Preprint / Version 1

Open Anthro Vol 10-1 Altered States of Consciousness in Context



Open Anthropology, world, consciousness, history, History and Cultural Change, history of anthropology, anthropology, culture, cultural anthropology, states of consciousness


Cathy Lynne Costin, California State University, Northridge

Michael C. Ennis-McMillan, Skidmore College

Recent decades have seen an explosion of interest in the therapeutic and ritual use of mind-altering substances, both natural and synthetic. Many of the hallucinogenic chemicals synthesized in laboratories and being tested for their “medicinal” effectiveness—including psylocibin, LSD, and mescaline—have their bases in naturally-occurring plants, including mushrooms, other fungi, and a wide assortment of seeds, leaves, and other plant parts. Increased interest in the physiological and psychological effects of psychoactive substances includes attention to “set and setting,” that is, to the contexts in which these materials are prepared and used and to how the altered states of consciousness (ASCs) they generate are evaluated and made sense of. Anthropologists have long studied hallucinogenic plants and the altered states of consciousness they induce in cultural context. Thus, as scholars and practitioners recognize that the controlled use of many plant-based psychoactive materials and their derivatives can have beneficial physical, mental, and social outcomes, anthropologists are well-positioned to make important contributions to this work.

Anthropologists have long employed anthropology’s holistic approach to human practices to investigate the historical, biological, and social aspects of psychoactive substances and experiences. From the beginning, anthropologists have emphasized the importance of context (“ritual”) for ensuring the therapeutic and spiritual efficacy of these substances, showing how many groups value the knowledge gained over time with managed use of particular plant hallucinogens. Anthropological studies of altered states of consciousness often focus on traditional, indigenous practices, showing how plant-based hallucinogens were part of rituals aimed at creating social connections and a sense of belonging, not only among people but also with spirits, nature, and other beings. These pro-social practices contrast with how these substances are used by those raised in Western, industrialized societies, where ingesting substances is often decontextualized, individualized, and commodified, even when those Westerners travel to “foreign” locales ostensibly in order to experience a “traditional” ritual.

Anthropologists have recently turned their attention to the adoption of these traditional medicines and entheogens1 by Western doctors and seekers. Cross-cultural studies counter ethnocentric views of hallucinogens as chemical substances to be isolated and consumed in a biomedical or recreational context. Rather, they demonstrate the importance of continuing or developing rituals and guided experience with psychoactive substances as they are used in new, modern settings. Another key objective of anthropological studies of consciousness altering substances is to point out the ethnocentrism of Western policy and attitudes towards plant hallucinogens and the indigenous peoples who pioneered their use. To be sure, we often see these ethnocentric tendencies not just among those who oppose the use of psychoactive substances (other than tobacco and alcohol, we note). Ironically, we also see callous attitudes among Westerners who profess to embrace plant-induced ASCs but marginalize indigenous groups and their traditional knowledge about the safe and proper use of these substances. Further, neophyte Western users are often oblivious to the consequences of their demand for these products and supposed “authentic” experiences, sometimes wreaking havoc on local communities and environments.


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