Ayahuasca and the Antipodes

Science journalist John Horgan has written a number of books that resonate with me, most particularly The End of Science and Rational Mysticism. So I was glad to see this review he wrote of Professor Benny Shanon's seminal book The Antipodes of the Mind (Amazon US and UK), which charts his investigation of the South American shamanic brew ayahuasca. Horgan praises the "sense of adventure" which suffuses Shanon's book, "of a kind that has virtually vanished from modern science." Indeed, he compares this new and daring exploration of the mind with the voyages of 18th century scientists such as Charles Darwin:

Like Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle, Shanon is concerned primarily with collecting and categorizing data rather than theorizing. But he also ponders his and others' experiences and draws some tentative conclusions. While believing that ayahuasca can be genuinely revelatory, he cautions that it can also be “the worst of liars.” He remains skeptical of occult claims often made for the tea – that it puts us in touch with ghosts, makes us clairvoyant, lets us leave our bodies and travel astrally. Ayahuasca visions are products of the imagination, Shanon suggests, rather than glimpses of a supernatural realm existing in parallel to our own.

This proposal will sound reductionist to some, but it is actually quite provocative and raises many questions requiring further consideration. Why does the imagination, when stimulated by ayahuasca, yield visions so much more vivid and powerful than those we encounter in ordinary dreams? Why do ayahuasca -drinkers from widely disparate cultures so often hallucinate similar phenomena, such as jaguars and snakes, or palaces and royalty? Why are the visions of even an areligious person like Shanon so often laden with religious significance?

As I've mentioned previously, it's these sorts of 'recurrent regularities'/archetypes which I think are fascinating aspects of numerous 'border' experiences, and which are worthy of further investigation.

Definitely recommend all three books mentioned above, they all make for fascinating reading.

Previously on TDG: