Ayahuasca is in the middle of a moment—which can make it incredibly easy to discount as the drug du jour, hipster plaything, or escapist fantasy. The ancient Amazonian concoction (ayahuasca and another plant are cooked together in water) is serious stuff, however, with a serious history: Shamans in the Amazon have been drinking it for centuries to tap into the spirit world; the intensely hallucinogenic visions and journeys of altered consciousness it induces have transformed lives, healed psychic wounds, and, some historians believe, altered history. (The “stoned ape” theory that first appeared in 1970’s explores the possibility that psychedelic experiences inspired our ancestors to create the extraordinary cave art that gave birth to concepts of spirituality and symbolism.)
One leading proponent of this theory is prominent (and controversial) author/speaker/thinker Graham Hancock, who has written several books—including Magicians of the Gods and Fingerprints of the Gods—and who is in part known for his Tedx talk, The War on Consciousness, which spurred a debate about censorship. Hancock’s intriguing, unconventional ideas about ancient and lost civilizations, informed by his own extensive experience with ayahuasca, are fascinating: He suggests that plant medicine psychedelics, far from being an accident of nature, relic of the past, or just a fun trip, may be the key to moving our entire civilization forward by elevating consciousness. Here, we asked Hancock about plant medicine, the purpose and meaning of hallucinogenic experiences, and what bigger opportunities he sees for humanity in all of this.
First, though, to underline a point made by Hancock and many others: Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug. Its effects can be extremely violent (see Graham’s frank description below). Ayahuasca ceremonies (generally led by shamans) have begun to make waves outside of the Amazon, but the brew itself and DMT (the active ingredient in ayahuasca) are illegal in the States and most other places. Taking this into consideration, Hancock’s perspective on consciousness is nonetheless powerfully thought-provoking.
How did you first get interested in plant medicine?
My interest in plant medicines started out as a research project: I wanted to write a book about human origins. As I researched, it became clear that very little of note had happened during most of the six million years since the creature recognized as the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and anatomically modern humans walked the earth. The line that led to modern humanity left us no evidence of cultural activity until around two and a half million years ago, when the first stone tools were invented. Once they invented them, however, our ancestors stuck with those tools, without significant change, for millions of years. They passed down cultural information, but were rigid and narrowly focused, transmitting the exact same tool types and manufacturing techniques from generation to generation, repeating the same patterns again and again without innovating, apparently with no capacity for lateral thinking. There was likewise no use of symbolism, and no sign of any form of spiritual belief. In parallel, though, the physical appearance of humans continued to evolve, with the brain growing larger, browridges reducing in size, and our overall anatomy becoming less ape-like. The earliest remains of anatomically modern humans, with fully modern brains, begin to show up in the archaeological record about 200,000 years ago, but this physical evolution is not accompanied by any obvious change in the archaic behaviors these individuals manifest, or by the emergence of symbolism or spirituality—qualities that are arguably fundamental to our unique “humanness.” It looks very much as though the “hardware” of modern humans was fully developed by this time, but that what was still missing was the “software” for generating modern human behavior.
“It is as though a light were switched on in human brains all around the world, at more or less the same time—one that set us on the trajectory that ultimately led to ‘civilization’ as we know it today.”
Things get interesting around 125,000 years ago, though: The first signs of symbolism and of spirituality (burial of the dead with grave goods, for example) begin to appear. By 40,000 years ago, our ancestors were creating some of the most accomplished and extraordinary art ever seen at any period of history. From the great cave paintings of southern Europe to the equally ancient, equally accomplished, and iconographically similar cave paintings of Indonesia, and the painted-and-engraved rock shelters of South Africa and Australia. In the same epoch, the entire suite of modern human behavior also comes online, with fully modern manipulation of symbols and spirituality evident everywhere. This behavioral change has been defined as the single most significant leap forward in all of human evolution. It is as though a light were switched on in human brains all around the world, at more or less the same time—one that set us on the trajectory that ultimately led to “civilization” as we know it today.
The big question for me was…what switched on our lights? The answer, it became obvious to me after reviewing the evidence, was psychedelics. I was already familiar with the late, great Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory, set out in his provocative 1992 book, Food of the Gods. But McKenna himself seemed unaware of important academic work on essentially the same thesis that had been done, beginning in the 1970’s, by David Lewis-Williams, professor of cognitive archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and founder of the Rock Art Research Institute.
