The Telepathy Meme Again

A while ago, I wrote about what I called the telepathy meme — the tenacious idea that ayahuasca opens telepathic communication with others in the group, or allows one to see events that are distant in time or space. This latter is, of course, consistent with the Upper Amazonian idea that ayahuasca is not itself a healer but rather a teacher, which is ingested in order to get information.

Apparently it was a traveler named Rafael Zerda Bayón who first suggested, in 1905, both the idea that ayahuasca 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.

I originally thought that the meme then lay quiescent until resurrected in 1953 by American writer William S. Burroughs in his early novel Junky, where, in his closing meditation on yagé, the "uncut kick," the "final fix," he noted that the drink "is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity."

But apparently the telepathy meme was less dormant than I thought. In the April 1932 issue of Modern Mechanics is a very brief and unattributed article that says, in its entirety:

Drug Said to Cause Clairvoyance
A South American plant called Yage is believed by natives to have the magical property of enabling the drinker to see great distances or through obstacles. Before the drinker falls asleep everything seems to be filled with hazy bluish rings. As the stupor deepens the sleeper sees vivid visions of things or people known to be somewhere else. This is the reason the drug is supposed to cause clairvoyance.

This brief article is skeptical in tone, gives no author, and provides no source for the information it conveys. I have been able to dig up no further information, although I certainly wonder whether this may be one of the sources that informed Burroughs's view of ayahuasca. Can anyone add anything?


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

  2. I found some information that might be helpful.

    There is an article that was published in the Apr 23, 1932 issue of Science News Letter titled: "DRUG MADE FROM INDIAN PLANT PRODUCES MOVIELIKE VISIONS",_1932,_issue

    It could be that the article published in the April issue of Modern Mechanics was just a summary of the article in Science News Letter of that same month.

    Also this is interesting.

    "In 1923, a film of Indian yage ceremonies was shown at the annual meeting of the American Pharmaceutical Association. Other noteworthy
    publications drawing attention to the effects of this drink came from Rusby and White, who observed yage practices in Bolivia in 1322, from
    the Russians Varnoff and Jezepezuk, who did Colombian fieldwork in 1925-1926,and from Morton, who in 1931 published Klug's southern Colombian notes about Banisteriopsis inebrians."

    Guillermo Klug is mentioned in both the Apr 23, 1932 article in Science News Letter and in the excerpt above. Although I do not know who the russians, Varnoff and Jezepezuk, were it might be interesting to look more closely at their work. I don't know if they had any influence on the telepathy meme but there may be a connection to the russian interest in telepathy and the paranormal and research being done in the 1920's.

  3. Carla, Thank you so much for this really interesting and helpful information.

  4. it is not hard to run a controlled experiment on this topic... when do we start? :D

  5. Asier, it is good to hear from you. Good parapsychological research is in fact very difficult to do. My teacher and friend Stanley Krippner has written an excellent review article on studies of psychoactive substances and parapsychological experiences, which is worth taking a look at. Krippner refers to "methodological problems that are obvious to readers of these reports." Yet Krippner believes that the studies he reviewed, besides being open to criticism, "are of value for what they can teach investigators about research design, about the phenomenology of the experimental sessions, and the possible neurological mechanisms of putative parapsychological experiences." Like all of Krippner's work, the article is thorough, comprehensive, and really interesting.

  6. The book from Dr. Guillermo Fischer, (he was the first scientist to analyze the compound) describes the clinical effects of the drug on people. From these descriptions, especially when he describes the "dreams" they had, you can deduce that one individual had a “telepathic experience”. The book is hard to find, there is one copy at the Library in Washington and there is another one at the National University of Colombia... (Perhaps there are more?) William S. Burroughs, read his scientific studies and that’s how he got interested on it. In the 1980s the Anthropological department of the NYU made some studies in Colombia about the “telepathic” effects of this drug. Perhaps you can contact also the NYU.

  7. That is wonderfully helpful. Thank you. I will follow up. Does Burroughs anywhere specifically mention Fischer?

  8. Yes, Burroughs went to the city of Popayan, looking for Dr. Fischer who was head of the Medicine Dept. at the University. Unfortunately, Fischer wasn't there at the time and he spent some time in the city, trying to meet some intellectuals but he found none. This part of the story was published on the book "The Yage Letters". Burroughs mentioned him on another letters that were not published. Perhaps, someone who owns or posseses the state of Allen Ginsberg has the letters.

  9. Thank you again for all this truly useful information.

  10. Guillermo Fischer is (was) my Grandfather! ;-)

  11. I am constantly amazed at the wonderful things I find out from comments on this blog. It is definitely a small planet. :-) And I really like your sketches. Thank you so much for joining us.