- The psychedelic drug ayahuasca, which originates in the Amazon, has become popular in the US in recent years, with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs flying to Peru to have intense experiences with the substance.
- Ayahuasca's psychoactive ingredient, DMT, has similar effects to a near-death experience, according to a new study.
- Those near-death-experience effects may help explain some of the long-term improvements in psychological well-being that people report experiencing after taking psychedelics.
People who take the psychedelic drug ayahuasca, a smoky brew that originates in the Amazonian rainforest, describe the experience as life-changing.
"It's mind-boggling how much it can do in one or two nights," Tim Ferriss, the author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," told The New Yorker in 2016 for a feature about the jungle psychedelic's exploding popularity in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, New York.
Ferriss said that the substance was harrowing and that it made him feel as if he were "being torn apart and killed a thousand times a second for two hours." It also wiped away anger he'd held onto for decades, he said.
Ayahuasca is used in traditional shamanic medicine and by the Santo Daime Church in Brazil to cause a healing experience, and users describe it as an intense ordeal.
Now, we're getting closer to understanding what exactly people experience when they take ayahuasca and similar substances, thanks to a newly published study conducted by European researchers.
Some of the effects that these substances trigger may be linked to the way psychedelic journeys, or trips, mirror near-death experiences, according to that study.
In general, researchers say that hallucinogenic psychedelics might soon be able to function "like a surgical intervention" for mental illness, providing long-term psychological benefits. Drug-induced near-death experiences may provide similar improvements in well-being.
"Recent work has consistently shown that the occurrence of mystical-type experiences is predictive of long-term therapeutic benefit from psychedelics," the study's authors wrote, "and similar mechanisms may be at play in relation to improved mental well-being post-NDE."
Inducing a near-death experience
Certain aspects of the psychedelic experience have long been compared to death. The name "ayahuasca," translated from Quechua, means "vine of the dead" or "vine of the soul."
For the study, researchers investigated for the first time the link between DMT, the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca, and near-death experiences, both to see how consistently the drug induced a near-death experience and to compare these experiences to near-death experiences that people have had while actually coming close to death.
The vine brew also contains components to make those psychedelic effects last for hours. With DMT (technically N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) alone - what study participants were given - the effects fade within 20 minutes or so.
The study authors recruited 13 healthy adults, with an average age of 34 and all with at least some experience with a psychedelic substance.
They informed them that in two sessions, one week apart, each would receive DMT once and a placebo once, though they wouldn't be told which was which. In reality, all received the placebo at the first session, to help ensure they were familiar with the researchers and felt safe when actually on the psychedelics.
When volunteers did get their DMT dose, it was delivered intravenously. After each session, participants completed a widely used questionnaire designed to assess near-death experiences.
After the DMT trip, all 13 participants scored highly enough on the questionnaire's scale to qualify as having had a near-death experience. Out of the 16 measures, they scored higher on the near-death-experience scale on DMT than on placebo on 15, with 10 differences being significant.
The most significant effects of DMT were things like feeling separated from the body, experiencing an unearthly environment, encountering mystical or otherworldly beings, having an altered perception of time, feeling peace and joy, and having heightened senses. These correlate well with the experiences of people who have actual near-death experiences, according to the study.
Some of the less significant items on the scale for DMT-induced experiences, including an increased speed of thoughts and seeing deceased relatives, are also less common for people who have had near-death experiences in real life.
When looking at a comparable group - in terms of gender and age - of people who had had a real near-death experience, the researchers said there was a "striking similarity" between the experiences.
The benefits of a mystical, near-death experience
There has been a significant resurgence over the past few years in psychedelics research, largely because of the potential of creating new mental-health treatments. But in this case, the study's authors caution that the DMT research is still preliminary.
Volunteers received different quantities of DMT, and researchers still don't know what the most beneficial dose might be - this study is contributing to a larger analysis of appropriate dosages. And it's possible there was some placebo effect involved, as participants may have figured out they didn't get DMT at the first session and then anticipated some sort of near-death experience at the next one.
But if DMT and other psychedelics do provide some equivalent to a near-death experience, that may help explain some of their psychological effects.
People have long reported positive changes in psychological well-being after having a near-death experience, according to the study. These include having a greater concern for others, fearing death less, expressing more appreciation for nature, caring less about possessions or social status, and having an improved self-worth.
Many similar benefits have been found for people who have used psychedelic compounds. Some mentioned in the study included reduced death anxiety, positive feelings and actions toward nature, and improvements in mental health and well-being.
The authors closed their paper with a quote from Stephen Batchelor, the author of the book "Buddhism Without Beliefs," that helps explain why this death experience or association may be beneficial:
"By meditating on death, we paradoxically become conscious of life. How extraordinary it is to be here at all. Awareness of death can jolt us awake to the sensuality of existence."