Chapter 5

Twelve months after the Rio conference a publisher accepted my proposal for a book on Amazonian shamanism and ecology'. I was going to call it Ecological hallucinations. Several weeks later my employer agreed to let me spend part of my time working on the book.

I was set to investigate the enigma of plant communication. But where was I to begin?

My initial impulse would have been to return to the Peruvian Amazon and spend some time with the ayahuasqueros. However, my life had changed. I was no longer a free-roaming anthropologist, but the father of two young children. I was going to have to conduct my investigation from my office and the nearest library, rather than from the forests of Peru.

I started by rereading my fieldnotes and the transcripts of the Carlos Perez Shuma interviews. I paid particular attention to the strange passages I had left out of my thesis. Then, given that writing is an extension of thinking. I drafted a preliminary version of a first chapter on my arrival in Quirishari and my initial ayahuasca experience.

During this immersion in mysterious moments of my past. I started thinking about what Carlos had said.

  • What if I took him literally?

  • What if it were true that nature speaks in signs and that the secret to understanding its language consists in noticing similarities in shape or in form?

I liked this idea and decided to read the anthropological texts on shamanism paying attention not only to their content but to their style. I taped a note on the wall of my office:

"Look at the FORM."

One thing became clear as I thought back to my stay in Quirishari.


Every time I had doubted one of my consultants" explanations, my understanding of the Ashaninca view of reality had seized up: conversely, on the rare occasions that I had managed to silence my doubts, my understanding of local reality had been enhanced - as if there were times when one had to believe in order to see. rather than the other way around.

This realization led me to decide, now that I was trying to map the cul-de-sac of hallucinatory knowledge, that it would be useful not only to establish its limits from a rational perspective, but to suspend disbelief and note with equal seriousness the outline of the ayahuasqueros' notions on the other side ol the apparent impasse.

I read for weeks. I started by refreshing my memory and going over the basic texts of anthropology as well as the disciplines new. self-critical vein. Then I devoured the literature on shamanism, which was new to me. I had not read as much since my doctoral examinations nine years previously and was pleased to rediscover this purely abstract level of reality. With an enthusiasm that I never had at university I took hundreds of pages of reading notes, which I then categorized.

Five months into my investigation, my wife and I visited friends who introduced us during the evening to a book containing colorful "three-dimensional images" made up of seemingly disordered dots. To see a coherent and '3-D'' image emerge from the blur, one had to defocalize one's gaze.

"Let your eyes go," our hostess told me, "as if you were looking through the hook without seeing it. Relax into the blur and be patient."

After several attempts, and seemingly by magic, a remarkably deep stereogram sprang out of the page that I was holding in front of me.


It showed a dolphin leaping in the waves. As soon as I focused normally on the page, the dolphin disappeared, along with the waves in front of it and behind it. and all I could see were muddled dots again.

This experience reminded me of Bourdieu's phrase "to objectify one's objectifying relationship." which is another way of saving "to become aware of one's gaze." That is precisely what one had to do in order to see the stereogram. This made me think that my dissatisfaction with the anthropological studies of shamanism was perhaps due to the necessarily localized perspective of academic anthropologists, who failed to grasp shamanic phenomena in the same way that the normal gaze failed to see "three-dimensional images."


Was there perhaps a way of relaxing ones gaze and seeing shamanism more clearly?

During the following weeks I continued reading, while trying to relax my gaze and pay attention to the texts' style. as much as to their content. Then I started writing a preliminary version of a second chapter on anthropology and shamanism. One afternoon, as I was writing. I suddenly saw a strikingly coherent image emerge from the muddle, as in a stereogram: Most anthropologists who had studied shamanism had only seen their own shadow. This went for the schizophrenics, the creators of order, the jacks-of-all-trades, and the creators of disorder.

This vision shook me. I felt that I had finally found a warm trail. Without wasting time. I continued in the same direction.

