An Experiential Typology of Sacred Plants

I want to think about three sacred plants — the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom. These plants — well, actually, one of them is a fungus — are often discussed in terms of their single active molecule — dimethyltryptamine, mescaline, and psilocybin respectively.

Sacred plants such as these are commonly categorized by the chemical structure of their single active molecule. Thus peyote is categorized by the phenethylamine core of its mescaline molecule; ayahuasca and teonanácatl are categorized by the tryptamine cores of their dimethyltryptamine and psilocybin molecules. This classification also relates the plants to their putative physiological effects. The action of peyote is categorized as catecholaminergic, because the phenethylamine core of mescaline resembles the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine; the action of ayahuasca and teonanácatl is classified as serotonergic, because their tryptamine core is the same as that of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

But the relationship between structure and effect is far from clear. A very rapid tolerance, known as tachyphylaxis, is produced on repeated administration of mescaline and psilocin, the psychoactive metabolite of psilocybin; yet no such tolerance develops for the hallucinogenic effects of DMT. So, despite their similar tryptamine cores, there are significant physiological differences between psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine. At the same time, cross-tolerance occurs between mescaline and psilocybin, but not between either of these and DMT. So, despite their differing tryptamine and phenethylamine cores, there are significant physiological similarities between psilocybin and mescaline.

Moreover, most academic research on these plants ultimately derives from experimentation with lysergic acid diethylamide-25. LSD was, after all, clearly a single active molecule, very potent, and more or less readily available. But LSD is also atypical in many ways. Although usually classified as a tryptamine, it is structurally anomalous, containing both phenethylamine and tryptamine structures. Moreover, as opposed to both phenethylamine and tryptamine hallucinogens, in which the C—N—N chain is conformationally flexible, the C—C—N chain of LSD is incorporated into a more complex and rigid ring structure. Because of this hybrid structure, LSD, unlike the other tryptamines, binds not only to serotonin receptors but to dopamine and epinephrine receptors as well. Some researchers therefore have proposed a special class of ergolines, as opposed to simple tryptamines, which would include LSD and a few very closely related compounds.

Despite all this, there has been a pervasive assumption among academic researchers that the psychedelic experience is paradigmatically that of LSD, and that the experience of dimethyltryptamine, mescaline, and psilocybin can be lumped together with that of LSD under such rubrics as altered state of consciousness. Such terms refer vaguely to what the experiences of taking LSD, mescaline, dimethyltryptamine, and psilocybin — and maybe DOM and MDMA, but maybe not — presumably have in common. That there is such a common experience is simply assumed. Of current researchers, apparently only Richard Glennon has attempted a typology, based primarily on animal drug discrimination studies, which classifies these substances as hallucinogenic, central stimulant, or other, with some substances occupying more than one category.

I think we need a better typology than that. The goal should be to understand the phenomenology of the sacred plants under their ceremonial conditions of use, not when their single active molecules are ingested under experimental or recreational conditions. These three sacred plants seem like a good place to start thinking about such an experiential typology.

I think it is pretty clear that the effects of the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom are phenomenologically distinct. I think that one way to capture those differences is to think of their effects — indeed, the effects of all sacred plants — as lying within a three-dimensional space defined by three distinct axes, which I will call here hallucinogenic, empathogenic, and entheogenic. Within this three-dimensional space, of course, there can be gradations and combinations; it is as if each sacred plant had three slider bars, labeled hallucinations, empathy, and insight, which could be adjusted independently.

It seems to me that ayahuasca is paradigmatically high on the hallucinogen axis, peyote on the empathogen axis, and teonanácatl on the entheogen axis. While all three sacred plants share certain effects, predominantly visual distortions and often brightly colored geometric illusions, the experience of each lies at a unique point in this three-dimensional experiential space.

The ayahuasca drink produces visual experiences of objects and people that are solid, detailed, three-dimensional, animated, interactive, and embedded in ordinary perceptual space; and auditory experiences which are immediate, external, directional, locatable in space, and often coordinated with visual experiences. Ayahuasca, then, can reasonably be said to paradigmatically hallucinogenic. Although LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin — what we can call the classical psychedelics — have also been called hallucinogens, there is a general consensus that this term is inappropriate.

