Essay: Henrik Jungaberle and Rolf Verres on Rituals of Intoxication in Heidelberg University’s Ruperto Carola

Henrik Jungaberle

Henrik Jungaberle and Rolf Verres on Ritual Research and Psychoactive Substances

Rituals of Intoxication (from Ruperto Carola 2003/2)

Observing, being open to the worldview of the study participants, putting theories on hold for the time being – this characterizes the attitude of the scientists working on the use and misuse of psychoactive substances in the new Collaborative Research Center “Ritual Dynamics”. Henrik Jungaberle and Rolf Verres describe the ambitious project, whose central question is: What significance do rituals have for the controlled use of psychoactive substances? Another question is: Which factors are decisive for drug use to lead some people into deprivation, while others remain healthy with pleasure or occasional use? The multi-layered investigations serve to find new prevention strategies, too – which are all the more promising the less society excludes intoxication experiences, but cultivates them.

The reason for this was a competition held by the Heidelberg Medical Faculty in 1827. A year later, the two Heidelberg students Ludwig Reimann and Wilhelm Posselt had isolated the active ingredient nicotine for the first time. The tobacco plants they needed for this purpose came from fields in the Electoral Palatinate, where they grew abundantly in the mild climate. The isolation of tobacco was not the first result of Heidelberg drug research. Nor was it to be the last.

The cultural history of tobacco is typical of the cultural history of many psychoactive substances: it ranges from the ritualized ingestion of a sacrament to a largely automated act of consumption with risks and side effects. Even today, tobacco is considered a religious and medicinal plant by some Amazonian peoples; over time, however, it has increasingly become an economic and financial commodity. While the former characteristics do not play a role in our society, the state interest in the annual 12.1 billion euros in tobacco tax revenue in Germany contributes significantly to maintaining the associated social and medical problems – around 111,000 tobacco-related deaths per year.

The history of Heidelberg drug research continued after Reimann and Posselt in the 1920s with scientists such as Willy Mayer-Gross and Kurt Beringer. They began “sublime investigations” with cocaine, tea, coffee, morphine and mescaline. The mescaline intoxication was considered by Beringer as a means to analyze pathological phenomena of consciousness. Even sensory-physiological and psychological experiments with banisterine, a component of the Amazon hallucinogen ayahuasca, were already being conducted at that time. Its use is also one of the topics of the study on “Ritual Dynamics and Salutogenesis in the Use and Abuse of Psychoactive Substances” (RISA Study), which has been ongoing in the Institute of Medical Psychology since summer 2002.

In addition to laboratory studies of psychoactive substances, disciplines that investigate the social and cultural space in which drug use takes place are of particular interest. The political and legal framework of drug use is also part of the environment of preventive medicine.

From a medical point of view, the aging campaign “No power to drugs” is to be criticized not because of its often thematized double standards, but because of its limited preventive effectiveness. Nevertheless, the slogan clearly reveals the deeper goal of any training in the use of psychoactive substances: not to lose the personal competence to control the pharmacological substance.

Alongside drug misery exists a more positive culture of intoxication. Millions of people consume intoxicating substances, hope for positive effects from them, and in many cases have experienced them. The fact that for many this hope leads to even greater difficulties in life and medical problems does not stop most people from seeking intoxication, ecstasy and anesthesia with the help of herbal or pharmacological stimuli – but also “expansion of consciousness,” insight and religious experience.

The motives and courses of drug use by young people and adults are more diverse today than they were in the sixties and seventies of the last century. The differences between the groups of substances treated under the heading of “drug” are also enormous, a fact that the public debate and part of the scientific debate have not yet done justice to.

One might ask what rituals have to do with this topic. Under what circumstances can drug use be considered a ritual? The Collaborative Research Center 619 “Ritual Dynamics – Sociocultural and Historical Processes in Cultural Comparison”, established in Heidelberg in the summer of 2002, aims to investigate rituals in such diverse life worlds as Greek antiquity, among Taiwanese aboriginal groups, or on the Internet. As a medical-psychological project, our study aims to prospectively describe patterns of drug use. In addition to a cultural studies objective, social techniques in the use of psychoactive substances will be assessed with regard to their risks or a possible controlled use of drugs. The aim is to expand basic knowledge in order to improve the prevention of substance misuse. For us, a drug is any substance that has a perceptual or experiential altering effect.

Scientifically, it makes no sense to distinguish between legal and illegal drugs. Epidemiological data still show alcohol and nicotine to be the most socially relevant substances and the most expensive for taxpayers. Along with medications, they are the most common gateway drugs. For example, approximately 42,000 deaths related to alcohol abuse were recorded nationwide for the year 2000. This figure compares with 1,835 people whose deaths are attributed to illicit substances – a large proportion of these deaths, in turn, are at the expense of opiate abuse. Around three million people regularly use so-called illegal psychoactive substances – the number of unreported cases is incalculably higher. About four million Germans have used ecstasy alone at least once in their lives.