As I felt certain that the enigma of hallucinatory knowledge was only an apparent dead end. and as I was trying to suspend disbelief. I started wondering whether I might not be able to find a solution after all. The passage that led to the shamanic world was certainly hidden from normal vision, but perhaps there was a way of perceiving it stereoscopically...

Speculating in this way. I realized that the hallucinations I had seen in Quirishari could also be described as three-dimensional images invisible to a normal gaze. According to my Ashaninca friends, it was precisely by reaching the hallucinatory state of consciousness that one crossed the impasse.


For them, there was no fundamental contradiction between the practical reality of their life in the rainforest and the invisible and irrational world of ayahuasqueros. On the contrary, it was by going back and forth between these two levels that one could bring back useful and verifiable knowledge that was otherwise unobtainable. This proved to me that it was possible to reconcile these two apparently distinct worlds.

I also felt that I needed to improve my de-realization skills in order to succeed. I live not far from a castle that belonged to the family of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes investigations.


During my youth, I had often admired the famous detective's "lateral" methods, where he would lock himself into his office and play discordant tunes on his violin late into the night - to emerge with the key to the mystery. In the wintry fogs of the Swiss plateau. I started following Holmes's example. Once the children were in bed. I would go down to my office and get to work with hypnotically dissonant music playing in the background.1

Some evenings I would go further. Given that walking makes thinking easier. I would dress up warmly and go for strolls in the misty darkness with my tape recorder. Accompanied only by the rhythm of Dry boot heels, I would think aloud about all the imaginable solutions to the enigma that was beginning to obsess me. The following day I would transcribe these nebulous soliloquies looking for new perspectives.


Some passages truly helped me understand where I was trying to go:

"You must defocalize your gaze so as to perceive science and the indigenous vision at the same time. Then the common ground between the two will appear in the form of a stereogram "

My social life became nonexistent.


Apart from a few hours in the afternoon with my children, I spent most of my time reading and thinking. My wife started saying I was absent even when I was in the room. She was right, and I could not hear her because I was obsessed. The more I advanced with this unusual methodology, the fresher the trail seemed.

For several weeks, I went over the scientific literature on hallucinogens and their supposed effects on the human brain.

Here is a fact I learned during my reading: We do not know how our visual system works. As you read these words, you do not really see the ink, the paper, your hands, and the surroundings, but an internal and three-dimensional image that reproduces them almost exactly and that is constructed by your brain.


The photons reflected by this page strike the retinas of your eyes, which transform them into electrochemical information; the optic nerves relay this information to the visual cortex at the back of the head, where a cascade-like network of nerve cells separates the input into categories (form, color, movement, depth, etc.). How the brain goes about reuniting these sets of categorized information into a coherent image is still a mystery. This also means that the neurological basis of consciousness is unknown.2

If we do not know how we see a real object in front of us, we understand even less how we perceive something that is not there. When a person hallucinates, there is no external source of visual stimulation, which, of course, is why cameras do not pick up hallucinatory images.

Strangely, and with few exceptions, these basic facts are not mentioned in the thousands of scientific studies on hallucinations; in books with titles such as Origin and mechanisms of hallucinations, experts provide partial and mainly hypothetical answers, which they formulate in complicated terms, giving the impression that they have attained the objective truth, or are about to do so.3

The neurological pathways of hallucinogens are better understood than the mechanisms of hallucinations. During the 1950s, researchers discovered that the chemical composition of most hallucinogens closely resembles that of serotonin, a hormone produced by the human brain and used as a chemical messenger between brain cells.


They hypothesized that hallucinogens act on consciousness by fitting into the same cerebral receptors as serotonin,

"like similar keys fitting the same lock."4

LSD, a synthetic compound unknown in nature, does not have the same profile as the organic molecules such as dimethyltryptamine or psilocybin.


Nevertheless, the great majority of clinical investigations focused on LSD, which was considered to be the most powerful of all hallucinogens, given that only 50-millionths of a gram brings on its effects.5



In the second half of the 1960s, hallucinogens became illegal in the Western world.


