Chapter 9

My investigation had led me to formulate the following working hypothesis: In their visions, shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to information related to DNA, which they call "animate essences" or "spirits."


This is where they see double helixes, twisted ladders, and chromosome shapes. This is how shamanic cultures have known for millennia that the vital principle is the same for all living beings and is shaped like two entwined serpents (or a vine, a rope, a ladder ...).


DNA is the source of their astonishing botanical and medicinal knowledge, which can be attained only in defocalized and "nonrational" states of consciousness, though its results are empirically verifiable. The myths of these cultures are filled with biological imagery. And the shamans' metaphoric explanations correspond quite precisely to the descriptions that biologists are starting to provide.

I knew this hypothesis would be more solid if it rested on a neurological basis, which was not yet the case. I decided to direct my investigation by taking ayahuasqueros at their word - and they unanimously claimed that certain psychoactive substances (containing molecules that are active in the human brain) influence the spirits in precise ways.


The Ashaninca say that by ingesting ayahuasca or tobacco, it is possible to see the normally invisible and hidden maninkari spirits. Carlos Perez Shuma had told me that tobacco attracted the maninkari.


Amazonian shamans in general consider tobacco a food for the spirits] who crave it,

"since they no longer possess fire as human beings do."1

If my hypothesis were correct, it ought to be possible to find correspondences between these shamanic notions and the facts established by the study of the neurological activity of these same substances.


More precisely, there ought to be an analogous connection between nicotine and DNA contained in the nerve cells of a human brain.

The idea that the maninkari liked tobacco had always seemed funny to me. I considered "spirits" to be imaginary characters who could not really enjoy material substances. I also considered smoking to be a bad habit, and it seemed improbable that spirits (inasmuch as they existed) would suffer from the same kinds of addictive behaviors as human beings.


Nevertheless, I had resolved to stop letting myself be held up by such doubts and to pay attention to the literal meaning of the shamans' words, and the shamans were categorical in saying that spirits had an almost insatiable hunger for tobacco.2

I started following this trail by spending a few days at the library. I even made several phone calls to a specialist in the neurological mechanisms of nicotine to deepen my understanding and make sure I was not establishing imaginary connections - neurology being the last of my competencies. Here is what I learned.

In the human brain, each nerve cell, or neuron, has billions of receptors on its outer surface. These receptors are proteins specialized in the recognition and trapping of specific neurotransmitters, or similar substances. A molecule of nicotine shares structural similarities with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and fits like a skeleton key into its receptor on certain neurons.3


This receptor is embedded in the cell's membrane and is a large protein that includes not only a "lock" (the docking site for the external molecule), but also a channel, with a gate that is normally shut. When a key is introduced into the lock - when a molecule of nicotine fits into the binding site at the top of the receptor - die channel's gate opens, allowing in a selective flow of positively charged atoms of calcium and sodium.


The latter trigger a (poorly understood) cascade of electric reactions inside the cell, which ends up exciting die DNA contained in the nucleus, causing it to activate several genes, including those corresponding to the proteins that make up nicotinic receptors.4

The more you give nicotine to your neurons, the more the DNA they contain activates the construction of nicotinic receptors, within certain limits. Here, I thought, is the almost insatiable hunger of the spirits for tobacco: The more you give them, the more they want.

I was surprised by the degree of correspondence between shamanic notions of tobacco and neurological studies of nicotine. One only had to do a literal translation to pass from one to the other. However, scientific accounts in terms of "receptors," "flux of positively charged atoms," and "stimulation of the transcription of the genes coding for the subunits of nicotinic receptors" did not explain in any way the effects of nicotine on consciousness.


How was it that shamans saw spirits by ingesting staggering quantities of tobacco?

Before continuing with this question, I will clarify two points.

  • First, the discovery that nicotine stimulates the construction of nicotinic receptors was only made at the beginning of the 1990s; the connection between this phenomenon and the addiction displayed by tobacco users seems obvious, but has yet to be explored in detail.


  • Second, there are fundamental differences between the shamanic use of tobacco and the consumption of industrial cigarettes.

