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The Nexus of Plant Intelligence and Spiritual Insight - Science Meets Shamanism

Guests of The Psychedelic Blog do not endorse, support, or otherwise advocate on behalf of any particular treatment approach for mental illnesses unless stated otherwise. The views expressed during this interview do not necessarily reflect the opinions or endorsement of The Psychedelic Blog. Readers should always consult with qualified healthcare professionals and conduct their own research before considering any treatment options. The blog and its authors are not responsible for any decisions made based on the information provided.


Pathway
The Hidden Path

 “My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separate what seems real from what seems fantastic.”

-Gabriel García Márquez


Post Earth Day

Just after Earth Day seems like a good time to explore connections. I want to find out how we are connected to the things around us with the idea that, the better acquainted I am with those things, the more I'll care about what happens to them. I learned that the first step was to try to see them.


Space
The James Webb Telescope, Tuning into Nature, www.webbtelescope.org

"Webb’s raw telescope images initially appear almost completely black (left). They are initially transformed by image processors into crisp black-and-white images (center) and then full-color composites (right). A ton of care and consideration is poured into each step."


Intro

From this vantage point (top image)—standing on a dirt path in a place I've never been—I can't tell what's beyond the knoll; it's too shrouded in mist. Whether or not the following discussion unveils any part of that mystery, I think you'll find the trip worth taking. It's about science, spirituality, and a passion for the natural world.


Paco Calvo, the driving force behind Planta Sapiens, explores the subject of plant intelligence. He's the science guy. In fact, he teaches the Philosophy of Science. Taita (Shaman) Diego Jamioy revives plant wisdom through the ceremonial use of the sacred plant brew, ayahuasca. Yes, for the sake of this blog, he's the spiritual one. They come from worlds apart—the Global North and the Global South, academia and indigenous culture, the rigor of the scientific method and the richness of oral tradition—but both are passionate champions of a nonconventional perception of plants.


In such a critical period for the planet, finding new ways to understand the natural world is not just academic—it's imperative for our survival. Acknowledging that plants exhibit complex behaviors, which some interpret as indicators of plant sentience and communication, may be more than an ecological curiosity but a blueprint for resilience. Is it possible or practical to embrace plants as allies in the quest to salvage our ecosystems?


Whatever your answer might be, it's Earth Day. Let's use this time to reflect on plant intelligence and the potential for science and spirituality to play a role in helping to foster a sustainable coexistence with nature.


Prelude

I captured the above image while walking with friends the day prior to experiencing yagé (ayahuasca) for the first time in Sibundoy, Colombia. I thought that the photo served as a fitting metaphor for the prelude to a mystical encounter which I understood would reveal a world where a psychoactive plant acts as a conduit to "non-ordinary states of consciousness," as Billy Shanon described in his 2002 book, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience.


During this January 2023 "research expedition" to southwest Colombia, I was introduced to yagé by Taita Diego. He told me that yagé transcends the simplistic label of an intoxicant and is, in essence, an all-knowing plant spirit capable of communicating, healing, and imparting wisdom. Seated by the fire, ready to experience yagé firsthand, I asked him, Who taught you about the healing properties of yagé? How did you learn about the spiritual world and its relationship with the natural world? Where do yagé's famous visions come from? The response to each of my questions was "the remedy".  For Tiata Diego, yagé, or the remedy, is an all-knowing spirit.


Initially, I interpreted his answers as metaphors, likening the plant's profound properties to the energizing effect of spinach for Popeye the Sailor. However, as I considered Diego's words, especially after feeling the power of the yagé, I began developing a better appreciation for the depth of his meaning. His description of yagé was not metaphorical nor rhetorical but, for him, a literal and profound acknowledgment of the plant's integral role in connecting with the spiritual and natural worlds.


Deer
What do you see?

Even though I did not interact with the plant spirit during my first encounter, I couldn't discount the testimony of my guide or the numerous others I had heard or read that attested to such interactions. An evolving understanding of our universal entanglement, brought on by this brew, began to wear down my preconceptions.


The Sibundoy experience also made me recall a captivating book I had stumbled upon some months prior: Planta Sapiens by Paco Calvo, a distinguished Professor of the Philosophy of Science and Principal Investigator at the University of Murcia's Minimal Intelligence Lab in Spain. Calvo, in his groundbreaking work, sheds light on observable behaviors of plants and presents intriguing evidence of their intelligence. He illustrates how plants, much like animals, engage in adaptive and goal-oriented actions, a revelation that challenges conventional science and opens a dialogue around the consciousness of nature.


Before reading Planta Sapiens, the concept of plant cognition would have seemed preposterous to someone like me, a self-confessed animal chauvinist struggling with "plant blindness"—a term coined by botanists and biology educators J. H. Wandersee and E. E. Schussler to describe our collective inability to acknowledge the vitality and complexity of plant life. Of course, being blind to plant presence made it difficult to entertain the possibility of their intelligence. However, Calvo's persuasive call for an open-minded approach to plant intelligence, merged with my Sibundoy memories, began shifting my perspective. I found myself increasingly open to the notion that the brew of the ayahuasca vine might indeed harbor something supernatural.


If your answer to the caption above—What do you see?—is "a deer", you too may be living with plant blindness.