These people do not all show up in psychiatric clinics, nor is there a presumed need for treatment for all of them. Instead of gradually converting many healthy people into sick people as a result of our diagnostic routines, it would probably be more useful to help form less harmful patterns of use among those who cannot be convinced to abstain. The core question of psychological interest is: What do people who use psychoactive substances seek, and how can a difference between fulfillment (as reaching a positive goal) and supplementary satisfaction (in the sense of a negative and self-deceiving practice) be defined?

Scientific strategies are offered by the tradition of salutogenetic research. It focuses on genetic resources and competencies as well as those developed in the individual’s learning history that enable people to deal with risks as consciously as possible and to avoid self-harm. A central question is: Why does drug use lead some people into personal and social decline, while others remain occasional users or overcome periods of misuse on their own to return to abstinence or a more healthy recreational use?

From a medical perspective, it is very instructive to turn to both individual life skills and differences in “social technologies” that are salient between, for example, the use of alcohol and the party drug Ecstasy. This leads to criteria to better distinguish controlled, risky, abusive, and dependent patterns of use.

Rituals are not regarded in this study as archaic, irrational and pre-scientific phenomena, but as social techniques with which people make a common world of values and goals accessible and present.

Through body language, social dramaturgy, and symbolism, rituals mediate a mutual understanding of rules, norms, core stories, and interpretations. Rituals are social spaces that are more or less dynamic or stabilizing for the identity of individuals and groups. This applies to a Christian celebration of the Eucharist as well as to substance-related rituals in which people want to share intoxication and ecstasy or even just cheerfulness.

Dependent drug use is also revealed as a product of dysfunctional rituals or as a weakly ritualized pattern of use. In its six research fields, the RISA study examines on the one hand “classical” rituals, such as those found in European groups that use the South American hallucinogen ayahuasca for healing and religious immersion. More and more often, non-European shamans are invited, who try to harmonize symbols, gestures, procedures and chants from their cultures with the local way of life. On the other hand, we are also comparatively examining the astonishingly rule- and symbol-guided “drug events” of young people, who make use of their own world of signs and symbols, which is not always accessible from the outside. Examples are piercings and tattoos as a “second skin”, unique music styles, festivals in nature, or in “industrial temples” oriented to the change of seasons. Here as there, very different norms and standardizations, explicit rites, and ritualized behaviors are observable.

In terms of cultural history, many of the psychoactive substances still in common use today were used in religious and shamanic rites: hashish among the Scythians, high-proof alcohol and Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) among some shamanic healers of Siberia, mushrooms containing psilocybin in the culture of the Aztecs, ayahuasca among Indian groups of the Amazon, and probably LSD-like ergot alkaloids in the Greek Demeter cult at Eleusis. There are few reports of abusive or dependent uses in such socioculturally often homogeneous communities.

However, these are numerous in situations of social and personal upheaval, especially in the modern era. Examples include the various epidemics of drunkenness in industrialized Europe, the ether craze in Berlin in the 1920s, and of course the mass global spread of illicit psychoactive substances during the social and political ruptures of the 1960s and 1970s. Drug policy, and consequently the relevant preventive medicine, is still a child of these two decades. At that time, what began as the “war on drugs” from the United States led to an unprecedented global standardization of drug and narcotic regulations, legal and educational measures.

And yet, the use of even illicit psychoactive substances is now at levels far exceeding those of the 1970s. Societies around the world are resisting efforts to cut back and withdraw narcotics. Against this global backdrop, it is not surprising that young people and adults are inventively opposing the slogan “No power to drugs” and provoking instead with “No night without drugs” or “No power to the stupid.” Societal double standards that one-sidedly attribute the drug problem to a younger generation do not seem to work. Prevention campaigns must therefore be directed not at one age group but at all. The groups that are particularly at risk due to age-typical risk behavior also need special strategies. Targeting men and women with their different patterns of use has also proven effective.

Intoxication and risk-taking behavior go hand in hand, and in the last decade they have been reinforced by media trends that virtually demand risk-taking in the name of freedom and adventure. But is this the whole picture? Reading and understanding trends in social enclaves and at the margins of society is indeed part of a prevention approach that is willing to place harm reduction – “harm-reduction” or “safer-use” – alongside the abstinence goal. Beyond that, however, it is important to accept, even in the curricula, that many people seek borderline experiences and “being out of oneself” (ec-stasis) and have always made them accessible through psychological, physiological or pharmacological techniques. Here we have to plead for more realism and less black and white thinking.

Cultivating experiences of intoxication instead of marginalizing them should be an elementary interest of “enlightened” societies (in the sense of Philosophical Enlightenment). After all, it is not very intelligent in the long term to unintentionally promote constantly recurring sequences of drug-related protest cultures. For preventive medicine of the future, too, the substitution of drugs by non-pharmacological stimuli, for example, is likely to be a promising concept. As an example, reference should be made to the manifold possibilities of music therapy to trigger extraordinary states of consciousness, which hardly differ from drug effects.