The botanical variety used in the Amazon contains up to eighteen times more nicotine than the plants used in Virginia-type cigarettes.


Amazonian tobacco is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and contains none of the ingredients added to cigarettes, such as aluminum oxide, potassium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, polyvinyl acetate, and a hundred or so others, which make up approximately 10 percent of the smokable matter.5


During combustion, a cigarette emits some 4,000 substances, most of which are toxic. Some of these substances are even radioactive, making cigarettes the largest single source of radiation in the daily life of an average smoker.


According to one study, the average smoker absorbs the equivalent of the radiation dosages from 250 chest X-rays per year. Cigarette smoke is directly implicated in more than 25 serious illnesses, including 17 forms of cancer.6


In the Amazon, on the other hand, tobacco is considered a remedy. The Ashaninca word for "healer," or "shaman," is sheripiári, literally, "the person who uses tobacco." 7


The oldest Ashaninca men I knew were all sheripiári. They were so old that they did not know their own age, which only their deeply wrinkled skin suggested, and they were remarkably alert and healthy.

Intrigued by these disparities, I looked through data banks for comparative studies between the toxicity of the Amazonian variety (Nicotiana rustica) and the variety used by the manufacturers of cigarettes, cigars, rolling tobacco, and pipe tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). I found nothing. The question, it seemed, had not been asked. I also looked for studies on the cancer rate among shamans who use massive and regular doses of nicotine: again, nothing.


So I decided to write to the main authority on the matter, Johannes Wilbert, author of the book Tobacco and shamanism in South America, to put my questions to him.


He replied:

"There is certainly evidence that Western tobacco products contain many different harmful agents which are probably not present in organically grown plants. I have not heard of shamans developing cancers but that may, of course, be a function of several things like lack of Western diagnosis, natural life span of indigenous people, magico-religious restriction of tobacco use in tribal societies, etc." 8

It seems clear that nicotine does not cause cancer, given that it is active in the brain and that cigarettes do not cause cancer in the brain, but in the lungs, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, rectum, kidneys, and bladder, the organs reached by the carcinogenic tars, which are also swallowed.

In any case, scientists have never really considered tobacco as a hallucinogen, because Westerners have never smoked large enough doses to reach the hallucinatory state.9


Consequently, the neurological mechanisms of hallucinations induced by tobacco have not been studied. Paradoxically, nicotinic receptors are the ones best known to neurologists, who have been studying them for decades, given that there are both substances that stimulate these receptors, like acetylcholine and nicotine, and others that block them, like curare and the venom of certain snakes.10


Indeed, by one of those curious coincidences, tobacco, curare, and snake venom all fit into exactly the same locks inside our brains.

As the neurological trail of tobacco-induced hallucinations was a dead end, I turned to ayahuasca. Carlos Perez Shuma had said:

"When an ayahuasquero drinks his plant mixture, the spirits present themselves to him and explain everything."

The shamans of Western Amazonia in general claim that their hallucinogenic brew allows them to see the spirits.


According to my hypothesis, there ought to be a demonstrable connection between the active ingredients of ayahuasca and the DNA contained in the nerve cells of a human brain. I went looking for it.

Ayahuasca is the most botanically and chemically complex hallucinogen. It can be thought of as a psychoactive cocktail, containing different additives depending on the region, the practitioner, and the desired effects. Scientists who have studied its composition agree that dimethyltryptamine is its main active ingredient. This highly hallucinogenic substance seems also to be produced in small quantities by the human brain.


However, since the end of the 1960s, dimethyltryptamine has been at the top of the controlled substances list, along with synthetic compounds such as heroin and LSD. This means not only that it is illegal for the average person, but that scientific studies on its effects are discouraged, and rare.11

In the literature, I found only one scientific investigation on dimethyltryptamine that had been carried out under neutral conditions: For once, the hallucinogen was not considered as a "psychotomimetic" (that is, "imitator of psychosis"), its "psycho-pathology" was not discussed, and it was not administered to imprisoned criminals playing the part of human guinea pigs.


