DMT: The Spirit Molecule
In Rick Strassman’s 2001 book DMT — The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research Into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, he tells the story of his groundbreaking work into the effects of DMT on the human brain. Below is a chapter-by-chapter summary, with some thought questions included at the end.
Over five years, Strassman administered about 400 doses of N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to 60 human volunteers. DMT is a fast acting psychedelic. He was at New Mexico’s school of Medicine in Albuquerque at the time, as tenured associate professor of psychiatry. He published the main scientific findings in journals, but wrote little about the experiences of his volunteers, so he wrote this book to fill that gap.
He trained in a Zen Buddhist monastery for many years before this. So you know he had a deeply spiritual side.
Started in December 1990 with Phillip and Nils, two volunteers. Phillip was a colleague and a friend of Strassman. They had both tried the drug before, at a Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru. Strassman tried intramuscular injection first, it was too weak and slow (you don’t get the rocket ship rush). So they switched to IV. Most users smoke it, but it smells bad when it burns, hard to control how much the participant is getting. They saw some blood pressure increase, but it didn’t get beyond what you’d get during vigorous exercise.
The Building Blocks
Psychedelics played a role in many early human societies. They were used to maintain social solidarity, for healing, and to inspire artistic creativity. In Europe, there was little awareness of or interest in them until the late 1800’s, maybe because there were few hallucinogenic plants that grew naturally in Europe. Explorers including Richard Spruce from England and Alexander von Humboldt from Germany described their effects on Native populations. In the 1890’s, German chemists isolated mescaline from peyote. But it makes you pretty nauseous, so didn’t really catch on. In 1938, Albert Hofman isolated LSD from ergot fungus. He discovered it while trying to find a drug to stem uterine bleeding after childbirth. LSD has strong hallucinogenic effects at millions of a gram, which makes it a thousand times more potent than mescaline! Freudian psychoanalysis prevailed at the time, so this drug was thought of in terms of its “psychosis-mimicking” properties.
After WWII, great progress was made in psychiatric drugs. This was the birth of biological psychology. Thorazine was a powerful antipsychotic that allowed severely mentally ill people to live outside of institutions for the first time. Serotonin was discovered to contract the muscles lining blood vessels, and later in the brains of laboratory animals (it was the first neurotransmitter discovered). It turned out to have a wide array of biological functions. LSD was found to have a very similar structure to serotonin, and they competed for many of the same brain sites. Could we use LSD to learn more about the functions of serotonin in the brain? Researchers began to use LSD and other drugs widely to try to learn more about the brain and how we experience the world. Sandoz labs even suggested giving it to psychiatrists to make them understand insanity better. Some studies found that talk therapy was more effective with the addition of LSD. It also helped terminally ill patients and their families deal with the problem emotionally.
The effects of psychedelics seemed similar to those of Eastern Meditation. Aldous Huxley was a big enthusiast of these drugs. He used them and wrote about it, and helped to popularize them as a way to attain altered states of consciousness, and introduce a mystical element as well. But in the 1960’s, LSD got out of labs, and was widely used recreationally. Tim Leary brought it a ton of bad press. The public began to see it as dangerous, fueled by exaggerated media reports.
In 1970, US Congress made LSD and other psychedelics illegal, and it became much harder to do research on them. Strassman describes his experience in medical school, just a handful of years later, as a purposeful suppression of previous psychedelic research. No one wanted to study or even talk about it anymore. “Psychedelic research was a bruising and humiliating chapter in the lives of many of its most prominent scientists.”
So how do psychedelics work? Depends on set, setting and drug. Set is your own makeup. Setting is the environment, and then there’s the drug. There are two main chemical families of psychedelic drugs: the
phenethylamines and the tryptamines. Phenethylamines include mescaline and MDMA. Tryptamine is a derivative of tryptophan, an amino acid present in our diet. Serotonin is a tryptamine, as are LSD, psylocibin, and DMT. DMT is just tryptamine with 2 methyl groups, so it’s the most chemically simple psychedelic we know of. The tryptamines act mostly through serotonin receptors. Research in animals is ongoing to understand which of the 20 or so types of serotonin receptors different drugs bind to, and whether they act by mimicking or blocking serotonin’s effects.
