RECEPTORS AND TRANSMITTERS
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.
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
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
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.
it that shamans saw spirits by ingesting staggering quantities of
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
Second, there are fundamental differences between the shamanic use
of tobacco and the consumption of industrial cigarettes.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
"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
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
turned to my scientific journalist friend, who explained it
"A coherent source of light, like a laser, gives the
sensation of bright colors, a luminescence, and an impression of
My friend's explanation provided me with an essential element.
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
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
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
For instance, photon emission provides a
communication mechanism that could explain how billions of
individual plankton organisms cooperate im swarms, behaving like
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.
"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
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.
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
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
"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.
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
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
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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