Friday, May 29, 2015

Ayahuasca Variations

This working paper was originally published in Human Nature Review 3 (2003) 239-251:

You can also find it at:

Abstract: This is a review essay of Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience (Oxford University Press, 2002), which is a detailed phenomenological account of what happens when one takes ayahuasca, a psychoactive concoction from South America. Ayahuasca is traditionally taken in the company of others and accompanied by music, which paces the visions and affects their content. The effect is that of entering another world. I offer some speculation about underlying neural processes, much based on the work of Walter Freeman’s speculation that consciousness is organized as short discontinuous whole-hemisphere states. I also speculate on the similarity between the dynamics of ayahuasca experience, as Shanon has described it, and the dynamics of skilled jazz improvisation; and I point out that what Shanon reports as a second-order vision seems to be involved in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.


What the Brain Does 2
Another World 3
Some Temporal Effects 5
Musical Performance 6
Xanadu 9
Sensing the Real 13
Notes 14
Acknowledgements 15
References 15

Introduction: What the Brain Does
Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Oxford University Press, 2002; ISBN: 0199252920
Sometime within the past two or three years I came upon a paper by Eleanor Rosch (1997) in which she observed that “William James speculated about the stream of consciousness at the turn of the century, and the portrayal of stream of consciousness has had various literary vogues, but experimental psychology has remained mute on this point, the very building block of phenomenological awareness.” My impression is that much the same could be said about the recent flood of consciousness studies. The authors of this work tend to treat consciousness as a homogenous metaphysical substance. They are quite interested in the relationship between this substance and the brain but show little interest in the varieties of conscious experience, in how consciousness evolves from one moment to the next.

How is it possible, for example, that I may simultaneously prepare breakfast while thinking about consciousness? Even as I break an egg into a mixing bowl, add some pancake mix, pour in some milk, and begin beating the mixture, I am also thinking about Shanon’s book, Walter Freeman’s neurodynamic theories, Coleridge’s drug-inspired “Kubla Khan” – and then! I look out the window and notice how bright and sunny it is. I have little subjective sense of doing this, then thinking about that, and then back to doing this, and so forth. These seem to be simultaneous streams of attention, like two or three interacting contrapuntal voices in a Bach fugue. If “the mind is what the brain does” (Kosslyn and Koenig 1995, p. 4) then the conscious mind flits from one thing to another in a most interesting way.

Walter Freeman (1999a, pp. 156-158; cf. Varela 1999) speculates that consciousness arises as discontinuous whole-hemisphere states succeeding one another at a “frame rate” of 6 Hz to 10 Hz. Each attention stream would thus consist of a set of discontinuous macroscopic brain states interleaved with the states for the other streams. As an analogy, imagine cutting three different films into short segments of no more that a half dozen or so frames per segment. Join the segments together so that each second or two of projected film contains segments from all three films. Now watch this intercut film. Your mind automatically assigns each short segment to the appropriate stream so that you experience three non-interfering movies more-or-less at once. La Strada, Seven Samurai, and Toy Story, as it were, unfold in your mind each in its own context.

That is the mind in action. Yet, as Rosch has noted, cognitive science and consciousness studies have little to say about it. Benny Shanon’s The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience brings this neglect into sharp relief by presenting us with an account of the different modes of consciousness that emerge when one has taken ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive drink concocted in South America that induces very strong visions. Shanon is a cognitive psychologist who stumbled on the practice by accident and became interested in the nature of these visions. He started systematically exploring the experience, often through rituals organized by indigenous animist groups and by more recent syncretic groups (the Church of Santo Daime, União de Vegetal, Barquinha), but also with less formal groups involving “independent drinkers” and in sessions by himself. Shanon has participated in over 130 sessions himself and has interviewed 178 other users of which “16 were indigenous or persons of mixed race, 106 were residents of urban regions of South America, and 56 were foreigners (that is, persons residing outside South America)” (p. 44).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it is mostly an extensive investigation of what happens once one has ingested the brew. Much of it consists of more or less richly annotated lists of the sorts of things one sees and experiences. Shanon is not interested in interpreting these visions in the way a literary critic or a Jungian psychologist would. Nor is he interested in explaining what happens in neural terms, about which he has little to say. By the same token, he does not take these experiences at face value either. Ayahuasca visions generally impress themselves on people as sojourns in another world, a world that is at least somehow separate from the mundane world, if not ontologically superior to it (that is, more real). While Shanon feels the pull of such a view, he knows that it is not appropriate to a scientific study. Whatever is happening, it cannot usefully be explained by appeals to the supernatural

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