(Re)Visiting the (Mental) Spaces of Our Research

 “I have a bit of a provocative question for Taylor.” 

Oh no. Here it comes.

“Have you ever done ayahuasca?” 

It was a beautiful but sweltering summer afternoon in Budapest. Participants for a conference on the history of the human sciences were gathered in one of two conference rooms, both of which were spacious and airy, with nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that were veiled with thin white curtains. My fellow panelists and I had finished our respective talks and had assembled at the front of the room to answer questions. This was the first question. 

Our panel addressed questions of standardization, instrumentation, and practices in psychiatric knowledge-production. My paper examined the epistemological tensions between two scientific collaborators who researched the physiological, psychological, emotional, and social effects of ayahuasca consumption in mid-twentieth century Peru. The plant brew is comprised of several leaves and, most commonly, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and has been used for centuries, in its various manifestations, by popular healers in the northeast Amazon in Peru. 

Both of the researchers—one a Peruvian psychiatrist, the other an American anthropologist—utilized competing and complementary discourses, instruments, and practices to render ayahuasca consumption, an unruly and “indescribable” practice, legible to science. On the one hand, a psychiatrist, Oscar Ríos and his fellow psy-practitioners, attempted to standardize and quantify these experiences while minimizing their own potential influence on their research. On the other hand, Marlene Dobkin de Rios, embraced an interpretive and self-reflexive epistemology, characterizing the pursuit of objectivity as undesirable. Both of the researchers used self-experimentation as evidence to support their claims. 

Thus, I had inadvertently planted a seed for a discussion about self-experimentation. However, while I had anticipated that someone might ask me this question during one of the many coffee breaks or share their own experience over lunch, I had not expected it to be the first question in the formal Q + A. In my response, I alluded to the fact that the question itself reflected one of the same questions that motivated the work of Ríos and Dobkin de Rios—how can researchers, whether historians of science or human scientists, best come to comprehend and analyze an experience that has been defined by Dobkin de Rios and others as a “phenomenon which defied description?”[1]

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San Pedro, Museo Larco, Lima. Photography by author, 2019

This question prompts me to ask what it means to visit the sites of our research. As Katrin Kleeman wrote for EHN, visiting the physical landscapes of our research can offer new perspectives; we gain a better appreciation for the jagged landscapes and can better comprehend the physical distances traversed by historical actors. I also wonder how we can invoke the other places and spaces of certain historical moments—the mental, the emotional, the sensory. When we visit the sites of our research, do we also aspire to briefly glimpse into the immaterial dimensions—the emotions, sensations, sights—of the subjects of our research? 

Of course, this is more appropriate or relevant for certain research topics. Jaipreet Virdi, a historian of disability, medicine, and technology, recently gave a wonderful talk in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at Penn where she recounted trying an ear-trumpet akin to the one used by one of her historical actors, Dorothy Brett. Recently, therapeutic plants with psychotropic and, especially, psychedelic properties have been subjected to this type of inquiry, as evidenced in the question that I received in Budapest. 

This line of questioning makes me wonder: to comprehensively (re)visit the sites of our research, what assumptions are we making about the transhistorical nature of our projects when we seek to create an immersive experience? And how does the materiality of our research topics influence our historical methods? One of the anthropologists that features in my dissertation, along with several historians with whom my work is in conversation, have addressed this question.

American anthropologist Dobkin de Rios argued that ayahuasca consumption was crucial for any researcher interested in the therapeutic plant. One summer evening in 1968, the young anthropologist witnessed her first ayahuasca ceremony. Several miles outside of Iquitos in northeastern Peru, Dobkin de Rios watched quietly as a folk healer, as she described him, blew tobacco over a plastic cup filled with an ayahuasca brew and passed the drink around a circle of six people. Despite having read extensively on the Banisteriopsis vine, Dobkin de Rios expressed complete bewilderment at the ceremony: “What was going on? Nothing dramatic seemed to be happening.” The anthropologist lamented feeling like “entirely like an objective observer who was at best only able to record the vaguest outlines of a phenomenon which defied description.”[2] It was not until several months later, when Dobkin de Rios had consumed the powerful psychotropic and therapeutic brew herself, that she felt she could comprehend the emotional, physiological, and social effects of ayahuasca. While Dobkin de Rios would only ever participate in one ayahuasca ceremony, she nonetheless claimed that it was instrumental for her research. 

Several of the scholars with whom my work is in conversation with have also addressed, albeit briefly, the role of self-experimentation in their work. One of the earliest historians to do so was Erika Dyck. In the preface to her book, Dyck recounted how people have had a range of responses to her work on psychedelics; some expressed deep concerns about the possible dangers of LSD in comparison to other drugs, while others shared their own experiences with Dyck after she had presented on the topic. She remarked that she was “almost always asked about [her] own experiences with the drug.” She goes on to write: 

“I suppose that people think that only somebody who has tried LSD could have developed such an interest in the topic. Alternatively, they assume that somebody who spent years studying the history of the drug must have generated an overwhelming appetite for it. A lot of people ask me where they can get some. I do not know.”[3]

Self-experimentation is crucial to the story that Dyck told but it is not crucial to her own story, per se. Matthew Oram, one of the most recent historians to examine psychedelic therapy and regulation in the twentieth century, was less concerned with self-experimentation than Dyck. He offered a meaningful contribution to historians of psychiatry by demonstrating that federal regulations in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s “never significantly restricted psychedelic research.”[4] While Oram is attentive to questions of efficacy, legislation, and regulation, self-experimentation is of lesser concern. 

Though addressing global coca leaf and cocaine markets rather than psychedelic substances, Paul Gootenberg addresses this question of self-experimentation. In the same vein as Dyck, he remarks: 

“During the halcyon days of the American cocaine culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was an enslaved graduate student, so, truth be told, I had neither the time, the cash, nor the inclination to indulge in that long party. I’m not sure that detachment necessarily makes my study of the drug more ‘objective.’”[5]

One of the most recent writers to address this question of self-experimentation is Mike Jay in his recent book on the global history of mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid derived from two species of cacti. Jay, who has written extensively on the history of science and medicine but is not formally trained as a historian, describes buying “cultivated stems of Sand Pedro” cactus in the town of Trujillo then chopping and boiling the stems for several hours back in the Lima’s neighborhood of Barranco. After consuming the brew, he recounts his bodily, psychological, and visual sensations; feelings of nausea and restlessness but also muscle relaxation, alongside visions of “honeycombs of green and violet.”[6] While Jay does not make explicit claims about how his own San Pedro experience shapes his research, his decision to include this anecdote demonstrates that Jay believes his own experience contributes to his global history of mescaline.

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Ayahuasca in Barranco, Lima. Photograph by author, 2019

What goes unmentioned in Jay’s memory of Barranco is that there is a resto-bar in that neighborhood that bears the name of another psychoactive plant brew—“Ayahuasca.” The presence of this bar allows me to think about the multiple ways that we encounter and engage with our research topics. For some, that means direct attempts to experience the bodily and psychological sensations of our actors. For others, this means an investment that hinges on a certain type of distance. And for others still, there are spaces in-between. 

[1] Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Visionary Vine: Psychedelic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1972), 8.

[2] Dobkin de Rios, Visionary Vine, 8.

[3] Erika Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), vii.

[4] Matthew Oram, The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy: LSD Psychotherapy in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 4.

[5] Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), x. 

[6] Mike Jay, Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 27-28.