Rick Strassman MD

DMT: The Spirit Molecule

DMT: The Spirit Molecule

Chapter Summaries

This is the story of the first new human psychedelic drug research in the United States in a generation. It took place at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque from 1990 to 1995, where I was Associate Professor of Psychiatry. I studied the extremely powerful, short-acting, naturally-occurring psychedelic drug, DMT, or dimethyltryptamine. One of the primary reasons I chose DMT is because it's found in the human body. In addition, it is found in many plants, including the Amazonian psychedelic brew, known as ayahuasca, hoasca, or yagé.

As an endogenous, or naturally-produced, human psychedelic, I believed it might mediate spontaneous psychedelic experiences such as near-death and mystical states. I also considered the pineal gland a likely source of this endogenous DMT; as such, the pineal might be a "spirit gland."

However, any renewal of human research with these drugs needed to be quite level-headed, so I began at the basic level of establishing dose-response data in a group of healthy experienced psychedelic users, utilizing the psychopharmacological, biomedical model. Sixty volunteers received nearly 400 doses of DMT, and I've got about 1000 pages of bedside notes from which I extensively cull excerpts.

Prologue: First Sessions

The first dose of DMT we ever gave was intramuscular. However, it was slower and less intense than the smoked route, its usual manner of use "in the field." Since I was interested in replicating the effects of the smoked route without the complications of smoking, the second volunteer received DMT intravenously. However, the dose produced less than typical peak effects.

This chapter describes the morning in which our first two volunteers returned for three times the original intravenous dose. Both men experienced this as an overdose, becoming confused and not remembering much of what happened. This morning's events give a sense of the sometimes harrowing nature of this research. It also introduces many of the themes that wove throughout the project.

 

Part 1

Psychedelic Drugs: Science and Society

This chapter reviews some of the anthropological and historical background of psychedelics found in plants, but mostly focuses on their modern era of study beginning with the discovery of LSD's effects in the mid-1940's. I describe how Western medical science, particularly psychiatry, understood and used these agents; their meteoric rise to fame; and equally precipitous fall from grace with widespread abuse in the 1960's. I suggest the humiliating way in which research ended is why medical students and psychiatrists in training learn almost nothing about psychedelics. I define set and setting, beginning with what to call these drugs. Names powerfully affect expectation, and thus what happens when we give or take a psychedelic. I detail the chemistry and pharmacology of common psychedelics, and provide molecular drawings of the most common ones. I close with a general description of their psychological effects.

What DMT Is

This chapter reviews the historical and botanical bases of human's relationship with DMT, the modern era of which began in the mid-1950's when Dr. Stephen Sz?a's injected DMT into himself and his physician colleagues in his Budapest Hungary laboratory. Scientific interest in DMT increased dramatically with its discovery in human body fluids, by which it became the first endogenous, or naturally produced, psychedelic. Psychiatry focused on its possible role in schizophrenia, but political pressures forced an early abandonment of this promising line of research. A fundamental role of DMT in our consciousness is suggested by the brain's actively transporting DMT into its confines, using precious energy. DMT may be a spirit molecule, naturally produced and capable of transporting us to different states of mind and unimaginable realms of experience. The pineal gland seemed to me the most likely place to look for this endogenous DMT.

The Pineal: Meet the Spirit Gland

A chance encounter as an undergraduate at Stanford University introduced me to this tiny but potent organ, as a possible source of "inner light." Eastern and Western mystics locate the highest "organ" of consciousness at this site, and Descartes believed body, soul, and mind cleaved to each other in the pineal. The contemporary "melatonin theory of pineal function" began in the 1960's, when this pineal hormone's reproductive effects and responsiveness to light were discovered in lower animals. I review what we know about pineal function, especially regarding melatonin. In order to begin searching for an endogenous spirit molecule, I performed a two-year study of human melatonin effects at the University of New Mexico. Melatonin's mental properties were disappointingly mild. Thus, I needed to look at other potential pineal products as candidates for a spirit molecule, and turned to DMT.

The Psychedelic Pineal

A "DMT theory of pineal function" has great appeal, as many of the necessary ingredients and enzymes for its formation exist in remarkably high concentrations in the pineal. Building upon existing data, I present several scenarios in which the pineal may produce DMT instead of melatonin. I speculate about endogenous DMT's role in dreams, meditation, birth, near-death, and death. I suggest that the individual's life-force enters the body through the pineal at 49 days after conception, and leaves it through the pineal gland at death. This 49-day prenatal period corresponds to the first signs of fetal pineal tissue, the differentiation of the gonads into male and female, and how long it takes between the death of an individual and its soul's next rebirth according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I suggest a meta-physical model in which biological, psychological, and spiritual drives or impulses all may exist in a dynamic tension within this spirit gland.

 

Part 2

89-001

When my melatonin project demonstrated disappointing psychological effects of this pineal hormone, and my research mentor unexpectedly died, I stopped the melatonin work and turned my energy toward a DMT study. The bases for my interest in studying DMT were complex and based on controversial speculation, but any project required a sound scientific foundation, and could ask only basic questions. Thus, I designed the research protocol, given the number 89-001 by the University's research ethics board, simply to establish the effects of various doses of DMT in 12 experienced psychedelic users who were medically and psychiatrically healthy. A powerful, enigmatic elder statesman of American psychiatry supported and helped obtain funding for the study. He also insisted on a strictly biological approach, thus setting the stage for the initial success, but later problems, with the research. I summarize the study design in which each volunteer would receive six doses of intravenous DMT.

Labyrinth

Once written, the study went through the Research Center's science review committee, and the Research Ethics Board. This process required careful attention to the informed consent document, confidentiality, and anonymity. The more grueling process was 22 months of working with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration. I already had tried, and failed, to obtain permission to run an MDMA, or Ecstasy, study, so was familiar with the difficulties involved in performing a human study with an illegal drug. There were many dead-ends, detours, roadblocks, and obstructions, but outright antagonism was much less the issue than a lack of established bureaucracy to allow such research to take place. There were several last-minute breakthroughs to seemingly insurmountable barriers.

 

Part 3

Being a Volunteer

Most of the original volunteers were long-term friends or acquaintances, but the remaining 48 were strangers when we first met. I present the case of Alex, a hypothetical previously unknown volunteer, and describe the hurdles through which he needed to pass in order to qualify for getting any DMT. I use this chapter as an opportunity to detail the hospital setting, especially Room 531 on the Research Center, where nearly all sessions took place. I also describe the technical aspects of injecting DMT, beginning with picking up the drug in the pharmacy, giving it, and then collecting the enormous number of biological samples the study required. I introduce our method of supervising sessions. The chapter ends with Alex receiving his first doses of DMT.

Getting DMT

There were several DMT studies. The dose-response study was followed by the tolerance project in which subjects received a high dose of DMT four times, at 30 minute intervals. This latter study, which did not demonstrate a reduced response after frequent dosing (i.e., there was no tolerance), allowed for the deepest and most consistent work under the influence of DMT. Follow-up experiments then attempted to determine which brain receptors mediated DMT's effects. These projects compared DMT responses in the absence and presence of drugs that blocked those receptors. Preliminary work also began assessing effects of menstrual phase on DMT sensitivity, and turned high technology brain function tools upon the DMT state. These increasingly complex biomedical model-based studies became more intrusive, and sometimes unpleasantly modified DMT effects. It got difficult to recruit new volunteers, or find seasoned subjects willing to return.

Under the Influence

DMT effects began almost instantaneously, peaked within two minutes, and were negligible at 20 minutes. Blood, and presumably brain, levels of DMT closely paralleled the time course of subjective effects. Blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and pupil diameter rose sharply, as did all hormones we measured, including endorphins and other mind-altering hormones. Only pineal gland melatonin did not increase, and I speculate briefly as to why this may have been the case. I summarize the full range of psychological effects of a high dose of DMT: perceptual, emotional, somatic, cognitive, and volitional. I describe the responses to lower doses in less detail.

 

Part 4

Introduction to Case Reports

Categorizing the psychological nature of volunteers' sessions makes it easier to compare outside-administered DMT-elicited experiences with the naturally-occurring psychedelic states I propose are mediated by endogenous DMT: near-death, mystical, and contact with "beings." Mind-body responses to DMT were limited to personal psychological and psychosomatic issues. Invisible ones involved the perception of what appeared to be free-standing or autonomous "places" and "beings"that demonstrated amazing consistency among the volunteers. Transpersonal sessions were near-death and mystical in nature. Adverse effects partook of any and all of the above, but the negative emotional reaction to those states determined their painful and frightening nature.

Feeling and Thinking

Stan had taken LSD about 400 times, and joked "they don't call it acid for nothing." He didn't say much about his DMT sessions during the dose-response study, but returned for the tolerance one and worked through some difficult feelings around his impending divorce. Marsha, our only black volunteer, was also having marital difficulties, and had a blissful high dose session. However, on another high dose, instead of meeting "my ancestors," she found herself on a merry-go-round full of Anglo mannequins. I used this dream-like session as an opportunity to further explore her self-image as it existed within her marriage. Cassandra, one of our youngest volunteers, had been brutally raped as a teenager, and carried much of the pain and resentment in her abdomen and in her manner of dealing with those close to her. During her tolerance session, which had the nature of a voluntary and controlled traumatic experience, she made a deep and healing contact with her body, encountered many helpful "beings," and felt more loved, hopeful, and safe than any time in recent memory.

Unseen Worlds

This chapter establishes the "landscape" for the encounters with "beings" that follow in the next two chapters. It begins to raise some of the difficult questions regarding the bases for these remarkably powerful, "more real than real" experiences of being "somewhere else." Simple images of DNA and microscopic biological structures progressed to whirling numbers and hieroglyphics. Boxes turned into rooms, rooms into apartments, apartments into circus-like carnival settings. Some entered deep space and viewed strange distant planets. This chapter closes with Sean's transport onto the porch of a Mexican desert home, in which a normal everyday family scene emerged.

Contact Through the Veil: 1

Reports of "entity" contact are found even in early 1950's human DMT research. Included here are excerpts from volunteers' sessions in which entity contact was a significant aspect of a particular DMT session. Lucas approached a landing bay on a space station, accompanied by humanoid automatons. Chris met three reptilian creatures who opened up their bodies, showing him the nature of their reproductive processes. Jeremiah landed in a nursery where alien caretakers looked after him, but only in a most casual manner. He then experienced a session in which his brain was reprogrammed by a "master technician" sitting at a computer console. Dmitri found himself tested, probed, and examined by "aliens" in a high technology laboratory, and made a deeply sensual connection with one in particular, "who seemed in charge." Ben also found himself on an examination table; however, the beings appeared to him as Saguaro cactus creatures, one of whom implanted a probe under his skin. When Ben came to, he was convinced that this implant was a tracking device and had no doubt about its real, but intangible, presence. I address volunteers' and my difficulties making sense of the unexpectedly high frequency of contact with beings. Biological, psychological, or symbolic explanations generally fell flat, so I compromised by responding to volunteers' stories with the thought-experiment: reacting to them "as if they were true."

Contact Through the Veil: 2

This chapter discusses two volunteers' extraordinarily detailed and complex encounters with beings. Rex's heart, his emotional center, was consumed by feasting alien insects during his first high dose, and he was certain he was dying. Relaxing into the experience, the eating became sexual, and he was deeply shaken by the idea of sex with alien insects. He returned for additional studies and met a friendly helper "female" insect, or bee-like being, who attempted to communicate with him, but the vibrations this attempt produced in him were unbearable. His last session involved entrance into a "hive of the future," accompanied by another entity, but he lost consciousness upon entering the depth of the hive. Sara's first high dose session was a blast into the void, a terribly frightening experience in solitude. However, regaining her bearings, she felt there was something to see, but wasn't sure if she'd know it when if she encountered it. During her tolerance session she made contact with a "race of beings from another planet" who had lost their ability to experience love and feelings because they had no physical bodies. She generated a tremendous bright ball of light and "passed it over" to them, using her body as a conduit during the exhausting last tolerance session. I discuss the alien contact experience, as summarized by Harvard psychiatrist John Mack in his books Abduction and Passport to the Cosmos, and note the striking resemblances between his reports and those of our volunteers.

