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Joan Simon: "There is evidence of the use of psychoactive plants in the history of many peoples and cultures"

Joan Simon at the Faculty of Pharmacy in the UB.

Joan Simon at the Faculty of Pharmacy in the UB.

“There are a lot of different research initiatives related to plants considered to be sacred by particular groups“

“There are a lot of different research initiatives related to plants considered to be sacred by particular groups“

“From a more mystical and religious perspective, the names visionary plants and entheogenic plants are often used“

“From a more mystical and religious perspective, the names visionary plants and entheogenic plants are often used“

09/09/2011

Institucional

“Visionary plants are a gateway to the spiritual dimension and act as ‘mediators’ with the divine powers,” explains professor Joan Simon, who co-directed the UB’s EL Juliols summer school course “Sacred Plants”, together with the experts Carles Benedí and Cèsar Blanché, from the Department of Natural Products, Plant Biology and Soil Science. In this interview, Joan Simon talks about the intriguing relationship between man and the world of sacred plants and the enormous symbolic, mythical and religious status they are afforded, looking at the mysteries that surround these plants in the popular imagination.
 
Some plants produce psychotropic substances capable of altering a person’s mental and emotional functions. What is the physiological basis of these effects on the human mind?
 
Scientists have known for a long time that hallucinogenic plants activate specific receptors in the brain, in a similar way to certain neurotransmitters such as seratonin or, to a lesser extent, noradrenaline and dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemical compounds that transmit signals from a neuron to activate a nerve impulse in a receptor. Seratonin is involved in behavioural control and the regulation of sensory perception.
 
Although the exact mechanism of action is not fully understood, scientists have confirmed that the different substances found in sacred plants imitate the effects of seratonin in certain regions of the central nervous system. Often, the chemical structures of their active principles are so similar to their human equivalents that they are capable of blocking the specific receptors of these neurotransmitters and causing various kinds of sensory alterations, or what we call hallucinations.
 
Sacred, entheogenic, psychotropic, hallucinogenic, visionary… Do these terms refer to the same types of plants?
 
It is true that no consensus has been reached about which is the most appropriate term. They are often used indiscriminately, but the terms are not, strictly speaking, synonymous. From psychotropic to entheogenic, the nomenclature is as diverse as the worldviews behind the use of these plants, and we very often base our approval or disapproval of their use on the terms in which they are discussed. Some experts who have written about the subject, such as Antonio Escohotado, reject the term psychedelic, which has also been used quite commonly, because it is too strongly linked to visionary drugs and a certain type of anti-establishment culture from the ‘60s and ‘70s. From a more mystical and religious perspective, the names visionary plants and entheogenic plants are often used. The latter of the two links these plants with the idea that they reveal and generate divinity in those who consume them. In the world of medicine and pharmacology, the classic term is psychotropic plants, which can be refined further to psychodysleptic (disrupting the psyche) or psychomimetic 
 
The use of entheogenic plants (which alter states of consciousness) has formed part of human existence for thousands of years. What are the origins of hallucinogenic plant use in human culture?
 
The theory is that access to the divine dimension is facilitated by bioactive substances, from hallucinogenic plants, that modify the everyday state of consciousness and enable a person to establish some form of communication on a different level of reality (accompanied by changes in sensory perception, beyond consciousness, such as those which occur in dreams, where contact with the divine can also be made). The exploration of these channels of communication¾often restricted to specialists or intermediaries, such as priests, shamans, etc.¾could help to generate more empirical and technical knowledge (the identification of botanic species, the particular parts of the plants used, the methods of extraction and preparation, the necessary doses, the desired and unwanted effects, etc.) focusing closely on the symbolic imaginary of different cultures and religions (language, rituals, power structures within communities, possession of secrets or knowledge). In addition, the therapeutic use of hypnotic or hallucinogenic plants to relieve pain (for example poppy or ephedra, which some writers suggest were first used 60,000 years ago) could be used as another source of information.
 
 
When the first colonizers arrived in South America, most of the indigenous tribes attributed supernatural powers to a number of plants, which they believed to be gifts from the gods. How were these plants used in pre-Columbine cultures?
 
Writers from the period describe the intoxicating effect and the magical-religious use of some of these sacred plants, such as mushrooms from the genus Psilocybe, which were known as teonanácatl (‘flesh of god’). Pre-Columbine cultures associated these plants with the divine world, in contrast to the missionaries and conquistadors, who believed them to be linked to the devil and wanted to eradicate them as part of the introduction of Christianity. But not all plants considered to be sacred had hallucinogenic properties. Maize (Zea mays), a staple across the region, was represented by many divinities in the Mayan and Aztec cultures and was therefore an example of a sacred plant used simply as a foodstuff. Cocoa (Theobroma cacao), which was an Aztec and Mayan symbol for physical vigour and longevity, was also part of the mythology of these cultures, in which it was considered a gift from the gods.
 
 
Which cultures have made the most extensive use of psychoactive plants in the history of mankind?
 
You could argue that psychoactive plants have been used throughout the history of different peoples and cultures, making this practice more a norm than an exception. However, there are certain geographical areas, including Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia, where there is no recorded use of psychoactive plants.
 
It is thought that some 150 species of plants have been used for their entheogenic properties: 130 are native to the western world and 20 to the east. Mesoamerican cultures are the most noted consumers of traditional psychoactive plants, for example peyote (Lophophora williamsii), ololiuqui (Turbina corymbosa) or mushrooms from the genus Psilocybe. A separate study could be made of the more “recreational” use of some of these plants, which have been exported to other cultures.
 