Psychedelics often make colors brighter, create geometric patterns, or whole visual realities we can see with our eyes closed or open. When open, sometimes they’re imposed onto the existing field of view. They can make sounds louder or softer, change our sensitivity to touch, and change our sense of taste. They affect our thoughts, and can distort the sense of “self.”
DMT is part of the normal makeup of various animals (including us) and plants. It’s everywhere in biology, and especially prevalent in the plants of Latin America. Canadian chemist R. Manske actually first made DMT in 1931, but it was stored away for many decades without interest. In the 1950’s, Hungarian chemist Stephen Szara synthesized some DMT. Took up t a gram orally, nothing happened. In 1956, he tried injecting it and felt effects similar to the reports he had read about LSD. He recruited 30 volunteers and began to study it. He later worked at NIH and continued his DMT work there. DMT was given to prisoners and studied elsewhere, but reports predominantly reported anxiety, acting oddly, and terrifying hallucinations. It became known as a “terror drug.” However, it didn’t gain as much attention as LSD, until researchers found it naturally occurring in the bodies of laboratory animals. In 1972 Nobel-prize winning scientist Julius Axelrod of the U.S. National Institutes of Health reported finding it in human brain tissue. Bad timing though, Congress soon banned it and the other psychedelics, so it never really took off.
The research that did exist hypothesized that excess DMT caused psychosis. They found no differences in blood levels of DMT between mentally ill and non-ill people, so the research petered out. Strassman points out that this is not a good experimental paradigm anyway, given the highly localized nature of brain chemicals and their effects on various states of mind. DMT also wasn’t a good psychosis model, because diseases like Schizophrenia are incredibly complex, and DMT can’t recapitulate it well.
The pharmacology of DMT is similar to that of other well-known psychedelics. It affects receptor sites for serotonin in much the same way that LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline do. It’s actually transported actively across the blood-brain-barrier. However, the body breaks it down very quickly with a ubiquitous class of enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAOs). This is why DMT effects are so short lived. So why is it made in the body? What function does it serve?
Strassman thinks it is the “spirit molecule.” It makes us experience spiritual states of mind and leads us to spiritual realms.
The Pineal: meet the spirit gland
Strassman’s main motivation for studying DMT was to find the biological basis of spiritual experience. He wondered if the pineal gland producing DMT led to those experiences.
The pineal is a tiny organ located at the center of the brain. Descartes thought it “secreted thoughts” and played an essential role in the expression of the soul.
In lizards and amphibians, the pineal is at the top of the head and is photosensitive, acts to regulate skin color and temperature in the body. It exists as a complex of organs in some reptiles that actually possesses a lens and a cornea! It really is like a third eye. Melatonin is the primary pineal hormone. In mammals, the pineal became buried in the brain. In human embryo, pineal shows up at about 49 days. It doesn’t form from brain tissue, comes out of tissues that later becomes roof of the mouth. It sits close to visual and auditory colliculi, relay stations for sensory information. Pineal sits just above, separated by a thin channel of cerebrospinal fluid.
For many years, the function of the pineal gland was not known. Scientists found that constant darkness impaired sexual function, and also made the pineal gland grow and produce a substance we now call melatonin. Constant light did the opposite. Melatonin levels fall dramatically at human puberty. Some investigators think this may allow the sexual apparatus to free itself from pineal restraint and thus
begin functioning in an adult manner. Strassman was looking for the chemical interpreter through which the body and spirit met and communicated. He thought it might be a pineal factor, so he started investigating if melatonin had any psychoactive properties.
