Jeremy Narby’s critical view of anthropology has been marked by his stays in the
Amazonian forest. He spent several years in Peru working with the Indians,
notably on the issue of territorial rights. That’s where he met with shamans, who
gave him an intimate knowledge of the hallucinatory sphere. He was thus able to
construct new hypotheses for research and to write a controversial book, The
Cosmic Serpent, which was published in 1995. He’s currently carrying on with his
investigations with the writing of a book on the intelligence of nature and with the
Amazonia Ambient Project. The AAP links up anthropologic tales - about ecology,
shamanism and the encounter with different cultures - with the improvised music
of The Young Gods, a band that was founded by Franz Treichler in the early 80s.
For this new performance, the band draws its inspiration from their new ambient
album entitled Music for Artificial Clouds, which mingles electro-organic sounds,
percussions and recordings made in Amazonia.

Q: In The Cosmic Serpent, your thesis is that nature, the spirits of nature, pass
information on to shamans through the hallucinatory sphere. The theoretical
explanation focuses on biophotons, which are emitted by living beings and which
would be the visual language of these exchanges. Since the release of the book in
1995, has there been any confirmation of these hypotheses ?

Jeremy Narby : It was one possibility among others. But where does this
information come from ? That’s the same as asking how consciousness works. As
you know, it’s the black box. Biophotons remain a slightly marginal
phenomenon ; it’s so difficult to measure in vivo. Intuitively, it seems right to me
that light plays a fundamental role in biology which has been neglected up until
now. But it’s true that there is a lack of hard data on which to rely. On the other
hand, I did a simple test which I describe at the end of Shamans Through Time.
We asked molecular biologists to submit themselves to the shamanic
state of consciousness in order to see if they could find information in
their visions which was pertinent to their research. We did this in 1999 in
Peru with three leading researchers and the results were conclusive.
That scientists can find information in visions orchestrated by shamans is
an idea that will now need to be tested as many times as possible.

Why did you exclusively take researchers in molecular biology with you ?

JN : The main issue in The Cosmic Serpent is that knowledge relevant to
molecular biology can be reached through Amazonian shamanism. Therefore I
wanted to try to test this hypothesis by taking several molecular biologists down
there to undergo this experience. I could have invited psychologists, quantum
physicians, etc. But I didn’t want to mix everything up. It was the first time in my
life I was testing a hypothesis. Maybe I hadn’t realized what it represented.
Imagine asking people to submit their psyches to hallucinations ! Taking
scientists who are respected by their peers, who have never taken mind-altering
substances, and accompanying them into Amazonian reality to the point of

When you work in a lab. who is going to transmit it constructively will have the favor of these entities. You ask questions and you get answers. He has really done an in-depth study on what people see under the influence of ayahuasca . categorized. Do these spirits seek information from the shamans as well ? Is there an exchange or does communication work only in one way ? JN : It seems that there is an exchange. The way they now consider plants and other species has changed their lives. The spirits of nature that the shamans talk about like singing. It’s difficult for a scientist who’s used to move step by step and to conceive restricted hypotheses. When they got back.the film that was made about this experiment . In my opinion. It is hard to find oneself in this subjective. People who use the information for their own purposes will have a tendency to finish badly. maybe it’s because it is not ready yet. which is food to them. two of them decided to get involved into Chinese medicine. he goes further than what I wrote in my book on the acquisition of knowledge through ayahuasca. If humanity as a whole is not in a hurry to put this hypothesis to the test. but a cognitive psychologist at the University of Jerusalem. of proteins. Could you tell us more precisely what the icaros are ? JN : The icaros are chants that shamans use as a technique to communicate with the other beings of nature. Benny Shanon doesn’t see limits to the type of information that can be received. that is to say that someone who is going to use the information to heal. Science works with the idea of control . You should listen to nature and humans are part of it. There. The meeting will take place sometime later. in the shamanic sphere. They use them in a precise way. of DNA. irrational and terrifying world.the three of them changed drastically. analyzed. That’s what the shamans say. They’re looking for something in between Amazonian shamanism and molecular biology. That’s why I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat the experiment. What happened with the scientists you took to Peru ? JN : I can’t talk on their behalf. you have to agree to let yourself be carried by the waves. Note that he is not an anthropologist. Ayahuasca gave them a hard time with regards to their own personalities.hallucinating… What if the three scientists had gone mad ? Drinking ayahuasca or taking LSD is quite risky. he has classified. They also like tobacco smoke. These spirits of nature would thus give information. Is there a limit to the type of information that can be received ? JN : There is a fascinating book called The Antipodes of the Mind by Benny Shanon. thinking otherwise is absurd. you try to evacuate subjectivity. but as they say in The Night of the Liana . before you get visions of interwoven snakes. they like melody. They also like respect for what they bring . in order to have an . you’ve got to clean up your mind.

