The plant of human puppets

I’ve made a radio programme with ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind about burundanga, a mysterious street drug used in South America which is widely believed to remove free will.

The name ‘burundanga’ is a popular term and doesn’t refer to a single thing, but its most commonly associated with the brugmansia plants.

They can incapacitate people in high enough doses owing to them being rich in a psychoactive chemical called scopolomine. Criminals spike unsuspecting members of the public and then rob or attack them.

Since living in Colombia, I’ve constantly heard people tell me that the plant removes free will – the affected people just do whatever they’re told. They become, in effect, human puppets.

To me, this always sounded unlikely, and it struck me that, if this was genuinely the case, this might be a hugely important discovery in neuroscience, because free will and agency are two of the most complex and difficult to grasp areas.

But the plant also has hundreds, and probably thousands, of years of history as a psychoactive component of the religious rituals of the indigenous people of the continent, to the point where it holds a central place in some of their founding myths.

Needless to say, the chance to wander round Colombia making a documentary about a psychoactive plant at the intersection of neuroscience, myth and criminal science was too good to miss, so I hope you enjoy the journey.

It sounds wonderful, by the way, but almost entirely due to presenter and producer Natasha Mitchell’s magic at the mixing desk when making sense of my raw materal.

I’ve also written an article about the substance, including the first attempt to use it as a ‘truth drug’ after a gruesome murder, and there’s an image gallery available too.

Link to AITM on the plant that steals your free will with mp3 download.
Link to my article on the AITM blog.
Link to image gallery.

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