Vol 3, No 10       

Amazon River
Amazon Tribes and Collective Dreams
with Marilyn Schlitz, PhD
by Susan Barber


In the jungles of the Amazon live tribes to whom everyday reality is the dream. Hallucinations and dreams are the "real" reality, and the role of dreaming is thus very different from what it is in the West. There is a continuity between dreaming and waking. Dreaming is not just something that goes on during sleep.

Our reporter, Wynn Free, spoke with Marilyn Schlitz, PhD, who has studied Amazon dreaming at first hand.

"I went there in 1987 to 1988," she told Wynn, "and worked with the Achuar Indians in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They have this practice which everyone in the tribe does, comparable to the way we have our morning cup of coffee. But instead, they get up and have a cup of this special tea that makes them vomit. They do this about 4 a.m. It's a purge, and that's how they start their day.

"Then they tell their dreams of what came up the night before. Just as you might get up in the morning and read the newspaper to see what happened in the world while you were sleeping, they do the opposite."

Schlitz's Amazon project was looking at how people construct reality, and more specifically, how that is done collectively. "Among the Achuar," Schlitz said, "no one dreams for the individual. They dream for the collective. It's only in sharing the content that they get the full picture of what a dream means. And so their dreams are interpreted as a group.

"Usually, there's an elder person in the household who does the interpreting. Or if they do a community-based dream sharing, there is a set of elders who do the interpreting. It's a very cool thing, because it moves dreaming out of an individual's inner experience, the way we see it in the West."

In her online article, "Amazon Dreaming,"[1] Schlitz said that the Achuar in dreams "find access to forces that are not revealed in everyday 'illusory' awareness. They believe that something akin to a soul-body leaves their physical body to travel within a parallel world. The dream journey yields precognitive insights into the future — suggesting strategies for the day's activities."

Elizabeth Murray, who also has lived among the Achuar, points out that dreaming in that tribe is sometimes courted or sought. "Every person searches for his Arutum, or guiding vision, which comes from the forest. If a big decision must be made, a person might take one of the visionary plants and go to sleep next to a big tree for three to five days to find an answer."[2]

And their dreaming serves a strong practical purpose, Murray notes. For example: "It was through this kind of trance-induced teaching that Achuar elders and shamans were originally warned that in seven years their forest and way of life would be under threat so that they must seek a partnership with committed people from the modern world in the North. This was the vision behind the founding of the Pachamama Alliance in 1996.

"With the help of the Pachamama Alliance, the Achuar are now learning to map their territory, to organize their tribes, and to develop communication skills with the outer world. This kind of assistance is enabling them to save their forest and their way of life."[3]

And in contrast to Western dream interpretation, where drug-induced visions have a category all their own, the source of a dream is of no significance to the Achuar. Whether a vision is drug-induced or occurs during normal sleep, the interpretation is the same.[4]

Schlitz writes that she is "struck by the degree to which, back home in North America, far from the Amazon rainforest, dreaming is essentially personal. In one way this makes sense. Who among us would sacrifice our fundamental need for individuality?

"Yet, when taken as an end in itself, the only-personal lacks grounding in a larger whole. In our search for individuation, we have grown disconnected from our deeper selves, our community, our environment, and our sense of the sacred. We struggle to make sense of the subtleties of inner experience in a culture where reality is defined by that which can be physically measured. Could a fundamental source of our current cultural malaise be that we do not dream collectively?"[5]

Laboratory Proof of Collective Dreaming

Currently with the Institute for Noetic Sciences, Marilyn Schlitz has participated in dream research studies for years.

"The Institute has been dedicated for thirty years to understanding the interface between consciousness and the physical world," she said, "and so the whole area of imagination and creativity and what we call the 'noetic' dimensions of experiences — the intuitive or direct-knowing aspect of our minds — is all part of that program. We've taken a lens to look at dreamwork in order to understand and approach it from a methodological point of view."

Schlitz told us of a protocol called the Ganzfeld Technique that has yielded proof of shared consciousness.

"The Ganzfeld Technique was developed during the turn of the century to see if you could simulate a dream experience in the lab," Schlitz said. "It uses sensory deprivation. Translucent spheres are put over a person's eyes, white noise is played in their ears, and there is a red light that shines down.

"Pretty soon, people start seeing imagery. This is because the eyes are still open but are not getting any sensory input — so the brain fills in. People start seeing things, experiencing things."

In the dreaming experiments, there was a dreamer in one room and a person in the next room who was looking at a picture or watching a film clip. "The researchers would watch for REM, or Rapid Eye Movement," Schlitz explained, "which indicates that the person is having a dream. Then they would wake them up and ask them to report on what their dream was. And the goal was to see if their dreams would incorporate elements of the picture or film into their dream experiences."

The dreamers were shown four images — one that represented the picture or film clip that was being watched in the next room, and three decoys, to see if the person could recognize the picture that had been psychically "sent." So by chance alone, the dreamers would be right 25 percent of the time.

"Overall," Schlitz said, "the results of the entire Ganzfeld database from research being conducted around the world show people getting significance 33 percent of the time. But I did experiments with students from the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, and although it was a small study, we got 50 percent results. And if you just look at the classically trained musicians, their success rate was 75 percent! It's a pretty impressive study, and a woman named Cathy Dalton replicated it in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh and got similar results. Again, the classical musicians were the high performers."

The Power of Sharing Our Dreams

These kinds of experiments and the experiences of the Achuar and other Amazonian tribes suggest that the only reason we all don't realize that our dreams are communal is that we don't tend to share them!

"The implications are that we're all connected, and we criss-cross inside of each other. The data suggests that we are not these isolated beings, but in fact are in relationship at some core level," Schlitz said.

"We dream together. We co-create together. We could move our consciousness from being a conversation about 'me' to being one that's about 'we,' about our experience together.

"I think that has a real important message to people in America, and probably throughout the West, about our cult of narcissism and self-focus. Particularly now, when we're trying to come up with creative solutions to a better future for everyone, it's important to begin to think in these ways, about how we can co-dream and co-interpret in a way that's affirming."

The idea behind group dream interpretation is that only through looking at all of the dreams can we arrive at a view of the whole.

"We all dream parts of something," Schlitz said, "and this implies that if people took more time to share their dreams, we could begin to construct a more positive model for the future.

"Something good would come of this. It's proactive. If something doesn't work, we can figure out something better, not just using our rational intellect but accessing all aspects of our consciousness."

Marilyn SchlitzMarilyn Schlitz, PhD, is director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Noetic.org) and senior scientist at the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at the California Pacific Medical Center.

She has published numerous articles on psi research and psychophysiology, cross-cultural healing, consciousness studies, and creativity, has conducted research at Stanford University, Science Applications International Corporation, the Institute for Parapsychology, and the Mind Science Foundation, has taught at Trinity University, Stanford University, and Harvard Medical School, and has lectured widely at sites including the United Nations and the Smithsonian Institution.

Marilyn's email address is MarilynSchlitz@Noetic.org.


  1. See Amazon Dreaming.
  2. See The Dreaming Tree. Elizabeth Murray is a noted artist and award-winning author who lectures nationally and conducts workshops at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Her book Cultivating Sacred Space: Gardening for the Soul was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. Her website is at SacredSite.com.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Descola, Phillipe,Spears of Twilight (The New Press, 1996).
  5. Amazon Dreaming.

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