Melatonin is also a tryptamine. It is inhibited by light, so it is produced during darkness. So in addition to informing animals about whether it’s light or day to regulate circadian rhythms, it is also an indicator of season, which is essential for optimal breeding in many animals. Norepinephrine and epinephrine, produced by cells very close to the pineal, turn on melatonin synthesis in the pineal gland. The adrenal glands also make norepinephrine and epinephrine in response to stress, but when produced there, it doesn’t affect pineal melatonin production under normal circumstances. This might change if you’re under extraordinarily high stress. Like in athletes running huge distances at high altitude, melatonin rose to night time levels, but not higher. The pineal sits outside the BBB, so how is it protected from circulating adrenal factors? Nerve cells surrounding the pineal quickly vacuum them up so they never reach the pineal.
At San Diego, Strassman began investigating melatonin. He found that it contributes to an early morning drop in body temperature, but has no notable psychoactive effects. So he reads the literature, and starts suspecting the spirit molecule might be DMT. The pineal has the building blocks to make it and has a high concentration of the enzymes used to convert between tryptamines (methyltransferases). The pineal also makes beta-carbolines, which inhibit the breakdown of DMT. Beta-carbolines are used in ayahuasca for that reason, to make DMT orally active. But weirdly, no one had investigated whether the pineal gland makes DMT. So Strassman begins to think that the pineal makes DMT under extraordinary circumstances, like birth, near death etc. You’d need to override pineal security system, upregulate methyltransferases, and inhibit MAOs.
Strassman begins to wonder why the pineal security system is so tightly regulated. Many scientists think it serves to tightly regulate melatonin production, because if animals produced it during the day, their circadian rhythms would be dysregulated. But Strassman thought melatonin too slow acting and not harmful enough to merit the tight regulation. Also, even if melatonin was released, daylight would just inhibit it again, so again, the tight regulation is not necessary. He thought it actually existed to inhibit DMT production. Maybe in psychotic patients, the pineal security system doesn’t work well and stressors upregulate DMT production, making them act crazy. We know stress makes hallucinations worse. We also know DMT rises in animals exposed to stress. In schizophrenics, methyltransferases were found to be more active and MAO’s less active, meaning they might be making more DMT. But they didn’t examine the pineal specifically in those studies.
In non-pathological states, DMT may play a role in the experiences we have during dreaming or meditation. Meditative techniques using sound, sight, or the mind may generate particular wave patterns whose fields induce resonance in the brain. The pineal begins to “vibrate” at frequencies that weaken its multiple barriers to DMT formation: the pineal cellular shield, enzyme levels, and quantities of anti-DMT. The end result is a psychedelic surge of the pineal spirit molecule, resulting in the subjective states of mystical consciousness.
Conception and birth
Strassman begins planning his DMT studies. He decides to recruit only volunteers with ample psychedelic experience, with stable lives, and healthy medical histories. Starts trying to get the protocol for the experiments approved in 1988. Got permission 2 years later after lots of run-around. Had to get it past the Human Research Ethics Committee and the FDA. There were a lot of hurdles particularly with getting human grade DMT. It’s easy to make, but many chemical manufacturers refused to make it, and he wasn’t allowed to synthesize it himself without being certified as a “manufacturer.” Eventually, it was sorted out and he began recruiting volunteers. Started with social and professional acquaintances, and then word of mouth. Didn’t want to advertise to students in case it formed “drug taking cliques” like in Leary’s Harvard days.
They tried to make the lab environment a nice setting, but it was tough, and they often had to use whatever room was available. Once they adjoined a bathroom in the hospital where they could clearly hear people vomiting etc. They kept a needle inserted to draw blood periodically to measure DMT and several other molecules, and used a rectal thermometer and blood pressure cuff to monitor vitals.
First was dose-response studies to determine optimal dose. Then a tolerance study. Some recreational users say they can smoke DMT all night with no tolerance, but some reported the opposite. This is an important question because if you can build a tolerance to it, it seems unlikely that it would play a major role in chronic psychosis disorders. After two months of trial and error, he determined that the best regime was four injections of 0.3 mg/kg DMT given at 30-minute intervals. It was double-blind, but it’s obvious who got what. This study showed that there was no tolerance to the psychological effects of repeated DMT injections. The experience was as intensely psychedelic the fourth time as it was the first.
Then he began mechanism of action studies. The first was using pindolol, which is a drug used to lower high blood pressure. It blocks one type of adrenaline receptors, but also serotonin 1A receptors. So if DMT is administered at the same time, will pindolol block any of it’s effects? If so, then DMT is probably exerting those effects through the serotonin 1A receptor, which we know it binds well to. But actually, pindolol markedly enhanced the blood pressure and psychological effects of DMT. They then tried cyproheptadine, an antihistamine drug with additional anti-serotonin properties. Cyproheptadine prevents drugs from attaching to the serotonin “2” site, the receptor researchers believe is the most important in controlling how psychedelics work. But the antihistamine actions tranquillized participants so much that it was hard to interpret the data. Then they tried naltrexone, which blocks opiate receptors, so it’s useful for heroin overdose etc. But naltrexone wasn’t well tolerated in one person, and the other two had no effects on the DMT experience. In general, it was getting hard to get volunteers to sign up for studies testing drugs that blocked DMT effects. They all wanted to do DMT. They were working with a pretty small pool of repeat volunteers for most of these studies. They tried an EEG pilot study with 3 people, but the machine was really noisy and cumbersome, and the cement for gluing electrodes very smelly. It interfered with the DMT setting, and they didn’t see anything really cool from the recordings, so they stopped that. MRI came to the college, and so they tried this new technology, but the closed space and huge amount of noise was even worse than the EEG. They tried with 5 volunteers anyway, didn’t see anything super cool, and stopped that as well. He seems biased against these imaging approaches, and it’s not clear he really knew what to look for. It seems like he gave up on these prematurely. He didn’t try PET because he didn’t want to expose his volunteers to radioactivity.
So what happened to volunteers receiving DMT? A full dose of IV DMT almost instantly elicited intense psychedelic visions, a feeling that the mind had separated from the body, and overpowering emotions. These effects completely replaced whatever had occupied their minds just before drug administration. For most people, psychedelic doses of DMT were 0.2, 0.3 and 0.4 mg/kg. Peak was within a couple of minutes, with people beginning to come down at about 12 min, able to talk etc. At 30 minutes, effects were gone. This corresponded well to DMT levels they measured in the blood. Heart rate and BP rose and fell with about the same time course. Pituitary gland hormones like beta-endorphin did as well. DMT also stimulated sharp spikes in the release of vasopressin, prolactin, growth hormone, and corticotropin. The last is a hormone responsible for stimulating the adrenal glands, which then release cortisol, a powerful, all-purpose stress steroid. Pupil diameter rose and fell with blood levels Body temperature rose and fell too, but over the course of an hour, with a time lag. Interestingly, melatonin levels didn’t change.
People felt the onset as a RUSH, and many described feeling powerful vibrations of the body. Then volunteers lose awareness of their bodies, which prompted some to think they had died. The early rushed almost always caused anxiety, but most settled in at 15–30 seconds into it with deep breathing. They had strong visuals with eyes open or closed. But eyes open was sometimes confusing because the hallucinations overlaid the physical visual field, so many found it better to keep eyes closed. Many saw patterns they described as Mayan, Aztec, or Islamic, as well as more vivid colors than normal. Background and foreground were hard to distinguish. More complex scenes were also described, like a fantastic bird or a tree of life. Some saw inner workings of complex machines. Some felt like a non-human figure was interacting with them. Many described robotic movements in the people around them as they were coming down, not perceiving smooth movement. About half of the volunteers experienced auditory effects, or stopped hearing things around them, but not formed things like song etc. Many remarked on the similarity of DMT auditory effects to those of nitrous oxide, where there is a “wah-wah,” oscillating, wavering distortion of sounds. Once the trip started, people described themselves as able to think and reason normally to watch the events unfold. There was a sense of timelessness in the peak DMT state: they experienced an enormous amount in those first few minutes.