In the 1994 study published by Rick Strassman and colleagues, the subjects were all experienced hallucinogen users who chose to participate in the research. With one exception, they were all professionals or students in professional training programs.12

The authors of this study devote a paragraph to the contents of their subjects' visions: images that,

"were both familiar and novel, such as 'a fantastic bird,' 'a tree of life and knowledge,' 'a ballroom with crystal chandeliers,' human and 'alien' figures (such as 'a little round creature with one big eye and one small eye, on nearly invisible feet'), 'the inside of a computer's boards,' 'ducts,' 'DNA double helices,' 'a pulsating diaphragm,' 'a spinning gold disc,' 'a huge fly eye bouncing in front of my face,' tunnels and stairways." 13

Under the influence of dimethyltryptamine, people saw trees of life and knowledge, crystals, stairways, and DNA double helices.


This confirmed my hypothesis that shamans perceive images containing biomolecular information - but in no way explained its mechanism. How was it that molecular reality became accessible to the normally nonmolecular consciousness of human beings? What went on in the brain for normal consciousness to disappear in a flood of strange images?

Knowledge about die neurological pathways of hallucinogenic substances has made great progress in recent years. While scientists have known for over a quarter of a century that molecules such as dimethyltryptamine, psilocybin, and even LSD resemble the neurotransmitter serotonin, it was only in the 1990s that they discovered the existence of seven types of serotonin receptors, in relation to which each hallucinogen has a specific mode of functioning.14

One of these receptors is built on the model of the lock-coupled-to-a-channel. The others are more like "antennae," which span the cell's membrane. When a molecule of serotonin stimulates the external part of the antenna, the latter sets off a signal inside the cell.15

I looked for a connection between the stimulation of serotonin receptors and DNA and found a recent (1994) article entitled "Serotonin increases DNA synthesis in rat proximal and distal pulmonary vascular smooth muscle cells in culture."


The connection existed, but was still not very clear, as the increase in DNA activity following an input of serotonin was measurable, but the cascade of reactions inside the cell, from the antenna to the nucleus, remained hypothetical.16

To my knowledge, current research on the neurological mechanisms of hallucinogens stops at these questions of receptors. Metaphorically speaking, we now understand where the electricity comes from and where the plug is, but we still do not know how the television works.

Currently, DNA is not part of the scientific discussion on hallucinations, but this has not always been the case. At the end of the 1960s, the uneasiness about the casual and large-scale use of LSD generated the rumor that hallucinogens "break chromosomes." In the ensuing hysteria, all kinds of poorly conceived experiments seemed to confirm this hypothesis.


For instance, researchers administered the equivalent of more than three thousand LSD doses to female monkeys in their fourth month of pregnancy; at birth, one infant monkey was stillborn, two others showed "facial deformities," and a fourth died after a month - mainly proving that these animals had been severely and unnecessarily ill-treated.


Other researchers noticed that naked DNA, extracted from the cell's nucleus and placed in a test tube, attracted LSD and other hallucinogenic molecules; according to their calculations, these molecules intercalated between the rungs of the ladder formed by the double helix, thereby causing die famous "chromosome breaks."17 (Later it was pointed out that naked DNA attracted thousands of substances in this way.)

Several scientists suggested, on the basis of this research, that DNA played a role in hallucinatory mechanisms.18


However, this idea did not receive much attention in the charged atmosphere of the times. On the contrary, scientific research on these substances was abandoned during the first half of the 1970s.

In those days, the scientific understanding of DNA and cellular receptors was embryonic. Researchers did not know that DNA was never naked in biological reality, but was always wrapped up in proteins inside the nucleus, and that the latter was never penetrated by extracellular hallucinogenic molecules. It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists understood that hallucinogens stimulated receptors situated on the outside of cells.19

From the middle of the 1970s onward, the connection between DNA and hallucinogens disappears from the scientific literature.20 It would no doubt be interesting to reconsider it in the light of the new knowledge established by molecular biology.

Like the Axis Mundi of shamanic traditions, DNA has the form of a twisted ladder (or a vine ...); according to my hypothesis, DNA was, like the axis mundi, the source of shamanic knowledge and visions. To be sure of this I needed to understand how DNA could transmit visual information.


