Sip on a brew of ayahuasca and you may be able to trigger sensations similar to having a near-death experience (NDE). That's according to a study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The psychedelic has traditionally been used by the indigenous people of the Amazon but has recently gained popularity among Western hipsters and wellness-seeking tourists on the quest for spiritual enlightenment, self-discovery, or relief from addiction or mental illness. Appropriately, as it now seems, translated into English it literally means "the vine of the dead" or "the vine of the soul".
To compare the effects of ayahuasca and NDEs, a team of scientists at Imperial College London recruited 13 people with an average age of 34 to take part in a small-scale study. Each was administered a placebo and asked to fill in a questionnaire. One week later, they were given one of four doses of DMT (the hallucinogenic component of ayahuasca) intravenously and asked to fill out the same questionnaire, which measured feelings and sensations associated with NDEs. Questions included "Did scenes from your past come back to you?" and "Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?"
Their responses were compared to those of people who had actually had an NDE – and the results were remarkably similar. In fact, the researchers say there were no statistically significant differences between the two. In particular, there was an extraordinarily strong overlap between sensations of "unearthly environments" and feelings of "peace and pleasantness" as well as "heightened senses".
"These findings are important as they remind us that NDE occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain," Robin Carhart-Harris, who leads the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial, said in a statement. Which basically means that NDEs are probably not of supernatural origin.
So, what's going on here?
It comes down to the DMT compound, the primary psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca.
“DMT is a potent psychedelic and it may be that it is able to alter brain activity in a similar fashion as when [near-death experiences] occur,” Chris Timmermann, lead author of the study, explained.
The same compound, as it just so happens, has actually been linked to NDEs (or rather the process of dying) and traces of the chemical have been found in people's blood and urine, though its source is unknown. Some biologists suspect the brain produces DMT when it is starting to die. As of right now, however, the science on this is inconclusive.
While there was a lot of overlap, there were also some important differences between the ayahuasca respondents and NDE respondents. The first group was more likely to report feelings of entering an "unearthly" realm, whereas those in the second group were more likely to cite stronger feelings of "coming to a point of no return". This, the researchers say, is probably down to context.
As for the next steps, the researchers hope to continue further studies examining how DMT affects brain activity.
"This, together with other work, will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future," Timmermann added.