Lewis-Williams proposed that the sudden emergence of fully formed, accomplished rock and cave art, and the startlingly similar iconography of such art in widely scattered populations that had no contact in prehistory is best explained by neuropsychological factors shared by all humans everywhere. In essence, Lewis-Williams maintains that ancient artists were the first shamans, and like all shamans in surviving tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures today, their practice involved the deliberate induction of deeply altered states of consciousness—trance states—in which visions were experienced. Although non-drug techniques like rhythmic drumming, fasting, prolonged dancing, dehydration, austerities, and even meditation can be effective, psychedelic plants and fungi are undoubtedly the most efficient means to enter such altered states, and are still in use by many existing shamanistic cultures. The neuropsychological theory hypothesizes that the similarities in the ancient art seen all around the world are a result of the shaman-artists remembering and painting their common visions when they returned from trance states.
Later, I learned that to this day in the Amazon rainforest, shamans drink the powerful psychedelic brew ayahuasca to induce a deeply altered state of consciousness, which allows them to “travel” to what they construe as the “spirit world,” and to communicate with “spirits.” When the ceremony is over, and normal, everyday consciousness returns, shamans remember, describe, and in many cases paint their visions.
As a writer, I’ve always sought out direct personal experience of what I write about. This seemed difficult in a book on human origins set in the remote, unknowable past, but I saw a way to apply my preferred methodology: The book would be about the origins of modern human behavior, and I would (in part) test out the hypothesis that psychedelic plants and fungi had been involved by ingesting the same plants and fungi in authentic shamanic settings.
This was what took me to the Amazon in 2003 for my first eleven ayahuasca ceremonies—several in the depths of the jungle—and these experiences were indeed crucial to my book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind, published in 2005.
Do you continue to take ayahuasca? What about DMT?
I do—the effects had been so extraordinary, and the changes in my outlook so marked, that I realized I had further work to do. Since then, I have had more than sixty ayahuasca sessions, and still try to participate in a ceremony at least once a year—preferably with family, or close friends, or both.
Ayahuasca is NOT a recreational drug and is properly referred to as a medicine in the Amazon. It provokes vomiting and diarrhea, calls up powerful visions that are as likely to be terrifying as beautiful, smells foul, and tastes disgusting—think essence of old socks, raw sewage, battery acid, and just a hint of chocolate. I have to brace myself for what lies ahead every time I drink it, but I do so because the teachings and insights it offers are of the greatest possible value to me and I know I still have many more lessons to learn in the school of ayahuasca.
The active ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), arguably the most powerful hallucinogen known to man. It is, however, not normally effective when consumed orally, because an enzyme in the gut called monoamine oxidase neutralizes DMT on contact. The ayahuasca brew cleverly circumvents this problem: The ayahuasca vine itself contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, while the other ingredient—the shrub known as chacruna in the Amazon (the botanical name is psychotria viridis)—contains DMT. When the two are cooked together with water, the result is a powerful, orally active DMT that produces a psychedelic journey, typically lasting more than four hours.
Quite a different outcome follows when DMT is taken on its own. Because it is ineffective orally without a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, smoking is the normal method of ingestion of pure DMT. (I have smoked DMT about fifteen times in the past decade.) Unlike ayahuasca, which has a relatively slow onset, and where the visions can often be stopped simply by opening your eyes, there is no negotiation with smoked DMT. Hit the right dose and you are on a rocket ship to the other side of reality—whether you like it there or not. The journey is very short, though; usually only ten or twelve minutes pass and you are back.
I have also experienced DMT in a form known as changa, where a natural extract of DMT is infused onto the leaves of the ayahuasca vine and smoked. The duration of my trip was even shorter—five or six minutes only—but a lot happened, and I found myself unmistakably back in the DMT realm, unutterably alien and strange, yet eerily familiar from my previous journeys.
Can you describe what you see on a trip?
There is a “magician” at work in these realms; what he/she shows me (I always experience smoked DMT as a male energy, and ayahuasca as a female energy) are evolving, living artworks of line and light in colors and arrangements so fantastic and extraordinary that they stun and astonish me. These creations are stuffed to bursting point with what feels like millions of terabytes of coded information waiting to be unzipped and deciphered somehow, sometime, when I’m ready to handle it. I’ve seen strange and terrifying images: tunnels of coiled serpents that have morphed into Chinese dragons with beards and long serpentine bodies; paintings come to life; distorted faces—part-human, part-animal; transparent planets. “Take a look at this,” the magician says as he draws out a design between his extended fingers, so overwhelming that I panic and open my eyes in an attempt to stop it bearing down on me. “How about this,” he says next, or “have a quick peek over here,” or “what about this one”—each glimpse shows me more awe-inspiring, imposing, implacable majesty.
