Why did I become a scientist? I think I owe it to a specific kind of cactus, known as the San Pedro or Echinopsis pachanoi.
It all started after I finished three years in the Israeli army. Those three years are tough — a mental struggle, not just a physical one. And they come right after high school, at the age when kids from other countries are traveling the world or getting drunk in college.
After finishing the army, like most of my peers, I hooked up with some of my best friends and went for a long trip in Central and South America. The main reason for traveling is to run as far away as possible from anything that has to do with Israel or the Israeli mentality. At age 22, I finally felt free. I grew my hair long, stopped shaving, threw my watch away and tried to look as untidy as I could. This was not unique behavior. We all wanted to do the opposite of what was required in the army
Our plan was to start in Mexico and to go south on the Caribbean side all the way down to Colombia. After that, we didn’t have plan. This was an amazing time. Sitting on the beach every day, eating tropical fruits, drinking, smoking and a bunch of other stuff best left unmentioned. As time passed I felt more and more at home. I got used to this life. Eat when hungry, sleep when tired, try new things in between.
After five months of traveling we arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. By that time we were experienced travelers who were willing to try almost anything. We heard that there is a small village in the south of Ecuador that is beautiful and very relaxing. Our Lonely Planet guidebook described it as a place where the average lifespan is one of the longest in the world. The main reason is the climate. The difference in temperature between day and night is very small, and stable throughout the year. It stays between 18ºC-26ºC all year long. Not too humid, not too dry. Perfect.
But there was something else in the Lonely Planet that intrigued us. It was a description of an old Indian ritual performed in this village, where the shaman gives tribe members a small glass of green liquid to drink. My friends and I looked at each other. We knew right away that this would be the next stop on our journey.
After settling down in a nice guesthouse in the hills surrounding the village, we decided the time had come. We asked around and found out where we could buy the green liquid, which turned out to be made from the San Pedro cactus. It is strongly recommended not to try and make the drink by yourself. Miscalculating the amounts can end in a long stay in the hospital.
The local man who sold us the San Pedro only gave us one piece of advice: “For best results, try not to vomit after drinking.”
The liquid looked and smelled horrible: dark green and mushy, with a taste that I can feel even 20 years later. The size of the drink is a regular shot glass. But at that point it felt like a gallon. It took me 10 minutes to finish it. I tried all the tricks I could think of to get the taste out of my mouth. I drank some Coke, ate chocolate, a lollipop, chewed gum, you name it. Nothing helped.
After 30 minutes of struggle it happened. No more bad taste, only good energy and excitement. It was the most powerful feeling I have ever felt. Everything was beautiful, calm but at the same time brimming with energy. My senses seemed very sharp. I was able to hear a baby cry from the village in the valley. Looking at my hands, I could see the blood running in my veins. We went to a stream for a short swim and I noticed that something appeared different from the previous times we had been there. The water was crystal clear. I could see everything at the bottom. The trees were breathing, the birds were having a lively conversation and my friends and I were part of it all. We climbed a mountain, and watched the sunset from the top. I had a strong spiritual experience while watching the sun go down. I saw the real world and the supernatural one collide, then merge and disappear in the darkness. We walked down unable to see anything because the moon was not up yet, but we knew that nothing bad would happen to us because Mother Nature was protecting her children.
The effect lasted for 12 hours. We gradually settled down and for the next few days we didn’t do much. I was amazed at how powerful the experience was. I asked myself how is it possible that a shot of a horrible green liquid could result in this mind-altering experience. I wanted to understand more. I knew that it changed my brain chemistry. But I didn’t know how it did that. It was then that I decided to dedicate my life to understanding the brain. A shot of green stuff changed my life forever.
Editor’s note: Don’t try this at home. Extractives of the San Pedro cactus are classified as controlled substances in many countries, including the United States. The Cooper Square Review does not promote or endorse their consumption.
After a postdoc at the Center for Neuroeconomics at NYU, Dino Levy became an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University, where he is head of the Neuroeconomics and Neuromarketing lab at the Coller School of Management, and member of the Sagol School of Neuroscience.