As clinical research into psychedelic medicines grows in momentum, one of the often overlooked opportunities for studying psychedelics is in its historic context of indigenous ceremonial practices that utilize psychedelic substances for physical, mental, and spiritual health often dating back to hundreds if not thousands of years.
While these practices were protected and inaccessible to outsiders for centuries, that has changed drastically in the past few decades as many retreat facilities and underground communities have sprouted across the globe with the promise of access to ancient ceremonial and ritual experiences involving psychedelic medicines. In fact, these communities are most likely the largest sample set for non-clinical psychedelic research and the only sample set for the study of the effects of psychedelic use in a ceremonial context vs a clinical one.
A group of researchers from the Imperial College of London recently completed a rare survey study of ayahuasca ceremony participants to assess the impact of these experiences. The researchers recruited 256 participants from three ayahuasca retreat centers across South and Central America and asked them to complete a variety of scientific questionnaires on the first day of the retreat, the last of the retreat, and three months later. The researchers also surveyed close significant others about the participants' personality traits.
The researchers found that the ceremonial use of ayahuasca was linked to lasting changes in self-reported personality traits, and were able to further verify these reports by their close significant others.
The scientists followed the Five-Factor Model personality traits framework and measured Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness.
“We found large, robust changes in Five-Factor Model personality traits, particularly negative emotionality (or neuroticism) and openness following ayahuasca use. These changes persisted over three months and were supported by reports from participants’ peers,” the lead researcher told PsyPost.
As seen on the graph above, only some of the personality changes reported by the participants were also corroborated by their significant others. Notably, the reported changes in extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness were not reflected in the reports of participants’ significant others.
Researchers were also able to identify factors that impacted the degree of reported personality changes. Researchers reported “Participants showed even greater adaptive change when they reported heightened mystical-type experiences and experiences involving reappraisal,”, “Reappraisal involved an experience during ceremony of profound changes to former beliefs and apprehensions including gratitude for lessons learned from previous hardship, trauma, and transgressions, acknowledgements of being too hard on oneself, and resolutions to change entrenched patterns of acting/feeling that are not helpful.”
While the study offers new insights from a relatively large sample, it did not include a placebo control subset. In an effort to mitigate this limitation, the researchers included some validity controls, including assessments of suggestibility, expected personality changes, and previous psychedelic experiences. However, they noted the possibility that “merely attending a therapeutically designed retreat in a foreign country would in and of itself produce positive changes to personality.”
“We also think investigating how the different components of ayahuasca ceremony add to the therapeutic and salutary effects of the experience could inform the design of current treatments being developed within Western contexts,” said Weiss, the lead researcher. “The shaman’s icaro prayer, the openness to new metaphysical paradigms that challenge materialist ones, the challenging aspects of ayahuasca particularly, and the communal group format may all serve a profound function in their own right and should be studied further, perhaps within the context of controlled studies in which different study conditions contain different elements of the full experience. At the same time, we respect that sometimes the whole is larger than the sum of its parts, and the gestalt of this indigenous practice should be respected as it is.”