There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca for treating depression and anxiety. However, the mechanisms of action involved in ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects are unclear. Mindfulness and cognitive flexibility may be two possible psychological mechanisms. Like other classic psychedelics, ayahuasca also leads to an ‘afterglow’ effect of improved subjective wellbeing that persists after the acute effects have subsided. This period may also offer a window of increased therapeutic potential.
This research explored the effect of ayahuasca on mindfulness and cognitive flexibility in the afterglow period by comparing three self report measures of mindfulness (Five Facets Mindfuless Questionnaire, FFMQ), decentring (Experiences Questionnaire, EQ) and cognitive flexibility (Cognitive Flexibility Scale, CFS), and neuropsychological task performance on the Stroop and Wisconsin Picture Card Sorting Task (WPCST). Participants were measured before drinking ayahuasca and again approx. 24 hours after ingestion, in a sample of 48 ayahuasca drinkers, whilst controlling for prior ayahuasca use.
We found mindfulness (as measured by the FFMQ total scores) and decentring (measured by the EQ) significantly increased in the 24 hours after use. Four of the five distinct mindfulness facets were also significantly increased (Observe, Describe, Act with Awareness and Non-reactivity). Cognitive flexibility (as measured by the CFS and the WPCST) was also significantly improved in the 24 hours after ayahuasca use. Changes in mindfulness and cognitive flexibility were not influenced by prior ayahuasca use.
The present study provides further evidence of ayahuasca’s ability to enhance mindfulness and highlights it as a potential psychological mechanism of the psychotherapeutic effects of ayahuasca. This was the first known study to measure cognitive flexibility in the ‘afterglow’ period and suggests it is worthy of further exploration as another possible psychological mechanism. Given psychological gains to mindfulness and cognitive felxibility occurred regardless of prior ayahuasca use suggests ayahuasca offers potentially therapeutic effects for both psychedelic naïve and experienced ayahuasca drinkers.