Most people found the high dose of DMT exciting, euphoric, and extraordinarily pleasurable. Sometimes this ecstasy related to the visions. The elation also might come from new insights gained during the session: “I feel great, like I had a revelation. “ Often, it was pure bliss without any particular object. Some found the fear and anxiety unbearable, and found the experience terrifying and menacing.
“The tolerance study dose, 0.3 mg/kg, was fully psychedelic, and for some was their “dose of choice,” causing the full spectrum of mind-altering effects with slightly less anxiety.
The next lower dose, 0.2 mg/kg, was the threshold at which typical psychedelic effects reliably emerged. Nearly everyone had relatively intense visual imagery, but auditory effects were rare. Some particularly sensitive volunteers preferred 0.2 over 0.3 or 0.4 mg/kg.
The 0.1 mg/kg dose was the least popular. The vibratory energizing effects predominated, but there never was a breakthrough into a full psychedelic experience. Volunteers felt “left hanging,” uncomfortably tense, both physically and mentally. “My body feels like pepper tastes,” one said. “This dose has all the negative physical effects without any of the positive mental ones.”
The lowest dose of DMT, 0.05 mg/kg, was pleasant, and almost all volunteers said they felt like smiling or laughing after receiving it. One volunteer who previously had used heroin thought this dose felt something like that drug: “There was a warm cotton batting sensation.” A few people experienced relatively intense effects from this little bit of DMT we gave on the first day. This warned us that the next day’s large dose might be especially powerful.”
A lot of people were expressly hoping for some kind of breakthrough. An answer to why they were born, or an interaction with the divine. They wanted to finally solve some ceaseless conflict.
Three main types of experience. Personal (about yourself, how you feel, your emotions and problems), transpersonal (near death, mysical), and invisible (other beings).
Feeling and Thinking
Mostly of the personal category of DMT experience. A lot of people worked through emotional issues. Stan for example felt that he was shielding himself from his feelings during the divorce, the intense emotions of DMT helped him connect more with his emotions. A few days later, he was still feeling like this, like something had been loosened emotionally. Marsha was experiencing conflict with her husband thinking she was getting fat. Her DMT vision was very related to that, with dancing Victorian white women in corsets dancing at a carnival (lots of people saw carnivals). Like exaggerated Anglo beauty. She was inspired to take more pride in her own culture’s ideas of beauty and her full figure. So sometimes DMT visions can be really content specific, and very relevant to current problems.
“Trauma seeps into our lives… It is as if we feel forced to repeat certain types of relationships that bring out feelings we couldn’t master or control the first time, usually when we were powerless children… If we are to move past the consequences of trauma, it is necessary to confront them head-on. Usually this requires a voluntary reexperiencing of the feelings caused by the trauma in a safe and supportive environment. The problem is how to access those feelings in the first place.” DMT helps to experience those feelings in an immersive, but safe and short-lived way.
Cassandra had been raped multiple times by her stepfather, and as a result, had learned to not feel “in her body.” Coming down from DMT, she felt in her body for the first time in a long time, and found it helpful.
It’s like going into a new realm of existence. Harder to describe this kind. Where is DMT taking us? Strassman hints that he might think it’s actually showing us other places that exist, rather than just hallucinations inside our heads.
Transformation of language and numbers is common. “The blue-yellow core of meaning and semantics, logos” became visible to one volunteer. People saw rooms, futuristic apartments, mountain scenes…One was immersed into a Mexican family playing with the kids.
Strassman is struck by the feeling volunteers reported of everything feeling real, and also being aware, like looking around and taking in the scene. He thinks this hints at the realms being real places.
Through the Veil 1
A lot of people see beings as jokers or clowns trying to lead them somewhere, to show them something, to tell them something. People describe trying to change their reactions to the beings, but only being able to observe. This led Strassman to start believing that it was not just a product of their own minds, since you can change your reaction to things you yourself make up. WUT. That falls apart upon the lightest examination.
Some people feel like beings are looking down at them and examining them or testing them. One person felt that beings had implanted something into his body.
