HIGH SOCIETY: Dennis McKenna – The Depths of Ayahuasca

Source – tim.blog

  • “…A lot of it was the ideas that would be a modern mystery school, modeled after Eleusis — or not modeled after it, but in that spirit, a place where people could come together and share ideas and marvel at the cosmos and marvel at existence and do what natural philosophers do, natural philosophy being the precursor of science, what science used to be before it became so quantitative and reductionist”

Dennis McKenna – The Depths of Ayahuasca

Artist's rendering of Dennis McKenna.
Illustration via 99designs

“To my mind, science, properly pursued, only deepens the mystery. It doesn’t take the mystery away. It shows you how mystery exists profoundly at every level.”

— Dennis McKenna

Dennis McKenna (@DennisMcKenna4) has spent more than 40 years researching the interdisciplinary study of Amazonian ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens. He has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon.

His doctoral research at the University of British Columbia focused on the ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon.

He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute and was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project, the first biomedical investigation of ayahuasca used by the UDV, a Brazilian religious group. He is the younger brother of Terence McKenna.

From 2000 to 2017, he taught courses on ethnopharmacology as well as Plants in Human Affairs at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. In 2019, in collaboration with colleagues, he incorporated a new nonprofit, the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy. He emigrated to Canada in the spring of 2019 with his wife Sheila and now resides in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. And I want to skip my long, usual preamble because we’re going to run out of time before we run out of material with today’s guest, I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a long time — many, many years, in fact. Dennis McKenna, you can find him on Twitter @DennisMcKenna4, and we’ll provide many other links.

Dennis’s research is focused on the interdisciplinary study of Amazonian ethnopharmacology. He has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, and we will define a lot of terms in this episode so don’t worry about getting lost in the weeds too quickly. His doctoral research at the University of British Columbia focused on the ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he — and we’ll double check the pronunciation — two tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the northwest Amazon.

He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute, which does exceptional work and was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project — that’s H-O-A-S-C-A Project — the first biomedical investigation of ayahuasca. He is the younger brother of Terence McKenna. From 2000 to 2017, he taught courses on ethnopharmacology as well as plants and human affairs at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.

In 2019, in collaboration with colleagues, he incorporated a new non-profit, The McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy, which we will discuss. In the spring of 2019, he emigrated to Canada with his wife Sheila. And now resides in Abbotsford, British Columbia. You can find him on all the socials, Instagram @dennismckenna_, Twitter @DennisMcKenna4. Facebook at Dennis Jon, J-O-N, McKenna, and also McKenna Academy, that’s M-C-K-E-N-N-A Academy on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. Dennis, welcome to the show.

Dennis McKenna: Thank you, Tim. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Tim Ferriss: I thought I would start with a bit of history and pull in some colorful characters while we’re at it. Could you please describe your first meeting with Richard Evan Schultes? And that can kind of segue into who Schultes was, but I really enjoyed this story in your book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, which we will talk about. I’ve printed out my Amazon Kindle highlights.

I have 189 highlights from that book. We’re not going to go through them all, but let’s start with your meeting with Schultes, if you wouldn’t mind?

Dennis McKenna: Schultes was a professor at Harvard. He’s been called the father of ethnobotany. He certainly was not because ethnobotany as a discipline existed before there was Schultes, but he was one of the more high profile people. He was the director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University for many years, and he made many contributions to Amazonian botany, but the one he’s most notorious for and most well-known for is he was probably the world’s expert on what we used to call hallucinogenic plants, psychedelic plants used in different parts of the world. But that was what made him so famous.

And like many people, I envisioned a career in ethnopharmacology for myself, which is something that I sort of realized was possible when I was 18. We can go back to this, this is earlier than Schultes, when I got my hands on this amazing book called the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, but I digress. We can return to that.

So Schultes was just a towering figure in this field like Einstein in physics or I of that stature, and many, many people with a passion about psychedelic plants and indigenous use of these things looked up to Schultes and wanted to work with him and I was one of those. And in 1974, I was living in Berkeley with my brother or close by my brother who was living there. And I determined to go see the great man, to make a pilgrimage essentially to Schultes. And in those days there was a deal. You could buy a bus ticket, $60 for 60 days, and you could get as far as you could go as long as you kept it within 60 days.

So I made this pilgrimage to Harvard, to Cambridge and — 

Tim Ferriss: And where was your starting point?

Dennis McKenna: Well, I started at Berkeley and I went first down to Louisiana, Hammond, Louisiana and visited some friends of mine who owned a leather shop. A hippie leather shop, a wonderful bunch of people running a leather shop in this totally redneck town. Why did I go see them? Well, I went to see them because they lived out in the country where there were pastures and cattle.

And I went there basically to hunt for mushrooms and my idea in my — this is 1974, and my idea was, well, I’ll get a bunch of mushrooms and dry them, take them back to California and sell them. Well, it was like the worst season for mushrooms in like five years that they’d lived there. So I went down there and I did find some mushrooms, but just a few. Plenty for my own needs, but I didn’t have grocery bags of them or anything like that. That was the first place I went was Hammond, Louisiana.

And then, I just got on the old bus and continued on. I stopped and saw, interestingly, this anthropologist in Maryland who had studied the Yanomami. One of the Amazonian tribes that uses these psychedelic snuffs. And he was a linguist. He was probably one of the few people in the world that actually spoke Yanomami. He had some interesting samples that he collected. I went there basically to pick up those samples and hang on with him.

