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Ayahuasca’s ‘afterglow’: improved mindfulness and cognitive flexibility in ayahuasca drinkers

Abstract

Rationale

There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for treating depression and anxiety. However, the mechanisms of action involved in ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects are unclear. Mindfulness and cognitive flexibility may be two possible psychological mechanisms. Like other classic psychedelics, ayahuasca also leads to an ‘afterglow’ effect of improved subjective well-being that persists after the acute effects have subsided. This period may offer a window of increased therapeutic potential.

Objective

To explore changes in mindfulness and cognitive flexibility before and within 24 h after ayahuasca use.

Methods

Forty-eight participants (54% female) were assessed on measures of mindfulness (Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ)), decentering (Experiences Questionnaire (EQ)), and cognitive flexibility (Cognitive Flexibility Scale (CFS)), and completed the Stroop and Wisconsin Picture Card Sorting Task (WPCST) before drinking ayahuasca, and again within 24 h.

Results

Mindfulness (FFMQ total scores and four of the five mindfulness facets: observe, describe, act with awareness, and non-reactivity) and decentering (EQ) significantly increased in the 24 h after ayahuasca use. Cognitive flexibility (CFS and WPCST) significantly improved in the 24 h after ayahuasca use. Changes in both mindfulness and cognitive flexibility were not influenced by prior ayahuasca use.

Conclusions

The present study supports ayahuasca’s ability to enhance mindfulness and further reports changes in cognitive flexibility in the ‘afterglow’ period occur, suggesting both could be possible psychological mechanisms concerning the psychotherapeutic effects of ayahuasca. Given psychological gains occurred regardless of prior ayahuasca use suggests potentially therapeutic effects for both naïve and experienced ayahuasca drinkers.

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Author information

Correspondence to K Soar.

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The study was granted ethical approval by the School of Psychology, University of East London’s Ethics Committee.

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Murphy-Beiner, A., Soar, K. Ayahuasca’s ‘afterglow’: improved mindfulness and cognitive flexibility in ayahuasca drinkers. Psychopharmacology (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05445-3

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Keywords

  • Ayahuasca
  • Psychedelics
  • Mindfulness
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Psychological flexibility
  • Psychological mechanisms