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Finding God in a Plant

The intersection of neuroscience, botany, and religion.

Key points

  • Many of our most important treatments for mental illness have been discovered in plants.
  • Plants do not produce chemicals for our benefit, nutrition, or entertainment.
  • Consumption of plants containing psychoactive chemicals generated images that were incorporated in to religious rituals.

“The greatest of all sins is indeed the sin of ignorance.” —Sayings of The Buddha.

Plants are important to humans, although the feeling is probably not mutual. Many of our most important treatments for mental illness have been discovered in plants. Why do plants have such profound effects on our brain function? In truth, plants have no interest in humans at all. For the past 120,000 years, since the origin of our species, we have been, and will likely remain in spite of our role in global warming, almost entirely irrelevant to them. Why? Because humans are the least of their problems. The Earth is home to over one trillion different species; invertebrates such as insects make up 80 percent of all of those species; plants make up about 17 percent. In terms of total biomass, plants and insects are the dominant two species on the planet. Plants and insects have evolved a complicated symbiotic relationship: Plants need the insects for their own survival and procreation and also must avoid being eaten by them.

The problem for plants is that they are not mobile; they cannot simply run away from the bugs or swat them with a limb. Their solution was to synthesize a large variety of chemicals to influence the insects’ behavior to serve the needs of the plant. These chemicals, many of which are psychoactive, are produced only for the plant’s interactions with insects. Plants do not produce chemicals for our benefit, nutrition, or entertainment. Humans are simply bystanders to the ancient battle between plants and insects.

Humans and plants share over 3000 genes that are critical to survival. This shared genetic message due to a shared evolutionary history explains why our human brains respond to the contents of plants. Plants and human brains produce and utilize chemicals that are the basis for our normal brain function. For this reason, the contents of plants can alter our conscious experience. The inadvertent, and then intentional, consumption of plants containing psychoactive chemicals generated images, illusions, and archetype images that were incorporated into ancient mythologies.

The appearance of many small mystical societies in ancient times that incorporated psychoactive plants in their rituals ultimately evolved into more familiar modern-day organized religions, such as the Native American Church (peyote) and the Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (ayahuasca containing DMT) that have led to the use of semi-synthetic psychoactives, such as the Neo-American Church (LSD), and the Temple of the True Inner Light (DPT) and Sangoma (2C-B). These substances are ostensibly used to facilitate each person’s communication with their gods or goddesses via the trance-like state they induced. The hallucinogenic chemical DMT spontaneously forms in the anoxic human brain during cardiac arrest. People who survive this near-death experience often report meeting their creator.

The pervasive use of hallucinogenic plants may underlie some of the fantastic stories that have become associated with various religions. For example, the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel describes the prophet’s encounter with beings from outer space during the sixth century BCE; a more plausible explanation might be that the experience was initiated by the consumption of a hallucinogenic plant, possibly henbane given its popularity at that time in that part of the world. The visions described are very similar to the colorful, sparkling images and pulsating wheels spinning within a row of outer wheels reported by modern users of hallucinogenic drugs.

The holy anointing oil mentioned in the Book of Exodus might have contained extracts from the cannabis plant or the muskrat root containing the psychoactive chemical asarone. Extracts of the psychoactive Amanita muscaria mushroom were used by Tantric Buddhists during the 8th century. Some ancient Egyptian religions were centered around the use of the psilocybin-containing mushroom while the ancient Hindus favored extracts from the Datura plant.

The pervasiveness of plants containing psychoactive chemicals probably explains why humans have invented over 15,000 unique gods, goddesses, and sacred objects since the origin of our species. Only relatively recently, when humans stumbled onto a battlefield where an incredibly ancient war between insects and plants was raging did we unintentionally find our pantheon of gods.

References

Wenk GL (2019) Your Brain on Food, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press)

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