And then I continued up to Boston. And I had an old girlfriend who happened to live in Boston and we were still on good terms, so I went there. I had a place to stay. And then, I went — I mean I saw Schultes before I saw the girlfriend. I basically got off the bus, and went immediately to the Botanical Museum. And it was an incredible experience for me, because I was like in total awe of this man.

I mean it was like an audience with the Pope or something. But he wasn’t Pope-like at all. He was just a very kindly, down-to-earth ordinary person, and he welcomed me and took me to lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club, and we talked about what I could work on. And “What would you like to do?” was the way the conversation started out. Because Terence and I had been to Colombia in 1971, and one of the things we were looking for was this oo-koo-he, this orally active Virola preparation, which eventually ended up being one of the foci of my doctoral work. But that was 10 years in the future.

But I was interested in Virola. I was interested in those snuffs, and he’s, “Well, you could go to the Amazon and study Virola and sort out the chemistry of it.” So he said, “That’s what you — that would be a possibility.” I totally appreciate that, endorse that. So I said — he said, “Well, there are two things you need to do before you do that.”

And I had my degree. I got my undergraduate degree in 1973, but he said, “You need more chemistry and you need to take more organic chemistry, and you need to take more taxonomy,” which you know as plant classification, the classic approach to plant classification. So I said, “Yes, sir. Absolutely.” I got the message. I got back on the bus. I went back to Berkeley and I moved back to Colorado where I’m from, even though I had my bachelor’s degree. I just enrolled in a couple of courses, advanced organic chemistry and the taxonomy specialty I chose to look in was grass systematics, which was like torture.

Grass systematic classification is the most arcane, difficult thing you could do. I must have had something about wanting to punish myself, but I studied grass systematics and organic chemistry. And an interesting, sort of unexpected delight in this was that the person that was the chemistry teacher of this organic chemistry course, a man named Frank Stermitz, it turns out he was quite a well-known alkaloid chemist.

He used to illustrate his lectures with, “Well, so, here’s LSD. Here’s how you make LSD. Here’s how the fungus makes LSD.” And he was a brilliant guy and another mentor. And he said, “Well, don’t go work for Schultes. Go work for Norman Farnsworth in Chicago.” And I said, “No. No. You don’t understand. Schultes is God.” 

And so Schultes encouraged me to apply and I was getting these courses that he thought I really needed to have on my transcripts and I applied. And I didn’t get in.

I did not get accepted into Harvard, which was kind of a crushing blow, but not unexpected. It was a blessing in disguise in some ways, because while all this was going on, I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado going to Colorado State. My friend Larry Beasley was an old friend from high school, and he was a horticulturalist. And as it turned out, he was running the greenhouse at Colorado State University when I moved there.

So I had access to the greenhouse and brought in some ayahuasca cuttings that we had from California and also I had access to a sterile culture lab. They were doing tissue culture there, which can also be adapted to doing fungal culture. And I was messing around with ways to try to figure out how to grow the Psilocybe cubensis and I had access to a university lab to do this work in, which was amazing. And we tried a few things and actually succeeded in growing mushrooms out of these mason jars on sterilized substrates.

You’re probably familiar with the book Psilocybin Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, which Terry and I published under pseudonyms.

Tim Ferriss: And one of your great contributions to humankind.

Dennis McKenna: Maybe the most significant contribution, but that was the method that we developed there. And in the process of growing the mushrooms, and then sampling the mushrooms, and just getting excited about being able to grow mushrooms, I thought, “Wow. Well, maybe I’ll change my focus from Virola to psilocybin mushrooms.” And I wrote to Schultes about this and I said, “What would you think of that?” And he wrote back a rather kind of stuffy letter saying, “Well, my specialty is higher plants and I think if you want to work on fungi, you should talk to Dr. Alexander H. Smith at the University of Michigan.” But basically saying — I mean the subtext was “You’re a traitor.”

Tim Ferriss: “How dare you?”

Dennis McKenna: Yeah. Not really. I mean he was — 

Tim Ferriss: I’m kidding.

Dennis McKenna: — there was subsequent encounters, but he basically said, “If you want to study Amazonian plants, I’m all in. I’d be happy to have you.” And as it turned out, I didn’t get accepted. So that opportunity was taken away, but the unexpected benefit of this was that some years later — well, this was ’74. So after that, I did my masters at the University of Hawaii, not studying psychoactive plants. My plot to study psychoactive plants there was undermined.

But I ended up applying to the University of British Columbia. And I started there in 1979, and my supervisor there was a man named Neil Towers. Also kind of a giant in this field, not as gigantic as Schultes, but very much known in the world of phytochemistry and ethnobotany and so on. And he was quite open to me working on mushrooms.

I actually started out in his program, because he had come to Hawaii while I was a graduate student there and my supervisor in Hawaii was another one of these incredible mentors that I’ve been blessed with throughout my academic career, Sandy Siegel. And Dr. Siegel, whenever anybody came to visit, a visiting professor or dignitary, he would always invite the graduate students up to his house and we’d sit around and have pizza and beer and shoot the breeze with whatever luminary was in town.

And Dr. Towers was one of the luminaries. In the process of having this conversation, he said, “Well, I’ve got this young master’s student working on psilocybe. He’s working on the enzyme that converts psilocybin to psilocybe, the phosphatase, and she’s not getting very far with it, but it’s a very interesting project and I wish there was somebody to kind of continue that work. And I practically spit my beer out and I said, “Well, Dr. Towers, I’ve had some interest in this and what do you think about letting me do it? What do you think about taking me on?”

