Ayahuasca Shamanic Visions: Integrating Neuroscience, Psychotherapy, and Spiritual Perspectives

Spontaneous imagery narratives—or, more precisely, spontaneous waking visual and kinesthetic transformative imagery narratives—have been widely reported in many cultures throughout recorded history. Our research findings concerning the experiences reported after ingestion of the Amazonian psychoactive brew ayahuasca, which has its origins in shamanism, agree with prior research literature that ayahuasca often elicits spontaneous imagery narratives that are reported to be very intense and meaningful, and often related to psychological and physical healing, problem solving, knowledge acquisition, creativity, spiritual development, divination, community cohesion, and encounters with disincarnate entities or beings. Although ayahuasca recipes differ, the most widespread and well-studiedbrew combines the leaves of Psychotria virdis, containing the psychoactiveagent N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), with the pulverized Banisteriopsiscaapi vine, which contains beta-carboline alkaloids (MAO inhibitors). DMT is not orally active, but when it is combined with the caapi vine, the resulting brew stimulates an altered state of consciousness that usually lasts from threeto five hours. Reviews of the history of the ethnobotanical study and neuro-pharmacology of ayahuasca are available, and later in this chapter some of the brew’s bodily correlates will be described.Because ayahuasca has been reported to reliably facilitate profound healing and creative and spiritual experiences, and because it can be studied in neuroscience laboratory settings, it offers extraordinary opportunities for the kind of research bridging neuroscience and the humanities that is advocated in this book. This chapter offers an example of ayahuasca research as apart of this new metafield. The central question of the inquiry is: How canthe spontaneous imagery narratives that are so prominent during the use of ayahuasca produce the widely reported benefits? To answer this question I will draw from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, religion, and my own research. Recent neuroscience evidence and theory offer exciting new insights into the specific brain processes that possibly occur, and this may lead to enhanced applications in psychotherapy, creative activity, and spiritual development. I will present my own model of the nature and function of spontaneous imagery narratives; this model incorporates both previous and new views,and uses imagery from a variety of religious traditions to depict the creative psychophysiological and spiritual processes involved. One new hypothesis that ayahuasca research clearly supports is an ancient idea placed in a newcontent: that creative human activities are a blending of deliberative thought processes and spontaneous experiencing.