Anecdotal accounts about the health benefits of ayahuasca are many, but scientific research has been sparse. A group of independent researchers in the UK have taken a step towards addressing this disparity. In a recently published study, the team of Simon Ruffell, Nige Netzband, and WaiFung Tsang evaluated the effect of ayahuasca on personality traits when the tea is used in a traditional Amazonian framework, as commonly adapted for ayahuasca tourists.
The study found that all participants experienced a significant decrease in neuroticism, as well as considerable increases in agreeableness, after the ayahuasca ceremonies.
Until now, the majority of studies investigating ayahuasca’s effect on personality have taken place in clinical psychotherapeutic frameworks and church-based settings. However, this self-funded study is the first to examine the effects of ayahuasca on personality within Shipibo-style ceremonies that closely resemble the traditional use of the plants within the Peruvian Amazon.
The dataset was collected at the Ayahuasca Foundation retreat and research center located outside of Iquitos, Peru. A total of 24 participants included in the study took place in a twelve-day retreat that included six ayahuasca ceremonies. The study design also included a control group of 24 individuals who were on holiday in Peru who had never used ayahuasca.
To quantitatively measure changes in personality traits, researchers used the NEO Personality Inventory-3, otherwise known as the NEO-PI3, that indexes personality into five primary personality domains including openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Prior to their first ayahuasca ceremony, participants were given a baseline personality measurement using the NEO-PI3, and after the end of their retreat, having completed six ceremonies, participants were once again asked to complete the questionnaire. To measure the long-term effects of ayahuasca on personality change, the questionnaire was sent to participants as a six-month follow-up. Beyond this, researchers also used the Mystical Experience Questionnaire to measure levels of perceived mystical experience post-ceremony.
The reductions in neuroticism were more pronounced than researchers had anticipated.Dr. Simon Ruffell, shared co-first author of the paper, a psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital, and Senior Research Associate at King’s College, London, identified the fact that neuroticism significantly decreased not just in the short-term, but also in the long-term, six-month follow-up without further use of ayahuasca as one of the most significant findings of this study.
“This is consistent with the growing body of research that suggests psychedelics, and in this case ayahuasca, have major therapeutic potential,” says Ruffell. “High levels of neuroticism are associated with a range of psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research shows that ayahuasca is able to decrease neuroticism, making it a valuable therapeutic tool for treating such conditions.”
Further, participants who ranked higher on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, reporting a greater perceived intensity of mystical experience also experienced increased reductions in neuroticism. This finding is in line with previous research that suggests mystical experiences contribute to the therapeutic effect of psychedelics.
Although these results showed multiple similarities with existing findings, there was one major difference between the findings of this study and other studies done in a medical context with psilocybin. Previous research conducted at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that mystical experiences induced by psilocybin cause increases in openness as opposed to decreases in neuroticism. Although it is true that decreases in neuroticism have been found in psilocybin research, it was not as statistically significant as the increase in trait openness.
“One possible reason that we didn’t find substantial increases in openness might be connected to self-selection bias and that participants were most likely already at a ‘ceiling level’ of openness,” says Ruffell. “In essence, the kind of people who seek out experiences like going to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca are probably already very open, with the participants in our sample having reported higher levels of openness by comparison to the general population.”
Out of the twenty-four participants included in the study, twenty-one were of white American, Canadian, British or European ethnicity, with the remaining three being Asian or Latin. Ruffell attributes the lack of racial diversity among participants to the fact that the study was observational in nature and that the sample was self-selected.
“Because the study was observational, we had no control over those who attended. The majority of the participants were white which is likely a reflection of the kind of person who is naturally able to attend ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon.”
“This might be due to interest,” Ruffell said. “However, it is likely that the lack of racial diversity is also representative of environmental barriers that prevent people from coming to retreats, including factors such as money and the ability to take time off work.”
It remains unclear as to how far the decreases in neuroticism found in this study can be attributed to the visionary states induced by ayahuasca, or the extent to which they were determined by set and setting. Future directions for this research would entail replicating the study in different settings such as clinical, church-based, and neo-shamanic settings.
“Based on our research looking at a limited number of personality measures, it seems that ayahuasca in a ceremonial setting has a similar impact to ayahuasca in other settings,” says Ruffell. “However, as we continue research I imagine that we will likely find that ayahuasca in different settings with slightly different brews is better for different mental health conditions.”
Image: Nigel Netzband and Dr. Simon Ruffell in Peru. Courtesy of Dr. Ruffell.