And he said, “Well, yeah, if you’re interested, that’s a possibility.” So we started corresponding. And I was like midway through my master’s thesis in Hawaii at that point, and we started corresponding. And I got accepted and I got, with Dr. Tower’s support, I actually got a four-year graduate fellowship, and I started working on psilocybe and the idea that I had developed the technique for growing them. 

Tim Ferriss: Dennis, may I pause for just one second?

Dennis McKenna: Certainly, I’m getting off on many tangents.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, no. I love all the tangents. If there’s any theme to this show, it is embracing tangents, but I want to just mention a few things and ask a couple of questions, but I want you to bookmark that. So we’re in Canada, or we’re headed to Canada at that point, but I just want to mention a few things. So is it true that when you first met Schultes, when you walked in, he was effectively hugging an air conditioner? And the reason I ask is that if you look at pictures, photographs of Schultes in his prime, it very much evokes an Indiana Jones, minus the tomb raiding, of course, resilience and durability.

I mean you see him in native dress. You see him really fully engaged as not just an observer, but as a participant. He spent more than a decade as I understand it — 

Dennis McKenna: About 15 years — 

Tim Ferriss: 15 years in the Amazon, and this is not flying first class — 

Dennis McKenna: No. No.

Tim Ferriss: — to the Amazon.

Dennis McKenna: No.

Tim Ferriss: And so your first exposure to him was him hugging an air conditioner, as I understand it.

Dennis McKenna: Yeah. Well, he was obviously a little past his prime at that point, but when I took this bus and got off the bus, it was like early September. It was a sweltering summer, and I got off the bus and I took my backpack. I must have looked a mess. I mean I’d been literally on the bus for four days. But I got to his office and I went up, went to the desk downstairs. I said, “I’m here to see Dr. Schultes.”

They said, “Oh, he’s upstairs in his office.” So I went upstairs and couldn’t see anybody there. There was nobody at the reception desk, and I sort of peered in this dark room with all the blinds closed and wiping the sweat from my brow. And then, I could see him back in the back of this office laboratory that he had there, and he was hugging the air conditioner.

Tim Ferriss: When you have an AC, you might as well use it, I suppose. Otherwise, why have it there? 

Dennis McKenna: Well, yeah, I figure. It was like utterly charming, because I expected this swashbuckling, like you say Indiana Jones, tough guy, and he was all those things, but you got an air conditioner, you may as well hug it. So that’s what he did. Yeah. It was very disarming.

Tim Ferriss: I love it. I absolutely love it. Let also pick up on a couple of other points and ask just a couple of definitions for people listening, which we’ll get to in a minute, but I would like to read a few things from the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, if you’re willing to bear with me, because I think it will hopefully help tie some things together in the minds of those who are not familiar with your background and your work.

So, Sanford Siegel, who you mentioned. So his research interests among many other things included exobiology, but I want to read just a paragraph about him from your book. And then, three sections that I pulled out about science. It’s going to take me a minute, but if you could bear with me. So this is from the book and on Sanford Siegel. And this is where the excerpt begins.

“In his NASA-funded work, he was extremely creative in his thinking about stress physiology in extreme environments. For example, he wondered what would happen if he tried to grow a cactus underwater. Turns out, it grows fine as long as you bubble oxygen and carbon dioxide through the water. How well does a tarantula survive under a radiation flux similar to that at a Martian surface? It survives just fine for months. Can you germinate onion seedlings and liquid ammonia as a substitute for water? Yes. Ammonia can substitute for water and many biological processes.

He had a genius for thinking of these incredibly creative, exciting, and simple experiments, and yet they all had a rationale and a reason behind them. He was an out of the box thinker.” And then, I’m going to jump to what you said separately in the book about science. “I knew scientific thought had its limits, but before we could reject science, the most powerful set of intellectual tools ever developed by the human mind, we first had to learn how to do science. Then, if we still wanted to reject it, we could do so as scientists with full knowledge of what it was we were rejecting.”

I think these are really, really important to tie together, because you have such broad exposure. And as I understand it there are many influences early on, two of which were, I believe it was the Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda, even though subsequently a lot of people, and you’re aware of this, came to conclude that a lot of that, if not most of it was fictionalized, and a book that I have about 20 feet from here, which is the first edition of something you already mentioned, the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, ESPD.

And that’s from 1967. I have the updated — I shouldn’t say updated, but a second volume from 2017, which you organized for the 50th anniversary. Could you speak to perhaps the appeal of science? Because what I’ve noticed in the, let’s call it the psychedelic ecosystem, is that you have purists in many different silos, if that makes sense?

Dennis McKenna: Mn-hmm (affirmative)

Tim Ferriss: And part of the reason I’ve been so excited to spend time with you is because you have been a boundary walker of sorts across these different silos. So what is it that drew you most to science and the scientific method in addition to some of the facets perhaps represented by Castaneda’s work in some respect?

Dennis McKenna: I think 1967, 1968 were like pivotal years for me in terms of my discovery of my professional direction and my professional interests as well as being psychedelics these are also very personal things, but that year, 1968, is the year that these two books came across my desk. The Teachings of Don Juan, the first edition that my brother gave me for my 18th birthday. And then the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, which I am not even sure, I don’t even remember where I originally got the first edition, but that had come across my radar a few months earlier.

And these two books were very important for me in terms of sort of framing my interests. It made me aware that there was this ethnographic background and these traditional backgrounds, even though we, probably most people agree that Castaneda made a lot of this stuff up. Didn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter. It made it clear that there was a body of traditional knowledge around the use of these things, whether what he described was accurate or not, didn’t matter.

