There’s a recent article in the Pharmaceutical Journal by Andrew Haynes that talks about the widespread use of psychedelics in the animal kingdom. Haynes’ argument for explaining this behaviour rests on the idea of boredom-—literally bored animals are seeking pharmacological stimulation, much in the same way that bored humans seek pharmaceutical stimulation—but there might be something else going on.
Since I cover this same topic in my latest book, “A Small Furry Prayer,” rather than try to rewrite the material, I’m offering the following excerpt as a deeper explanation for the origins of the phenomena:
“In his 1983 book, From Chocolate to Morphine, University of Arizona physician Andrew Weil points out that children spin in circles to change their consciousness, while adults do the same thing with booze and drugs. So instinctive does this behaviour appear that Weil suspected, perhaps humans aren’t the first species to actively pursue altered states. As it turns out, he was correct in his suspicions. In 2006, Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff visited the Mona Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Spain. They met a chimp named Marco who dances during thunderstorms with such abandon that, as Bekoff explains it: “He appears to be in a trance.” Goodall has witnessed other chimps, usually adult males, enacting the same rituals near waterfalls. According to an article Bekoff wrote for New Scientists: “She described a chimpanzee approaching one of these falls with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. ‘As he gets closer, and the roar of the waterfall gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he performs a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls,’ she describes. ‘Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten to fifteen minutes.’” But dancing, while an effective method for altering one’s consciousness, is perhaps the long way around.
In October 2006, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered considered Lady, a Cocker Spaniel spending a suspicious amount of time down by the backyard pond. “Lady would wander the area, disoriented and withdrawn, soporific and glassy-eyed,” Laura Mirsch, Lady’s owner, told NPR. Then there was that one night when Lady wouldn’t come back. Eventually, she staggered back from the cattails and opened her mouth like she was going to throw up. She didn’t throw up. Instead, recalls Mirsch, “out popped this disgusting toad.” The toad was Bufo alvarius, a Colorado River toad whose skin contains two different tryptamines-the same psychoactive found in “magic mushrooms”-and licking Bufo produces heady hallucinations.
And toad tripping dogs are just the beginning. Everywhere scientists have looked, they have found animals who love to party. Bees stoned on orchid nectar, goats gobbling magic mushrooms, birds chomping marijuana seeds, rats on opium, also mice, lizards, flies, spiders and cockroaches on opium, elephants drunk on anything they can find-usually fermented fruit in a bog hole, but they’re known to raid breweries in India as well-felines crazy for cat-nip, cows loco for loco grass, moths preferring the incredibly hallucinogenic datura flower, mandrills taking the even stronger iboga root.
So prevalent is this behaviour that researchers now believe, as UCLA psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel wrote in his 1989 Intoxication: The Universal Drive For Mind-Altering Substances: “the pursuit of intoxication with drugs is a primary motivational force in the behaviour of organisms.”
Siegel thinks the taste for intoxication is acquired and not inborn, though once acquired look out. “Unlike other acquired motives, intoxication functions with the strengths of a primary drive in its ability to steer the behaviour of individuals, societies and species. Like sex, hunger, and thirst, the fourth drive, to pursue intoxication, can never be repressed. It is biologically inevitable.” But from an evolutionary perspective, this is a difficult inevitability to explain. “Many animals engage these plants, or their manufactured allies, despite the danger of toxic or poisonous effects,” Siegel continues. “The stupefied bees quickly become victims of predation. The carcasses of “drunken” birds litter the highways. Cats pay for their addiction to pleasure plants with brain damage. Cows poisoned with range weeds may eventually die. Inebriated elephants destroy much property and the lives of other animals. Disoriented monkeys ignore their young and wander from the safety of the troop. Humans are no different.”
According to Italian ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini, in his 2001 Animals and Psychedelics, the risk is worth it because intoxication promotes what psychologist Edward de Bono once called lateral thinking-problem-solving through indirect and creative approaches. Lateral thinking is thinking outside the box, without which a species would be unable to come up with new solutions to old problems, without which a species would be unable to survive. De Bono thinks intoxication an important “liberating device,” freeing us from “rigidity of established ideas, schemes, divisions, categories and classifications.” Both Siegel and Samorini think animals use intoxicants for this reason, and they do so knowingly.
Just like us, animals take specific drugs for specific purposes. Among the Navajo, the bear is a revered for teaching them about Osha, a root effective against stomach pains and bacterial infections. Wild carrot, as we learned from birds, repels mites. Horses in pain will hunt for willow stems because that’s where aspirin comes from. In the Gombe National Forest in Tanzania, chimps with digestive troubles swallow sunflower leaves whole. When Michael Huffman, from Kyoto University in Japan, took a closer look he found sunflower leaves are hairy and those hairs scrape worms from digestive tracts. These days, when companies like Shaman Pharmaceuticals sends researchers into the Amazon to study the “old ways,” what they’re really after is medical information originally gleaned from watching animals.
