A psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca may help people “think outside the box,” according to a new study published in the journal Psychopharmacology. But more research is needed.
Ayahuasca has been used in the healing ceremonies of indigenous Amazon tribes for centuries. The psychoactive drink is traditionally prepared using plants which contain beta-carbolines such as harmaline and tryptamines like DMT.
Researchers led by K. P. C. Kuypers of Maastricht University visited two spiritual ayahuasca-using groups to investigate the drug’s effect on divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking describes the process of generating many possible solutions to a problem. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, refers to the process of narrowing down potential solutions to find one correct answer.
“Creative divergent thinking can enhance and strengthen psychological flexibility by allowing individuals to generate new and effective cognitive, emotional, and behavioral strategies on their own which helps them to adopt adaptive interpretations and coping styles,” the researchers explained.
Kuypers and his colleagues recruited 26 participants for their study. These volunteers had all consumed ayahuasca previously.
The participants first completed two creativity tasks designed to measure divergent and convergent thinking. About 3 hours later, they consumed ayahuasca in a dimly lit room while music played in the background. After waiting 2 hours for the drug to reach its peak, the participants completed the two creativity tasks again.
Only one of the tests, the Picture Concept Task, indicated that ayahuasca produced changes in divergent and convergent thinking. The task required participants to find associations between a number of pictures that were aligned into rows.
The researchers found that after consuming ayahuasca, the participants had a harder time finding the one correct association but were better at providing as many alternative answers as possible. Ayahuasca appeared to cause a decrease in conventional convergent thinking but enhance creative divergent thinking.
There has been a renewal of interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs. The authors cautioned that their findings were preliminary, but said their study could have some implications for this line of research.
“The present study has shown that ayahuasca promotes divergent thinking, an ability which has been shown to be an important aspect in cognitive therapy,” Kuypers and his colleagues concluded. “It can therefore be suggested that ayahuasca possesses qualities that can promote a therapeutic process. However, since convergent thinking is also a critical aspect in therapy, and the current findings show that ayahuasca impairs this facet during the acute phase, future studies have to investigate whether this effect profile changes over time.”
They added: “Additional research utilizing a placebo-controlled experimental design, including additional creativity measures, is warranted, before results can be generalized.”