Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew from the Amazon consumed in religious ceremonies for centuries, has been gaining popularity in Europe and North America as a mind-altering trick to condense years of psychotherapy into a psychedelic trip just a few hours long. Drinking the plant brew, users report, helps gain psychological insight and produce new ideas, among other things.
To those users, it’s not exactly news that a psychedelic can enhance creativity. But in recent years, science has been catching up to oral literature, trying to use more objective methods to double-check people’s anecdotes about the effects of the muddy, foul-tasting brew. In one study published in Psychopharmacology in July, researchers in Spain and the Netherlands report that ayahuasca seems to help people apply more creative and “divergent” thinking to solving puzzles.
Normally in our attempt to solve problems, we employ convergent thinking, in which we narrow down potential solutions to find the correct answer we’re looking for. Sometimes, however, that correct answer just happens to fall somewhere outside the box, requiring a more open-minded, or divergent, thinking style to find it.
That’s why the mental flexibility people on ayahuasca had when they approached their puzzles may prove useful in psychotherapy: It might help patients break out of habitual and problematic thought patterns.
“We think if you have depression and are stuck in negative thinking patterns, for example, it might be good to be able to think a bit more flexibly and come up with new or positive ideas, which you then can use to improve the quality of your life,” study co-author Kim Kuypers, an assistant professor at the department of psychology and neuroscience at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, told The Huffington Post.
The possibility that ayahuasca and other psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms could help in the treatment of mental illnesses has helped revive a new wave of research into the drugs, which were rendered illegal in the 1970s. But how these drugs affect the brain remains unclear. The handful of studies that have started to look into this question suggest they work by altering the patterns of communication among several brain networks, thus opening new ways of thinking and perception.
Kuypers, who has studied both the negative effects and potential medical uses of the drug MDMA, was approached by Jordi Riba, a researcher at Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona and a longtime researcher of ayahuasca. Riba was interested in a creativity test that Kuypers and her colleagues had previously set up and wanted to have ayahuasca users take a stab at it.
The team visited two spiritual ayahuasca-using groups and invited members to enter the study. Twenty-six healthy people participated in the study. They were experienced in taking the brew; many of them had taken it dozens of times. Their interest in psychoactive drugs, they told researchers, stemmed from a desire for personal experimentation and enhancing introspection, self-knowledge and personal growth.
One of the tests used in the study was the “picture concept test,” which has been traditionally used as part of intelligence tests in children. In its simplest form, the test involves four pictures in two rows, and the test taker has to find an association between one of the pictures in each row. The number of pictures can go up to 16, divided in four rows, making the test more sophisticated.
Here’s an example of what a simple form of the picture-concept test might look like:
The participants took the test once before and once during the ayahuasca trip (interestingly, the people reported liking the test, saying the colorful images spurred their imagination).
When on ayahuasca, they actually became worse at pointing out the correct solutions, suggesting their convergent thinking was impaired. But instead, they offered many alternative and original solutions, finding associations that weren’t readily visible, pointing to a more divergent way of thinking.
For example, the correct answer above would be to pick the sun and the moon — both belong to the category of celestial objects. But you could also pick the mushroom and unicorn, arguing that being on shrooms could make you see unicorns. There are many such out-of-the-box reasonings possible, and you can imagine how things can escalate quickly once the number of pictures goes from four to 16.
It’s not clear whether the alternative solutions that people came up with were always actually good ideas — we still don’t know if taking ayahuasca can give you the idea for your next book or startup. But it was the flexible way of thinking and tackling a problem that was the most interesting and potentially useful, Kuypers said.
How long this spike in divergent thinking and creativity lasts is another question, Kuypers said. Future studies should test people a day later or so to examine the long-term effects, she said.
“It would interesting to see if they were still different in divergent and convergent thinking after their trip,” Kuypers said. “It would be useful to see the long-term effects of the drink, especially if you want to use it in psychotherapy.”