Like most of the ideas and phenomena we explore at The Psychedelic Blog, this is all uncharted territory for me. That doesn't mean these waters haven't been tested by many others before. There are lots of examples of people trying to connect the tangible (or measureable) with the intangible (immeasurable) elements of our existence including, artists and musicians, writers and poets, spiritual leaders, educators, philosophers, and motivational speakers to name a few. I'm fascinated by the challenge of discovering links between the realm represented by the professor's studies on plant intelligence, and the mystical universe frequented by indigenous groups in the Amazon Basin with the yagé brew at its core. Here are three examples of prominent thinkers that have undertaken similar journeys:


Men
Carl Jung, William James, and Fritjof Capra (Wikipedia)

Carl Jung, the famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, introduced the idea of the collective unconscious, a universal domain of the unconscious mind that is shared among beings of the same species. According to Jung, the collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existing forms, or archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents. Despite their intangible nature, these archetypes manifest tangibly through art, literature, dreams, and the symbols of various cultures. He argued that these archetypes influence all of human thought, behavior, and experience. In this way, Jung's work represents an effort to make sense of how our tangible lives are influenced by the intangible elements of the human psyche that are also shared.


William James, the very influential American philosopher and psychologist, is renowned for his study of religious experiences and mysticism, outlined in his most famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James explored the nature of mystical experiences, suggesting that they are not only crucial to understanding religion but also offer profound insights into the human psyche and consciousness. James suggested that mystical experiences, though intangible and deeply subjective, have tangible effects on the lives of individuals. These experiences often lead to profound insights, changes in behavior, they can even alter one's belief systems. James argued that the mystical states of consciousness, despite their ineffable nature (or, indescribable with words), provide a direct experience of the reality that is not accessible through the senses. For James, the study of these experiences was a way to bridge the gap between the physical world and the spiritual or mystical dimensions of our lives. This may sound familiar for those that have experienced yagé.


Fritjof Capra, a physicist also renowned for reconciling the scientific and mystical realms, most notably in his book, The Tao of Physics, draws compelling parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism (particularly Buddhism). He suggests that quantum physics and spiritual traditions both unveil a universe characterized by interconnectivity rather than separateness, challenging the conventional atomistic (or mechanistic) view with a holistic perspective. Capra's exploration into the fabric of reality demonstrates how the intangible—consciousness, existence—intertwines with the physical or tangible world, advocating for a systemic understanding that merges ecological sustainability with spiritual wisdom. His work encourages a reevaluation of our approach to life, urging the integration of tangible ecological concerns with the intangible values of interconnectedness, thereby aiming to reconcile the physical with the spiritual in the quest for a more sustainable and insightful understanding of the universe. This is very much on target with our mission here today.


Bridge
AI generated vine-reinforced bridge

"Yagé is a force that has power, will and knowledge; with it we can reach the stars, enter the spirit of other people, know their desire to do good or bad; we can foresee the future of ours and others' lives, see illnesses and cure them, and with it we can travel to heaven or hell."

-A Sibundoy Taita (Billy Shanon)


In an earlier life, when my world orbited familiar spaces only, the idea of hosting the discussion you're about to read would have seemed unimaginable. But, by the time you start interacting through a portal called, The Psychedelic Blog, the universe has already signaled its approval for exploring distinctive paths. Of course, I'm no Carl Jung, William James, or Fritjof Capra but, then again, this pilgrimage to a better understanding of ourselves and everything around us is not mine alone—it's ours. Let's begin with two central questions:


  • Is it possible to forge a meaningful connection between scientific inquiry and ancestral wisdom that helps open new pathways to understanding nature? and

  • Does acknowledging the intelligence and spiritual significance of plants challenge our current paradigm enough to shift from an exploitation mode to seeing nature as an indispensable ally in environmental preservation?


Yage day
Anderson, Taita Diego, and Robert (from left to right)


Our Conversations

When I reached out to Paco Calvo in the fall of 2023, he was kind enough to agree to meet via Zoom as were Diego and Anderson Ariza. Anderson—a professor of engineering at the University of Magdalena in Santa Marta, Colombia—is dedicated to both scientific rigor and mystical exploration; someone who studies the realms of conventional science and the profound depths of those non-ordinary states of consciousness. He's a close friend and it was good to have him along for this conversation. Anderson, Paco, and I exchanged greetings then we got started.


Robert: Paco, can you explain the biological origins of intelligence and consciousness in plants and discuss plant signaling, biosemiotics, and the relation to plant intelligence?


Paco: I guess the easiest way to understand what plant intelligence is about, what it all boils down to, is, paradoxically, to forget about plants. Because by phrasing the question as relating exclusively to plants, we might convey the idea that there is a special meaning that relates to plants. Plants are intelligent in so far as this or in so far as that and plant intelligence boils down to this or boils down to that. It’s important to avoid falling prey to species- or kingdom-specific definitions or typologies.


The very question you raised, if you think about it and ask that very question about any form of life whatsoever, it's way easier to understand because then we can easily pinpoint or nail what unites us all in the tree of life regardless of kingdom of origin. So, rather than plant intelligence, I would speak of biological intelligence; any form of intelligence whatsoever in the tree of life—all the way from unicellular bacteria to homo sapiens to plants or to fungi or whatever, you name it, any form of life whatsoever. If you think about it biologically speaking, in terms of biosemiotics, in terms of meaning making, any organism whatsoever needs to make sense of the way it's interacting with the surroundings.

 

Man
Paco Calvo, University of Murcia's Minimal Intelligence Lab in Spain

"If you think about it biologically speaking, in terms of biosemiotics, in terms of meaning making, any organism whatsoever needs to make sense of the way it's interacting

with the surroundings."