I knew that it emitted photons, which are electromagnetic waves, and I remembered what Carlos Perez Shuma had told me when he compared the spirits to "radio waves" ("Once you turn on the radio, you can pick them up. It's like that with souls; with ayahuasca and tobacco, you can see them and hear them"). So I looked into the literature on photons of biological origin, or "biophotons."

In the early 1980s, thanks to the development of a sophisticated measurement device, a team of scientists demonstrated that the cells of all living beings emit photons at a rate of up to approximately 100 units per second and per square centimeter of surface area. They also showed that DNA was the source of this photon emission.21

During my readings, I learned with astonishment that the wavelength at which DNA emits these photons corresponds exactly to the narrow band of visible light: "Its spectral distribution ranges at least from infrared (at about 900 nanometers) to ultraviolet (up to about 200 nanometers)." 22

This was a serious trail, but I did not know how to follow it. There was no proof that the light emitted by DNA was what shamans saw in their visions. Furthermore, there was a fundamental aspect of this photon emission that I could not grasp.


According to the researchers who measured it, its weakness is such that it corresponds,

"to the intensity of a candle at a distance of about 10 kilometers," but it has "a surprisingly high degree of coherence, as compared to that of technical fields (laser)."23

How could an ultra-weak signal be highly coherent? How could a distant candle be compared to a "laser"?

After thinking about it at length, I came to understand that the coherence of biophotons depended not so much on the intensity of their output as on its regularity. In a coherent source of light, the quantity of photons emitted may vary, but the emission intervals remain constant.

DNA emits photons with such regularity that researchers compare the phenomenon to an "ultra-weak laser." I could understand that much, but still could not see what it implied for my investigation.


I turned to my scientific journalist friend, who explained it immediately:

"A coherent source of light, like a laser, gives the sensation of bright colors, a luminescence, and an impression of holographic depth."24

My friend's explanation provided me with an essential element.


The detailed descriptions of ayahuasca-based hallucinatory experiences invariably mention bright color, and, according to the authors of the dimethyltryptamine study:

"Subjects described the colors as brighter, more intense, and deeply saturated than those seen in normal awareness or dreams: It was like the blue of a desert sky, but on another planet. The colors were 10 to 100 times more saturated." 25

It was almost too good to be true. DNA's highly coherent photon emission accounted for the luminescence of hallucinatory images, as well as their three-dimensional, or holographic, aspect.

On the basis of this connection, I could now conceive of a neurological mechanism for my hypothesis. The molecules of nicotine or dimethyltryptamine, contained in tobacco or ayahuasca, activate their respective receptors, which set off a cascade of electrochemical reactions inside the neurons, leading to the stimulation of DNA and, more particularly, to its emission of visible waves, which shamans perceive as '"hallucinations."26

There, I thought, is the source of knowledge: DNA, living in water and emitting photons, like an aquatic dragon spitting fire.

If my hypothesis is correct, and if ayahuasqueros perceive DNA-emitted photons in their visions, it ought to be possible to find a link between these photons and consciousness. I started looking for it in the biophoton literature.

Researchers working in this new field mainly consider biophoton emission as a,

"cellular language" or a form of "non-substantial biocommunication between cells and organisms."

Over die last fifteen years, they have conducted enough reproducible experiments to believe that cells use these waves to direct their own internal reactions as well as to communicate among themselves, and even between organisms.


For instance, photon emission provides a communication mechanism that could explain how billions of individual plankton organisms cooperate im swarms, behaving like "super-organisms."27

Biophoton emission may fill certain gaps in the theories of orthodox biology, which center exclusively on molecules. Yet researchers in this new field of inquiry will have to work hard to convince the majority of their colleagues.


As Mae-Wan Ho and Fritz-Albert Popp point out, many biologists find the idea that the cell is a solid-state system difficult to imagine,

"as few of us have the requisite biophysical background to appreciate the implications."28

But this did not help my search for a connection between DNA-emitted photons and consciousness.


I did not find a publication dealing with this connection or, for that matter, with the subject of the influence of nicotine or dimethyltryptamine on biophoton emission.

So I decided to call Fritz-Albert Popp in his university laboratory in Germany. He was kind enough to spare his time to an unknown anthropologist conducting an obscure investigation. During the conversation, he confirmed a good number of my impressions. I ended up asking him whether he had considered the possibility of a connection between DNA's photon emission and consciousness.


He replied:

"Yes, consciousness could be the electromagnetic field constituted by the sum of these emissions. But, as you know, our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness is still very limited."29

One thing had struck me as I went over the biophoton literature. Almost all of the experiments conducted to measure biophotons involved the use of quartz.


As early as 1923, Alexander Gurvich noticed that cells separated by a quartz screen mutually influenced each other's multiplication processes, which was not the case with a metal screen. He deduced that cells emit electromagnetic waves with which they communicate. It took more than half a century to develop a "photomultiplier" capable of measuring this ultra-weak radiation; the container of this device is also made of quartz.30

Quartz is a crystal, which means it has an extremely regular arrangement of atoms that vibrate at a very stable frequency. These characteristics make it an excellent receptor and emitter of electromagnetic waves, which is why quartz is abundantly used in radios, watches, and most electronic technologies.
Quartz crystals are also used in shamanism around the world.


As Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff writes:

"Quartz crystals, or translucent rock crystals, have played a major role in shamanic beliefs and practices at many times in history and in many parts of the world. They have frequently been found in prehistoric contexts; they are mentioned in many early sources; they were prominent in Old World alchemy, witchcraft, and magic, and they are still in use in many traditional societies.


American Indian shamans and healers use rock crystals for curing, scrying, and many other purposes, and their ancient use in the Americas is known from archaeological reports."31

Amazonian shamans, in particular, consider that spirits can materialize and become visible in quartz crystals. Some sheripiári even feed tobacco juice to their stones daily.32

What if these spirits were none other than the biophotons emitted by all the cells of the world and were picked up, amplified, and transmitted by shamans' quartz crystals, Gurvich's quartz screens, and the quartz containers of biophoton researchers? This would mean that spirits are beings of pure light - as has always been claimed.

DNA is also a crystal, as molecular biologist Maxim Frank-Kamenetskii explains:

"The base pairs in it are arranged as in a crystal. This is, however, a linear, one-dimensional crystal, with each base pair flanked by only two neighbors. The DNA crystal is aperiodic, since the sequence of base pairs is as irregular as the sequence of letters in a coherent printed text Thus, it came as no surprise that the one-dimensional DNA crystal, a crystal of an entirely new type, had very much intrigued physicists."33

The four DNA bases are hexagonal (like quartz crystals), but they each have a slightly different shape.34


As they stack up on top of each other, forming the rungs of the twisted ladder, they line up in the order dictated by the genetic text. Therefore, the DNA double helix has a slightly irregular, or aperiodic, structure.


However, this is not the case for the repeat sequences that make up a full third of the genome, such as ACACACACACACAC.


In these sequences, DNA becomes a regular arrangement of atoms, a periodic crystal - which could, by analogy with quartz, pick up as many photons as it emits. The variation in the length of the repeat sequences (some of which contain up to 300 bases) would help pick up different frequencies and could thereby constitute a possible and new function for a part of "junk" DNA.35

I suggest this because my hypothesis requires a receptor as much as an emitter. For the moment, the reception of biophotons has not been studied.36
Even DNA's emission of photons remains mysterious, and no one has been able to establish its mechanism directly.


Naked DNA, extracted from the cell's nucleus, emits photons so weakly as to escape measurement.37

Despite these uncertainties, I wish to develop my hypothesis further by proposing the following idea: What if DNA, stimulated by nicotine or dimethyltryptamine, activates not only its emission of photons (which inundate our consciousness in the form of hallucinations), but also its capacity to pick up the photons emitted by the global network of DNA-based life?


This would mean that the biosphere itself, which can be considered "as a more or less fully interlinked unit," 38 is the source of the images.

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