That was one page, one side of the frame. And then the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs made me aware that a lot of this was about chemistry and plants and pharmacology and molecules and a more hard science biologically oriented aspect to it. So these two things seem to fit together very well. And I thought ethnopharmacology is a real thing, at least, to the extent that this book exists. It’s a real thing.

Tim Ferriss: And could you define ethnopharmacology?

Dennis McKenna: Yeah. Well, ethnopharmacology, there’s various definitions of it. The one I like is kind of tortured. It’s kind of long, but I’ll explain why I like it. So ethnopharmacology is the interdisciplinary, by definition interdisciplinary, scientific investigation of biologically active substances used or observed by humans in traditional societies.

And the reason it’s so tortured is, it’s not always about plants. It’s not always about medicinal plants. It’s not always about things that humans ingest. For example, arrow poisons. Totally legitimate kind of subject for ethnopharmacology. And then, traditional societies kind of limits the scope. We’re talking about not — I mean in some sense, all of pharmacology is ethnopharmacology because it’s people doing it. But we’re talking about traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and that sort of thing. That’s the formal definition of ethnopharmacology that I like.

Tim Ferriss: And I think it’s also worth highlighting for folks and you would have, I’m sure, dozens or hundreds of examples how many commonly used compounds or drugs have come out of in some form of ethnopharmacology, right? Whether it be aspirin, or you mentioned dart poisons, that curare leading then into anesthesia, and the list just goes on and on and on. There are so many things we take for granted that have their origins in these places.

Dennis McKenna: The whole spectrum really of when you’re talking about natural products, especially for things like CNS-active natural products, and so on. They come out of a cultural context. We know about these things because they have a cultural context. And I mean if you look at even just herbal medicines, herbal remedies, every one of these things that you can buy in the drugstore or the health food store has a story behind it, has a cultural back story.

And then, entrepreneurial forces and commercial forces take that and develop products out of it. For example, kava kava is a good example of that. I mean it’s now a supplement and you can buy it in a health food store. It’s a very useful muscle relaxant and sort of tranquilizer, but it comes out of the context of Polynesian traditional medicine. Many, many things are that way. So there’s always a cultural backstory.

That’s what I like about ethnopharmacology. It ties those kinds of things together with the nuts and bolts side of it, what are the active ingredients? What’s the chemistry? What’s the pharmacology? And so on.

Tim Ferriss: If you don’t mind, I know this is a bit stochastic, but I would love to jump into this volume, the 50th anniversary volume of the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, and just as background, and please correct me if I get any of this wrong, but the 1967 gathering was subsidized by the US government. Was it the NIMH?

Dennis McKenna: NIMH, that’s right. National Institute of Mental Health.

Tim Ferriss: And so, you have this gathering of titans of sorts to discuss exactly as the title would imply, the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, after which a volume was produced, printed and sold by the US government, which included the findings. And suffice to say, shortly thereafter, you have the Nixon administration, the Controlled Substances Act, and game over.

Dennis McKenna: Right. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And then you organized this 50th anniversary and just to give people an idea of the contents, and also I want to tell people, if you were interested in the science, this is published by Synergetic Press. You can find it on the Synergetic Press website as well as on Amazon. This is a beautifully produced double volume where you have the original 1967, and then the 2017 edition.

The contents are just fascinating. And one of them that I’d love to dig into, it doesn’t necessarily have to be — our discussion doesn’t have to be reflective exclusively of the content in this, Broad Spectrum Roles of Harmine in Ayahuasca by Dale Millard. Could you speak to some of the more recent findings related to ayahuasca? Which could include this discussion of harmine, but I think a lot of folks have assumed that ayahuasca is this psychedelic brew principally containing Banisteriopsis caapi, this vine and a plant source containing DMT like chacruna or Psychotria viridis. That the vine really just serves to render the DMT orally absorbable or active. But it seems like there’s a lot more to the story.

Dennis McKenna: It does do that. It does do that. It’s the MAO inhibitor, monoamine oxidase inhibitor, that renders the DMT containing the admixture plants active, because DMT itself, as you know, is not orally active if you just take it pure or if you make a tea of chacruna one of these, and then drink it by itself, nothing’s going to happen unless you have an MAO inhibitor on board. But it turns out the alkaloids of Banisteriopsis, these beta-carbolines, are much more than just MAO inhibitors.

For example, one of the primary alkaloids in ayahuasca is harmine. And harmine is a strong MAO inhibitor, but it also stimulates neurogenesis, which is nerve growth. And these are recent findings. Another constituent in ayahuasca is a related alkaloid called tetrahydroharmine, which is an MAO inhibitor, but also a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. So it has like SSRI-type activity. And also, some other unexpected things.

For one thing, and this came out of our ayahuasca study in Brazil. It has long-term effects on the levels of the serotonin transporters in the brain. That the serotonin transporters are the pre-synaptic molecules that take serotonin back up out of the synapse and recycles it and re-releases it.

Well, like SSRIs, tetrahydroharmine inhibits that, but it also causes a long-term elevation in the levels of these serotonin transporters. And that was a unique finding. We didn’t know what to expect, but that came out of the study. And it was kind of surprising. But then when we found this effect, this is all done, this is all in vitro. We took tissue samples, platelet samples, and so on, and this was all done in the lab, but we found this persistent elevating effect on the serotonin transporters; we thought, “What does that mean?”

It wasn’t really clear. We were asking a naive question. Is there anything biochemical that makes regular ayahuasca drinkers different biochemically than normal people or other people? And this was one clear difference. We didn’t really know what it meant, but then we looked into the literature, and we found out there were a number of pathologies that were associated with abnormal deficits in the serotonin transporters.

