Do icaros, the traditional shamanic songs sung during psychedelic ayahuasca ceremonies, impact healing? New research sheds light.
It’s been more than 100 years since the late Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran wrote that music is the language of the spirit. “It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife,” he noted. It’s a truth many humans have understood for millennia, particularly when it comes to psychedelic experiences like the South American brew ayahuasca, which contains the powerful hallucinogen, N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Writer Michael Pollan explored this element of psychedelic healing sessions for his 2020 book, How to Change Your Mind. He detailed how certain music changed his experience while under the influence of psilocybin. He says it’s a product of synesthesia, where senses get cross-wired, further suggesting the important role music plays in how psychedelics are experienced.
Now, new research suggests there’s science to support what many psychonauts have long know: the role music plays in psychedelic experiences is significant. And it may be critical in experiencing the full benefits of psychedelic ayahuasca ceremonies.
Peruvian songs, or, icaros, that are played during traditional ayahuasca ceremonies, showed benefits for men taking ayahuasca to help with their drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
The impact of the icaros were observed during ayahuasca ceremonies at the Takiwasi Center for Drug Addiction Rehabilitation and Research on Traditional Medicines in Tarapoto, Peru. The center only hosts men because most addicts in Peru and globally are men. The findings were published in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness.
“Ethnomusicologists and medical anthropologists understand the role that music plays in healing among many cultures,” lead researcher, University of California doctoral ethnomusicology student Owain J. Graham, said in a statement. “While Western biomedicine’s foundation in science is strong, it has also neglected to explain the connection of mind-body and how music can effect healing.”
Graham’s research is the first of its kind at the 30-year-old Takiwasi Center. According to the findings, 67 percent of the participants who underwent a nine-to-12-month program at Takiwasi Center did not return to substance abuse, and more than 85 percent showed “statistically significant improvements” on the Addictions Severity Index, an assessment tool used to evaluate substance abuse treatment.
All of the 180 patients analyzed between 2017 and 2019 said the traditional icaros played significant roles in their healing. The surveyed patients said the icaros, which are traditionally sung by shamans who are also under the influence of ayahuasca, changed their psycho-emotional state and helped to foster “unblocking,” which can include physical and emotional purging. Ayahuasca ceremonies typically last about six to eight hours.
Graham’s findings support the belief that psychedelics like ayahuasca offer spiritual healing benefits as well as some physical benefits. Psychedelics including ayahuasca, psilocybin, LSD, Iboga, and ketamine, have been the focus of a growing body of research into their benefits in treating a number of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Graham’s research stems from his exploration into the relationship between music and altered states of consciousness, specifically cultures with music-rich healing traditions.
“I got to thinking, ‘Maybe I can add something to this conversation. Maybe I can help add some context and hopefully amplify the perspectives of traditional healers using these medicines/substances.’ The healers inherited practices going back hundreds of years to their ancestors,” Graham said.
According to Graham’s findings, the participants’ responses about the impact of the icaros were the same regardless of culture or demographic background — 58 perent of the men were South American and 42 percent were Western European.
The research doesn’t make any conclusions about ayahuasca or icaros in healing substance abuse. Graham says it’s a process, which is why the Takiwasi Center hosts guests for up to a year. And, while there’s abundant anecdotal evidence supporting ayahuasca as an effective tool, Graham says more research is needed.
“A lot of people have been hearing more about ayahuasca in the past 10-15 years. Some claim they were reborn, with some major trauma healed after one ayahuasca session. That can happen, but that is not the normal case,” Graham said.
“What’s important to note is that there needs to be more collaboration between researchers across disciplinary lines,” he said. “Clinical researchers should be thinking of more traditional uses as they create therapies in hospital-type environments.”
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