Is it an approach that quickly imposed itself on your research ? JN : Once I got my doctorate at Stanford. not theoretical. to show the Amazonian Indians that there were ecologists here who wanted to support them.impact on a mind altered by psycho-active plants. in ecological circles. and non-respect for barriers. to be outside the phenomenon while understanding the approach can help. On the contrary. In Sapporo. Have you continued to explore hallucinogens ? JN : With prudence and preferably in Peru with local shamans whom I know and respect. The point was to make Amazonian thought and practices familiar here. So there was anthropological translation and interpretation in both directions. I think it’s a mistake to consider it necessary to undergo a lengthy training in shamanism in order to be able to comment on shamanism. Nakagaki describes this feat as an instance of “chi sei”.which is composed of only one cell . This journey took me from Toulouse to Edinburgh to Sapporo in Japan. The icaros are also used to heal. But I feel much more at home with rationalism than with shamanism. the Swiss NGO that employs me. by using certain melodies and words. What subjects do you deal with in your next book ? JN : It’s been two years and a half since I started investigating the intelligence of animals and plants. but they recognise that the European word “intelligence” presents a problem. I have benefited from thirteen years of . auto-criticism. and not academic. They are a tool for navigating through the hallucinatory sphere. The Japanese believe that there’s never been a barrier between humans and other species. Toshiyuki Nakagaki put a true slime mould into a maze and demonstrated that this creature . They presuppose that plants and animals possess a form of intelligence. like “chi sei” for instance. In Japan. to balance energies in the body . a country which has a Shintoist culture and is highly developed scientifically. and vice versa. which represents the capacity to know. Besides. it would be very interesting to study the link that exists between melodic vibrations and the energetic equilibrium of the body. which are rather animistic. I left Amazonia as a place for research in order to look into science laboratories in different countries. I started a project that was quite political. as if the body were a tuning fork. even though it has no brains. because people who delve into it often find themselves facing the ineffable. scientists raise questions stemming from other presuppositions. The data indicate that this brainless cell is able to calculate the shortest path and take it.was able to solve the maze. On an anthropological level. Thanks to Nouvelle Planète. But the mechanism of calculation it uses remains unknown. They have other words. in favor of the rights of the indigenous people of Amazonia. but it was completely practical. you are more into interpretation. they vibrate through the body and heal it. I turned my back on the academic world. The shaman orchestrates the visions of the person who takes part in an ayahuasca session.

I find it almost normal that they have a hard time swallowing such a story . Up until now. That’s not the way to study DNA. They have equipment worth millions that bombard DNA molecules with electrons. you notice that there are too many links for it to be coincidence. There are young people who contact me to find out where they can learn anthropology as I practice it. in which. In the end. there are many small pyramids of power. to do and to say. So there is still no instruction of this type of thought in the universities ? JN : To my knowledge. you don’t open the door to heretics. and when you’re the one who decides what the truth is on a subject. We have been blinded by the fragmentation of our own knowledge. to show solidarity with the thought of Amazonian people. bare feet in the forest. People’s careers are at stake. Having demonstrated the relevance of the practical work. I would be very happy. I’ve been told that some respected academics do not consider my work as anthropology. like Isabelle Stengers. I did not really see myself as a critic of molecular biology or anything. What can possibly be done to make mentalities evolve in the academic world ? JN : Depending on an academic institution to earn your living limits what you are able to think. etc… Now it’s been nine years since the publication of The Cosmic Serpent. It was not just about demarcating territories. no. The professors hold their positions for life. That seemed to me a necessary part of defending these people’s rights. Maybe I don’t do anthropology in the classic sense of the term. The entire approach of the book goes against the grain of what is practiced in classic academic disciplines. it was also necessary to show that their knowledge was pertinent. I have had to reply that I don’t really know. An anthropologist who takes hallucinogenic drugs with Indians. They invited people from the best circles. can’t be taken seriously.absolute freedom. Franz Treichler : In one of your texts. Ultimately. And that was The Cosmic Serpent project. So. you say that it’s a contradiction to try to prove that indigenous people have gained rational knowledge through hallucinogens. I began to write The Cosmic Serpent in order to explain the knowledge of the indigenous Amazonian people. they’re just doing their job. . There is a post-graduate diploma on “comparative religions and altered states of consciousness” just starting at the University of Lausanne though. If someone reads what I say here and can contradict me. I was just someone who raised funds and who was in favor of ecology and of indigenous people. there are some signs of change. I had to flout the barriers between disciplines. I have complete autonomy to choose and support projects in Amazonia. botanists know little about neurology. that’s the way they do science. and they told me I could say whatever I wanted. Anthropologists know little about botany. I took the knowledge of the indigenous people seriously enough to want to try to bring together diverse fragments from the libraries and to see how to put this mosaic together.