Death and Dying

Only two volunteers experienced near-death or death themes as the primary ones of their high dose sessions. This might be due to the particular set and setting issues: the well-experienced nature of our volunteers, and the short duration of DMT's effects. I begin with some excerpts indicating how several subjects compared the DMT state to a disembodied death-like condition. Willow was the first volunteer to predominantly deal with death issues, effortlessly entering into a near-death state during several DMT sessions. Her encounters were nearly identical to those reported in the popular literature; in fact, those popular books seemed to her as if written about her own DMT sessions. Carlos, a Mexican-Indian software programmer, was skeptical about "white man's medicine" but had a deeply moving experience on DMT. He "died," and in the process of being reborn, reconstituted the entire universe as its creator. This appeared to be more of a shamanic death-rebirth experience, than the usual near-death experience. It also may have provided a psychological function for him, as he was one of the most fearful volunteers going into the sessions.

Mystical States

These sessions were the ones both the volunteers and I were most looking forward to, as there is a well-known overlap between peak psychedelic and deep mystical experiences. Cleo entered into deep space, and danced with a star system. Looking outward for completion, she was "directed" to go inward, and discovered that "God dances in every cell of my body, and every cell of life dances in God." Elena was extraordinarily anxious before getting her first high dose of DMT, and once in its midst, was hurled through space on the back of the most powerful energy imaginable. Running into "a brick wall," she suddenly stopped, emerging into a still void in which she encountered a "vast, amoral, impersonal power, which nevertheless was Love." During her next high dose session, she experienced the birth of differentiated consciousness out of the undifferentiated source of all being: " It's amazing how slow form and matter are on this plane of existence." Sean, who received more DMT than any other volunteer, was led by "fellow travelers" into a bright white light. Granting himself permission to enter it, he experienced a joy, love, and understanding he had sought his entire life. Sliding down a long ramp, he saw himself as an infant, reborn, pure.

Pain and Fear

Almost half of the 60 volunteers had some difficulties during their high dose sessions, but most quickly regained their bearings and had deeply enjoyable experiences. Some sessions were so unpleasant, however, that subjects dropped out, or we asked them to discontinue. Ida hated the loss of control she felt on her low dose of DMT and withdrew immediately. Ken experienced anal rape by alien alligators, and dropped out after his high dose. Andrea bellowed NO! NO! NO! as her first high dose began She felt she was dying but did not want to let go. Continuing in the tolerance study, she worked on frightening personal issues in a successful manner, ending her morning with a blissful resolution. Lucas' heart rate and blood pressure plummeted to n ear-shock levels when he opened his eyes to orient himself, and saw the research nurse and me terribly transfigured. Kevin's blood pressure rose so high in response to meeting with a terrifyingly hostile African warrior queen who was outraged at his presence, that it set off piercing alarms.

 

Part 5

If So, So What?

Even with incredibly intense and remarkable experiences, I wasn't sure how long-lasting any presumptive benefits were after high dose DMT sessions. We formally interviewed the first group of volunteers one to two years after completing their studies. Few noted much positive carryover into their daily lives. Even those who did believe their high DMT had benefited them inwardly showed little outward evidence of making significant changes in their lives; e.g., taking up a spiritual or psychotherapeutic practice, changing jobs, or increasing community service. The relocations, marriages, or divorces that did occur in volunteers all were underway before their involvement in the studies began. I concluded this lack of substantive change was due to set and setting aspects; that is, DMT itself was inherently neither harmful nor beneficial, and the intent of giving and receiving DMT was equally as important. Thus, using a biomedical model, in healthy volunteers with previous psychedelic experience, using a neutral and non-directive supervising style, little benefit accrued. There needed to be more emphasis on treatment, and less on descriptive mechanistic brain-chemistry studies.

