Animals, Psychedelics, and the Innate Drive to Alter Consciousness

animals and psychedelics

 

By Trey Brasher | 10 min read

 

In modern society, the drive for altered consciousness is most frequently treated as pathology.  Although undoubtedly the obsessive self-destructive drug seeking behavior seen in drug addiction is indeed pathological, this represents the extreme in a long spectrum of behavior in relation to compounds producing altered consciousness. The assumption that a healthy morally sound human should go from cradle to grave without an experience of altered consciousness is not only a moralistic product of a particular cultural bias but, according to the relevant science, a fully unnatural idea. Across the Animal Kingdom, purposeful ingestion of plants and fungi containing psychoactive drugs is commonplace.

 

In his seminal book titled Animals and Psychedelics, Italian researcher, and expert in zoopharmacognosy (the ingestion of plant-based drugs by animals) Gorgio Samorini writes:

 

“Entirely on their own and without the influence of captivity or conditioning, wild animals, birds, and even insects… drug themselves.This deliberate seeking of inebriation among all classes of animals is a perfectly natural normative behavior. Indeed, the pursuit of inebriation has been proposed as a kind of fourth drive – akin to hunger, thirst, and sex – so ubiquitous is its manifestation.” (Samorini, 2002).

 

The perception that the desire to alter consciousness is abnormal and even ‘sinful’ pervades the modern psyche and drives the modern prohibitionist mentality. This puritanical perception stands outside the purview of science given the ubiquity described by Samorini. In the treatment of chemically altered consciousness purely as pathological, it is necessary to completely ignore the anthropological and ethnographic literature; drug use in humans is a cross-cultural constant. There is no culture on earth yet discovered that does not use at least one drug (with the possible exception of the Inuit, who live in a climate where traditional drugs are unavailable) (Samorini, 2002).  Indeed, as seen in many other animals, there seems to exist an innate drive for intoxication. In direct repudiation of puritanical convictions, a large variety of higher animals have been observed consuming drugs; Deducing by the tenants of the theory of natural selection alone, a behavior of self-drugging must confer evolutionary advantage to at least some segments of animal populations displaying the behavior for the behavior to have long-term viability. Charles Darwin himself observed the behavior of animals seeking intoxication, recording his finding and the findings of other scientists in The Descent of Man. Of Great Apes and lesser monkeys, he observed, “many kinds [of monkeys] have a strong taste for tea, coffee, and spirituous liquors: they will also as I myself have seen, smoke tobacco with pleasure (Darwin, 1896).” Apes’ pharmacopeia extends beyond these common substances and includes psychedelics. Indeed, just in the family of the gorillas alone, scientists observe ingestion of an astounding number of compounds; 

 

“A total of 118 medicinal plant species from 59 families are listed from an extensive review of the literature on gorilla diet in the wild. The major pharmacological activities of those plant foods, which are also used in traditional medicine include antiparasitic, antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, cardiotonic, hallucinogenic, stimulatory and respiratory activities.” (Cousins & Huffman, 2002).

 

As is the case in human populations, the line between what constitutes the medical use of a plant in the diet of an ape population and what constitutes consumption for purely euphoric or psychologically enjoyable intoxicating properties is unclear.  The idea of a ‘nutraceutical’ encompasses this overlap, and most drug consumption in apes falls under this categorization.  

 

Given the modern interest in ibogaine, it is particularly noteworthy that gorillas and other higher animals are known to dig up and consume the roots of various tabernathae and tabernathaemontana species (Cousins & Huffman, 2002). The root bark contains the highest concentration of iboga alkaloids in the plant indicating the animals are aware of what part of the plant will precipitate drug effects. Some scientists even claim that apes eat iboga strictly for intoxication rather than for any medically beneficial effects (Samorini, 2002). The Bwiti of Gabon, who traditionally use iboga as a religious and recreational drug, tell a mythology surrounding ibogaine, that the African pigmies first discovered the psychedelic effects of the plant. Ethnobotanists suggest that the pigmies did indeed discover these effects, and they did so by observing boars dig up and consume the roots before being overcome by a frenzy of activity suggestive of imagined predators. Mandrills (a superficially baboon looking primate) display an even more specific behavior in relation to iboga; when a male mandrill is preparing to fight for mating rights or to move up the troop hierarchy, he will first dig up and consume the root of the iboga shrub. The male will wait until the iboga alkaloids effects are at their peak, and then engage in combat (Samarini, 2001). Porcupines also reportedly consume iboga roots (Cousins & Huffman, 2002).