There are some things that are weirdly consistent between volunteers. Sound and vibration build until they sort of explode into an alien realm. They’re often on a bed or research bay in a high tech room being examined. Sometimes the beings are loving and caring, sometimes professionally detached. The consistency of the experiences make Strassman start to think that it can’t be just hallucinations. “How could anyone believe there were chunks of brain tissue that, when activated, flashed encounters with beings, experimentation, and reprogramming?” Also volunteers staunchly insisted it wasn’t a dream, and it felt real.
Through the veil 2
These go into a couple of the alien being experiences in detail. Strassman concludes that DMT makes people experience alien abductions and experiences very similar to those reported by people who claim they were abducted by aliens. Instead of thinking that perhaps people who report being abducted by aliens did DMT or similar psychedelics, or that the brain is wired to interpret some stimuli has common tropes in alien abduction stories, he concludes that it seems more and more likely that DMT users really are experiencing aliens abducting them.
Death and dying
Near death experiences have some feelings in common. There’s often the feeling that you’re traveling rapidly through a tunnel, sometimes there is music or voices, and often a feeling of great peace. Sometimes there’s a loving white light at the end. People say is feels “more real than real.” Strassman thought that perhaps the pineal does a DMT dump when you’re near death, and this is responsible for those feelings. So during his DMT studies, he kept an eye out of experiences that sounded like that.
But themes of death and dying were only prominent in 2 subjects, so he doesn’t necessarily believe the DMT dump theory anymore. But he thinks this might be because these volunteers already had so much experience with drugs that make your consciousness feel separate from your body. They knew they weren’t dying, so their brains didn’t interpret it as such.
Psychedelic experiences and mystical states involve many of the same feelings. So Strassman wondered, can these drugs speed up our access to mystical states? The answer was complicated.
Yes people experience many of the same things, but they didn’t have the same impact.
What are common mystical experiences? Loss of separation between self and non-self. Past, present and future blend together into one timeless state. Space becomes limitless and without borders. There’s also a feeling that contradictions resolve. There’s also uncontainable bliss, but with an underlying peace.
People often felt this stuff on DMT, but Strassman wasn’t convinced they took it away with them as much as people who achieve mystical states through meditation etc.
Pain and fear
The research setting kind of set people up for a bad trip, and Strassman felt bad about that. But at least with DMT any adverse effects are likely to be quite short. There were some cardiac worries with some people’s heart rates getting quite high, and some people felt intense fear and menace in the trip. Some were able to turn bad trips into useful experiences to work through problems though.
If so, so what?
Strassman wonders, were the DMT studies worth it in terms of participant benefit? When asked within 3–6 months of being in the study what they got out of it, most participants felt they had grown in some way. But when some were asked 2 yrs later, they didn’t necessarily follow through on any of the stuff they had learned. Rather, there seemed to be subtle and short lasting shifts in attitude for a few months after taking DMT.
Some people felt more “cosmically connected” pretty long term.
Why weren’t there more benefits to volunteers? Well they weren’t trying to help them, they were trying to learn about DMT. Also, the people were chosen to be pretty well adjusted already. Strassman concludes that DMT is not inherently therapeutic. It can open you up to the benefits of a therapy in the right setting, but just taking it isn’t necessarily helpful. You need a suitable framework to process your DMT experience.
Strassman began to feel that to benefit people, he had to work with people who needed therapy, in a therapeutic context (not a basic science one), and with a longer acting psychedelic to allow people time to process the experience.
Some difficulties started happening that lead Strassman to leave New Mexico and stop the research.
He started getting disillusioned with the biological studies because it placed mechanism at the center of the study, not the individuals. People didn’t find them as fun, so he didn’t like it as much either. Also, there were some adverse effects, and no clear long term benefit. So it sounds like he kind of lost his sense of purpose in these studies.
