Dr Rick Strassman is the author of DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE (available from Amazon US and UK). DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE is based on Dr Strassman’s ground-breaking research on the effects on humans of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The book “reviews what we know about psychedelic drugs in general, and DMT in particular. It then traces the DMT research project from its earliest intimations through the maze of committees and review boards to its actual performance”. More information (including a sample chapter from the book) is available from Dr Strassman’s website.
GT: Dr Strassman, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. If I could, I’d like to start out by asking about your reasons for taking on such a research subject. DMT is a controlled substance in the United States, and gaining permission to do research with it must have been an epic journey unto itself, let alone the design of the study. What was it about DMT that pushed you to go to such lengths?
RS: I had always been interested in a biological basis for mystical experiences. DMT as an endogenous hallucinogen, seemed like the logical choice for such a physical correlate of those experiences. DMT effects are pretty amazing, so it also seemed like a fascinating drug to study. Also, it’d been used previously in published human research so studying it in humans seemed easier than a drug, like 5-MeO-DMT, that’s also endogenous, but hadn’t been used in published studies. DMT is short-acting, so I thought that we could manage adverse effects in what was sure to be an aversive clinical research setting. And, it’s relatively obscure, so wouldn’t have garnered the publicity that beginning a research program with LSD would have.
GT: You mention that DMT effects are quite amazing – what’s your personal opinion on the ‘DMT state’: is it an amazingly realistic hallucination, conversely is it access to different ‘realities’, or is it perhaps a window into the deeper levels of an individual’s psyche? Feel free to give your own opinion if you think it’s none of the above.
RS: I speculate freely in the book as to what the visions may “mean,” but there I’m more speaking of the actual subjective (so to speak) experience. It’s compelling, completely novel and most often truly unexpected. It’s convincingly real.
GT: A number of researchers, including Stanislav Grof and Rick Doblin, believe that some controlled substances (such as cannabis, MDMA, LSD and DMT) may be helpful in treating psychological disorders. What do you think of these ideas, and do you believe that this really is a possibility considering the ‘drug hysteria’ seen so often in the current paradigm?
RS: Drug misuse and use are two different things. Drug hysteria and drug research are also two different things. To the extent that some of the properties of psychedelics may have benefit in certain situations, they could be helpful. For example, if people can remember traumas they’ve had in their lives, and come to some resolution or acceptance of that during a drug-induced state, and then bring it back to their everyday state of mind, that would be helpful; notwithstanding that that same drug might be abused by someone else in different circumstances.
GT: While you appear to be a supporter of the use of entheogens for self-improvement, you are also aware of the dangers associated with the use of such substances. Are there other ways of ensuring individuals’ safety apart from ‘prohibition’?
RS: My book comes out pretty balanced, I think about the pro’s and con’s, advantages and drawbacks, benefits and dangers, associated with using these drugs. So, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say I come out as a supporter of psychedelics for self-improvement.
I think set and setting are the two most important issues in determining what will happen when taking a psychedelic. What’s your intent and what context are you taking them in. In our research, we carefully screened, prepared, supervised, and followed-up our volunteers. We didn’t allow anyone in with a history of psychosis, or recent depression. No-one with current drug abuse. Everyone was experienced with hallucinogens in general, but not necessarily DMT.
GT: My apologies, my statement concerning your ‘support’ was erroneously broad. However, having said that there are both benefits and dangers, in what scenario can you see the use of entheogens being condoned? Perhaps only in controlled medical settings? Or do you think there is a further issue with ‘sacramental’ use that needs to be addressed?
RS: It depends upon what one’s looking for, and your intent and support in doing so. There are “recreational” reasons for taking psychedelics – such as in experiencing pleasure and novelty that are otherwise unavailable. There are data supporting psychedelics’ use in creativity enhancement, psychotherapeutic uses–in the published literature. There’s certainly plenty of “field” data out there on psychedelics’ spurring, and sometimes maintaining, one’s spiritual practice.
GT: DMT trips have much in common with other ‘mystical’ experiences – one of these seems to be the sounds heard in transition between states. A buzzing sound, or sometimes a ‘snapping’ and even ‘wind rushing’, has been reported in NDEs, OBEs, and magickal rites. I read with interest in your book that this seems to be common in DMT trips as well. Do you have any ideas as to the significance of this experience?
RS: Not really. It seems to be part of the syndrome.
GT: So is there something in common between these experiences? There are many elements of NDEs, OBEs, mystical states etc. which appear to be similar. Is it worth investigating the origin of these elements, are are they beyond examination?
RS: I think we can get close to mechanisms of action for the “endogenous psychedelic states” such as you mention. That was part of the impetus for my research. I thought if endogenous DMT were mediating the naturally occurring phenomenon, then giving high doses of exogenous DMT would replicate them in part, at least. This was the case.
GT: You mention the similarity between many DMT experiences and the ‘alien abduction’ scenario, using John Mack’s research as a means of comparison. Kenneth Ring has also written a paper covering the similarities between NDEs, abduction experiences and shamanism (see here). Do you therefore believe that the alien abduction phenomenon is now comprehensively explained by theories of ‘altered states of consciousness’?
RS: There is probably a spectrum of “contact” experiences, ranging from the purely “consciousness-to-consciousness” to “physical-to-physical.” The former might be exemplified by our research findings, and the latter by some of Whitley Streiber’s reports. In between might be John Mack’s findings.
GT: Your ideas revolve around the role of the pineal gland in altered states. Can you give us an overview of the pineal gland – the orthodox medical view, previous theories, and your ideas?
RS: The pineal has mostly been implicated for its role in melatonin production, which is important in seasonal and age-related reproduction issues. Also, there are some mood, sleep, and body temperature effects. Some skin coloration ones in reptiles and amphibians. I have suggested it’s involved in DMT production, because the precursors and enzymes necessary for its formation are quite high in the pineal. However, there are no hard data to suggest this actually happens.
There are some interesting coincidental findings around the pineal and spiritual issues. Descartes believed that because it’s the only unpaired organ in the brain, and because we can only have one thought in our mind at one time, and since thought seems to be a function of the soul (our relationship to the divine), that the pineal was a valve for the transfer/conduction of divine and human communication.
The pineal is first seen in the embryo at 49 days, the same amount of time the Tibetan Buddhists believe the soul requires from death to its next rebirth. Also, the first sign of clearly differentiated male and female gonads in the human occurs are 49 days. Thus, there’s some interesting relationship among spirituality and gender/reproduction here.
Even if the pineal isn’t shown to produce DMT, there are plenty of other organs that have been proven to produce it; e.g., blood, brain, lung.
GT: Others have written of the similarities between elements of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and both NDEs (such as Dr Melvin Morse) and the ‘psychedelic experience’ (Leary, Metzner and Alpert). Do you think that ancient traditions can teach us more about consciousness, or is that a ‘new age’ fallacy?
RS: They can teach us what we might expect. More important, though, is what they can teach us about getting ready for these states, and then how to apply them in everyday life, where they do (or don’t) have any real relevance.
GT: Your research so far has certainly gained widespread interest. Do you have similarly interesting projects lined up for the future?
RS: I’m not doing any hands-on psychedelic research right now. Mostly I’m gearing up to start writing a fictionalized series of riffs on the implications of the questions and answers we were left with at the end of the DMT research. Mostly, what does the presence of endogenous DMT in all of our bodies mean?
TDG: That’s an intriguing note to finish on, and one I hope we can discuss further next time we talk – best of luck with the new endeavour. Once again, thanks for taking time out to talk to TDG Dr Strassman, we appreciate it.