-Paco Calvo


So, intelligence is not something that you unearth by searching or looking into the “head” of the organism. I say the head in quotes because, of course, if you are thinking of animals, it's easier to locate the head, but in a plant where is the head? Or there are many heads. Or, in a unicellular, you don't quite see how to picture it, right? So, rather than saying the head, the way any form of life at all makes meaning out of the interaction with the surroundings, it has more to do with the very way in which it is actually interacting. You cannot press pause and watch a frame like a frozen picture of an organism unfolding and doing its business and meaning making with its surroundings. You've got to understand it in the way it temporally unfolds and the way that cognitive behavior unfolds in real time as these organisms have to deal with contingencies, have to deal with what's happening around it, right?


Take a plant, let’s speak of plants. If you are a plant and you are having to deal with contingencies, you know, unexpected future outcomes, because things happen around the clock all around you, right? There are many irregularities. Things happen on a regular basis: the day and night cycles, the seasons. So, you have many different regularities unfolding temporally on many different time scales. It makes perfect sense to think that a plant will need to tune to those regularities, because those regularities are meaningful. They carry information. They are going to whisper. They're going to tell the plant what's relevant and what's not.


Say some pattern of predation; these predators go out hunting when the sun sets. So, the sun setting provides meaningful information. Oh, it's getting dark. Time to hide, whatever, you name it. There are many regularities. So, it's not a coincidence that we must, in a sense—we meaning any form of life all the way from unicellulars to us—must somehow pick-up information that is being shared because we all evolved on the same planet, planet Earth, under the same type of regularities. The sun sets and the sun rises for all of us. There is danger out there for all of us. We just need to customize our different strategies in terms of our morphology*, in terms of what our bodies look like and what our needs are.


*Morphology

Definition: Morphology is the branch of biology that deals with the form and structure of organisms without consideration of function. In humans, it refers to the study of the physical form and external structures. In plants, it pertains to the study and description of physical form and external structures like leaves, flowers, and stems.

Explanation: Human morphology examines aspects like anatomy and body proportions, while plant morphology focuses on the arrangement and modifications of various parts. Both are essential for understanding growth, development, and evolutionary adaptations.

Example: A morphological study in humans may analyze the variations in limb proportions across different populations. In plants, it may involve the investigation of leaf shapes and their adaptations to environmental conditions.

Quote: "Morphology, the study of form, is not only a central aspect of biology but also carries profound implications for the evolutionary and adaptive significance of organisms." - Ernst Mayr


 

So, plants are always slower, certainly they are very slow, but that doesn't mean they are stupid. They simply unfold their patterns of behavior in the form of growth and development in a completely different time scale from animals, right. If we are going to go down to the biology related to the emergence of meaning making or the emergence of intelligence, or the emergence of sentience, we need to look for what I like to call the "master key" that unlocks any door in the tree of life, in any branch whatsoever.


So, do we share a master key that opens any lock - for bacteria, for plants, for fungi, for animals? I think there is such a shared master key and it relates to the need to integrate information. Integration is the key to understand the emergence of sentience and the emergence of intelligence. Because if we responded to sources of stimulation on one-to-one basis—I respond to light, I respond to a chemical threat, I respond to an herbivore, I respond to gravity—if I were to respond on a one-to-one basis to whatever is happening around me, then that's something you could simply pre-program; it could be a hardwired response. But in fact we are surrounded by information, you know, bombarding us 24/7 from the outside in, from the inside out. So, it's the reception, perceiving the external world but also the interoception, perceiving within our bodies and the proprioception, perceiving the relative position of our body parts with respect to the surroundings.


So, we have to integrate all this information in order to provide a response that is adaptive to the global scale. If we behave adaptively at such a global scale it means that sometimes responding to this cue—light, gravity, or whatever—might force you to change gear and turn left, not right. But on other occasions, the same type of cue will deliver a different output simply because you have integrated that little piece of information with a lot of other stuff going on. It still might be the same type of light coming from the same angle, but, this time, I have somebody else here, kin recognition. Plants will be recognizing kin from non-kin. And they might decide, "decide" to grow their roots or turn their leaves or their shoots in a different way from the way they might have done had they been by themselves. So, being surrounded, being in a social context will make you behave differently.


The same happens with the heterogeneous character of how nutrients are placed in pockets below ground. There are all these rich tapestries of relations and constraints and contingencies that make it impossible to write in stone a pre-wired or a hardwired set of instructions that is going to tell the organism how to behave. You can't do that. You've got to be meaning making, to make meaning out of those interactions in real time, and it will never be the same. Because, despite those regularities, things are never the same. Things change, despite the existing patterns, regularities.


That's the same thing which we need to do, integrate information, and that's something we all do - plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, all of us. The same goes for sentience. I believe that sentience comes with life itself. You wouldn't find the form of life that wasn't sentient. Again, going back to unicellulars, why? Because those guys, however tiny they are, they already need to accomplish this task, which is to integrate all those informational channels. You need to provide this higher-level perspective, the 'I', the self, you name it. And, the I, or the self doesn't mean to say that it's going to be some homunculus, some little guy sitting at the wheel doing the driving. You don't find that in a unicellular, right? Or, in us for that matter. In our case, we fall prey to this illusion that, because we think in a loud voice, we use verbs, we use words, we have a language, all these mental thinking in a loud voice fools us into thinking that there is a Paco or a Robert within you, at the wheel, right? But we are the same as unicellulars. That's why sentience gets started from day one. As soon as you find life, which is this tiny guy having to, you know, maintain some level of organization despite entropy*, despite having to fight against death; losing the battle to entropy. So, in terms of the constant exchange of matter and energy across borders, the borders of the cell, in that case, or the border of our organism, that constant of having to renew the way you place yourself with respect to your surroundings. That's what unites us all. And that's what make us all sentient, to have a mind in the first place.