Also, he was in a niche field and he couldn’t get anyone else from the psychedelic science community to move to New Mexico to begin the psychedelic renaissance they seemed verbally enthusiastic about. He’s not trained as a psychedelic psychotherapist, but he wants to benefit people with these drugs and get out of the mechanism-of-action type studies. But he’s kind of stuck with it now. He started one with psylocibin, but couldn’t get permission to perform it outside of a hospital. And neither Strassman nor his potential volunteers wanted to trip for 8 hours in a hospital. But still, some of the DMT volunteers came back for a psylocibin dose-response study, though they found it restrictive and boring. One person though got pretty anxious and her husband came and stormed her and himself out of the hospital. Strassman had to report this as an adverse event.
Then his former wife got cancer. Her son got depressed and dropped out of school, so now Strassman has some stressful family drama. He had to move to Canada, and was only in New Mexico for 2 weeks every 2 months. He tried to do studies in that time, but it was very stressful and he didn’t have any colleagues to support him.
Then his former Buddhist monastic community started criticizing his linking of drug experiences to meditation experiences. This was kind of the last straw and he stopped doing psychedelic research.
Stepping on holy toes
Strassman’s exposure to Buddhism heavily influenced the way he conducted his DMT studies. It influenced how he conducted the studies, not emphasizing just the “psychotomimetic” aspects but the more spiritual side. It also colored how he understood the experiences of volunteers. It made him more open to thinking they were experiencing other realms of being.
It led to some conflict. Some thought that comparing Buddhist enlightenment to drugs was something like heresy. Hallucinogens confuse the mind and disorder it. They don’t enlighten. This represented a change in attitude. Previously, Strassman openly discussed his research ideas with him and many encouraged it. Many trainees there has tried psychedelics themselves. The monastery was changing leadership, and were rallying behind that new leadership’s view to maintain cohesion.
What could and might be
At some point during the study, Strassman decided to try to accept his volunteer’s reports at face value, to resist the urge to explain them away or interpret them. So here he considers the possibility seriously that the experiences happened exactly as described.
Strassman speculates widely about the mechanisms by which DMT could be transporting us to other parallel universes, and the evolutionary advantage of having DMT in the brain (why is it there?).
The futures of psychedelic research
Strassman outlines some possible future avenues of research. Using brain imaging and animal studies, we can learn more about the role of the pineal gland in meditation, near death experiences, and during dreams. “Human pineal release of DMT near, at, or after death would strengthen the hypothesis that
the spirit molecule accompanies consciousness’s departure from the body.” What? No it wouldn’t. Not at all. We could explore further the hypothesis that Cesarean-born infants are not exposed to a primordial “high-dose DMT session” at birth, and that this causes them psychological problems later in life. We can also give DMT to people who have undergone spontaneous psychedelic experiences and ask them to compare the two. Can give DMT during sleep to see if it immediately makes people start dreaming, thus supporting the role of DMT in normal dream experience.
Need to do these studies in a beautiful natural setting, not in a research hospital. There would be an emphasis in helping people work through psychological problems.
We could also use them to enhance our normal selves, like to enhance creativity and empathy.
1. If you were in Strassman’s shoes, designing some of the initial studies on DMT, what would you have done differently? What experiments would you like to do to continue Strassman’s work?
2. Because of the U.S. drug scheduling of psychedelics, most of the research focus is on proving a medical benefit of the drug (either as a model of disease or as a therapeutic agent. Do you think this reasoning undermines the usefulness of psychedelics in basic neuroscience research?
3. We felt that Rick Strassman was led to many of experimental ideas and intuitions through tenuous connections to very old ideas and religions (e.g. DMT in the pineal gland through his interest in Descartes and Hindu ideas, the breakdown of the pineal and the idea of Bardo, the development of the brain and the length of time before a spirit enters the brain.) Yet, these lines of research ended up being fruitful and leading to useful experiments. Do you think these connections are valuable and represent some experientially derived knowledge, or do you think that its random and lucky?
4. Some archetypes experienced during the DMT trips make a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective. We have a predispositions to see faces, insects, reptiles, human figures and movements, the color red. This has been described as beneficial to human survival and development. Others were less predictable, but seem to exist as archetypes in a lot of cultures, like elves or gremlins or nurseries. What are some archetypes that you would expect to see? Are any archetypes missing that might help understand the brain activity from DMT?