The Telepathy Meme

When harmine was first isolated from the ayahuasca vine, and before it was identified as the same compound found in Peganum harmala, Syrian rue, it was called, variously, banisterine, yagéine, and, interestingly, telepathine. Apparently it was a traveler named Rafael Zerda Bayón who first suggested, in 1905, both the idea that ayahusca visions were telepathic and the corresponding name telepathine for its active constituent. The name was then used by the Colombian chemist Guillermo Fischer Cárdenas when he actually isolated the compound in 1923. In 1939, it was determined that banisterine, yagéine, and telepathine were all the same as harmine, and that is the name that has been used ever since.

And that probably would have been the end of that, except that American novelist William S. Burroughs ended his first book — originally published in 1953 as Junky, under the pseudonym William Lee — with a brief meditation on yagé. “I read about a drug called yage, used by Indians in the headwaters of the Amazon,” he wrote. “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage. . . . I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.” The last sentence in the book said, “Yage may be the final fix.” Burroughs picked up on the name telepathine — which was, of course, no longer being used — and noted that ayahuasca "is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity."

Hernando García Barriga, writing in 1958, added to the telepathy narrative. "Savage Indians," he wrote, "who have never left their forests and who, of course, can have no idea of civilized life, describe, in their particular language, and with more or less precision, the details of houses, castles, and cities peopled by multitudes." What — other than ayahuasca-induced telepathy — could possibly be the source of such knowledge? Psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo had similar thoughts in 1967, but in the opposite direction. When he gave city dwellers harmaline — note that this is not the same as harmine, although related to it, and also a constitutent of the ayahuasca vine — they reported that they saw tigers and jungle imagery. Clearly the synthetic chemical had somehow connected Naranjo's subjects mentally to the jungle.

Of course, none of this took into account other possible reasons for these results. As anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has pointed out, even isolated Indians in 1958 knew a lot about cities, having been told about them by missionaries, soldiers, rubber tappers, traders, and travelers, and having seen pictures in calendars and magazines. And we have no idea what expectations Naranjo's volunteers brought to their experience, although I think we can make a pretty good guess. But so embedded had this meme become that, in 1967, a Haight-Ashbury resident told Andrew Weil that Eskimos given ayahuasca saw visions of huge cats.

Then, in 1971, Charles Lamb published Wizard of the Upper Amazon, which purported to be a transcription of the true story of Manuel Córdova-Ríos, an Iquitos ayahuasquero who claimed to have been kidnapped by Indians, taught their language during group telepathic ayahuasca sessions, and made their chief, finally escaping to become a healer for his urban clientele. The appeal of the tale is archetypal: a civilized person is stolen away by the savage hidden people of the wild places, learns their ways, becomes their chief, and brings their redemptive secrets back to the civilized world.

The reliability of this account has been seriously challenged. But the telepathy meme it contained was passed along by best-selling writer Andrew Weil in his first book, The Natural Mind, published in 1972. Weil was particularly fascinated by the alleged "group vision sessions in which all participants see the same visions" — that is, visions of jungle cats, other animals, enemy tribes, and village scenes — which he took as evidence for the "reality of shared consciousness." Weil was so enthusiastic about Córdova-Ríos's alleged telepathic experiences that he wrote a glowing introduction when the book was, at his suggestion, reprinted as a paperback in 1974. It was not until five years later, in 1979, that Weil traveled to Colombia and tried ayahuasca himself, and was deeply disappointed to find no jungles or jaguars in his visions, and no "telepathic news bulletins of distant events."

Meanwhile, Kenneth Kensinger, a missionary and anthropologist who had worked for many years with the Cashinahua, echoed the narrative of Hernando García Barriga. Several Cashinahua, he wrote in 1973, "who have never been to or seen pictures of Pucallpa, the large town at the Ucayali River terminus of the Central Highway, have described their visits under the influence of ayahuasca to the town with sufficient detail for me to recognize specific sights and shops." And he echoes Manuel Córdova-Ríos as well. According to Bruce Lamb, during a particularly intense ayahuasca session, Córdova-Ríos saw his mother dying; when he returned to the home of his youth, he learned that she had died just as he had seen. Kensinger similarly reports that, after one ayahuasca session, six of the nine participants told him that they had seen the death of his mother's father, two days before Kensinger himself was informed of the death by radio.

And then, in 1981, Peruvian poet César Calvo Soriano wrote a novel of acknowledged genius entitled Las tres mitades de Ino Moxo y otros brujos de la Amazonía, which he based on the story of Manuel Cordova-Ríos. He described how the shaman Ximu telepathically controlled the visions of his young apprentice, “calibrating the hallucinogenic apparitions in the mind of the young man…. The slightest gesture of the old man developed in his consciousness the caresses of an order. Whatever Ximu thought was seen and heard by the boy. They understood each other through flashes of lightning and through shadows, amid slow visions and colors, and Ximu began to confide his patience and his strength.”

So the meme continues, with frequent invocations of the old name telepathine. David Luke, for example, is a parapsychology researcher at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton in England. Interviewed earlier this year by James Kent, Luke spoke about telepathy with ayahuasca, "because ayahuasca is reputedly quite potent in inducing telepathic and clairvoyant experiences. One of the active principles, harmaline, was even called 'telepathine' when it was first isolated from this decoction in the 1920s." Paul Krassner, in his book Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy, says that "shamans say that ayahuasca is 'very telepathic,' and years ago, after also experiencing a ceremony, the first scientist to isolate the psychoactive alkaloid in ayahuasca named the chemical 'telepathine.'"

All of these iterations contain echoes of Bruce Lamb, who wrote, in the introduction to his book on Córdova-Ríos,that ayahuasca "has long been credited with the ability to transport human beings to realms of experience where telepathy and clairvoyance are commonplace. When German scientists first isolated harmaline, an active principle of ayahuasca, they named it 'telepathine' because of this association." And I suppose only a pedant would point out that it was harmine, not harmaline, that was named telepathine, or that Fischer Cárdenas did not name the compound he isolated after his own experience, or that he was Colombian, not German.

What is interesting about this persistent meme is not that it is wrong, but rather that it is, in at least one way, correct, although translated into ill-fitting western clothes. In the Upper Amazon, one of the key features of icaros, a shaman's magic songs, is that they have the ability to modulate the visionary effects of ayahuasca and other psychoactive plants, both for the shaman who is singing the icaro and for a patient or apprentice to whom the shaman has given the medicine. Songs can subir mareación, bring on the vision, or llamar mareación, call the vision; and they can also sacar mareación, take away the vision. The latter can be used benevolently, in order to alleviate frightening visions in a patient, or malevolently, by a sorcerer, in an attack on another shaman, as a means to take away the visionary defenses of the intended victim.

Most important, songs can also modulate the contents of the visions of a patient or apprentice; when my teacher doña María Tuesta tired of my incessant questions, she would tell me, “I will show you,” which meant that I should expect my next ayahuasca visions to give me the answers I was looking for.

So: what the shamans speak about is the magical power of their songs to influence the content of another's visions. Which is, I think, interesting enough for me.


  1. I knew you were going to write about this today, I just knew it!

  2. Guillermo Cárdenas Fischer was my grandfather! I still have a copy of his Thesis where he talks about his experiments and findings. A quick correction, he was not a chemist per say but I suppose he was one at heart.

  3. Guillermo Fischer was my grandfather, his name was Guillermo Fischer Cardenas. He was a medical doctor, as Ale says. My name is Guillermo Cardenas-Fischer.