*Entropy

Definition: Entropy is a concept in thermodynamics often described as the measure of disorder or randomness in a system. In broader terms, it is the degree of unpredictability or the number of configurations that a system can have. High entropy indicates a high level of disorder, while low entropy characterizes more order and predictability.

Explanation: Entropy is a fundamental aspect not just in physics but also in information theory and other scientific disciplines. In thermodynamics, it's a central part of the second law, which states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. In information theory, entropy quantifies the amount of information, uncertainty, or surprise associated with potential outcomes.

Example: When ice melts into water, entropy increases as the structured arrangement of water molecules in ice breaks down into a less ordered state. In terms of information, a message filled with unexpected and varied words has higher entropy than one with repeated and predictable words.

Quote: "Entropy is an expression of the disorder, or randomness of a system, or of our lack of information about it." - Max Planck



"It almost never feels like prejudice. Instead it seems fitting and just—the idea that, because of an accident of birth, our group, (whichever one it is) should have a central position in the social universe."

-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot


Now, to me, the mistake is to think that humans provide the "gold standard". We don't provide any gold standard whatsoever. We are simply one other way evolution found, one particular strategy to deal with those contingencies, with those sources of stress, to deal with the need to integrate, to anticipate the future, to all these things we all do. But it's just one more way to do it. If we forget about us providing the gold standard, it's not that weird to think of plants in the business of meaning making, in the business of anticipating a state of affairs, in the business of having to deal in a social context with shared interests, group interests and perform, you know, kin recognition, kin versus non-kin, competitive versus collaborative patterns of relations with others, etc., right? So, from this perspective, plants are just, you know, beings within one kingdom that are in the same business as the rest of beings in the rest of kingdoms. They just found a different way to do things because they are rooted, they are sessile, they cook their own food through photosynthesis, they have their way to do things. But in their heart of hearts, if you scratch the surface and go deep enough, we find that master key.


 

The Great Chain of Being


Chain
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades [es], Rhetorica Christiana, Wikipedia



God


Angels


Demons


Man


Animals


Plants


Minerals







"Next to the word 'Nature,' 'the Great Chain of Being' was the sacred phrase of the eighteenth century, playing a part somewhat analogous to that of the blessed word 'evolution' in the late nineteenth."

-Arthur O. Lovejoy


 

Robert: That's a great explanation, Paco. From a philosophical standpoint on human identity and the locus of intelligence, which emphasizes integration and adaptability, how does this perception contrast with more conventional interpretations of intelligence?


Paco: There is a big tension here. Because traditional views of intelligence think the piece of the puzzle or the solution to the puzzle has to do with understanding cognition or intelligence as an algorithm, as a recipe book that you follow the steps, and you cook your meal, okay? This is like the algorithmic understanding of cognition. Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, follow instructions, there you go, voila, you have cognition, right? This is a computational understanding of cognition or what intelligence is about. And that's what I meant to say about the gold standard. Because, if we think of ourselves as computational agents that we deal with, trade with, representational states in our minds, and we follow that recipe book, instructions, and we solve problems computationally, then we have a problem because other forms of life, it's difficult for us to equate their computational powers with ours. What could it mean for a plant to be following this recipe book, right? But if we get rid of this computational and representational understanding of intelligence—we fool ourselves into thinking that human thought has to do with following that algorithm—if we get rid of that, we see that things are way easier. And that's what I mean by interacting with the surroundings. Cognition or intelligence is not something that you search for within the skull. It's not inside the head, it is a relational property. It's a relational property that has to do with the agent, the organism, in constant communication and exchange of information, energy, and matter with the environment, with the local environment. So, paradoxically, to search for intelligence, we don't need to crack open the skull. We need to search for the interaction out there. When you look at the environment, you are looking at the mind. The mind, mentality is a relational property.


Robert: When thinking about the traditional, vertical perception of man on the Great Chain of Being—and this may be a question for Diego—do indigenous cultures have a more horizontal approach to life, where man and God are not up here, but they exist along the same line as man, plants, animals, and fungi? This is what I'm learning.


Before Paco could respond to my question, Taita Diego's image popped-up on our call. The timing made me consider the incongruity of our participants' worldviews—Paco's, Diego's, Anderson's and mine—and the practical barriers that may present themselves as we attempt to harmonize them. Here are just some of the areas where merging worldviews will prove challenging:


  • Perception of time - Modern societies often view time in a linear way, hyperfocusing on progress and future goals, leading to a never-ending pursuit of growth. As professors at large universities, Paco and Anderson can both relate to deadlines, meetings, class schedules, etc. Indigenous cultures, represented in this case by Diego, tend to see time as cyclical and interconnected, emphasizing the natural rhythms and the importance of the present moment. This understanding fosters a deep respect for tradition, ancestry, and the sustainability of actions for future generations. It may also affect how we bring folks together for time-regulated discussions.