What about 5 MEO DMT and mushrooms? How are the experiences different?
5 MEO DMT is referred to pharmacologically as a “methoxylated derivative” of N, N-DMT. It can be synthesized, but occurs naturally in a wide variety of plants and in the skin glands of the Sonoran Desert toad (found mainly in the southwestern US and in northern Mexico). Like N,N DMT—5 MEO DMT is usually consumed by smoking. I have only tried it, though, as an admixture in a form of ayahuasca known as yajé (derived from the leaves and stems of the vine, Diplopterys cabrerana, as opposed to Psychotria viridis). I cannot say, however, that I noticed any significant difference in the effects. I probably will smoke or vaporize pure 5 MEO DMT one of these days, but I’m not in any hurry. I’ve heard some amazing reports of blissful journeys, and some nasty stories about people who brought entities back. The setting, the company, and the intention would all have to be just right.
Psilocybin (the psychedelic compound in “magic” mushrooms)? I’ve had seven or eight trips, most of them unthreatening, mellow, and warm. Never had a peak experience of breakthrough into a seamlessly convincing parallel universe in the way that I often do with ayahuasca, and almost always do with N,N-DMT. I suspect, in the case of psilocybin, the issue is dose, and I’d need to eat more mushrooms in order to see feel stronger effects.
What have you learned and experienced with ayahuasca?
In many ways, the experience is the learning and is thus poles apart from, for example, studying a body of literature.
In ayahuasca visions, I have had convincing experiences of complete, integrated, eerily beautiful, and internally consistent realms that are entirely separate and distinct from the material realm—with its exacting physical laws—that we humans inhabit. These experiences lead me to believe, more than any quantum physics text, in the probable existence of freestanding parallel dimensions that by certain techniques can be brought to intersect with our own.
“These experiences lead me to believe, more than any quantum physics text, in the probable existence of freestanding parallel dimensions that by certain techniques can be brought to intersect with our own.”
Intelligent entities are routinely encountered in the dimensions (if that is what they are) that become accessible in ayahuasca visions (it is not only in my experience, but also the experiences of many others). These entities appear to communicate with us telepathically and give us tough lessons via direct, fully immersive experiences, about the impact of our words and actions upon others. The aftermath, almost always, leaves the visionary wanting to be a better, kinder, more nurturing, and more thoughtful person.
During the fourteen years I’ve worked with ayahuasca, I’ve grown more convinced that a being of pure and boundless love, who may even be that being recognized by some ancient cultures as the mother goddess of our planet, has harnessed these plants to her purposes. She is most often referred to as “Mother Ayahuasca” in Western ayahuasca circles, or sometimes, simply, “The Grandmother.” Her objective, in the context of the time-honored ceremony, appears to be to gain access to human consciousness and to teach us to do the best we can with the precious gift of our life on this earth.
I know how strange this sounds. But let’s put aside the unsolved problem of whether Mother Ayahuasca is real or not; of equal interest is the fact that at the level of phenomenology, many people have undergone encounters with her during ayahuasca sessions—experiencing her in many forms, from a beautiful, ethereal, powerful human woman, to a giant anaconda, or sleek jungle cat. As a result, their behavior and their outlook profoundly changed. Those changes are real—even if materialist science would like to reduce the entity who inspires them to a mere epiphenomenon of disturbed brain activity.
“We are shown these scenarios with absolute clarity and transparency, with all illusions and excuses stripped away, so we are confronted with the truth about ourselves.”
Very often this entity gives us profound moral lessons in the depths of the ayahuasca journey. We may be shown episodes from our lives in which we have behaved unkindly or unjustly to others, or been mean-spirited and unloving, or have failed to live up to our own potential. We are shown these scenarios with absolute clarity and transparency, with all illusions and excuses stripped away, so we are confronted with the truth about ourselves. Such revelations can be very painful; people frequently cry during Ayahuasca sessions. But they bring insight, and the chance to change our behavior in the future—to be more nurturing, less toxic, more considerate, and more aware of the incredible privilege the universe has given us by allowing us to be born in a human body—an opportunity for growth and improvement of the soul that we absolutely must not waste.