For example, various kinds of alcoholism addiction, suicidality, even homicidal behavior, various kinds of behavioral pathologies, which happen to be the very pathologies that many of the people in our UDV study were saying ayahuasca had saved them, usually from alcoholism. That was usually their problem, and if they stayed in the church, in that supportive context, and drank ayahuasca regularly, then they stayed on track and many, they were on track.

These were very behaviorally, psychologically functional people, not sick. If they were sick, they were cured, and they attributed it to ayahuasca. And then, in our in vitro studies in a couple of vial assays, we found that it was really tetrahydroharmine that was having this effect, and the course of action was over about two weeks. And my friend, Jace Callaway, who was one of the investigators on this and figured out how to do it, he had access to brain imaging technology at his laboratory in Finland. He was doing postdocs in Finland.

And so, he tried taking tetrahydroharmine himself and imaging himself and showed, well, sure enough, it did raise the levels of these serotonin transporters on about a two-week cycle. And then, if you stop taking it, it went back down to baseline.

Tim Ferriss: So does that mean on the two-week cycle that after one administration, the levels remained elevated for two weeks, or that it required two weeks of administration to elevate?

Dennis McKenna: It required about two weeks of continuous administration to bring it to that level. And that was the cycle that the UDV — customarily, they took it every couple of weeks, not that they knew about this effect, but that was just their practice.

Tim Ferriss: Well, I guess they knew about, in a sense, they indirectly knew about the effect, but not the mechanism, right?

Dennis McKenna: That’s right. That’s right.

Tim Ferriss: And for people who don’t know UDV, I’m probably going to mispronounce, but that’s the União do Vegetal, something like that. One of the syncretic churches found in Brazil.

Dennis McKenna: That’s right. Yeah. I should have explained that. One of the syncretic churches, the group that invited us in to do this biomedical study in the early ’90s. And that was one of the chief findings.

Tim Ferriss: Does the UDV differentiate between different types of brews for different purposes? My understanding is that some of the Daimitas or some of the members or perhaps groups within Santo Daime, another one of these syncretic churches, do have different, I don’t want to say admixtures, but concentrations of different things and different brews for different purposes. Are you aware of that existing in, within the UDV?

Dennis McKenna: Yes. The UDV does have that. They do have different formulations and so on and they don’t talk about them. I mean we were not able to get any information out of them about that other than the fact that, yes, we do have these different formulations. I mean we came up against a couple of interesting things about when we were dealing with the UDV, which was that they were very concerned that ayahuasca or hoasca as they called it, be viewed as a sacrament, not as a medicine.

And so, if you wanted to — 

Tim Ferriss: Much less as a drug, right? That would be a big problem.

Dennis McKenna: Much less a drug. They didn’t like the idea that you would study it as a drug. So I mean they were totally open to doing this biomedical study, but as far as going the next step and looking into mechanisms, and that sort of thing. They were kind of conflicted about that.

They could see the value of it, but then they didn’t like the idea of godless science delving into their central mystery sacrament. And I could understand that, but as a result of that, we lost some opportunities to do some interesting things.

Tim Ferriss: Totally. I wonder if that would be different now, because my understanding — I think I got this from the book, is that or maybe it was from a different reading that I did of yours. That part of the reason for their cooperation was politically sort of legally motivated in the sense they wanted the local/national government and potential policy makers to view this as beneficial. And so they were open to showing the benefits, but they didn’t want reductionist science to, as you put it, remove the mystery by explaining some secular mechanism of action.

Dennis McKenna: Yeah. There was definitely a political aspect to this. This is a big reason why they wanted this work to be done by outside investigators, who presumably would — if it was just UDV, and there were scientists in the UDV, it was a middle to upper class demographic segments, but they wanted people from the outside to be the chief investigators to avoid the perception that the work would be biased. And that’s one reason I got invited and Charlie Grob was the chief principal investigator.

I invited him to do that and he became that. So they wanted this regulatory agency called CONFEN, kind of a combination of the DEA and the FDA. They wanted to present data to CONFEN that showed that this was not a public health menace or danger, and also that it was beneficial and/or potentially beneficial. So there was definitely a political sub agenda here, but as it turned out, I mean we just did the science and the science supported that it was beneficial, not only for — 

I mean the people, almost all of our subjects to join the UDV in a state of life crisis. And they felt like the medicine, the tea, as they called it, and the very supportive context of the UDV, which they did not — they said that’s equally necessary, but they felt like that was a vessel for redemption essentially, and turning their lives around. And so it’s a complex thing. It’s a complicated matter.

Tim Ferriss: I’m endlessly fascinated by the syncretic churches that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, because I think there’s so much that could be learned when you have these relatively large groups consuming twice per month. I mean it’s just an incredible opportunity. Question for you around ayahuasca because I think in the, we’ve already alluded to this, but in the minds of some, ayahuasca is one thing, right? It’s like an old-fashioned that is always made the same way, but there are many, many different cocktails that could be called ayahuasca, and in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, you talk very briefly about — and I’m not sure if you called this in the book, but Chacruna panga, which is also, I think it’s a Diplopterys cabrerana. Is that how that’s pronounced?

Dennis McKenna: Mn-hmm (affirmative). Diplopterys. Diplopterys.

Tim Ferriss: Diplopterys. Oh, so many words I only read; I never hear them said.

Dennis McKenna: Close enough. Close enough.