 
In anthropological terms, what are the social and cultural factors behind the use of these natural substances?
 
One important factor is the common attribution of the cause of disease to supernatural powers. This notion, which was widespread in ancient societies, reinforced the belief that the mysterious forces which bring illness could only be understood and channelled by priests, shamans or sorcerers, whose magical role as healers was to communicate with the supernatural world through sacred elements such as plants that altered the natural state of consciousness. Examples include the incubatio, which was performed in the temples of Asclepius in ancient Greece, and the use of the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) in the central Andes, or the fly Amanita fungus (Amanita muscarina) in Vedic rituals.
 
Another important element is the change in religious influence. For example, as Europe gradually became Christianized, bans were placed on plants branded as harmful or evil due to their psychoactive properties, which had originally been used for therapeutic purposes. These included the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona) and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), which were not reintroduced as therapeutic agents until some 500 years later.
 
 
There is a strong link between visionary plants, mysticism, tradition and culture. How have these plants contributed to the formation of a worldview in different human collectives?
 
Visionary plants are the gateway to the spiritual dimension and act as ‘intermediaries’ with divine powers. To a certain extent they can be viewed as divine in their own right (in some cultures they are worshipped as gods). The biological cycles, shapes, names and properties of plants take on symbolic value in different cultures and can have defining influences on calendars, festivities, customs, language, iconography, sayings, etc. Moreover, this is not only the case of exotic, hallucinogenic plants; in Mediterranean cultures, for example, the triad of sacred plants (wheat = bread = body; vine = wine = blood; olive = oil = sacred anointment) represents the elevation to religious symbolism of the staples of the Mediterranean diet of the last three thousand years. Christianity itself has drawn associations between sacred foods and divinity.
 
Let us move on to the therapeutic use of these plants, which are commonly found in the practice of ethnopharmacology. How can they contribute to improving human health?
 
Many sacred plants have, or have had, therapeutic applications. One example would be coca, a sacred plant in Andean cultures from which cocaine is extracted and which can be used as a local anaesthetic. We also have the examples of the ergot fungus, which grows on rye grass, and which in its semi-synthetic derivative form dihydroergotamine can be used to treat migraines; morphine, codeine and papaverine, which are used as analgesics; and opium derivatives (the poppy is a sacred plant in various cultures), which are used as cough suppressants and muscle relaxants. Other hallucinogenic plants are used as occasional, largely unregulated therapeutic substances, generally because they are also used as recreational drugs. This is the case of cannabis (Cannabis sativa), which is known to reduce the side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and antiretroviral drugs (which include vomiting, nausea and loss of appetite).
 
 
 
Strictly psychomimetic plants were once used for therapeutic purposes in the field of psychiatry, but this is no longer the case. Nevertheless, their hallucinogenic effects are still of interest to the medical community. There remains much to discover about the human brain, and the effects of these types of plants¾which alter the most characteristic organizational functions of the human mind¾can help us to better understand how the brain works and the causes and mechanisms of morbidity. Analysis of the active principles of many of these plants¾such as LSD, which is often used as a model of strongly hallucinogenic substances¾is a way for pharmacologists to learn more about the actions of substances used to treat neuropsychiatric diseases; many of these are widely used, but as yet there is no clear understanding of their mechanisms of action.
 
Finally, it should be made clear that the experimental handling of these psychotropic substances is subject to strict regulatory control. Most hallucinogens were classified in Schedule I of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, a section containing drugs that represent a severe threat to public health and are not widely recognized as legitimate therapeutic substances.
 
 
From the perspective of biodiversity and conservation, are any of the sacred plants found around the world in danger of disappearing?
 
In general, what is at risk is the traditional knowledge of their uses, due to processes of acculturation. In some cases, there is also a risk to certain genotypes or populations where plants are consumed in excess or unsustainably. In fact, the issue is often exactly the opposite: the religious significance of these species has meant that sacred plants or the places in which they are grown (temples, monasteries, sacred woods) are protected from the destruction of surrounding territory, and this has become an indirect channel for the preservation of biodiversity. The clearest example is the preservation of Ginkgo biloba in sacred areas of China and other neighbouring countries, when it has largely disappeared from the wild across the world, with the exception of two small, semi-natural forests.
 
From its awareness of situations like this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) decided to launch the Delos Initiative, which focuses on maintaining sacred sites around the world that make substantial contributions to conserving plant life (such as Rila, in Bulgaria; the Metéora, Mount Parnassus and Mount Athos, in Greece; Montserrat, Núria and Poblet, in Catalonia; and Lluc, in Mallorca).
 
 
What are the main areas of research into sacred plants?
 
There are a lot of different research initiatives related to plants considered to be sacred by particular groups. A good example is European mistletoe (Viscum album), a sacred plant in Celtic cultures: a glance at any scientific research database (such as Medline) will reveal the number of studies of this species, aimed at identifying substances with anticarcinogenic properties.
 

I would like to stress, however, an aspect that I believe is crucial to progress in the use of new resources: knowledge of plant biodiversity and the extraordinary cultural heritage that surrounds it. A lot is known about the plants associated with traditional European mysticism, but in many other parts of the world there are not even catalogues of the plant life in a particular area. Large parts of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia are home to plants used by the shamans or holy men of small tribes, and of which little study has been made. The idea is not to “patent” these plants for financial gain, although this has recently been seen with the case of ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), a psychoactive plant that indigenous Amazon tribes use in ritual ceremonies, a variety of which, Da Vine, was controversially registered under patent. In the future, it will be the combination of anthropological, ethnological, botanical, chemical and clinical studies that will enable us to learn more about the secrets these plants still hold

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