(Perhaps this is one of the reasons why ayahuasca has been successful in breaking addictions to harmful drugs. For years, Dr. Jacques Mabit has treated heroin and cocaine addicts with ayahuasca at his Takiwasi clinic in Tarapoto, Peru; patients typically undergo twelve sessions with ayahuasca in the space of a month. A very high proportion of them have such powerful revelations about the roots of their problems and behavior during the sessions that they leave Takiwasi completely free of addiction, often without withdrawal symptoms, and never resume their habit. Likewise, in Canada, Dr. Gabor Mate was offering phenomenally successful ayahuasca healing sessions to his drug-addicted patients before the Canadian government stopped his work on the grounds that ayahuasca is an illegal drug.)
There’s a dark side of ayahuasca, too, though—exploitative shamans, and occasionally, at some retreats, predatory guests, there to drain the life energy of other guests like psychic vampires. In other words, it is by no means always rosy in the ayahuasca garden.
Still, properly used, with respect, with the right intention, in the right company, with the guidance of a humble master shaman—and not necessarily at the first, or even at the tenth ceremony—ayahuasca offers important experiences that any sovereign adult should have the right to undergo, so long as they do no harm to others in the process.
People often describe a dying/being reborn experience—what do you think they’re accessing?
Death is a profound mystery, but many religions envisage some sort of postmortem journey of the soul and a calling to account for one’s deeds and misdeeds. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Dead are quite specific in this regard, and seek to prepare us for the terrors and ordeals of the afterlife—as though the adepts who wrote these texts had actually been there. I suspect that the experience of death and rebirth in ayahuasca is something similar: A glimpse through the veil into the beyond, a grace that allows us some useful foreknowledge and orientation in the realm of death. Or, alternatively, it could just be our brains on drugs…
Do you believe people are accessing a higher power, or level of consciousness, or are they just seeing beautiful pictures and images (or something else)?
Look, I can’t prove any of this. I can only tell you what I think is going on. But, yes, I do think it’s possible that in certain visionary states, we are accessing a higher (or at any rate a different) power, or level of, consciousness. Those who argue that this is not the case, that it’s just beautiful but fundamentally meaningless pictures and images—just our brains on drugs in other words—are working with a particular reference frame. According to this frame, our brains make consciousness, in much the same way that a generator makes electricity. From this, it appears to follow that the visions experienced under the influence of ayahuasca can be reduced to the physical effects of ayahuasca on brain activity—effects than can be monitored on an MRI scanner. The volunteer reports encountering an entity with the body of a human being and the head of a bird, for example. Meanwhile, looking at the information from the scanner, the scientist sees evidence of physical, chemical, and electrical changes in the brain caused by ayahuasca. The scientist concludes that the vision reported by the volunteer is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of these changes. He can hardly do otherwise, since, according to his reference frame, consciousness itself is an epiphenomenon of brain activity.
“What ayahuasca and other visionary plants do (from this alternative reference frame) is temporarily re-tune the receiver wavelength of the brain, so these other realities become accessible to consciousness for a few hours.”
But an alternative reference frame exists—and so far as I know, nothing in neuroscience rules it out— that the relationship of consciousness to the brain is more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set. By this analogy, our human consciousness is usually tuned in to a very specific signal—the signal of the material, physical world, which Rick Strassman, professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico (and author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule) calls “Channel Normal.” Many other channels—equally real—are also broadcasting, but since we’re not tuned in to them, they don’t usually present themselves to our consciousness in any meaningful way. What ayahuasca and other visionary plants do (from this alternative reference frame) is temporarily re-tune the receiver wavelength of the brain, so these other realities become accessible to consciousness for a few hours, giving us the opportunity to remind ourselves that the cosmos is worthy of reverent wonder and worship, and that it is found every bit as much in the depths of inner space as of outer space.
A different analogy might help to clarify: Let’s say we want to look at a star that is so faint and distant that it is not visible to the naked eye. The first thing we need is a telescope. Then we point it at the right region of the sky. Then we focus our telescope, and when we do so, physical changes take place inside its barrel, in the relationship between the lenses. Eventually, the star will come into view, but we would be quite wrong to deduce that it is merely an epiphenomenon of the physical changes inside the barrel of the telescope. Certainly not—the star is real. The physical changes inside the telescope were necessary in order for us to see it, but in no sense can it be reduced to those changes.
