In the past two decades, the ‘War Against Drugs’ has effectively thrown a heavy curtain across the subject of psychedelic drugs and their effect on human consciousness. But now, as a new generation seeks to smash out of the spiritual vacuum created by our materialistic society, there is renewed interest in these substances which have been used since ancient times by shamans and mystics to plug in to alternate realities. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these psychedelics is DMT – dimethyltryptamine – the main component of the South American shamans’ brew ayahuasca.
While the effects of ‘mainstream’ psychedelics like LSD are quite well-known, those of DMT are only now beginning to get main-stream attention. DMT: The Spirit Molecule, by Dr Rick Strassman (available from Amazon US and UK), is probably the most straight-forward guide to the chemistry and phenomenology of this amazing chemical. Unlike LSD’s 8-12 hour ‘trip’, the DMT experience is generally over within 30 minutes, and has as its hallmark a visit to what is described as ‘another dimension of being’, complete with sentient beings. These beings take many forms, but strangely enough some of these forms recur constantly in the experiences of separate people. Terence McKenna labelled them ‘the machine elves’, and they have often been described in similar terms, but some of the other more well-known ‘types’ include reptiles, insects, and clowns (no, I’m not kidding). These beings turned up regularly in Strassman’s research, and the homogeneity of these encounters led him to gradually reassess his assumptions not only about the effects of DMT, but the nature of reality itself.
Dr Rick Strassman is a biological psychiatrist who has spent over a decade researching the effects of DMT, psilocybin, and the pineal hormone melatonin. He first began looking into the functions of the pineal gland due to its curious status of being considered the ‘spirit gland’ – the place where the spiritual interacted with the physical. As he mentions at the beginning of the third chapter, Strassman was quite literally searching for a “biological basis for spiritual experience”. It was while studying melatonin that Strassman began wondering about the possibility that DMT, a chemical produced by the human body as well as many plants, might also be present and able to prompt mystical experiences. This hypothesis led him to endure the agonising process of gaining approval for clinical research with an illicit drug. Happily, the end result was that Strassman was able to conduct the first new US-government approved and funded research with a psychedelic drug in more than twenty years.
The book begins with a very handy overview of psychedelic drugs – in particular DMT - from chemical composition through to the history of clinical research using these substances. From there he moves on to a summation of his initial thoughts and research on melatonin and the pineal gland, which quickly leads back to his DMT hypothesis. The mid-section of the book is a narrative explaining the process of gaining approval for this controversial research. While this section is invaluable for those interested in the politics of psychedelic drugs, the lay reader may find some of this section a little tedious – no fault of Strassman’s though, as he is at pains to point out that he wanted to document the process so that others might be able to follow in his footsteps.
However, it is the case studies in the latter part of the book that make it something special. It was after listening to the reports of his volunteers that Strassman was moved to reassess his views on reality. This is a very similar scenario to studies in Near Death Experiences (NDEs), where many sceptical researchers have changed their point of view on the basis of the first-hand descriptions of the NDE realm. I think this is due to the overwhelming honesty and amazing facets in these reports, which lead to the intuitive knowledge that something is going on that is unexplainable in physical terms. And the reports of the DMT experience are no different, and are worth the price of this book alone.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule gives an insightful look into the difficulties in conducting scientific research into psychedelics. Firstly there is the obvious fact that most psychedelics are illegal substances and are seen by many as evil or dangerous. Secondly, the nature of consciousness itself means that objective research is difficult as the experience itself is highly subjective. However, the commonalities that Strassman uncovers give one pause to consider whether these subjective reports may actually point to an alternate reality. The mystical facets that underpin the experience provide a correlation with many anomalous experiences such as the NDE, mystical experiences, the UFO abduction phenomenon and even some of David Icke’s writings. DMT: The Spirit Molecule breaks new ground in a subject area ripe for more comprehensive and daring research, and is a cracking read to boot. Highly recommended.