Ideas and Reflections Associated with Ayahuasca Visions
Benny Shanon, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
The Hebrew University
AYAHUASCA IS FAMOUS for the visions it generates. These have
been discussed in the anthropological literature, and increasingly,
they receive attention in the non-scientific, popular press.
earlier report in MAPS as well as elsewhere (Shanon, 1997) I have
made the case for a systematic study of the contents of these visions
and presented data pertaining to them. These data indicate that
common content items appear in the visions
of individuals from different personal and cultural backgrounds. The
most salient of these are serpents, the large cats (jaguars, tigers and
pumas, but not lions), birds and palaces. Other frequently seen items
include beings of all sorts, scenes pertaining to ancient civilizations
(notably Egypt and the pre-Colombian American high cultures), open
landscapes (e.g., large meadows and savannas) as well as celestial
and heavenly scenes. Most of the objects seen in the visions are made
of gold and gilded material, crystal, precious stones and white cloth.
The corpus of ayahuasca visions depicted in Ayahuasca Visions (Luna &
Amaringo, 1993) exhibit similar patterns. From the point of view of
cognitive psychology, such findings are significant because they seem
to attest to a level of cognitive universals of a totally new kind. Unlike
the universals normally considered in the psychological literature,
which have to do with schemes of thought and formal structures, the
commonalities manifested in ayahuasca visions have to do with
content. Moreover, the content items are specific - they are not
general patterns of the drama of human life. In this respect the
images differ from the Jungian archetypes which pertain to the
different manifestations of themes such as the great mother, the
adventurous youth, the hero, the wise old man, birth and death. Such
themes are, of course, part and parcel of the human saga, regardless
of place, time, socio-economic affiliation, intellectual level or cultural
and educational background. The items commonly found in ayahuasca
visions are categorically different. They are specific and non-
reducible to the psychology of personality dynamics. As suggested by
Huxley (Huxley, 1972), they may be regarded as indicative of layers
of the psyche, or perhaps facets of ontology, which have nothing to do
with individual psychology.
Other effects of ayahuasca
Salient as the visions are, they (along with the non-visual
"hallucinations" that the brew induces) are not the only effects that
ayahuasca induces. Another important facet of the phenomenology of
the ayahuasca experience are ideas, insights and reflections. Many
individuals report that the brew makes them think faster and be more
intelligent. Some persons with extensive experience with ayahuasca
even indicated that with time, these ideational effects are more
meaningful than the visions. In general, under the effect of
ayahuasca, people report that they are more insightful and given to
new ideas than usual. Furthermore, it seems that the intoxication
makes people more involved with deeper
psychological analyses and with philosophical contemplation.
Naturally, the subject matter of thoughts that pass through a
person's mind during the intoxication are prone to reflect the
interests and concerns this person normally has. Very often, when
consuming the brew, people ask for answers or solutions to specific
questions or problems that actually bother them in their lives. They
often gain insights with respect to personal questions, find answers
or solutions that are subsequently applied in their lives, and also find
comfort and solace.
One person with extensive experience with ayahuasca told me
that what the brew gives one is access to what he characterized as
"divine wisdom." This term, he further explained, denotes all that can
be known on any subject. The knowledge to be gained by any
particular individual will depend on the interests and wishes of the
person in question. "If the person is interested in philosophy he will
learn more about philosophy, he wishes to gain understanding about
the nature of the human mind he will become wise on that, if what
interests him is being a thief, it is this in which he will become more
This insight notwithstanding, it seems that as with the visions,
the ideas entertained during ayahuasca intoxication exhibit some
common, interpersonal features. These pertain to the domains being
reflected upon, the general types of contents that become significant,
and the overall perspectives from which things are being viewed. To
my knowledge, this is a topic that has not received any attention or
treatment in the scientific literature, neither anthropological nor
psychological. The cognitive import of this phenomenon cannot, I
think, be overstated.