Thus, in many studies of these classical psychotropics, hallucinations — that is, perceptions "to which the subjects reacted as real" — were rarely reported and were considered a minor consequence; the vivid, mostly geometric visual illusions that are one of the hallmarks of the classical psychedelics “are seldom perceived as having real outside existence.” Researchers Peyton Jacob and Alexander Shulgin went so far as to say that, for these classical psychedelics, the term hallucinogen is today “allowed as a euphemism, although that term is also inaccurate because hallucinations are not part of the usual syndrome.” Another researcher, David Nichols, agreed: “Hallucinogen is now, however, the most common designation in the scientific literature, although it is an inaccurate descriptor of the actual effects of these drugs.”

Jonathan Ott, R. Gordon Wasson, and others famously proposed the term entheogen for these classical psychedelics, instead of the term hallucinogen, because, as Ott explicitly stated, the "shamanic inebriants did not provoke hallucinations." Rather, said Ott, the classical psychedelics produced "transcendent and beatific states of communion with deity." The term entheogen, meaning something like realizing the divine within, was intended to refer to the primarily cognitive depth- or insight-producing nature of the LSD experience.

These entheogenic experiences are frequently characterized by the psychoanalytic term oceanic feeling — as a dissolution of ego boundaries, a peak experience, a mystical experience, oceanic boundlessness, a temporal and spatial expansion of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries. Such experiences often give a sense of having attained a deeper understanding or new revelation concerning some important topic, such as the nature of existence or the qualities of God. Daniel Freedman, in an influential paper published in 1968, speaks of the experience in terms of portentousness — “the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify, to experience boundlessness and ‘boundaryless’ events, from the banal to the profound.” Just as ayahuasca is paradigmatically hallucinogenic, the teonanácatl mushroom is paradigmatically entheogenic in just this sense.

Descriptions of such entheogenic experiences are clearly different from those given for ayahuasca. It may be worth adding that the famed Amazonian ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes drank ayahuasca scores of times, but claims never to have had a “mystical experience.” Rather than any earth-shaking experience, he once told William S. Burroughs, “all I saw was colors.” Even making allowances for Schultes's rather dry Harvard wit, the distinction is clear.

In the same way, in 1983, Ralph Metzner coined the term empathogen — as opposed to both hallucinogen and entheogen — to denote the designer drug MDMA and some of its phenethylamine relatives, whose effect is primarily to induce feelings of empathy. In 1986, David Nichols proposed the alternative term entactogen, meaning something like producing a touching within. His motives were primarily tactical: he believed that empathogen sounded too much like pathogen. He also thought the earlier term was too limiting, since clinical use of MDMA was intended to go beyond the enhancement of empathy.

Interestingly, the phenethylamine core of mescaline is most closely shared, not with the other classical psychedelics, but rather with MDMA, the exemplary empathogen. Indeed, some users maintain that, as a class, the phenethylamines are more sensual, emotional, and interpersonal than the more cognitive, abstract, and ideational tryptamines. Such empathogens create feelings of warmth, sympathy, and closeness with other people. While the experience of the peyote cactus includes entheogenic components, a significant part of the experience, especially in a social setting, as in a ceremony of the Native American Church, is emotional and relational rather than cognitive — paradigmatically empathogenic.


  1. I agree with you that these sacred plants deserve different classifications than what they currently have. Having intimate knowledge with each of these three medicines, I can attest to their innate differences.

    However necessary a reclassification would be, at this moment it doesn't seem like the scientific community would be willing to take steps toward this. Now I'm no scientist (yet) so I may not know what I'm talking about; while you make a good argument, it seems like the scientific community would not be willing to redefine these for a couple of reasons, one being that I don't think they would rearrange classifications in which a lot of the evidence is from subjective accounts and two, because of the already existing bias against these substances. But I don't know for sure, do you think there is enough existing 'concrete' chemical knowledge to prove that these classifications need to be reconsidered? Whatever the case is, it doesn't mean we should give up the quest! More and better knowledge of these medicines will help society at large to understand that they are not inherently 'bad', and all knowledge is worth having.

    You quoted, “the capacity of the mind to see more than it can tell, to experience more than it can explicate, to believe in and be impressed with more than it can rationally justify, to experience boundlessness and ‘boundaryless’ events, from the banal to the profound.” I just wanted to say, wow. That is a good quote you dug up. This is a very succinct definition of the overwhelming feeling I experience in many of my encounters with medicine. I will be saving that to use later. :-)

    I wanted to let you know of an interesting journal that I have been reading for a while; it is the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. You may already be familiar with it but just in case- there it is.

