cognition, mystical experience, neurophenomenology
Psychedelic substances can profoundly alter the phenomenology of thought. The term psychedelic (from the Greek psychē, ψυχή, meaning “spirit” or “self,” and dēloun, δηλοῦν, meaning “to reveal”) denotes a broad range of natural and synthetic substances that evoke a variety of culturally mediated experiences, including atypical visual and auditory phenomena, shifts in temporal and spatial perception, and intense emotions ranging from terror to wonder. Although the empirical study of psychedelics began in earnest only in the twentieth century, cultural groups have consumed psychedelic plants in ritualized contexts for millennia (Schultes, 1972). The use of these substances may pose social and psychological risks when ingested without prudence, but they can also be consumed safely (Johansen & Krebs, 2015; Nutt, King, Saulsbury, & Blakemore, 2007). Indeed, psychedelics continue to play a vital role in many spiritual and healing practices around the world (Goldsmith, 2010).
Throughout the history of experimental research on psychedelics, scholars have often emphasized the capacity of these pharmacological agents to loosen the hold of habit over patterns of thought (Busch & Johnson, 1950; Cohen, 1964; Huxley, 1977). A growing body of empirical evidence lends support to this view: experimental findings indicate that classical serotonergic psychedelics such as psilocybin (found in over 200 species of mushrooms), ayahuasca (an Amazonian plant-based brew containing dimethyl-tryptamine—i.e., DMT— and monoamine oxidase inhibitors), and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) can increase the flexibility of human brain function, promote creative insights, foster therapeutic outcomes, and engender mystical experiences (Carhart- Harris, Leech, et al., 2014; Chambers, 2014; Fadiman, 2011; Richards, 2015).
Subjective reports of experiences with psychedelic substances frequently highlight the unconstrained, spontaneous nature of the phenomena, which are often described as involuntary, surprising, and profoundly different from ordinary experience. However, the anthropological literature suggests that psychedelic experiences are strongly constrained by social factors related to culture, context, and individual disposition (Dobkin de Rios, 1972; 1984; Labate & Cavnar, 2014; Langlitz, 2012). Indeed, ethnographic research documents a wide range of ritual practices among diverse cultural groups that aim to evoke specific experiences or to strategically direct the flow of thought stimulated by
psychedelics to achieve personal and social benefits (Calabrese, 2013).
In this chapter, we focus on classical psychedelics, which act primarily on the serotonin receptor system, and leave out discussion of other neighboring classes of substances, including dissociative psychedelics (e.g., ketamine) and entactogens (e.g., MDMA). While these other substances are sometimes referred to as psychedelics, they involve distinct albeit overlapping alterations in phenomenology, display different neurochemical binding properties, and likely exert their behavioral and experiential effects through separate mechanisms (Nichols, 2004).
We approach classical serotonergic psychedelics in terms of cultural neurophenomenology, which aims to trace how neurobiology and sociocultural knowledge and practice interact to give rise to experience. We synthesize quantitative experimental data with qualitative accounts, including from ethnographic fieldwork by one of the lead authors of this chapter studying a transnational religion centered on the ritual consumption of the ayahuasca brew (Oda Sheiner, 2016). We begin by reviewing research that examines how psychedelics impact functional organization among brain networks related to perception, higher-order control, and spontaneous thought. We then explore the implications of this supposedly unconstrained cognitive state by examining psychedelic effects on creative thinking, mystical experience, and therapeutic practice. In the final sections of this chapter, we incorporate ethnographic and social scientific perspectives to illustrate how culture and context constrain the flexible cognitive states brought about by psychedelics. This approach allows us to explore nuances of interactions between phenomenology and ritual context that complement laboratory findings grounded in behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific investigation. The integrative perspective we present suggests that seemingly spontaneous psychedelic thought patterns reflect a complex interaction of biological, cognitive, and cultural factors—from pharmacology and brain function to ritual, belief, and expectations.