Subject group demographics
As indicated in a previous MAPS report (
MAPS Bulletin 7(3) pp 13-15. ), in my work I have interviewed many subjects in
different places, in different contexts of ayahuasca use, and with
different levels of experience in its consumption. Here I focus on one
group of subjects which I characterize as "independent drinkers." All
are residents of Brazil, most of them of Rio de Janeiro and almost all
are of the middle class. Ayahuasca is a central facet of their lives, and
all partake of it regularly. At the time of the interview, none were
members of any institutionalized group or sect. This group of
informants is comprised of 21 persons, 15 males and 6 females. The
characterization of the informants as a group pertains to the design of
the research; while some of these people know each other, most do
not and they do not constitute a group in any social or interpersonal
By and large, the ideas of a non-personal nature reported by
these informants pertain to the following main categories:
metaphysical reflections about the ontology and the structure and
meaning of reality, reflections about nature and the phenomenon of
life, insights regarding the human predicament and the meaning of
life, ideas concerning the nature of knowledge, the mind and
consciousness, ideas pertaining to human history and its meaning,
ideas having to do with the nature of the Divine and the relationship
between God and the world, thoughts of religious and spiritual
character, reflections regarding ethical values and proper human
conduct, and insights on the nature and praxis of healing.
Of the various philosophical ideas entertained by the
informants, the most prevalent concerned metaphysics - 13 of
the members of the independent group entertained thoughts
regarding the ultimate nature and structure of reality. Furthermore,
without exception, all these ideas exhibited one particular
metaphysical view, one which I would characterize as monistic
idealism. Specifically, people feel that there is an aspect or level of
reality which is non-material and that this defines the essence or the
foundation of all Existence. They felt that all things are
interconnected, and that in their totality they constitute one
harmonious whole. With this, people appreciate that there is sense
and reason to all things and that reality is invested with great,
heretofore unappreciated, meaningfulness. Significantly, some
specific expressions reoccurred in the words of different individuals.
Those which appeared most often are "everything is spirit,"
"everything is interconnected," "all is one," "this world is an illusion,"
"everything has meaning," "the different levels and aspects of reality
exhibit the same essential structure." My own first-hand experiences
with ayahuasca reveal similar patterns.
Similarity with Western philosophies
These ideas are reminiscent of ideas put forth by many
thinkers of both the East and the West. Of the latter, ones that
especially come to mind are Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza and Hegel.
Huxley referred to these by the umbrella term "perennial
philosophy;" Huxley's book by this name (Huxley, 1944) is based on a
comprehensive study of various religious and mystical traditions.
Ideas of this kind are also encountered in contemporary reports based
on the experiences of various individuals with psychedelics (not
including ayahuasca); classical examples are Huxley's own reports
based on experiences with mescaline (Huxley, 1959) and Watts' The
Joyous Cosmology (Watts, 1962) which is based on experiences with
LSD, mushrooms and mescaline. Interestingly, William James, while
under the effect of another psychotropic substance, nitrous oxide,
arrived at a similar idealistic world-view. By no means was this a
simple matter for James - the philosophical ideas he conceived
under the influence were reminiscent of the ideas of Hegel, a
philosopher whose view James, as a philosopher, opposed (James,
1882). I should note that in no case were metaphysical ideas that
would be associated with another philosophical line expressed.
Given the theoretically possible space of philosophical ideas, this
pattern is significant.
Similarities to classical Western philosophical ideas are not
confined to metaphysics. They may also be related to epistemology,
the philosophy of mind, and the theory of knowledge. Let me give just
one example; this one too is taken from the interviews of independent
drinkers. The person in question presented a whole metaphysical
picture which he said came to him from ayahuasca. It was a radical
idealistic view. When probing him with respect to the origin and
possible veracity of this view, the man told me: "You are a professor
so you think that you teach me, that you pass information to me. But
this is not so. You only talk to me, and through this come up ideas and
knowledge that are there, stored in my own mind. It is all there and,
in effect, you teach me nothing." Plato's Menon, of which this person
had never heard, strikingly entered my mind and I was baffled. I
shall add that some ayahuasca drinkers who did have acquaintance
with Western philosophy did, in fact, report to me that their visions
were akin to Platonic idealism. In no case did anyone mention
another philosopher to me. I, too, thought of Plato several times in the
course of my journey with ayahuasca. This was not a simple,
straightforward matter. My professional work in cognitive psychology
follows a strong anti-Platonistic line (Shanon, 1991). One of the most
important effects ayahuasca has had on me is a serious entertainment
of a Platonistic world-view. How the two tie together is a topic that I
leave for another discussion. It is perhaps not irrelevant that Plato
participated in the mysteries of Eleusis, where a psychotropic
substance was probably consumed (Wasson, Ruck, & Hofmann;
How are the ideas and insights produced?
