Traditionally used by indigenous Amazonian cultures, the hallucinogenic ayahuasca brew has become increasingly popular among Westerners in recent years, and has attracted the attention of the medical community for its reported ability to treat psychological disorders like depression. While the mechanisms behind these benefits have not been fully explored, a new study in the journal Psychopharmacology suggests that drinking ayahuasca generates lasting improvements in mindfulness and cognitive flexibility, which may explain its therapeutic properties.
The foul-tasting drink contains the psychoactive molecule N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which causes extreme alterations in consciousness. Research published in 2017 revealed that even after the acute effects of ayahuasca wear off, lingering changes in brain connectivity can be seen.
In particular, connectivity within a brain network known as the default mode network, which dictates the general pattern of a person’s thoughts, was found to become less rigid for a period of time after ayahuasca use. This has led to suggestions that people suffering from depression, anxiety or other pathological forms of cognition may have a better shot at altering the way their mind operates during this “afterglow” period.
Delving deeper into the post-acute changes caused by ayahuasca, the study authors recruited 48 volunteers, each of whom was assessed on measures of mindfulness and cognitive flexibility before drinking ayahuasca, and again 24 hours after consuming the psychedelic tea.
A clinical questionnaire called the Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire was used to assess five basic components of mindfulness in each participant. The first of these relates to the ability to observe internal sensations, while the second focuses on the capacity to recognize and label these feelings. Next is the faculty to act with awareness rather than out of habit, followed by an ability to not judge one’s experiences and finally to not react to these experiences.
A second questionnaire was used to determine each participant’s capacity for “decentering”, which refers to the act of observing one’s thoughts from a position of detachment, rather than identifying with them.
Compared to baseline levels, participants displayed “significantly increased” scores for four of the five facets of mindfulness 24 hours after drinking ayahuasca (with non-judgment being the only exception), as well as for decentering.
Cognitive flexibility was measured using the so-called Wisconsin Picture Card Sorting Task (WPCST), whereby a person is given a card and asked to match it to one of several other cards, without being told the criteria by which the cards are supposed to match.
Once again, WPCST scores were noticeably higher a day after drinking ayahuasca than they had been before taking the substance.
Based on these apparent lasting increases in both mindfulness and cognitive flexibility, the study authors state that the ayahuasca afterglow period “could be therapeutically significant because a loosening of ‘cognitive grip’ may be helpful for example in depressed patients who suffer from ruminative thinking and are ‘stuck’ in certain patterns of thoughts and behaviours.”