Shortly thereafter, scientific studies of these substances, which had been so prolific during the previous two decades, were stopped across the board. Ironically it was around this time that several researchers pointed out that, according to sciences strict criteria, LSD most often does not induce true hallucinations, where the images are confused with reality. People under the influence of LSD nearly always know that the visual distortions or the cascades of dots and colors that they perceive are not real, but are due to the action of a psychedelic agent.


In this sense, LSD is "pseudo-hallucinogenic." 6

So the scientific studies of hallucinogens focused mainly on a product that is not really hallucinogenic; researchers neglected the natural substances, which have been used for thousands of years by hundreds of peoples, in favor of a synthetic compound invented in a twentieth-century laboratory.7

In 1979, it was discovered that the human brain seems to secrete dimethyltryptamine - which is also one of the active ingredients of ayahuasca. This substance produces true hallucinations, in which the visions replace normal reality convincingly, such as fluorescent snakes to whom one excuses oneself as one steps over them. Unfortunately, scientific research on dimethyltryptamine is rare.


To this day, the clinical studies of its effects on "normal" human beings can be counted on the fingers of one hand.8

As I read, the seasons turned. Suddenly winter gave way to spring, and the days began getting longer. I had just spent six full months focusing on other peoples writings. Now I felt the time had come to pause momentarily, and then to start writing my book.

Making the most of the first warm spell of the year, I took a day off and went walking in a nature reserve with my tape recorder. The buds were stalling to open, springs were gushing everywhere, and I was hoping that my ideas would do the same.

It had become clear to me that ayahuasqueros were somehow gaining access in their visions to verifiable information about plant properties. Therefore, I reasoned, the enigma of hallucinatory knowledge could be reduced to one question:

Was this information coming from inside the human brain, as the scientific point of view would have it, or from the outside world of plants, as shamans claimed?

Both of these perspectives seemed to present advantages and drawbacks.

On the one hand, the similarity between the molecular profiles of the natural hallucinogens and of serotonin seemed well and truly to indicate that these substances work like keys fitting into the same lock inside the brain. However, I could not agree with the scientific position according to which hallucinations are merely discharges of images stocked in compartments of the subconscious memory.


I was convinced that the enormous fluorescent snakes that I had seen thanks to ayahuasca did not correspond in any way to anything that I could have dreamed of, even in my most extreme nightmares. Furthermore, the speed and coherence of some of the hallucinatory images exceeded by many degrees the best rock videos, and I knew that I could not possibly have filmed them.9

On the other hand, I was finding it increasingly easy to suspend disbelief and consider the indigenous point of view as potentially correct. After all, there were all kinds of gaps and contradictions in the scientific knowledge of hallucinogens, which had at first seemed so reliable: Scientists do not know how these substances affect our consciousness, nor have they studied true hallucinogens in any detail.


It no longer seemed unreasonable to me to consider that the information about the molecular content of plants could truly come from the plants themselves, just as ayahuasqueros claimed. However, I failed to see how this could work concretely.

With these thoughts in mind, I interrupted my stroll and sat down, resting my back against a big tree. Then I tried to enter into communication with it. I closed my eyes and breathed in the damp vegetal scent in the air. I waited for a form of communication to appear on my mental screen - but I ended up perceiving nothing more than the agreeable feeling of immersion in sunshine and fertile nature.

After about ten minutes, I stood up and resumed walking. Suddenly my thoughts turned again to stereograms.


Maybe I would find the answer by looking at both perspectives simultaneously, with one eye on science and the other on shamanism. The solution would therefore consist in posing the question differently: It was not a matter of asking whether the source of hallucinations is internal or external, but of considering that it might be both at the same time. I could not see how this idea would work in practice, but I liked it because it reconciled two points of view that were apparently divergent.

The path I was following led to a crystalline cascade gushing out of a limestone cliff. The water was sparkling and tasted like champagne.