Often, the experience is like that indicated above - the
mind works fast and one's reflective and creative faculties are
significantly enhanced. On other occasions, the person feels that
information is communicated to him or her, usually in a kind of
telepathic non-verbal manner. (Interestingly, this mode of
communication and knowledge are featured centrally in the esoteric
writings of Blake and Swedenborg). However, very often the ideas
are directly related to perceptual, hallucinatory effects that the
person experienced under the ayahuasca intoxication. Here I consider
two patterns; both types were reported to me by many individuals,
both I have experienced personally as well.
The web of interconnectivity
The first has to do with the appreciation that all of reality
is interconnected and that there is a force that makes it all exist and
gives nourishment and sustenance to it all. Very often, this force is
interpreted by people to be the Divine or the anima mundi and is
characterized as being the fountain of everything - life, wisdom,
health as well as intellectual and artistic creation. Personally, I have
come to the ideas of this kind in conjunction with seeing what I called
"the web" - translucent strings, like the threads of a spider web,
that tie everything which is seen under the intoxication with open
eyes. Afterwards, I have heard such an image mentioned many times
by different individuals. The description of the visual effect was
invariably the same and many persons used the identical phrase, "a
web," to describe it. For instance, one of the independent informants
told me that the most important teaching she has received from
ayahuasca was the appreciation that the Divine does indeed exist.
Asking her how she had arrived at this conclusion she answered by
presenting a description of the translucent web that interlinks
everything and sustains all of existence.
The case of the web may be characterized as literal, for in it the
vision presents what to the person under the influence seems to
actually be a certain facet of reality not perceived in the ordinary
state of consciousness. By contrast, the second pattern is metaphorical.
Functionally, the visions in question are similar to the images or
visualization that often open parables in the Bible: An image will
appear and the person under the intoxication will decipher it as a
message. In the following example the message is personal, having to
do with insights regarding the person's personal life, but similar
patterns are also encountered in conjunction with spiritual and
philosophical ideas. Recounting her first ayahuasca sessions, one
Brazilian middle class woman told me that she saw herself covered
all around with a transparent plastic. Whenever she moved, the cover
moved with her. She realized that in fact she is living her life
separated from other people. Even though it seems that she is in
contact with other people, in essence she is insulated and has no
direct contact with anyone. The realization made this person change
her attitude vis à vis human interpersonal relations. Another
example is a vision of a building that was shabby and dilapidated.
Apparently, the person having the vision understood, originally the
building was well-designed and well constructed. Seeing this, the
visioner realized that the building was him/herself and took it to
mind that he/she had to make some basic change in his/her life. I use
the compound masculine/feminine terms for indeed, I have heard of
such a vision from two different persons - the first a Peruvian
man of a low social class, the second a European woman visiting
Seeing and knowing
In closing, let me return to the visual aspects of the
ayahuasca experience and comment on the more general relationship
between seeing and knowing. In the traditional Amerindian context,
an intimate affinity between the two is encountered. As reported by
Langdon (Langdon, 1992), the Siona Indians consider "seeing" to be
the major characteristic of high level ayahuasqueros. Further, in the
practice of ayahuasca healing, the ayahuasca is said to enable the
healer to see the inner parts of his patient and thus establish a
diagnosis. Similarly, on the basis of experience with mescaline,
Castaneda repeatedly says that what entheogenic plants do is make
"one see" (Castaneda, 1971). Does the traditional healer "really" see
what other people cannot see or is it only that his intuition and
insight are enhanced? In interviews conducted with several
traditional curanderos, I have tried to clarify this issue. Some have
insisted that the brew literally enables them to see the inner parts of
their patients' bodies. Yet empirically there was no way for me to
objectively verify these claims. Perhaps the difference between these
two possibilities is less than seems to be at first glance. Perhaps deep
down, there comes a point where a clear cut distinction between
perception and comprehension is impossible to make or even
meaningless. It is not at all an accident that in many languages, as in
English, the phrase "I see" is commonly used in the sense of "I
understand." The relation between perception and knowledge is a
fundamental issue in cognitive thought. A school of thought that has
greatly minimized the distinction between the two is that of
ecological psychology founded by James Gibson (Gibson, 1979); for a
most readable introduction and overview, the reader is referred to
Michaels and Carello (Michaels & Carello, 1981). In a book in
progress, I discuss this topic further, both from a cognitive-
psychological and from a philosophical perspective.
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This research was supported in part by MAPS. I thank Rick Doblin
for his encouragement and support. Amit Hagar and Nurit Shacham
helped with the compilation of the data and its analysis and Nurit
Shacham and Yoel Strimling helped with the preparation of this