Lessons learned after a trip to the Amazon
By Andreea Prisecaru
Eduardo Schenberg scores high on the list of most adventurous psychedelic researchers. Performing his research in Acre, a region in the border between Brasil and Peru he found ‘’One of the most well-conserved indigenous territories where Huni Kui people kept the Nixi Pae traditions very alive.” Nixi Pae is what is more commonly known as ayahuasca.
E. Schenberg met with Huni Kui, Ashaninka and other indigenous people to propose a study about the neurobiology of ayahuasca with EEG recordings. He collaborated with Dr. Tomáš Páleníček to examine the role of the traditional context of a ritual in the Amazonian forest, thereby being able to include indigenous knowledge into a scientific study. During the ceremony, they used different types of Ayahuasca – some were more psychoactive than others and some served as a control. By administering different brews, they were able to measure if a more intense trip will provide more significant changes in brain activity. Moreover, they added an original hypothesis to the research: will inter-brain-synchrony between the shaman and the participant occur? EEG works by recording electrical activity with the use of electrodes placed on the scalp. Thus, inter-brain-synchrony is observed when EEG signals coming from two different brain scans are synchronised – at the same phase, in an observed time window. We look forward to the publishing of this interesting research!
Schenberg has shown the biphasic effect of ayahuasca before in a sample of non-indigenous people: there are two sequential stages with different brain regions involved and different emotional and subjective experiences (PLOS ONE, 2015). He also looked at how 12 different molecules involved in ayahuasca peak during the trip, as shown by blood samples taken during a ceremony. And above everything, he spent time with indigenous people to understand their perspective and culture.
What do indigenous people want scientists to know about Nixi Pae?
Indigenous people think that we are sick – according to the Yanomami for example – we suffer from Xawara, which means we have sick thoughts.1According to the best climate science that we have, the Amazon is approaching its dieback tipping point, when the forest may lose its self-regulation capacity. Currently, while the forest is burning to unprecedented rates, scientists are trying to develop an antidepressant out of the knowledge of people from the Amazon, perhaps without sharing benefits.
There have been numerous cases where people stole from the Amazon – a famous case where they took blood from the Yanomami tribe without consent, or commercialized a herbal soap without sharing benefits, which ended up in court and the indigenous won. How can we make this right? How can we pay back to indigenous people all that they have done for us with these medicines? I think this is the most important question right now that the community needs to contemplate on.
Right now, I am working with a Brazilian lawyer to clarify the pathways to approve ayahuasca as a medication. If you ask scientists, they will say you have to do a clinical trial in a double-blind design, run the statistics and then patent it. But in reality, this should not be done this way – because if you look at international treaties, this violates indigenous people’s rights.
What do they want us to know about the brain?
One leader from the Ashaninka, he looked me in the eye and said ‘‘why do you care about the brain? This medicine is not about the brain. This medicine is about people and spirituality. You need to study people. Why don’t you bring your sick patients here and we’re going to treat them and you’re going to see the power of our medicine and you’re going to see that it works.’’ And that left me speechless. Here I was, like a neuroscientist, trained to think and believe that whatever is in ayahuasca is in the brain. I get to this advanced healer who knows this medicine since he was born (or since his previous life, I don’t know). The Huni people complemented: ‘’The brain is the worst part from the animal we hunt. Nobody likes to eat the brain.’’
As an analogy – think about soccer. Think that you never saw people playing this game and you come to see it. An indigenous person would try to understand how things work in a global way, how those players move together around the ball, who are friends and who are rivals. Scientists would go there and try to study one player at a time. But if you remove everybody else from the field you will never really understand what that player does. You miss the inter-relations from the equation.
What do they want us to know about the brew?
Science says the most important molecule in the brew is the DMT – and that all the other compounds (betacarbolines) stop DMT from being digested in the gut an allow it to get to the brain. But indigenous people think otherwise. The all-sacred plant is the vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) itself, which does not contain any DMT. DMT is just from additional plants, it’s like adding spices. But in the soup that they make, the most important thing is the vine. And it is sacred, one of the most precious things they have which should not be commercialised or made into pills. They claim their medicine does not require scientific validation.
Overall, what would be a message for the readers to take home?
I really think that globalized society is lost. We lost some very basic understanding of what being alive means, we forgot our kinship to other forms of life and that Planet Earth is not ours. It’s very arrogant that we call ourselves ‘’homo sapiens’’, the one who knows, and we are destroying everything. Indigenous people are here, and they are telling us all the time that there is a different way to live. From a scientific point of view, we know that if the Amazon is gone, climate change will get completely insane in ways we find very hard to understand.
If there won’t be conditions for Amazonian people to live, we know for sure the same will happen for us. But the reverse is not true. If urban citizens stop existing, indigenous people can continue to live for thousands of years. So it’s quite clear they can live without us, but we can’t live without them.