Tim Ferriss: Which, by some like the Awajún, it’s called yagé and it’s a different plant from chacruna. Did you ever have the opportunity to consume ayahuasca with the Chacruna panga?

Dennis McKenna: Yes.

Tim Ferriss: Experientially, did you find it to be different?

Dennis McKenna: Well, I only consumed it a few times. I found it to be shorter acting, and in terms of the visionary stage of the experience, and also more intense. So there’s something pharmacokinetically going on there with the absorption of it. But people are mistaken if they think ayahuasca is one thing. Ayahuasca is a very complex, in the cultural context, it’s a very complex thing. There are many varieties of ayahuasca. The vine, there are then all these admixture plants. Some of which contain DMT and varieties of those.

And then, a whole pharmacopoeia of other admixture plants that are more or less associated with ayahuasca. They’re part of the dietas, which is a common practice in the Amazon. You learn about the properties of other medicinal plants by taking them, and then you take ayahuasca, either in combination or after you take them, and you learn about their properties from the visions that ayahuasca gives you about their — so, ayahuasca is like the pipeline to plant wisdom in a certain way to tap into this, I don’t know what you might call it, Gaian mind that’s represented by these many admixture plants.

So, there’s a whole lot of work left to be done with ayahuasca and looking into more depth than we were able to look at at that time. That’s one of the projects that we’re trying to get off the ground with the McKenna Academy. We want to do a very extensive phytochemical botanical survey of different ayahuasca brews, document their preparation, document the plants that go into them, and then follow that up with bioassays and just get a better handle on the varieties of these different brews and their uses. Why would we care? Why do we want to do this?

Well, it’s gathering knowledge. It’s gathering information, but the potential practical outcome of this is that you can formulate brews that might be specific for different types of disorders. Maybe some work better for addiction, some work better for trauma, some work better for depression or that sort of thing. All of this is kind of supported by the fork knowledge, but there’s been nothing like a controlled study of any of this. It’s very hard to get funding to study ayahuasca in a clinical setting, because it’s not a pure compound. It doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of double-blind placebo-controlled protocols where you can use with something like psilocybin. It’s complicated.

Tim Ferriss: It seems very complex. I’d love to ask you about one particular plant, which, well, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes, because it depends on the orientation. It could be Datura metel or it could be Brugmansia. I want to ask you about Brugmansia, also called floripondio or toé. Do you think there’s a place for that? It scares the hell out of me and I know it’s sometimes used, but what is your position if any on Brugmansia?

Dennis McKenna: Well, first of all, you’re right to be scared. This is a very dangerous plant. It is not only toxic, but it produces a kind of delirium. It’s not a psychedelic. I sometimes say in my lectures it’s a true hallucinogen, but not psychedelic, but by that I mean, psychedelics, you see hallucinations sometimes behind the eyes or whatever. You usually know that these things are hallucinations. With Brugmansia, which used to be called — the genus is very close to Datura.

In fact, they used to be classified as Daturas, but with Datura, the experiences that you have, you see hallucinations and you cannot tell if they’re real or not. And so, in that sense it’s a true hallucinogen, but it’s not psychedelic. And it produces a state of profound disorientation and delirium, essentially. So it’s used very badly. It’s used as a date rape drug and things like that in Brazil and Colombia, and it’s often associated with brujeria in the ayahuasca tradition.

In other words, black magic, sorcery. And if you take a brew of ayahuasca that contains Datura or Brugmansia, you can tell because it causes this dry mouth sensation, which is typical of these anticholinergics like Datura. 

Tim Ferriss: Is that like the scopolamine?

Dennis McKenna: Exactly. It’s scopolamine. So you can tell that if you’re taking ayahuasca that’s got toé is the traditional word for these things, toé, T-O-E accent. That’s a good sign that you’re dealing with a brujo, and that’s a good sign that you should get the hell out of there, because they do not have your best interests at heart and are unlikely to. That said, now you have to acknowledge that it has a place in this whole ayahuasca complex.

And there may be people that can, practitioners that can use it beneficially. But my own experiences with Datura, which you’ve probably read about in the book, that scared me away. I mean — 

Tim Ferriss: Horrifying. Yeah.

Dennis McKenna: — I had no idea what I was getting into. And we were very lucky. We could have killed ourselves.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. There are documented, lots of documented fatalities with both of those and I wanted to mention, to bring that up just because there are risks associated with a lot of these things. There are documented fatalities with tobacco over-ingestion, tobacco juice in the Amazon. You have to be really, really careful. And I want to come back to a second to this kind of hired gun aspect, I think as you put it in the book in the world of vegetalismo, and in this, let’s just call it the medicine world in South America.

It’s not the case that everyone is focused. It’s actually rarely the case that practitioners are exclusively focused on how we perhaps view these medicines in North America for healing, for the contending within processing of trauma. It’s a much — the cosmo vision and the use case is much, much broader and I just want to mention one more thing, which is even if you don’t believe in black magic or anything like that, you can believe in manipulation.

And the Brugmansia, like you mentioned in Colombia, is one example and elsewhere, although I think that people are kind of hip to this and law enforcement is hip to it. So perhaps the use has declined, but it was very common that crime syndicates would take the Brugmansia extract or somehow purify the scopolamine and walk — then, they would have prostitutes or other people blow the powder into the faces of victims, and this is the crazy part that I want to highlight for folks.

That after which sometimes these victims would be brought to their own home, they would help the perpetrators load everything in their house into a loading van, and they would appear totally normal to say the doormen and so on, and 12 hours later have no recollection of what they did. I mean it’s wild. I mean it brings up kind of these visions of The Serpent and the Rainbow. It’s crazy to think about.