The next day I returned to my office with renewed energy. All I had to do was classify my reading notes on Amazonian shamanism and then I could start writing. However, before getting down to this task, I decided to spend a day following my fancy, freely paging through the piles of articles and notes that I had accumulated over the months.

In reading the literature on Amazonian shamanism, I had noticed that the personal experience of anthropologists with indigenous hallucinogens was a gray zone. I knew the problem well for having skirted around it myself in my own writings. One of the categories in my reading notes was called "Anthropologists and Ayahuasca."


I consulted the card corresponding to this category, which I had filled out over the course of my investigation, and noted that the first subjective description of an ayahuasca experience by an anthropologist was published in 1968 - whereas several botanists had written up similar experiences a hundred years previously.10

The anthropologist in question was Michael Harner.


He had devoted ten lines to his own experience in the middle of an academic article:

"For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world.


I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology."11

At first Michael Harner pursued an enviable career, teaching in reputable universities and editing a book on shamanism for Oxford University Press.


Later, however, he alienated a good portion of his colleagues by publishing a popular manual on a series of shamanic techniques based on visualization and the use of drums.

One anthropologist called it,

"a project deserving criticism given M. Hamer's total ignorance about shamanism."12

In brief, Harner's work was generally discredited.

I must admit that I had assimilated some of these prejudices. At the beginning of my investigation, I had only read through Harner's manual quickly, simply noting that the first chapter contained a detailed description of his first ayahuasca experience, which took up ten pages this time, instead of ten lines. In fact, I had not paid particular attention to its content.

So, for pleasure and out of curiosity, I decided to go over Harner's account again. It was in reading this literally fantastic narrative that I stumbled on a key clue that was to change the course of my investigation.

Harner explains that in the early 1960s, he went to the Peruvian Amazon to study the culture of the Conibo Indians. After a year or so he had made little headway in understanding their religious system when the Conibo told him that if he really wanted to learn, he had to drink ayahuasca. Harner accepted not without fear, because the people had warned him that the experience was terrifying.


The following evening, under the strict supervision of his indigenous friends, he drank the equivalent of a third of a bottle. After several minutes he found himself falling into a world of true hallucinations.


After arriving in a celestial cavern where "a supernatural carnival of demons" was in full swing, he saw two strange boats floating through the air that combined to form,

"a huge dragon-headed prow, not unlike that of a Viking ship."

On the deck, he could make out,

"large numbers of people with the heads of blue jays and the bodies of humans, not unlike the bird-headed gods of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings."

After multiple episodes, which would be too long to describe here, Harner became convinced that he was dying. He tried calling out to his Conibo friends for an antidote without managing to pronounce a word.


Then he saw that his visions emanated from "giant reptilian creatures" resting at the lowest depths of his brain.


These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes, while informing him that this information was reserved for the dying and the dead:

"First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see the specks' were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies... They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space.


They had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy. The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me. the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man."

At this point in his account, Harner writes in a footnote at the bottom of the page:

"In retrospect one could say they were almost like DNA, although at that time, 1961,I knew nothing of DNA."13

I paused. I had not paid attention to this footnote previously.


There was indeed DNA inside the human brain, as well as in the outside world of plants, given that the molecule of life containing genetic information is the same for all species. DNA could thus be considered a source of information that is both external and internal - in other words, precisely what I had been trying to imagine the previous day in the forest.

I plunged back into Harner's book, but found no further mention of DNA. However, a few pages on, Harner notes that "dragon" and "serpent" are synonymous. This made me think that the double helix of DNA resembled, in its form, two entwined serpents.

After lunch, I returned to the office with a strange feeling. The reptilian creatures that Harner had seen in his brain reminded me of something, but I could not say what. It had to be a text that I had read and that was in one of the numerous piles of documents and notes spread out over the floor. I consulted the "Brain" pile, in which I had placed the articles on the neurological aspects of consciousness, but I found no trace of reptiles.