to go into reality. and afterwards. with nature. Does the work you’re doing together amount to teaching us to unlearn certain mental schemas in order to put us in a receptive state ? JN : Yes. even though you have other constraints. For me personally. combining music and anthropological stories as we do in the Amazonia Ambient Project seeks to stimulate people’s mental imagery. everybody will find you great. of the sociopolitical. the way you make yourself available. for example for your performance with Jeremy ? FT : In this performance. it’s a . they grew up with it. to use the good side of rationalism. It’s very difficult to share that. you accompanied Jeremy to Peru. be it only to the pace of life. When you put yourself in the hands of a medicine man. Universities are not true reality. to want to have it all. it’s a more complex apprenticeship. Have you brought things back. What is interesting in this experience is the manner in which you get involved. It’s something that demands a lot more time and involvement. You cannot be halfway in this world and halfway in the other. To do so would bother me because it would once again be a European approach. But I never stayed long enough to reach the stage of meeting the spirit of a given plant. you explore this world peopled by spirits. It’s a trance without drugs. how you would like things to happen. But we talk about ecology as well. It’s difficult to adapt. Just to find yourself in that environment makes you realize to what extent you are accustomed to your European vision. the relationship they have with spirits. I didn’t really want to put them on disc. We also hope that people will want to approach this world. Could you tell us about your experience ? FT : I accompanied him twice. We try to relate the experience of a world. to approach their everyday life. I have no pretension at all of doing shamanism. The people who manage to do that have been taking plants for forty years. of “bilingualism” . but it’s such an enormous job… What’s great about music is that the opinions of your colleagues do not determine what you do. I hesitate a lot. Franz. and each time I had the impression that it was too short. which goes hand in hand with our vision of things. They need changing. There are epistemological blocks. For example. If you hallucinate. I found that it was fruitful to go through the universities. of the multicultural. as we lived it. FT : You escape a lot of that in music. It’s very difficult to understand what is happening. the shamans’ songs that I’ve recorded. But it’s true that they give you less trouble. but a lot of question marks have been removed. or in those of the leader of an ayahuasca session in nature. of exchanges. it’s the opposite… You talk about the incapacity of Westerners to hallucinate. That already goes much further. I found it easier to drop the idea of proving anything.JN : That’s the very definition of psychosis.

or the technology that goes into a laptop… But that doesn’t prevent me from working with a laptop because I believe in it. to reflect upon serious and deep subjects. He thinks that it’s necessary that people see the world like the indigenous people . Down there it’s in order to solve them. For example. they take everything upon themselves. FT : Here people use drugs to entertain themselves. They are very aware of what they are doing. They have such confidence in the plants. with the deliberate aim of bringing images into my head. it’s all the same to them. And to travel down there ? That may cause problems. mushrooms are these little jokers. they will take care of them until it passes. Here it’s to escape from everyday life. Sometimes you can have variations with a flutist. After several trips down there. I encourage everyone to go traveling. you can really feel it. and it’s true that that did a lot of harm. or to heal people. while listening to music. and to experiment with that.within a few seconds. they have fun with you. you feel that you’re in good hands. But at the same time. that’s very impressive. unlike ayahuasca. They make an effort to guide you. Down there. For example. raises a lot of questions. If you have a physical problem. what are your views on drug use ? JN : I learnt that you should take plants rather than chemical products. make yourself humble. You have the impression that they know where they stand. to forget your problems for a moment. But usually you just have nature and singing. It isn’t in order to avoid taking responsibility that they have that attitude. they search for knowledge. There is a personality behind mushrooms that easily plays tricks on you. Secondly. But.psychologically or physically . I am more in-between. that is to say in order to “psycho-activate” the brain. if you can afford to.the world of spirits. that’s it. They basically take them to find answers. it is the most total purification. as in Mexico where crowds of people went on quest… FT : I read the biography of Maria Sabina. Could you tell us about their relationship to music ? FT : They are there and they sing. for example for the organization of a village. or for hunting. . But it’s true that it’s better to have a good guide . the shaman Juan Flores would like people to come to his center. without alcohol. They are not there to impress people. And you feel it. you should do it with a goal. that’s for sure. I like to take mushrooms by myself. it’s because you need it. they will sing a special song for them. because he thinks that it’s good for humanity. once again. or a rattle player. If someone is sick . Just think about all the things that have to be set up for a concert. As for myself. to shamans’ songs. that’s important.beneficial experience. because sometimes highly emotional things come out. and they don’t take enormous risks. otherwise it’s not really the same thing. It’s a return to the essential that. there are many people down there who are waiting. they know that what they are doing is right. drugs aren’t considered as a tool for knowledge.