Dennis McKenna: It is. They appear totally normal except that they’re helping load all the furniture into the elevator at three in the morning.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Dennis McKenna: Yeah. I think it was vice.com that — 

Tim Ferriss: Vice did a good piece on this.

Dennis McKenna: — did a good thing. Yeah. So that’s the thing. The Datura, the Brugmansia confuses you and makes you extremely suggestible. So you get this stuff inside you, and then people say, “Well, let’s go to your apartment and take out all the furniture. Let’s go to your ATM and take out all your money.” And you say, “Oh, well, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s go do that.”

So black magic aside, it can definitely — it doesn’t have to be magic, it just puts you in such a state of confusion and susceptibility, suggestibility. That’s the way it works.

Tim Ferriss: It really is so fascinating, and simultaneously sometimes terrifying to go really deep into the rabbit hole with this. Could you speak to traditional use of plant medicine in ayahuasca and hearkening back to the mention of the sort of non-inherent, good nature of practitioners or ayahuasca non-inherently bad nature, but sort of this neutral available for higher aspect in some instances that I think a lot of people are not aware of? Could you sort of speak to that a bit?

Dennis McKenna: There are brujos. There are people who don’t really have your best interests at heart, and there are other people, other practitioners who really are amazing healers and they can help a great deal of people. But the thing is that the context of traditional use has changed due to outside cultural influences. Because like anything else the people want to give the extranjeros — the ayahuasca tourists or whatever — they want to give them their money’s worth.

And so the nature of the ceremonies changes, has changed in response to this. I mean back in the day before there was anything like it, when ayahuasca usage was still kind of a tribal based tradition, there wasn’t all this outside influence, it was the shaman who took ayahuasca, not the people. Rarely would the ayahuasca be given to a person that came to the ceremony unless there was some specific illness or something they wanted specifically to be treated, but it was the ayahuasquero who had the visions that downloaded the information about the plants and other kinds of practices they might engage in to help people with healing.

Well, that’s all changed. The outside influence of the global culture and people are not going to go to South America and spend all this money to sit and watch somebody to drink ayahuasca. They are there to have the experience, and that’s okay. I mean I think it’s just fascinating what we’re seeing go on now with the ayahuasca tourism thing is definitely a complex thing. It’s not necessarily a completely bad thing or a completely good thing. It’s a mixed bag, because many people are helped by this and all the tourists coming down, they bring economic benefits to these communities, but then those are not equitably distributed.

You get a situation where the local ayahuasquero, who used to be just some guy or some gal that was a person in the village who kind of did this work on the side, and they had their own livelihood, farming, fishing or whatever, well now these people are kind of superstars, and they get a lot of income. It generates a lot of jealousy within the community where that can happen. 

Tim Ferriss: They also get priced out of the local market, right?

Dennis McKenna: Exactly. They get priced out of the local market. There is pressure on the resource base. Ayahuasca and the admixture plants are being overharvested, and there’s not enough effort being made to really make sure the sources are sustainable, but that’s changing. The market is adjusting to this. But these changes take place over — they take years, and there are some very hopeful trends now. People are becoming more aware of some of the issues with overharvesting and so on.

Tim Ferriss: Let me pull another paragraph here, and then I want to ask you a question about some of your personal experiences. And this is related to the science that was brought up earlier. “There are many things in Heaven and Earth that are beyond the ken of science and may remain so forever. Anyone who has taken psychedelics seriously or has had other transcendent experiences is likely to share that conclusion. At the same time, science remains the most effective method for asking questions of nature and getting back answers that can be tested and validated.”

You fascinate me on so many different levels, and I’ve actually read much more of your writing than I have read the writing of your brother. And part of the Venn diagram that makes you such a subject of interest to me is the scientific, let’s call it the esoteric, and then the personal.

And I’ve heard in other interviews you talk about, when prompted, you don’t just volunteer this, but when people ask about the number of sessions you have done with let’s say ayahuasca, it seems to number — even though you don’t keep track — in the 500 plus range. 

Dennis McKenna: I’d say so.

Tim Ferriss: Something in that range. And as far as I know you’re not a member of one of the syncretic churches where people would drink twice a month, so people can do the math if someone does that for decades, it adds up. I would love for you to speak to, because many people will hear that, and they’ll say, “Wait a second, you do it once, it changes your life, and then you’re kind of done. Why on earth would you ever do it so many times?” And I would just love to hear you speak to that.

Dennis McKenna: Partly it’s because of the context in which I have used ayahuasca and brought other people to South America to have these experiences. I’ve organized retreats and that sort of thing. So I’m one of those — I’m guilty. If you want to point at the people that have fostered ayahuasca tourism, I’ve certainly contributed to that. I’m a little conflicted about it.

So when I do these retreats, then I drink. People expect me to drink and I do drink. The other reason is, I think every time you take it — maybe this is the more valid reason — every time that you take it, or most times that you take it, not every time you take ayahuasca is going to be a peak experience. I mean there’s lots of times when it’s disappointing and you just get sick and the brew is bad or whatever. But it has a lot to teach us.

There’s a lot to learn from ayahuasca. And even though you’ve taken it multiple times, you still keep getting new insights or new — I mean the experience seems worthwhile. And so I keep taking it. Maybe I’m thick-skilled. Maybe other people have an easier way to assimilate the lesson and say, “Yeah. I got the message. Okay. I don’t need to do this anymore.” I’ve come close to that a couple of times, but I think Ram Das famously said, or maybe it was Alan Watts, I’m not sure who said it, “Once you get the message, hang up the phone.”

