Therapeutic Bases of Psychedelic Medicines : Psychointegrative Effects, Michael J. Winkelman, 2007,

Therapeutic Bases of Psychedelic Medicines : Psycho-integrative Effects



january 2007, pp 1-19.



For thousands of years, human beings have used medicinal plants to enhance their health and well-being. In cultures around the world, plants commonly referred to as psychedelic, hallucinogens, and entheogens have played central roles in their healing practices. These vision-inducing plants have also played important roles in the religious and spiritual practices of many societies, evoking powerful emotional, cognitive, and therapeutic reactions. These plants that were central to concepts of health, spirituality, and well-being were, however, demonized and rejected by European cultural institutions in the process of the development of the modern world. Their legacy was largely lost to Western civilization until anthropology recovered this knowledge, and it was reembraced by some in the context of the social revolutions of the 1960s. This convergence of politics and foreign ethnomedicines provoked oppressive reactions, leading to a virtual ban on the use of these powerful medicines in research and therapy.

This introduction has several purposes :

1. to situate these plants in a social context that explains the divergent perspectives on these substances;

2. to provide a general understanding of the premodern perspectives regarding the uses of these substances as medicines;

3. to explain our use of psychedelic, as opposed to hallucinogen and other terms, to refer to these substances and their effects; and

4. to illustrate the neurological bases of the effects of psychedelic substances as psychointegrators (as discussed below).

Psychedelic plants constitute part of humanity’s ethnobotanical knowledge of substances of great medicinal and therapeutic importance cross-culturally and throughout history. Where used, these substances generally have been viewed as central sources of spiritual experience and religious participation, providing inspiration for the institutionalization of religious sentiments and activities (e.g., see La Barre 1972; Schultes and Hofmann 1979; Dobkin de Rios 1984; Winkelman and Andritzky 1996; Schultes and Winkelman 1996; Rätsch 2005).

These plants are also considered the most powerful of medicines, central to the cultures’ healing traditions. These plants are important in understanding cultural and religious development as well as, perhaps, the evolution of humans’ “wet ware”—the neurochemical transmitter systems of our brains.

Societal Differences in the Use of Psychedelic Plants

Cultural use of psychedelic plants is not universal but varies as a function of social conditions. Different types of societies make different assessments of their value and potentials. These differences in their use are reflected in the dramatically larger number of psychedelic plants used in the New World in comparison to the Old World cultures (La Barre 1970). These differences have been attributed to cultural factors because there are psychedelic plants present but not used for religious purposes in the Old World (e.g., Europe) (La Barre 1970; Furst 1972; Schultes and Hofmann 1979), where they were often associated with witchcraft (Harner 1973). Institutional political factors are also responsible for the lack of use of these psychointegrator plants. Hallucinogenic plant use is not typically institutionalized in complex societies (Dobkin de Rios and Smith 1977; Winkelman 1991). Cross-cultural analyses reveal that increasing social and political complexity, particularly political integration, leads to reduction in the use of psychointegrator plants (Winkelman 1991). This negative relation to political integration reflects the dynamics of their psychocognitive effects and their inherent conflicts with the psychosocial needs of hierarchical societies.

The repression of and restrictions on use of psychedelics as a function of increasing political integration reflect their typical patterns of use and their effects on social relations and personal interpretations of the world. Dobkin de Rios and Smith (1977) suggest that these plants are typically repressed in statelevel societies because they constitute a potential threat to the religious interpretations of those who hold social and religious power. Psychedelic medicines are typically employed in social settings where local idiosyncratic interpretations derived from the set and setting (personal expectations and the local situational influences) play powerful roles in shaping the experiences. Local interpretation of the experiences could pose a threat to the centralized hierarchical control of religious consciousness and political authority, thus undermining social control. Such conflicts could be expected, given the typical cross-cultural patterns of use of these plants in small group community settings, where they enhance group cohesion and reaffirm traditional value orientations and cosmological beliefs. They consequently reinforce a traditional community-based mythos and social order rather than interpretations of hierarchical political orders and their ideologies of control.