After rummaging around for a while, I put my hand on an article called "Brain and mind in Desana shamanism" (Journal of Latin American Lore - 1981 - 73-98) by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.

I had ordered a copy of this article from the library during my readings on the brain. Knowing from Reichel-Dolrnatoffs numerous publications that the Desana of the Colombian Amazon were regular ayahuasca users, I had been curious to learn about their point of view on the physiology of consciousness. But the first time I had read the article, it had seemed rather esoteric, and I had relegated it to a secondary pile.


This time, paging through it, I was stopped by a Desana drawing of a human brain with a snake lodged between the two hemispheres (below image).

I read the text above the drawing and learned that the Desana consider the fissure occupied by the reptile to be a,

"depression that was formed in the beginning of time (of mythical and embryological time) by the cosmic anaconda. Near the head of the serpent is a hexagonal rock crystal, just outside the brain; it is there where a particle of solar energy resides and irradiates the brain."14

Several pages further into the article, I came upon a second drawing, this time with two snakes.


According to Reichel-Dolmatoff, the below drawing shows that within the fissure,

"two intertwined snakes are lying, a giant anaconda (Eunectes murinus) and a rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) a large river snake of dark dull colors and an equally large land snake of spectacular bright colors.


In Desana shamanism these two serpents symbolize a female and male principle, a mother and a father image, water and land ...; in brief, they represent a concept of binary opposition which has to be overcome in order to achieve individual awareness and integration.


The snakes are imagined as spiraling rhythmically in a swaying motion from one side to another."15

Intrigued, I began reading Reichel-Dolmatoffs article from the beginning. In the first pages he provides a sketch of the Desana's main cosmological beliefs.

The human brain. The fissure is occupied by an anaconda and a rainbow boa.

(Redrawn from Desana sketches.) From ReicheUDolmatoff (1981, p. 88).

My eyes stopped on the following sentence:

"The Desana say that in the beginning of time their ancestors arrived in canoes shaped like huge serpents."16

At this point I began feeling astonished by the similarities between Harner's account, based on his hallucinogenic experience with the Conibo Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, and the shamanic and mythological concepts of an ayahuasca-using people living a thousand miles away in the Colombian Amazon.


In both cases there were reptiles in the brain and serpent-shaped boats of cosmic origin that were vessels of life at the beginning of time.


Pure coincidence?

To find out, I picked up a book about a third ayahuasca-using people, entitled (in French) Vision, knowledge, power: Shamanism among the Yagua in the North-East of Peru. This study by Jean-Pierre Chaumeil is, to my mind, one of the most rigorous on the subject. I started paging through it looking for passages relative to cosmological beliefs.


First I found a "celestial serpent" in a drawing of the universe by a Yagua shaman.


Then, a few pages away, another shaman is quoted as saying:

"At the very beginning, before the birth of the earth, this earth here, our most distant ancestors lived on another earth " Chaumeil adds that the Yagua consider that all living beings were created by twins, who are "the two central characters in Yagua cosmogonic thought."17

These correspondences seemed very strange, and I did not know what to make of them.


Or rather, I could see an easy way of interpreting them, but it contradicted my understanding of reality:

A Western anthropologist like Harner drinks a strong dose of ayahuasca with one people and gains access, in the middle of the twentieth century, to a world that informs the "mythological" concepts of other peoples and allows them to communicate with life-creating spirits of cosmic origin possibly linked to DNA.

This seemed highly improbable to me, if not impossible. However, I was getting used to suspending disbelief, and I had decided to follow my approach through to its logical conclusion.


So I casually penciled in the margin of Chaumeil's text:

"twins = DNA?"

These indirect and analogical connections between DNA and the hallucinatory and mythological spheres seemed amusing to me, or at most intriguing.


Nevertheless, I started thinking that I had perhaps found with DNA the scientific concept on which to focus one eye, while focusing the other on the shamanism of Amazonian ayahuasqueros.

More concretely, I established a new category in my reading notes entitled "DNA Snakes."

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