 

Another well-known psychedelic consumed by animals as well as human beings is psilocybin containing mushrooms.  Samorini tells a story of hiking in the Alps when he came across a patch of psilocybe semilanciata, a species native to the high alpine regions.  He excitedly began to pick the mushrooms and place them in a paper bag, being aware of their psychedelic properties. Just as he finished filling the paper bag, he saw a male goat making directly for him. It charged him, knocking him down and spilling the bag, which it, and other members of its herd, promptly began to consume.  Samorini claims to have observed this behavior on many occasions, noting that when a herd of goats comes upon a patch of semilanciata, they will selectively consume to mushrooms rather than the surrounding grass until the patch is exhausted (Samorini, 2002). Other sporadic accounts exist of goats consuming psilocybin containing mushrooms, although a full scientific exploration of the topic is lacking (Thomas, 1890).

 

psilocybin mushroom

 

Several viral videos showcase jaguars consuming the banisterapsis caapi, the MAOI containing vines used to brew ayahuasca.  Human hunters in the Amazon basin consume the vine as an appetite suppressant and stimulant, making explicit allusions to the vine as a plant which imbues the hunter with the eyes and power of the jaguar.  These allusions probably derive from native observations of the jaguar consuming the vine.  Like the human hunters, the jaguar conceivably derives similar stimulant benefits from the beta carbolines found in the vine (Rodd & Robin, 2008).  

 

Evolutionary advantages conferred by intoxicating drugs do not appear as obvious as the more lurid, disease like symptoms of modern human drug addiction; however, they abound in the animal world as in human populations.  An exemplar is the disproportionate breeding by a section of the gene pool using a libido stimulant or aphrodisiac drug.  There is a manifest advantage of increased sexual behavior in outbreeding a competing section of the gene pool less disposed to aphrodisiac consumption (Samorini, 2002).  Conferred reproductive advantage of this type is seen in catnap and cats, where the nepetalactones in catnip mimic feline reproductive hormones (Chappel, 2012).  Catnip engenders drug-seeking behavior and even addiction in felines, to their evolutionary advantage (Palen & Goddard, 1966). 

 

The association between reindeer and the amanita muscaria mushroom is much remarked upon in the psychedelic community. Shamanic consumption of the urine of reindeer is oddly common knowledge in these circles, as the glutamate agonist and toxic ibotanic acid is metabolized in vivo and excreted as the GABA-A agonist muscamol, which produces the desired sedative-hypnotic and psychedelic effects. Lesser known is that reindeer reportedly drink each other’s urine and even the urine of humans who have consumed the amanita for the same effects.  Chipmunks and squirrels also seek out the muscamol rich urine.  Caribou consume amanita similarly to Reindeer albeit without as colorful a documented history. 

 

In the zoopharmacognosy of amanita muscaria is a rather comical example of disadvantageous drug use in a species, the fly. The common name for the amanita is “Fly Agaric” a name which alludes to the siren-like attraction of flies to the amanita.  The flies ‘lick’ the surface of the mushroom cap, consequently flying erratically and even falling stunned to the ground in a state of acute intoxication. Toads are aware of irresistible allure of the amanita and the easy meals which result, seeking out the mushrooms for the flies rather than for the psychoactive effects. Samorini suggests that the term ‘toad stool’ is derivative of this association and even suggests the iconic fairytale image of a toad atop an amanita mushroom is actual an occasionally observed phenomenon (Samorini, 2001).  

 

Despite the lack of peer reviewed research on the topic, a substantial number of reports involving both underwater video footage and photographs, suggest Dolphins seek an intoxicated state by chewing or sucking on pufferfish.  Pufferfish contain the compound tetrodotoxin or TTX a neurotoxin meant to dissuade predation. Video footage even shows dolphins passing the pufferfish to other members of their pod, apparently to share the intoxicating properties of the fish with their kin. (Luntz, 2019).  

 

Implications for Evolutionary View of Human Drug Consumption

 

Why do so many animals seek intoxicated states? Undoubtedly there is no simple answer, and the same applies to the human animal. Both adaptive and maladaptive patterns of substance use are seen in the Animal Kingdom and in human societies alike.  Modern moralistic prejudices derived from Judeo-Christian traditions often offer distortions and not scientific theories of drug use. Self-medication of a neurochemical imbalance or psychosocial pains seen in narcotics, and adaptogenic forms seen in psychedelics are real scientific theories backed by evidence.

 

Drug seeking behavior, destructive or not, is not an aberration – it is not always the symptom of an illness or imbalance in the animal and does not generally manifest like a disease. 