The study does not only want to describe rituals, but also case histories, which should show the individual and nevertheless typical handling of psychoactive substances in a longitudinal perspective of up to ten years – including episodes of crises, life upheavals, but also the phases of productive living. To this end, we use questionnaires, interviews, group discussions, participant observation and film recordings (see also: While we have a wealth of psychiatric knowledge about pathological trajectories, we do not yet know enough about controlled or only episodically abusive trajectories and about the usually successful exit and transition behavior of illicit drug users in their mid-twenties. We also know little about those users of psychoactive substances who, inspired by therapeutic and religious practices and far from typical drug milieus, create their own forms of use motivated by their spiritualities or a search for meaning. Often, these are also established through ritual transfer from traditional cultures: non-European shamans or healers are invited and the Christian traditions of mystical world experience are ignored or integrated syncretistically.

We know little about those functional rituals that help to regulate the consumption of illicit substances in small and larger groups in a similar way that is predominantly the case with alcohol, for example in the form of toasts and the cultivation of wine. For it would, of course, be illusory not to place the number of alcohol deaths and addictions alongside those millions of alcohol consumers who are well able to control their consumption. The same is true for other drugs and for many illegal substances. Even some studies from the 1970s describe rituals as value- and rule-creating social spaces that reduce the potential risks of psychoactive substances. If these rules and norms are lost – at this point, consider the growing social incompetence in our schools, which has also been noted in the PISA debate – people turn to addictive substances in a detrimental way without knowing enough about them.

Our first forays through the “social jungle” reveal a much more differentiated “drug world” than was expressed in reports from the 1970s. The use of illegal drugs can no longer be stereotyped as a byproduct of social declassification or as a mere protest culture. We are observing a kind of emancipated wilderness that is aware of legal restrictions but also self-confidently makes use of illegal drugs. Cocaine consumption in Munich’s bourgeois milieu exists just as naturally as the temporary performance-enhancing self-medication of students or the consumption of amphetamines in managerial circles, through which they hope for a long-term improvement of performance. At the beginning of the seventies, Gerdes had recorded the “search for the present” as an expression of protest against the adult culture of the market economy, which was perceived as threatening. Today, in addition to that impulse against the “velociferous” acceleration (Goethe) and complexity of our everyday world, we thus encounter a wealth of subtle differences and contradictory social practices.

Occasionally, these appear in the guise of an anti-scientific, anti-theoretical and anti-market-economy affect with a counter-enlightenment gesture. Sometimes they bear the mark of social self-destruction – just think of the highly topical excessive drinking rituals of some Russian-German immigrants. Occasionally we also see the desire for “instant enlightenment” in the guise of simplified psychotherapeutic ideas – zeitgeisty alongside fast love, fast money, fast relationship change. But we can also observe the carefully designed, discreet ceremony that people tell us has led to lasting and fruitful personal development. Our attitude at the beginning of the long-term, mixed-methods study is simple: observe, be open to the worldview of our study participants, put theories aside for the time being. Or, to speak once again with Goethe: “Theories are usually hastings of the impatient mind, which would like to be rid of phenomena.”

And what is medicine looking for in this “social jungle”? It is searching for functioning self-organizing processes that help maintain people’s health even in the face of boundary experiences. In short, it is looking for tools for successful prevention strategies.

Dr. sc. hum. Henrik Jungaberle (1996-2014) und Prof. Dr. med. Dipl.-Psych. Rolf Verres (Director of the Institute from 1995-2013)
Institute of Medical Psychology | Psychosomatic University Hospital
Bergheimer Straße 20, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany
Collaborative Research Area 619 Ritual Dynamics:

Rituale des Rausches | Ruperto Carola 2003/2

April 4th, 2003

Ruperto Carola” is Heidelberg University’s research magazine: “Each of its issues reports on scientific findings and ongoing research projects at Heidelberg University. Each issue is dedicated to a socially relevant focus topic on which Heidelberg researchers across disciplines and subjects present their scientific work. In generally understandable language, the authors show the many ways in which research is conducted at Heidelberg University.

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The establishment of the MIND Foundation is a long-time, sustainable outcome of the transdisciplinary research that Henrik conducted at the Institute of Medical Psychology, University Hospital Heidelberg between 1996-2014 – and particularly in the SFB 619. The Institute was headed by Prof. Dr. Rolf Verres at that time. MIND is a European non-profit science and education organization that promotes psychedelic research and therapy.

OVID is the clinical partner organization of MIND. The OVID Health Systems GmbH is dedicated to establishing high-quality psychotherapy supported by psychedelic states. This includes the development of novel psychedelic drugs. OVID was founded by Prof. Dr. med. Gerhard Gründer, Henrik and Andrea Jungaberle, Willy Schweitzer, and Maximilian von Heyden in 2020.