    Great post, thank you!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think chemists will continue to classify things by their chemical structure as, of course, they should. What we need, in addition, is a phenomenological approach to the experience of the sacred plants, which then may — or may not — correlate to chemical structures. For example, it is interesting that peyote, the most empathogenic of the three sacred plants discussed here, contains mescaline, which has a phenethylamine core, like MDMA and unlike, say, psilocybin.

    There are a lot of interesting things to think about here. A very rapid tolerance, known as tachyphylaxis, is produced on repeated administration of mescaline and psilocin, the psychoactive metabolite of psilocybin; yet no such tolerance develops for the hallucinogenic effects of DMT. So, despite their similar tryptamine cores, there are significant physiological differences between psilocybin and dimethyltryptamine. At the same time, cross-tolerance occurs between mescaline and psilocybin, but not between either of these and DMT. So, despite their differing phenethylamine and tryptamine cores, there are significant physiological similarities between mescaline and psilocybin.

    It may turn out that the three-dimensional descriptive scheme proposed here will turn out to be inadequate or inaccurate. But I think we need to stop assuming that all sacred plants have the same effect. I think that such an assumption — that the effects of dimethyltryptamine ought to be entheogenic, like those of psilocybin — may have been what troubled Rick Strassman in his original DMT experiments.

    It is always good to hear from you.

  3. While I really appreciate this approach you've embarked on, I do actually disagree with your semantics and choice of 3 axises.
    Psilocybin is extremely close to DMT. In fact, it's just DMT with an extra hydroxy chunk on it that permits it to escape the digestive monoamine oxidizer. So this slight structural difference may lead to categorically different effects than pure DMT, I think they're experiential similarity is more note-worthy than their difference.
    But as per mescaline, salvia, THC, ibogaine, etc, I think we do need to work on better observational descriptions, although we should dig deeper into the linguistic and poetic usages of 'scientific' terms, rather than rely solely on the recent tags of hallucinogen, empathogen, deleteriant, psychointegrator, entheogen, etc.

  4. Thank you for joining the discussion. I am certainly not married to any particular descriptive terminology. I do think we need to develop and refine an experiential typology; if we are going to try and correlate structure and function — which we may or may not be able to do — then the function part of the correlation needs a lot of work.

    What we should not do is cede the descriptive terminology solely to chemists, regulatory agencies, and law enforcement. And I agree completely that we need a better and deeper understanding of the poetic and bardic descriptions of the sacred plants in the indigenous cultures that developed their use.

    Thank you for The Teleomorph, which is, in my opinion, one the most interesting and enjoyable blogs on the Web.

  5. Apropos of the linguistic, the bardic, the poetic I would point you to your post here;

    I feel whilst it important to examine these subjects from within the scientific world view, we need to develop a language of respect for the relationships we establish with these "chemical compounds", or as I am sure your teachers would have it Steve, spirits.

    Whilst I have difficulty with much of what Regardie called "cosmic new age foo foo", i also feel that it clearly an arrogance to suggest we are the only sentience in our biospheres.

  6. I agree with you completely, and I particularly like your expression language of respect. Clearly we have a long way to go. I think perhaps all we can do is develop small pockets of resistance to the cultural arrogance you describe, and model for others an appropriate respect for the sentience that pervades our beautiful small planet.

    Thank you for your comment.

  7. This is a fascinating conversation. What I want to add to it is my experience of relationships with spiritual beings experienced during the use of the teonanácatl mushroom ceremonies arriving to continue working with me in Ayahuasca sessions. While there may be distinct differences in the two types of medicine, I find a mostly common ground in navigating the realms encountered in each. My intention, my focus, my prayers, all these continue to affect the environment itself, and my allies continue to be a force for the direction and events that unfold.

    I was actually quietly stunned when I first entered an ayahuasca ceremony to find the landscape of the ceremony so familiar. I guess I would say it's a bit like still being in a recognizable house with windows and doors etc., but the inhabitants have their own culture and art and music and interests. They have a different history and purpose and experience as a being themselves. Like me they have an established network of casually social and also more intimate types of relationships.

    For me, the experience is more akin to relating to a living being. What becomes important is polite and respectful introduction, quiet conversation in order to understand each other, gift giving and receiving, building trust through clear evidence of honestly held values, and acceptance of each others differences.

    The medicines for me are clearly more conscious than I am. They can see and show me layers of reality that I can only witness in their presence.I treat them as both elders and as sacred because of the value I place on what I learn from them, about myself and about my life when seen through their teachings.

  8. This is indeed a fascinating discussion — and the more voices the better. Thank you for joining in. The experiential overlaps are as interesting as the differences. I really like your house analogy. Please stay in touch.