CULTURE | John A. Rush: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience
In Entheogens and the Development of Culture John A. Rush argues that mind-altering substances have played a role not only in cultural development but also in human brain development. Entheogen use can be traced all the way back to our ancestors. Certain mind-altering plants, herbs, and fungi were used to eliminate fatigue, pain, or depression while others helped promote hunger and libido. Many see the trade-off for potential addiction and drug abuse as enhanced creative thinking and an expanded consciousness. Rush discovers that these altered forms of consciousness were an ancient survival strategy that we can still learn from.
The worldwide association of plant drugs that profoundly alter consciousness with religious and spiritual activities (see de Rios 1984, Schultes and Hoffman 1979, Ratsch 2005) points to intrinsic relationships among the innate properties of our neurotransmission systems, altered consciousness, and in some cases, our addictive potentials. But unlike the addictive properties of opiates, the substances used in spiritual traditions worldwide have a different dynamic. Instead, these exogenous sources of neurotransmitter substances are thought to be the origin of many cultures’ most important deities and the origins of their spiritual and consciousness transforming practices. Explaining the roles of the external sources of altered consciousness at the core of many spiritual traditions must address the relationships of the variety of agents and activities that provoke them to the brain systems that are activated. The differences between drug and non-drug alterations of consciousness are generally presumed to be so obvious that their common substrate is not considered. But the phenomenological similarities of drug and natural mystical experiences was illustrated in the double-blind study by Griffiths et al (2006) that showed psilocybin produced the characteristic features found in naturally induced mystical experiences. These similarities remind us of the common substrate in the brain and neurotransmitters that underlie all experiences of altered consciousness, irrespective of their origins or interpretations.
The relationships among natural and drug-induced alterations of consciousness must be understood from an evolutionary perspective. This reveals altered consciousness to be related to endogenous mechanisms, which are triggered by both ancient evolutionary adaptations and more recently acquired propensities to use exogenous sources of substances to alter consciousness. Reconceptualizing plant “toxins” as “rewards” in terms of effects on behavior, emotions, and cognition reframes this human attraction as involving adaptations. These adaptations involved an enhanced ability to utilize exogenous sources of important endogenous neurotransmitter substances, as well as more sensitive neurotransmitter receptor systems, for using these chemicals that have such profound effects on human consciousness.
For more on ecstatic experiences and human evolution, check out: Entheogens and the Development of Culture.