  • Individualism and Community: The world I grew-up in celebrates and rewards individualism. It's seen as a strength in modern societies which contrasts with indigenous values of community welfare and collective decision-making. Diego's father, Camilo Jamioy wrote, "...we are a whole, we are a UNITY as the fundamental principle of our existence."

  • Relationship with Nature: Modern societies tend to exploit natural resources, prioritizing economic growth. The domination of nature is seen as a triumph for mankind whereas indigenous communities live in balance with nature, emphasizing sustainability. Contrasts between Western and indigenous perspectives on nature quickly reveal themselves, even to those of us with the best intentions, who strive to align with a more eco-conscious mindset.

  • Land and Ownership: Modern societies value land ownership and personal property, whereas, for many indigenous cultures, land is a communal resource and a sacred trust. This is a mindset that is hard to reconcile in modern western cultures.


Man
Taita Diego Jamioy

Robert: Okay Diego, ready.

 

Diego: How have you been?

 

Robert: I've been good, thank you.

 

Anderson: Do Diego and Paco know each other? No, right?

 

Paco: No, no. We just met right now.

 

Anderson: Because if you want, you can maybe introduce yourselves and get to know each other a little.

 

Paco: Yes, well, hello. I don’t know, Diego, if Robert has already told you something about me. But well, I understand that Robert initially got in touch through the book 'Planta Sapiens', and well, I am at the University of Murcia in Spain and I lead a laboratory where we investigate plant intelligence, plant intelligence mainly through time-lapse. We do time-lapse photography to observe plant behavior and also electrophysiological recordings, and, well, through these two windows, through what we methodologically try, to have a scientific understanding of plant behavior. With Robert, we were talking a bit about all this, about the scientific approach that I contribute. In your case, I understand that it is a different perspective that you will tell us about now, right?

 

Robert: Yes. We want to find the connection between Paco's scientific work and your life, Diego, in Colombia as a Taita. Okay. I'm going to start with two quotes. The first from Paco:


"If we can see plants as cognitive beings, we might be able to change our own perspective on the role of humanity in the Earth's biosphere and facilitate plants creating a balance in our own effects on the ecosystem."

-Paco Calvo


Next, I want to use a quote from a man named Taita Luis Portilla. Did you know Luis Portilla, Diego?

 

Diego: No, but I've heard his name mentioned. I don’t know him personally.

 

Robert: He passed away recently, but something he said struck me as interesting:


"Yagé is our book, our Bible. One can study it all their life and die without having

finished the first page."

-Taita Luis Portilla

 

Paco, when you want to prepare the mindset of your modern Western audience to understand plant behavior and intelligence, what are the key points you present?"

 

Paco: Well, it's a bit like what we were talking about earlier, right? The gold standard. The first thing is to appreciate or realize that we, as the Homo Sapiens species, are not so special, in fact, we are nothing special. It's what I was saying earlier, we are just one more form in which evolution has hit the mark in solving problems. If we think about it, instead of trying to inflate the plant condition, for me the key is to try to deflate human condition. We have to put ourselves at that same level, right? What we said before, a horizontal structure, there is no hierarchy, and if it is a horizontal level, you can achieve horizontality by raising some or lowering others. See? If instead of inflating plant intelligence we deflate human intelligence, let's say to the same line. Instead of starting by talking about plants, it's the other way around, it's starting by talking about ourselves.


Verbal linguistics, not that deception of thinking that, because we think in words, we have an idea, that we follow a recipe. No, that thing we were saying about the algorithm. So, if we give a couple of twists to this idea and question the intuitive principles of what human intelligence consists of, we can start from scratch, on neutral ground, where no one provides the bullet to measure or the metric from which to compare other forms of intelligence.


The problem is establishing a comparison: this looks like this, the other does not work. When we believe we have a clear idea of what the measuring stick is because it seems that you already have a clear idea of what a meter is and I measure distances with the meter standard. But if you question what a meter is, if it is not clear what it means for this to be a meter, the comparison, the metric changes radically. If we change the scenario, we can place the characters in a situation of horizontality where there is no privilege, there is no species or form of behavior or intelligence privileged with respect to the rest. For me, that is the starting point.


 

Buen Vivir


Image
Buen Vivir, www.Bioversidadla.org

Buen Vivir, or "good living," is a philosophy deeply rooted in indigenous South American cultures, particularly peoples of the Amazon basin. It emphasizes living in harmony with nature and the community, prioritizing collective well-being over individual wealth accumulation. In this worldview, all elements of creation—humans, animals, plants, spirits and the Earth—are seen as equally important parts of a whole, with no single aspect considered superior to another. This approach fosters a sense of interconnectedness and mutual respect, encouraging sustainable practices and equitable social structures. This horizontal perspective contrasts with the Great Chain of Being mentioned above.



 

In sharing Diego's insights throughout the following section, I've tried to carefully balance direct quotations with summaries to ensure the essence of his thoughts are best communicated. My summaries are presented in blue.


Robert: Diego, you grew up in a culture that perceives the natural world differently than most people in modern Western societies. Can you talk about some of these differences, between your culture and ours?"


Diego: Well, just a few days ago, I was in Cali [Colombia] sharing a remedy, and we were talking in the morning. I was telling them about the first times I started going to cities to share the medicine [yagé].


Diego goes on to talk about his initial apprehension upon leaving his home in Sibundoy Valley, Colombia, highlighting the trust that he gradually built up with people in the cities. Diego reflects on his encounters with patients describing their conditions in medical jargon, leading to his initial doubt about his healing abilities. This concern prompted a shift to a simpler, more direct approach to understanding their needs by focusing on the location of their pain, emphasizing a return to the basics of healing.


Diego: Then a lady approached me, then another lady, a man, a lady... and they told me, "What happens is that I suffer from this and that" and they told me their illnesses, but with the terms that doctors use.


Diego recalls a recent period when his mother, involved in the local council, participated in meetings with community elders and young leaders to discuss a significant environmental concern. They were addressing the contentious proposal to build a road through a pristine forest in their territory, a project justified by its proponents for safety and quicker access to Mocoa [the capital city of the Putumayo department], highlighting the community's resistance to encroachments that threaten their land and way of life.


Diego: Well, those are the reasons, not very solid, to be able to say that's why we have to break virgin forest, but behind all of that is mining. In those territories, there are 96 concessions already given, so that's the issue.


Diego highlights the community's discussions led by elders, including his mother, about the environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed road. He shares a poignant story from a woman who grew up in the affected area, emphasizing the deep spiritual connection the community has with the land, underscoring the complexities of development versus preservation.


Diego: So, her father and mother recommended to her, "Do this, don't do that, be careful with this, be careful with that."


Following this guidance, they introduced a lemon plant to their home, a novelty in the region, meant for making lemonade. To protect against wildlife, specifically bears, they would light fires at night, which amused the bears but left them puzzled on how to safeguard against tigers, prompting them to seek safer places or strategies for evasion.


Diego: So, they were sleeping one night with the two siblings in one place, and she with the little brother in a little bed — well, not a bed, because she said that, at that time, there were no beds. They were poles that they crossed and on top they placed mats, leaves, and there they settled down, as to rest.


She recounts a tense night when they sensed a large animal approaching, initially thought to be a bear due to the lit candle outside. However, with the animal continuing to approach, closer than expected, she feared it might be a tiger, causing alarm as the safety measures they had in place were designed more for bears.


Then, she says she didn't know what to do and the only thing she did was hug a little tighter the little brother she had there because she said, "Well, if it eats us, let it eat us all and not leave one alive." Following this, a surprising turn of events occurs when a figure, resembling a tall man in traditional attire but with a gourd for a head, enters their home. This unexpected visitor circulates the indoor fire three times before exiting, leaving behind a sound akin to something being torn apart.


The next morning when they got up, they went to look and what he had done was tear apart the lemon tree. She explained that the forest, home to numerous spirits, identified the non-native lemon tree as an intruder. This act was carried out by a guardian spirit of the forest, emphasizing the existence of various protectors within the natural world, including spirits, plants, animals, and even elements like water, all ensuring the balance and purity of their territory.


Diego: We are formed with them, and from them we receive what we need to live. So let's say, the human being for us in the midst of the immensity that surrounds us, well we can say that yes, that we are not, that we are something very small within it, right? Because in the end, for example, we, as what Robert mentioned about the taita who passed away and spoke of it [yagé] as a library which is like a Bible for us, but we could say that yes, it's literally all of that, right? Because for us, we call yagé the king of plants. Yagé has many names, ayahuasca has many names, or people give it many names. Some say it out of taste, out of love, out of passion, but, especially when the elders give it a name, it's because it carries a significant meaning, it's not for nothing.


So, when they say that it is the king of plants, it's because when we take a little remedy, we have a patient and yagé can cure, or we can cure with yagé, some disease or a problem in just one night. But there are other things that are a bit more complex. In those cases, we have to do a treatment, because it takes a little more time, and it needs more plants to cure the disease or the need of the person. So it's yagé, ayahuasca, that when we take the remedy tells us, "See, for this man or this woman, go cut such a plant and mix it with this other one, prepare it this way, give it to them to drink or make ointments or some baths or do some watering for the person."


Diego relates that taking the remedy brings a profound realization that despite human accolades for knowledge, in truth, we know very little. This point is illustrated by an elder who, even after 100 years of consuming yagé, expressed astonishment at its continuous revelations. Despite his long life and extensive experience, he maintained a humble perspective, emphasizing the endless surprises and learning yagé provided until his passing at 128.


Diego: And what this elder said, what you say, Robert, that's very true, because the truth is that when we take a little remedy, and every sip is different, even if there is a patient today with a migraine and in eight days another patient with a migraine too, the remedy has different way of curing that person. So the behavior, let's say of everything around us, surpasses everything that the human being has within his head, within his thinking.


Diego goes on to talk about a friend who was a mathematician studying at the National University in Bogotá and he experienced a profound connection between mathematics and the natural, ancestral world during a remedy session. Outside under a starry sky, he felt a deep appreciation for the medicine. He later expressed to Diego the difficulty of reconciling scientific skepticism with spiritual and natural knowledge, emphasizing the reliance on trust and the scientific method in healing practices. This encounter highlighted the complex interplay between science and traditional wisdom, illustrating the transformative impact of the remedy on his understanding.


The student shared how, during a yagé session, he visualized connecting stars that outlined the formulas needed to demonstrate a theory he was proposing—despite it being initially dismissed by the scientific community. This experience offered him a unique insight, blending his mathematical pursuits with the spiritual guidance of yagé, potentially paving the way for the acceptance of his research.


Diego: The yagé told him that he had to let go of things in the head and in the heart, and then he, as a man of science, said that it was hard for him. It was very hard to say, "Oh yes, from today I'm going to change my way of thinking this way, and I'm going to direct it this way," or "My heart is going to start beating differently. Okay, ready, now I'm going to do what you tell me. I surrender." It was at that moment when the purge came. And after the purge came the connection of the little stars to be able to give him the formulas he needed to be able to prove his theories.


Reflecting on the contrast between life in Sibundoy and the city, Diego muses on the simplicity and peace of rural living, untouched by modern stresses such as stress, cancer, and pandemics. This contemplation highlights a disconnection from the complexities and ailments prevalent in urban settings, suggesting a life in Sibundoy was one of solace and health, seemingly unaffected by the issues now facing the world.


Diego relates a story of a meeting about oil company activities in indigenous territories when Taita Miguel fell asleep. After the presentations, as discussions began among the attendees, someone noticed him sleeping. They gently woke him, informing him it was his turn to speak, highlighting a light-hearted moment amidst serious discussions.


Diego: The taita got up and said, "I really don't know why I came here. I was working on my farm, diligently, peacefully, and nothing, nothing bothered me other than taking care of the little animals and the plants we have on the farm. And now, one comes here to listen to you and all we receive are problems. And now, I go home worried, thinking about what I just heard. But well, something must be done. What is to be done? But at this moment, don't ask me because I also don't know what to do. I'm going to take remedy and tomorrow we'll talk."


In challenging situations concerning indigenous territories, the approach involves seeking guidance from a "neutral" party, often leaning towards protecting the land. This method is crucial as political and economic interests can complicate matters, with some parties having hidden agendas that ultimately harm the community. The use of traditional remedies aids in discerning trustworthiness, revealing the true intentions behind actions that may appear beneficial but have larger detrimental implications. This is the wisdom of yagé.


Robert: We knew coming in that Diego's understanding of plants had a mystical bend.

Paco have you observed anything within plant behavior that could be called emotional or something spiritual?


Paco: Well, the quick answer is no, but let me explain my position so that it's not misunderstood. As Diego said, my approach to understanding plant behavior is a scientific one. So, the only thing we can do when studying the behavior or conduct of any organism is to observe its external behavior, to manifest external signs, whether it's an animal, a plant, or whatever, what it does.


We are not different from the animal protocols, that is, what we do is customize, adapt those animal protocols to plants because they are a study subjects whose behavior unfolds on a very different timescale, but the approach is still scientific.


If you ask me if I have observed some strange, unusual behavior, the answer is, well, scientifically, we ask ourselves about any pattern of plant behavior, but the spiritual part is what I do not know how to fit into the proposal. I insist, the framework is scientific.


If we talk about sentience, if we talk about plant sentience, in this case, you can, just like in the case of an animal, try to record the neural correlates, the bioelectric activity. So, just like in a human or non-human animal, you can make a recording with brain neuroimaging techniques and see which part of the brain activates when carrying out an activity. In the same way, in a plant, in the plant's vascular system, we can trace the flow of information, see that information in terms of patterns of bioelectricity and see how it correlates with behavior patterns. But the method is still the scientific method, that's it.


That's the part that escapes me, how to establish the connection. Because if we talk about ayahuasca as a psychotropic substance, it's a molecule, a chemical molecule. We know what it is, its chemical composition, its molecular composition, it's from the family of tryptamines and it has a certain set of carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms. And, that molecule, we can investigate what effect it produces in the brain of the person who consumes it. There might be a neurobiological explanation for the altered state of consciousness that a subject has when consuming dimethyltryptamine, which is the scientific name of the ayahuasca molecule, so that there is an altered state of consciousness on the part of the consumer of the psychotropic is a question that we can also discuss scientifically.


From the perspective of the philosophy of science, we distinguish between the context of discovery and the context of justification. The context of discovery has to do with the way we come to conceptualize, to put a hypothesis on the table to test it. So, if you arrive at a hypothesis through imagination, through an altered state of consciousness, or through a process of logical derivation, that's irrelevant in our case. How you come to consider a hypothesis is a different problem.


Once you have a hypothesis on the table, once we consider a possible explanation for a set of phenomena, we have to follow the scientific method to try to shed light on whether that hypothesis is confirmed or falsified, you see? So, they are two different things.


We can study bioelectric patterns by inserting electrodes in a plant. We can record the electrical activity within the plant. We can observe behavioral patterns, but that is all we can do. If there is a behavior that is weirder or more difficult to explain than another, it simply tells us that, well, we do not have a good answer, we have to keep investigating, we have to keep putting hypotheses on the table, but the framework is always the scientific method in our case.


Robert: Hearing Paco mention neuroimaging made me wonder, what are some of the ways to "see" what's happening inside the brain of someone who has consumed yagé? and how we can begin to place a mystical experience into a scientific framework?


1. Neuroimaging - Using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans to visualize brain activity during yagé experiences.

2. AI-Enhanced Analysis - Leveraging AI algorithms to analyze super complex neuroimaging data.

3. Virtual Reality (VR) Integration - Simulating yagé experiences. This could help researchers understand how these experiences alter perception and consciousness by creating a visual roadmap.

4. Machine Learning for Analyzing Subjective Reports - Natural Language Processing (NLP): Utilizing NLP to analyze and categorize the vast array of subjective reports from individuals who have participated in yagé ceremonies. AI could identify common themes, symbols, or emotional responses, providing a more structured understanding of the experience.


Trees
Is nature teeming with subjectivities?

"Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all,

our kith and kin."



Discussion

Keeping in mind what Paco, Diego, and even Michael Pollan have said here, what can we take from these ideas? Let's quickly revisit our central questions: Is it possible to forge a meaningful connection between scientific inquiry and ancestral wisdom to unveil new pathways for understanding nature? Consider the perspective of someone who answers negatively. They would argue that bridging the scientific and the mystical is not feasible. They might mention some of the following points:


  • The ever-widening gap between Western and ancestral worldviews has made us fundamentally incompatible so there is and can be no mutual understanding or recognition of each other’s perspectives.

  • There is a history of mistrust between colonized communities and their colonizers.

  • Western institutions will never see practical value in pursuing the connections between science and ancestral wisdom.


On the other hand, one might argue that we must pursue avenues that bring us closer to a better understanding of nature especially in light of issues related to the collapse of ecosystems and the mass extinctions of species. Bridging scientific inquiry and ancestral wisdom is possible if we can:


  • Acknowledge the differences between viewpoints and study those perspectives.

  • Initiate interdisciplinary research projects with a purpose that incorporate scientific method and traditional knowledge.

  • Develop collaborative workshops and conferences (virtual or in-person) between scientists and spiritual practitioners.

  • Develop curriculum for secondary schools and colleges.

  • Create cultural exchange programs that bring scientists to indigenous communities (think Richard Evans Schultes).

Of course, any of this would require a foundational respect for each other and a commitment to open-mindedness as Paco emphasized in his book.


The second central question was: Does acknowledging the intelligence and spiritual significance of plants challenge current societal paradigms enough to shift from an exploitation mode to seeing nature as an indispensable ally in environmental preservation?


Using the word spiritual, when posing this question, brings to mind religion. Even though people are leaving organized religion in large numbers, it seems that we still crave transcendent connections to something greater whether it's outside or inside ourselves. I certainly do. But, how do we share transcendence with nature?


Sharing transcendence with nature implies experiencing a profound, maybe a spiritual connection that lifts us beyond the ordinary confines of self and social, providing a sense of unity with the natural world. It's about recognizing and participating in the sacredness of nature, feeling the interconnectedness which blurs the lines between the subject and the setting. This could require practice to deepen our awareness and appreciation of nature's beauty, complexity, and wisdom: meditation in natural settings, guided yagé experiences, or just seeing and being within natural environments. On Earth Day, it's a commitment to move beyond seeing nature as a resource to be exploited and embracing it as a living, breathing entity with which we can have a reciprocal relationship.


The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness was announced at The Emerging Science of Animal Consciousness Conference at New York University on April 19, 2024. I'm anxious to one day see a similar declaration for plants.


A Call to Action


  1. Leave behind our chauvisms: While we can acknowledge the difficulty in doing so, it's not impossible to change. If we were taught or conditioned to understand ourselves solely from a selfish perspective, it might feel simple to reteach ourselves that the world and everything in it is entirely interdependent (at least that's what science and ancestral wisdom teach us). We need the world and it needs us.

  2. Public Education and Awareness Campaigns: Initiate widespread educational programs to inform the public about the latest research on plant intelligence and the implications for environmental conservation and sustainability. This could involve partnerships with educational institutions, documentary series, interactive exhibits, and social media campaigns. Let's start by "seeing" plants.

  3. Community Involvement and Citizen Science: Engage communities directly in conservation efforts that incorporate plant intelligence principles. This could include citizen science projects where individuals can contribute to data collection and monitoring of plant behavior in local ecosystems.

  4. Policy Advocacy: Work with policymakers to integrate findings from plant intelligence research into environmental policies and regulations. This could mean advocating for policies that protect plant habitats, promote biodiversity, and fund research into sustainable agricultural practices.

  5. Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations: Foster collaborations between scientists, conservationists, indigenous knowledge holders, and technologists to develop innovative solutions to environmental challenges. This interdisciplinary approach can lead to more holistic and effective conservation strategies.

  6. Sustainable Agricultural Initiatives: Support and invest in sustainable agriculture practices that benefit from the understanding of plant intelligence, such as agroforestry, organic farming, and permaculture. These practices not only protect plant diversity but also enhance soil health and crop yields.

  7. Green Urban Planning: Encourage the integration of plant intelligence research into urban planning to create cities that are more in tune with natural processes. This could involve the development of green corridors, vertical gardens, and urban forests that contribute to air quality, biodiversity, and residents' well-being.

  8. Corporate Partnerships: Establish partnerships with corporations to develop and promote products and technologies that are inspired by plant intelligence. For example, biomimicry in materials science can lead to the creation of products that are both sustainable and effective.

  9. Investment in Innovation: Secure funding for startups and research initiatives that are exploring practical applications of plant intelligence, such as new methods of carbon sequestration or plant-based environmental sensors. Provide incentives for doing so.

  10. Global Collaboration for Biodiversity: Promote international cooperation to preserve plant diversity, recognizing that plant intelligence and wisdom are resources that span across borders and benefit the global ecosystem.


Finally, I want to thank Paco Calvo, Taita Diego Jamioy, and Anderson Ariza for their help in discussing this important and fascinating subject matter. Please click here to purchase Paco's book, Planta Sapiens.


If you enjoyed this blog, please consider sharing it with a friend. Interested in writing a blog article like this? Contact Robert@thepsychedelicblog.com. 


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