Perhaps the same goes for the brain. Perhaps the physical, electrical, and chemical changes caused by ayahuasca, visible on the MRI scanner, are precisely the changes that refocus the brain to another, usually invisible, level of reality? I believe that level of reality could be what shamans call the Spirit World and where, since time immemorial, they have met and learned from the ancient teachers of mankind.
Why do you think plant medicine exists in nature? What’s its purpose?
Let’s speculate…Perhaps these plants and fungi are the antennae into the material realm from vast, ineffable, sentient, non-physical beings who watch over the health and welfare of our blessed earth. The antennae become functional when consumed, making available teachings from the beyond to any creature intelligent enough to receive them.
From this viewpoint, the visionary powers of the plants and fungi would not be mere accidents of nature, but part of a great cosmic project, sustained for billions of years since the earth was formed, aimed at the nurturing and elevation of consciousness.
Do you think there’s a bigger opportunity for humanity here?
Humanity has a tendency to get stuck in ruts. We feel we’re in the midst of an episode of great technological progress and innovation at the moment—and we are—but our rut is the notion that all we need is to keep doing more of the same and everything will be okay. In that respect, we’re not so different from our ancestors who kept on slavishly pounding out the exact same stone tools for millions of years. I think that just like them, we’re overdue for a change. And just like them, we are so fixed in our ways, and so certain our materialist-reductionist reference frame is correct, that I think only plant medicines have the power to give us a sufficiently hefty kick in the ass to set us on a different track.
“We are so fixed in our ways, and so certain our materialist-reductionist reference frame is correct, that I think only plant medicines have the power to give us a sufficiently hefty kick in the ass to set us on a different track.”
This is why I say—and I’m not joking—that anyone who wants to run for high office in any country should be required, first, to participate fully in at least a dozen properly conducted ayahuasca sessions.
How does your work on ancient/lost civilizations connect to ayahuasca (if it does)?
Modern technological civilization, with its hatred and demonization of psychedelic plants and fungi, is an aberration when set against the backdrop of history. Virtually every other great civilization used psychedelics, always in sacramental ways, and valued the lessons they learned from them. Whether we speak of the blue water lily amongst the ancient Egyptians, or the potion known as kykeon (containing LSD-like alkaloids) drunk by initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece, the mysterious substance known as soma in the Vedas, the psilocybin mushrooms of the Maya, the hallucinogenic snuffs imported from the Amazon by the great pyramid city of Caral on the Peruvian coast more than five thousand years ago, or the use of the San Pedro cactus at Chavin in the Andes—the overwhelming testimony of history is that these medicines have played an important and positive role in human culture for millennia. Why would we not allow them to do so in our own culture? Or at the very least, why would we not free those who decide to use them from the threat and stigma of legal prosecution?
Surely there can be no more intimate and elemental part of the individual than his or her own consciousness? At the deepest level, our consciousness is what we are—if we, as adults, are not sovereign over our own consciousness, then we cannot in any meaningful sense be sovereign over anything else. So it’s highly significant that instead of encouraging and nurturing adult freedom of consciousness, our societies violently deny adults any right to sovereignty in this intensely personal area, and have effectively outlawed all states of consciousness other than those on a very narrowly defined and officially approved list. The “War on Drugs” has succeeded in engineering a stark reversal of the direction of Western history—which has generally moved toward the expansion of individual freedom—by empowering authorities to send armed agents to break into our homes, arrest us, throw us into prison, and deprive us of our income and reputation, not because we are doing harm to others, but simply because we wish to explore the sometimes radical—though always temporary—alterations in our own consciousness that “drugs” facilitate.
This unprecedented expansion of governmental power into the previously inviolable inner sanctum of individual consciousness is no accident. On the contrary, it seems to me that the state’s urge to power has been the real reason for the “War on Drugs”—not an honest, compassionate desire on the part of the authorities to rescue society and the individual from the harms caused by drugs, but the thin of a wedge intended to legitimize increasing bureaucratic control and intervention in almost every other area of our lives. This is the way freedom is hijacked—not all at once, out in the open, but stealthily, little by little, and with our own agreement.
Could ayahuasca, DMT, or another compound potentially bring about a larger change of consciousness?
No! Substances alone can never do this. There are no magic pills to enlightenment. The plant medicines can help us to see where we need to change, but the hard work of integrating the lessons we’ve learned and of making those changes is entirely up to us. If we’re not willing to do the work, the changes won’t happen. This is true at the individual level, and in my opinion it’s true at the planetary level as well.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.
Related: What Is Consciousness?