How can humans free themselves from the painful cycles of addiction? Gabor Maté, a medical doctor who specializes in addiction treatment, suggests that ayahuasca might hold the answer. In this video, he explains how addiction imprints itself on the brain and how the psychedelic substance can help release people from their destructive habits.
“We come into the world whole and perfect, although with our potential completely unrealized,” Maté says in the video. “To the extent that the world does not see us for the whole and perfect beings that we are, we cover up, and we lose our connection to ourselves.”
“That’s where addictions come in,” the doctor continues. “Whatever we can’t do for ourselves, we want to see something from the outside to complete ourselves.”
Maté works with people who are pushed aside, stigmatized and forgotten about by society, who are trapped by their compulsions to relentlessly pursue sex, gambling, heroin and other addictions.
“I define addiction as any behavior that has negative consequences, that one is compelled to persist in, and relapse into and crave, despite those negative consequences,” he says. “The addictive personality is someone with the sense of deficient emptiness, with the sense of inchoate distress, without the capacity to sooth themselves and regulate themselves without that external source of relief.”
One of his patients in the video describes heroin as the feeling of being young and sick and having his mother come in, wrap him in a blanket and feed him chicken noodle soup. Maté explains how heroin stimulates the same part of the brain associated with pain relief, pleasure, reward and human connection.
“If you’ve never had that from other sources, and you do heroin for the first time, you feel normal for the first time in your life,” he says. “You feel that life is worth living for the first time in your life.”
The brain’s circuits then build up pathways reinforcing the notion that normalcy and comfort can only come through the substance. Many people with addictions are never able to break free from their learned patterns.
That’s where ayahuasca comes in. The drink, brewed from plants that grow in the Amazon and used for centuries by native peoples for healing and religious purposes, can have a powerful effect, especially when taken as part of a ceremonial rite. Maté doesn’t expect that his patients could simply take the drink, submit to the ayahuasca experience and be healed. But “if there was a context in which the medication was used appropriately, ayahuasca, then I could see it being a big potential help,” he says.
The power of the drink comes from how it helps separate people from their egos, which allows them to get an unfiltered view of themselves.
“Ayahuasca shows you very clearly the psychological baggage that you’ve carried all your life,” Maté says. “You no longer see it as an inevitable and inextricable part of yourself.”
“All the pain and all the meanings that you’ve created from that pain, and all the ways you see yourself and all the interpretations you made of the world because of early experience, can drop away and you can just be in the present,” the doctor continues. “If you see it as baggage then you can put it down.”
The other part of the ayahuasca experience is allowing those who drink it a glimpse of the joy that is possible in life. “It shows you your full potential as a loving, connected human being,” says Maté. “It gives you a sense of being connected and being deeper than you thought you were. That has the potential to heal addictions.”