1905 – “Telepathine” is Suggested as a Name for the Active Ingredient in the Ayahuasca Vine
The Amazonian shamanic brew ayahuasca has long been revered for its non-ordinary effects on the mind and body, such as the vivid mental imagery it inspires. In 1905, traveler Rafael Zerda Bayón named the still un-extracted active ingredient of the ayahuasca vine “telepathine.” He suggested the name due to his characterization of ayahuasca visions as telepathic, and publicized its name in newspaper articles he wrote in 1910, 1912 and 1915. Other names for the compound included banisterine and yagéine.
In 1923, Colombian chemist Guillermo Fischer Cárdenas used the name “telepathine” when he actually isolated the compound. In 1939, it was determined that telepathine, banisterine, and yagéine were all the same as harmine.
The existence of harmine was known about before Bayón first suggested a name for the still unextracted compound of the ayahuasca vine. In the 1840s, German chemists isolated harmine and harmaline from the seeds of Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) – harmaline being another harmala alkaloid, also found in the ayahuasca vine.
The name “harmine” has been used ever since for the active ingredient of the ayahuasca vine. We now know that harmine, along with the other harmala alkaloids, are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), chemicals that inhibit MAO (an enzyme) that breaks down DMT in the body. It is the MAOIs that allow a DMT-containing plant like Psychotria viridis (chacruna) to be orally active when consumed.
But the notion of ayahuasca’s telepathic nature didn’t end when harmine was found to be the same as telepathine. The writer William Burroughs revived the telepathy association at the end of his 1953 book “Junky,” where he noted that ayahuasca “is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.”
In 1958, the Colombian botanist Hernando García Barriga added to the telepathy narrative when he wrote “Savage Indians, 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.” Then the psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, in 1967, gave harmaline to city-dwellers, who reported seeing imagery of tigers and the jungle.
However, not everyone was convinced that such experiences were telepathic in nature. The anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, author of Amazonian Cosmos, pointed out that even isolated Indians in 1958 were aware of cities, based on information from missionaries, travellers, traders, soldiers, and rubber tappers. They also saw pictures of cities in calendars and magazines. And in terms of Naranjo’s experiment, we don’t know what sorts of expectations those city dwellers brought to their experience.
The association of ayahuasca with telepathy continued with Andrew Weil’s first book The Natural Mind (1972). Weil writes of his fascination with alleged “group vision sessions in which all participants see the same visions.” This he took as a sign of the “reality of shared consciousness.” However, in 1979, Weil travelled to Colombia and tried ayahuasca for the first time and was disappointed that he didn’t experience “telepathic news bulletins of distant events.”
In 1973, the missionary and anthropologist Kenneth Kensinger, who worked with the Cashinahua Indians, said several Cashinahua “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.”
More contemporary researchers also echo the belief that ayahuasca can induce telepathic experiences. For example, the parapsychology researcher David Luke said in an interview with James Kent, “…ayahuasca is reputedly quite potent in inducing telepathic and clairvoyant experiences.” And Paul Krassner noted in his book Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy: “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.’”
Continuing to this day, people who take ayahuasca in a group setting report telepathic experiences, where it seems possible to know the minds of others and to have shared mental or visionary experiences. Using the term telepathine for harmine may not have stuck around for long, but the association of ayahuasca with telepathy certainly has.
Beyer, S. (2007). The Telepathy Meme. Singing to the Plants website.
Kent, J. (2007). Psychedelics and paranormal experience: an interview with David Luke. DoseNation website.
Krassner, K. (2004). Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs: From Toad Slime to Ecstasy. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press
St. John, Graham 2015. Mystery Schools in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT. Berkley: Evolver Editions
Weil, A. (1972). The Natural Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin