The Sloth (a.k.a. Bradypus) has three toes and eighteen teeth (all molars). His neck has nine vertebrae, which allows him to turn his head through an angle of 270°.
He is covered with greenish hairs and green algae, teeming with symbiotic vermin and cyanobacteria. He defecates at the foot of the trees once a week and then sheds a little less than half his weight in one go. He moves extremely slowly and mates only once every two years. But most of the time he sleeps. Then he dreams, a lot. About what?
In fact, this singular monkey is perpetually « addicted » to the alkaloids that the surrounding forest provides in abundance, and of which he consumes without measure.
He is far from being the only animal under such addiction…
There is nothing exceptional about the Slothinthis respect. Many other kinds of animals are actively looking for chemically active substances that are suitable for them. In Gabon, elephants, gorillas, and many varieties of birds eat iboga, which is a hallucinogen. In Canada, reindeers love mushrooms such as fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which are also hallucinogenic.
In fact, the whole Noah’s Ark seems to be « addicted » to this or that specific substance…
The skull-headed sphinx butterfly cannot live without Datura and Atropa belladona, the puma shoots up on Grey Quinquina, mouflons seek their daily doses of psychotropic lichens, elephants in sub-Sahelian Africa demand their marula nuts, chimpanzees their nicotine, and cats seek ecstasy in their catnip (Nepeta cataria). Finally, the spectacular impact of LSD on snails and goldfish was tested. It was induced that they also need to dream, and have a certain capacity to get out of their « natural » condition…
Where does it all come from? From certain effects of the chemistry of alkaloids plants on various neurotransmitters (universally deployed in the animal kingdom) .
Alkaloids are nitrogen-based molecules, derived from amino acids, found in many plants and fungi.
These molecules can have various effects, tonic, emetic, stimulating, doping, calming, sleeping, on all kinds of animals.
And for millennia, men have been able to observe on themselves that some of these molecules could have powerful psychotropic and psychoactive properties.
Morphine was the first alkaloid to be chemically isolated (in 1805) from the opium poppy, but the list of alkaloids is long and varied: curare, mescaline, caffeine, nicotine, atropine, aconitine, strychnine, lysergic acid …
Given the Sloth‘s apparent addiction to alkaloids, a question comes to mind: is he really dreaming? And if so, to what? What is it about his brain that the alkaloids can make him spend his entire life perched in trees, carefree of jaguars, deeply asleep, and probably endlessly dreaming monkey dreams?
This question can be generalized. Why does the animal world seem so diversely and actively addicted to alkaloids?
A beginning of an answer can be suggested from the human experience itself. Since the most ancient times, men have understood the power of some of these psychotropic substances, and have explored their effects, notably during initiation ceremonies, or shamanic rites.
Ayahuasca (« liana of the spirits », or « wine of the dead », or « wine of the soul » according to different translations of this name from Quechua), is traditionally used by the shamans of the Amerindian tribes of Amazonia as a hallucinogenic drink, during healing, divination and witchcraft rituals.
Its active principle is DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), which has been said to allow one to emerge in an « other reality », which is a kind of euphemism.
In this new reality, one is radically separated from any experience usually known in the world of the living, on this earth. And one may access a world that is unspeakable of, at least according to those who can speak about it knowingly.
In the most extreme cases that have been identified, this « other reality » can only be discovered through the famous « Near Death Experiences » (NDEs).
In an upcoming article, I will discuss the results of several recent studies on the links between DMT and NDEs, conducted at the Centre for Psychiatry at Imperial College London and the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège.
In particular, I will focus on the link between DMT and the pineal gland, which the ancient Egyptians called the « eye of Horus », and which Descartes designated as the seat of the soul…
But before addressing these questions, I would like to return for a moment to the experience of the Slothand other animals, who, through the magic of alkaloids, have been transported for millions of years into a world whose breadth, depth and power they have absolutely no way of understanding, but which they continue to explore day after day, with their own means.
If man is today able to explore shamanic visions or to undergo NDE, it is perhaps because the entire animal kingdom has prepared the ground in some way, by accumulating, since extremely remote ages, an immense reservoir of experiences, and that a part of this animal, biological heritage has been transmitted to man through mutations and evolutions.
And this evolution is far from over…
But it is already possible, it seems to me, to draw some interesting lessons from it today.