Winding Down

Several factors led to the cessation of the New Mexico research. The biomedical model was increasingly intrusive and dehumanizing, and it was difficult recruiting new volunteers for these studies. Work with the longer-acting psilocybin, which would be easier to use in therapy, was stymied by the Ethics' committees refusal to allow us to take the research out of the hospital. A subsequent paranoid reaction by a volunteer who fled the hospital while high on psilocybin made off-site work with the drug even less likely. A graduate student caused inordinate problems acting out--taking drugs with volunteers after hours, and undermining me when I told him to stop. Hoped for colleagues did not arrive, and in fact began setting up their own foundations competing for scarce resources and colleagues. Long-term benefits were meager, and adverse effects were adding up. The frequency of "being-contact" was unexpected and personally disorienting. My wife developed a serious illness, and we moved to Canada for her to be closer to family.

Stepping on Holy Toes

I began a relationship with an American Zen Buddhist monastery in the early 1970's, which provided ongoing spiritual training and support. Many monks shared with me the importance of their previous psychedelic experiences in choosing a spiritual lifestyle, which supported my nascent theories regarding psychedelics and mysticism. Buddhism also stimulated many of the ideas guiding the studies, providing the model for developing a new rating scale for DMT effects, and informing my method of supervising drug sessions. However, a disastrous conversation with a psychedelic-na?e monk coincided with the terminal illness of the monastery's leader, and the lobbying for succession to his authority. The monk's condemning my work caused formerly supportive monks to either turn silent or reverse long-standing support for my work. The issue came to a head when my article linking psychedelics and Buddhism appeared in Tricycle. The Buddhist Review. The head temple's calls for me to stop wore down my remaining desire to continue the research, and I ended it several months after moving to Canada. I returned all drugs and the last year of grant support to the Federal government.

 

Part 6

DMT: The Spirit Molecule

This chapter enlarges and expands earlier speculative ones regarding under what circumstances endogenous DMT mediates naturally occurring psychedelic states. I now offer a model for how DMT exerts such remarkable effects. I suggest DMT alters the receiving qualities of the brain, and employ a television analogy. Personal healing occurs by an enhancement of "contrast and focus" invisible worlds and entity contact takes place by changing reception of "channels" to include dark matter and parallel universes. I propose an explanation for the oft-reported experience of the beings anticipating the volunteers' arrival, and their ability to interact with our body. Mystical and near-death states may happen by establishing a dynamic equilibrium between channels in which we experience the essential energy that courses through the receiver. Finally, I address the evolutionary significance of endogenous human DMT, and conclude that DMT exists in our brains in order to provide consciousness a necessary mechanism: as a spirit molecule allowing us to gain access to non-material realms.

The Futures of Psychedelic Research

I address the common confusion that occurs in distinguishing psychedelic "research" with "use." This lack of clarity leads to two major corollary fallacies: that psychedelics are inherently beneficial, and that their subjective effects are invariantly determined by their pharmacology. Equipped with this more discerning view, we can look at the various branches of future research with their potential risks and benefits. The overriding concern for the optimal use of psychedelics is to use them in a helpful manner, instead of only accumulating more information about how the brain or "reality" works. This caveat extends to learning how even the most unusual conscious experiences might be taking place. My preference is to work with uniquely human characteristics and problems in a setting that optimizes set and setting factors, including environment, training of personnel, and research agenda. This agenda would include psychotherapy protocols for difficult to treat psychological problems; and enhancement of normality, especially in the context of creativity and spiritual practice. It also would begin assessing more carefully the nature of "invisible worlds."

Epilogue

The book closes with an excerpt from a volunteer's high dose session in which "they" emerged from a raging psychedelic waterfall, asking him in a sing-song manner, "Now do you see? Now do you see?" This question, more than any, symbolized for me the most personally compelling factor motivating my performing the DMT research.

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