Classifying Ayahuasca: The Role of Subjective Experience in Psychiatric Research with Psychedelics

Brian Anderson, MSc, MD cand.

Abstract: Recently, neuropsychiatric studies with the psychedelic brew ayahuasca have been initiated by a small group of researchers in Brazil. Their research alternatively portrays the modified state of consciousness induced by ayahuasca as psychopathological, psychotherapeutic, or spiritual by (respectively) using ayahuasca to model psychosis, to treat depression, and to induce religious visions. Through interviews with the scientists doing this research—complemented by a previous ethnographic study of the ayahuasca religions—a case study has been developed showing how these researchers’ subjective experiences with ayahuasca, as well as the experiences of religious ayahuasca users, shape the researchers’ classifications and representations of the ayahuasca experience. The inclusion of such subjective experiences in considerations about the nature of the ayahuasca experience lends itself to establishing a complex understanding of the brew’s effects that is often at odds with conventional psychiatric understandings of psychedelic drugs, particularly the categorical delimitations between what is considered psychopathological, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual.

Brian Anderson, MSc, is currently an MD candidate at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He also holds an MSc from the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics and a BA in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2006, he has been a researcher with the Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP, His anthropological fieldwork experience includes work with the undocumented Mexican immigrant population in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and with the União do Vegetal, an ayahuasca religion, in Bahia, Brazil.

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