Hallucinogens are no different. Psychedelics are really chemical defences-toxins manufactured by plants to avoid predation. Fungi, among our most prolific source of psychedelics, evolved six hundred million years ago, not coincidentally at the same time as plant-eating animals. Herbivores may have first ingested these psychoactives when the threat of starvation gave them no other choice, but later on sought them out for different rewards. “For example,” writes Siegel, “morning glories, which contain the same alkaloid as ergot (the psychoactive basis for LSD), are eaten by rats which feed regularly on the plant’s vines and fruits. The rodents tend to avoid the larger concentrations of alkaloids in the seeds. Yet, when disturbed by severe weather conditions, a rat will occasionally snack on a single seed, then display the characteristic head-twitching of intoxication.” He also noted mandrills eating the hallucinogenic iboga root and then waiting two hours for the effects to kick in before picking a territory fight with a rival. Even Lady knew what she was doing. After her initial spate of toad-licking addiction, she learned to only party on the weekends.
Tune in, turn on, drop back even further and we can also thank animal planet for the Age of Aquarius. The animals taught us to trip and, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, “we never had the courtesy to thank them for it.” In Mexico, the Huichol Indians often use the same word for peyote as for deer, which also explains the fourth-century ceramic pipe found in Guatemala-in the shape of a deer, with a peyote button between its teeth. The shaman of the Russian steppe, from whom the word “shaman” descends, have a fondness for Amanita muscaria-a serious psychedelic mushroom that the reindeer turned them onto. From watching reindeer eat piss-soaked snow, these shamans also learned to drink urine after taking mushrooms to boost the high. And, perhaps, going from the sublime to the ridiculous: A. muscaria is red and white and looks like chubby, bearded guy poured into a mushroom costume. Scholars have repeatedly pointed out that Santa Claus, flying reindeer, pine trees, and the giving of gifts were the original components of an A. muscaria harvest festival. Christmas may have become Christ’s birthday, but it’s began as Siberian Woodstock-except, you know, with no Jimi Hendrix and plenty of reindeer.
Meanwhile, Jaguars in the Amazon chew the bark and leaves of the yaje vine, better known as ayahuasca and containing DMT, arguably the most powerful hallucinogen on earth. Yaje also makes you puke violently-so why did anyone bother following this example? “Shaman,” writes Siegel, “teaches that by using the vine they too will be transformed into jaguar.” Which means the animals taught us to trip and we tripped to become animals-which, from a psychological perspective, is one surefire cure for loneliness. But there is one psychological problem far worse than loneliness, far worse than all others, a problem that requires significantly more lateral thinking than anything else we must confront-and this, it appears, may be the real pull of hallucinogens.
In 1963 Aldous Huxley asked for an injection of LSD on his deathbed, believing the drug could facilitate a “good death.” The next year Stanislav Graf found that psychedelics reduced existential anxiety in late-stage cancer patients. Most of this research ended when Nixon declared war on drugs, but lately, scientists have picked up the thread. There are currently a half-dozen on-going studies at major institutions like Harvard and UCLA using hallucinogens for the same purpose. Most were initiated after researchers at John Hopkins University conducted a four-year investigation into the similarity between LSD and mystical experiences, published in 2006, with a follow up in 2008, in the journal Psychopharmacology, which was both widely praised and also found that psychedelics could be a fantastic tool for alleviating existential anxiety.
Relief comes, according to Bill Richards, one of the scientists involved in the study, because trips tend to follow the same three-stage process. The first stage is what people typically associate with the drugs, a swirl of lights and colors and sounds. The second stage is a catalogue of faiths-users see Jesus and Buddha and Greek gods and Egyptian gods and so many others that this stage has become known as the “archetypical realm.” But it’s what comes next that make psychedelics so effective against mortal terror. “After the archetypal realm comes to the mystical state,” says Richards.
“There’s a dimension of awesomeness, of profound humility, of the self-being stripped bare. In the psychology of religion, mystical experience is well-described-unity, transcendence of time and space, noetic knowledge, sacredness, ineffability….It’s the sacred dimension of revelation, but it can be what Kierkegaard called `fear and trembling’-incredibly profound and powerful terrain to travel.” Hallucinogens then do the same job as religion: they provide proof of unity, which in humans and all other animals is still the only known cure for fear of death.”