 

Scientists put forward several explanations for the adaptive consumption of particularly psychedelic compounds among animals. These compounds have been called adaptogens –drugs making the animals that consume them better able to adapt to a changing environment and therefore more likely to survive (Samorini, 2002; Carhart-Harris et al, 2019). This same logic has been applied to the human animal; ayahuasca precipitates particular cognitive processes which properly cultivated could improve the adaptive efficacy of a tribe which uses it. A tribe using an ultra-potent hallucinogenic brew for thousands or tens of thousands of years is subject to epigenetic and some evolutionary pressures. If adaptive benefit did not accrue from the use of ayahuasca, its use would have died out. This opinion is expressed verbatim in the pharmacology literature;

 

“If the use of Psilocybe mushrooms or ayahuasca has been maintained during centuries, it is probably because their use entailed positive outcomes to both the individuals and their communities.” (Ona, Santos, Hallak, & Bouso, 2020)

 

Drug seeking and drug taking behavior in the context of psychedelics is thought to be evolutionary adaptive because it provides what Edward De Bono called “Provocative Operation Factor’ or ‘depatterning factor’; a loosening of cognitive constraints leading to the forging of new mental pathways.  These new pathways instantiate an evolutionary shortcut, whereby an animal (or a person) can dampen their conditioning and recondition themselves in new ways.  This principle is backed by a robust body of scientific literature (see Carhart-Harris & Friston, 2019).  Psychedelics action as a neural ‘depatterning factor’ is exactly what makes psychedelics such a successful treatment for entrenched behaviors in humans like, ironically, drug addiction (Johnson, 2018).  

The hypocrisy of venerating certain psychoactive drugs and all the while steadfastly proclaiming the pathology of drug seeking behavior seems untenable given the propensity of other animals to seek drugs which confer evolutionary benefit. In a feat of proprioception, the West must take a step back and reexamine the assumptions about the nature of drug use at the bedrock of modern prohibitionist policy. The assumption that the human drive for intoxication is an aberration of mental functioning is difficult to defend in the context of near ubiquitous animal drug use.  

In consideration of this ubiquity, the current model of prohibition cannot be sustained.  Please consider supporting Unlimited Sciences with a donation or by becoming a study participant, and together we can achieve the goal of returning psychoactive plants to their natural role in human society.

 

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Citations:

 

Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Friston, K. J. (2019). REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics. Pharmacological Reviews71(3), 316-344.

 

Chappell, J. (2012). Biochemistry: Another aspect of nature’s ingenuity. Nature492(7427), 50.

 

Cousins, D., & Huffman, M. A. (2002). Medicinal properties in the diet of gorillas: an ethno-pharmacological evaluation. African study monographs, 23(2), 65-89.

 

Darwin, C. (1896). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex (Vol. 1). D. Appleton.

 

De Bono, E., & Zimbalist, E. (1970). Lateral thinking (pp. 1-32). London: Penguin.

 

Johnson, M. W., Griffiths, R. R., Hendricks, P. S., & Henningfield, J. E. (2018). The abuse potential of medical psilocybin according to the 8 factors of the Controlled Substances Act. Neuropharmacology142, 143-166.

 

Luntz, Stephen. “Do Dolphins Use Pufferfish to Get High or Just Use Them as Chew Toys?” IFLScience, IFLScience, 8 July 2019, https://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/do-dolphins-use-pufferfish-to-get-high-or-just-use-them-as-chew-toys/. 

 

Palen, G. F., & Goddard, G. V. (1966). Catnip and oestrous behaviour in the cat. Animal behaviour, 14 (2-3), 372-377.Ona, G., Dos Santos, R. G., Hallak, J. E. C., & Bouso, J. C. (2020). Polypharmacology or “Pharmacological Promiscuity” In Psychedelic Research: What Are We Missing? ACS Chemical Neuroscience. The same is likely true for a huge range of animal species.

 

Rodd & Robin (2008). Reassessing the Cultural and Psychopharmacological Significance of Banisteriopsis caapi: Preparation, Classification and Use Among the Piaroa of Southern Venezuela. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 40(3), 301–307. doi:10.1080/02791072.2008.10400645

 

Samorini, G. (2001). New data from the ethnomycology of psychoactive mushrooms. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 3(2-3).

 

Samorini, G. (2002). Animals and psychedelics: The natural world and the instinct to alter consciousness. Simon and Schuster.

 

Schultes, R. E., & Smith, E. W. (1976). Hallucinogenic plants (Vol. 35). New York: Golden Press.

 

Thomas, R. H. (1890). Attractive characters in fungi. Nature, 43(1100), 79-80.

 

“Want to See a Jaguar Trip Balls?” High Times, 28 Feb. 2018, https://hightimes.com/culture/want-to-see-a-jaguar-trip-balls/. 


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