Ambio’s cofounder, Jonathan Dickinson, recently published a series of case studies in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness that aims to better describe the ibogaine experience. The report highlights a sense of ‘intersubjectivity’ that many people describe. This can include a sense of being able to interact with someone or something, whether that is another person, a reflection of oneself, God, or “the medicine.”
The majority of people who take ibogaine are able to recognize themselves through the experience. People commonly know where they are in the room and what is happening. Usually, they recognize their inner dialogue and sense of who they are. Even when there is a very immersive experience unfolding, people usually feel situated in it spatially. It is common to describe moving through it, or witnessing scenes from a familiar inner vantage point. This is distinct from other psychedelics that can lead to a sense of ‘ego dissolution.’ Alongside this strong sense of the self that is situated in the experience, many people have a sense of ‘others’ that come into focus. Often, people engage in some form of dialogue with these personalities that they experience as intelligent, informative, and even helpful.
It may sound strange for western medicine to grapple with a sense of intersubjectivity with a transpersonal other. However, there is a relevant example in medical literature. Sleep paralysis is a fairly common occurrence that affects many people at some point in their life, and occurs across cultures and throughout history. Many people have hypnagogic or hypnopompic visions or sensations. This comes from slipping into a REM-like dream state before falling completely asleep, or waking up in the REM state. Most people describe being unable to move, and sensing some presence in the room with them that is often described as malevolent. There are many mythological interpretations of this presence (the incubus, for example). Often, it involves a being that either physically or magically holds people down so they can’t move.
There are some similarities and differences to explore between sleep paralysis and the ibogaine experience. For example, some believe that ibogaine also produces a waking REM state, which is at least partly to account for the visions many people see. The preferred term to describe ibogaine’s effects are “oneirogenic,” suggesting this stimulation of waking dreams. Also, even though people do not feel paralyzed or unable to move, ibogaine does heavily affect movement. It causes ataxia, which can make it very difficult to walk, as well as dizziness or vertigo, and tremors that can make hand-eye coordination difficult. Perhaps the most important distinction is that, the presence people describe on ibogaine is almost always described as helpful or informative. Even if it comes off as having a sassy or sarcastic character, at worst people describe its presence as neutral, but almost never threatening.
Dickinson’s paper lays the groundwork for making this connection and discussing what he calls the sense of transpersonal intersubjectivity in ibogaine experiences. It does this by engaging with three in-depth narrative case reports. The excerpts below highlight a few of these descriptions.
“I kind of just drifted off. The next thing I know I’m a Mexican little boy and I’m praying on the side of a road with semis going by—big semis. It is really noisy. I’m watching my sister to make sure she doesn’t go on the road. I’m the oldest. I’m the boss. There’s two small little boys playing there in a trash pile behind me and we’re sifting through the trash looking for cool stuff. That’s where we play. It’s really, really poor.
“Off to the side is a cinder block house. Out of this house comes running a little old lady and she’s scolding me in Spanish, saying, ‘I told you to get inside. Now you get inside.’ In Spanish! And I could actually understand without any effort.”
“Then I saw my mother’s father, who also passed away long before I was born. He was one great man here in Gabon a long, long time ago. My mother barely knew him because I think she was also young when he passed. And he also gave me a message for her, told me what I should tell her. He told me that he wanted to see her too, and that she needed to take care of the village… I went there, I think, when I was maybe 8, but that was so long ago I barely remember the place. He gave me instruction on how my mother should handle the place, because there is a small river that passes through her village… My grandfather passed away maybe 30-something years ago. I have never seen him, ever in my life. But, he told me that my mother should cut the grass from where the river starts to where the house finishes. And it’s maybe, well, less than half a kilometer.”
“It showed me at this one point this teacher teaching kids about the two items that are really far out ahead of the pack. There’s going to be, you know, one extreme to the positive side, and one extreme to the negative side. And the teacher would say, we don’t have to consider these because they’re so extreme. My boyfriend called and I was explaining to him, and he said, ‘Oh yea the outliers.’”
“It was just immediately confirming that what it wanted me to look at was the extreme part of how those things do play a part and do play a role. It was weird because that thing came up and the medicine was like, ‘You’re an outlier.’”
Dickinson is currently conducting a follow-up study exploring the oneirogenic experience ibogaine therapy with a larger sample. The new study following 20 people and assesses various personal traits and other factors that might influence the the ibogaine experience. Unlike other research, Dickinson’s analysis is informed by significant personal experience with iboga and ibogaine, and engages directly with narrative reports to demonstrate certain things that other researchers have either not identified or prioritized.
It’s not clear whether these types experiences are helpful in the overall context of ibogaine-assisted therapy, or how they relate to ibogaine’s therapeutic benefits. Many people do not have experiences that are very visual, interactive, memorable, enjoyable, or conclusive, and yet still end up with life-changing benefits from the experience overall. While our priority at Ambio is support these long-term changes, and to provide a medically safe environment, our programs are also designed around helping to explore and understand aspects of the experiences that can emerge during the process.