And I sort of think I disagree with that. I think, in other words, the message is not the same every time. There is no standard message, and this is a dynamic interaction with the plant that you’re learning from. Indigenous people talk about plant teachers, and you can get into the weeds about whether that’s a valid concept, are they really intelligent? Are they not?

The point is, it doesn’t really matter whether the plants, the ayahuasca opens up some part of yourself that may present as something not the self, but that knows things, that has information to transfer. It doesn’t really matter. What I say: is the information good? So every time you take it, or when you take it, there’s really a bottomless well of things to still be thought about and assimilated and so on. So I kind of don’t believe in the “Hang up the phone” approach.

My approach would be, I guess, keep listening. Keep listening, because a lot of what you might hear will be stuff that you’ve heard before, but there may be new things that come along that make it worth it to stay engaged. And so that’s how I relate to it. It’s not a waste of time to keep listening.

Tim Ferriss: And you’ve also noted that, and you’re not the only person, Luis Eduardo Luna and others have also noted that these habitual consumers of ayahuasca often seem to remain exceptionally sharp and lucid into older age. And as I’ve thought about this and spoken with people who have a lot of experience like yourself, it seems like there are kind of different frames through which you can look at this experience.

One is almost like the replacement of a malfunctioning hip. So you have a hip replacement, it’s one and done, maybe you need it again 10 years later, but that’s it. That’s the “Hang up the phone” approach. And then there’s this way of looking at it almost like going to the gym, and there are all these use cases historically that seem to, at least, offer other use cases, like the use of ayahuasca for hunting, let’s just say.

And another one that kind of occurred to me as I talked to some of these folks who drink in South America, some people drink four, five, six times a week, and it’s almost like you could, let’s say, live in New York and go to Japan and study things in Japan in the hopes that you can bring it back to New York and apply it in your life in New York, but you could also go to Japan and just get to know Japan and the culture and how to operate in that space. And I’d love to hear you speak to outside of the groups that you bring down where you are expected to drink, How do you decide when to drink?

Dennis McKenna: Well, just usually the occasion presents itself. I mean I don’t go — it’s rare that I would come to one of these places and not drink or just when it seems appropriate is when I decide. If I’m in a situation where ayahuasca is being drunk, then I would probably drink it. And I tend not to go after it outside of a ceremonial context, and even for a while I would say, “Well, I don’t even drink it in the States or Canada. I just confine it to South America when I’m down there.”

But then I can’t really stick to that because there are opportunities here, and now I go to a place called Soltara in Costa Rica, which is one of the higher profile ayahuasca retreats. I’m an advisor to Soltara and I like the way they’re doing it. I think they’re very ethical in their approach to all this. And so, it’s a matter of opportunity rather than anything else. When it seems appropriate. But to what you alluded to before about how — it can be, in some ways ayahuasca and a lot of psychedelics can be a big reset, but then there is the maintenance part of it.

And the work we did with the UDV and the finding about the modulation of these serotonin transporters is really an eye opener, because what that speaks to is that regular use of ayahuasca can actually repair some of these deficits. In fact, it may be the only drug or medicine that can do that.

I think peak experiences can be major reset moments. And I think this is part of the therapeutic profile of a lot of psychedelics. They basically get you out of your default mode network. They get you out of your personal reference frame. They let you look at situations from a slight remove. And you have insights as to your existential situation, whatever it might be. Not all psychedelic experiences, not all ayahuasca experiences, are necessarily these peak experiences, and they don’t have to be. They can be beneficial and they can help you remember, maybe is a more accurate term, some of the insights you had from previous experiences. And then I think there’s a physiological aspect too, particularly with ayahuasca like this modulation of the serotonin transporters and so on.

And neurogenesis, you mentioned that a lot of practitioners, ayahuasqueros, seem to be unusually sharp and lucid, even though they’re maybe of advanced age. And I think that is a reflection of ayahuasca. I think that, in general, I am a skeptic about this whole microdosing fad. I have my doubts about it, but in the case of ayahuasca, I think microdosing might make sense, not for the hallucinogenic-psychedelic effects, but for the things the beta-carbolines do for your nervous system. You can think of them as a nerve tonic. And keeping these serotonin transporter levels elevated is probably a very good thing, guarding against depression and that kind of stuff. So again, just like with the plants and their chemistry, there’s lots to be learned about the pharmacology of ayahuasca too.

Tim Ferriss: So I want to talk about the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy. We’re going to spend a good amount of time on that. Before we get there though, since we’re talking about some of the possible benefits of, in this case, ayahuasca, I would love to discuss perhaps the other side of the coin. And I know that the experiment at La Chorrera does not relate to ayahuasca specifically, but I’d like to, and I know you’ve described this many, many times, we don’t have to spend a ton of airtime on it, but the — I’m going to read a paragraph, actually two paragraphs and then we can use that as a way of backing into it if that’s okay.

Here’s the prelude to the chapter that introduces the experiment at La Chorrera which, again, we don’t have to spend too much time on it. Just enough to frame this. “In some respects, everything in life before we arrived at La Chorrera was a prelude to the events that engulfed us there. And everything afterwards has been a reflection of them. Terence chronicled the events in True Hallucinations. Though his account may seem unlikely and bizarre, I believe it is largely accurate, even if interpretations vary as to what it all meant. I can’t vouch for every detail if only because…”

(Read Full Interview @….https://tim.blog/2021/07/25/dennis-mckenna-transcript/)

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