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'Dying', by Alex Grey

Does DMT Explain the Near-Death Experience?

In seeking to solve the mystery of the near-death experience, researchers have put forward a number of theories regarding possible causes, which range from Carl Sagan’s (rather weak) ‘reliving the birth experience’ hypothesis, through to a lack of oxygen, psychological dissociation, and neurochemical theories. In that latter area, two chemicals in particular have often been implicated: the psychedelics ketamine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

In his seminal book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (subtitled “A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences”), Dr. Rick Strassman suggested that after death, decomposing pineal tissue might empty DMT directly into the spinal fluid, allowing it to reach the brain’s sensory and emotional centers and causing residual awareness. “The consequence of this flood of DMT upon our dying brain-based mind”, Strassman wrote, “is a pulling back of the veils normally hiding what Tibetan Buddhists call the bardo, or intermediary states between this life and the next”.

Michael Persinger and D.R. Hill have also argued that mystical experiences of all types (including NDEs) might be caused by circumstances that trigger the release of DMT from the pineal gland, and near-death experience researcher Pim van Lommel has written about the similarities between DMT trips and the NDE.

But is this the case? In the most recent issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Dr. Michael Potts of Methodist University compared the elements of the DMT experience, as listed by Rick Strassman, with the elements of the near-death experience present on the authoritative ‘NDE Scale’ put together by Dr. Bruce Greyson. The results were surprising: although there were some similar phenomena between the two experiences, there were a lot more unique characteristics to each. And importantly, Potts notes…

…frequent or key NDE phenomena have not, to my knowledge, been reported among DMT experiencers, such as traveling through a tunnel into a transcendent realm or reporting subsequent to the experience that one perceived veridically during it. And finally, aftereffects of the experiences are dissimilar: Apparently permanent changes after NDEs are the rule rather than the exception, but after DMT experiences are the exception rather than the rule.

Potts makes clear though that he is not saying that DMT plays no part at all in the NDE. But thus far, he says “the evidence in its favor is not as strong as its advocates have claimed”, and we can be reasonably certain “that DMT is neither the only nor the chief mechanism in the production of NDEs”.

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(Title image, used by Rick Strassman for DMT: The Spirit Molecule, is ‘Dying’ by Alex Grey.)

  1. Not chief mechanism?
    Frequent NDE phenomena may differ from that of DMT due to a variety of physiological and/or psychological factors that simultaneously arise when an individual is near death, I would think (other chemicals being released such as adrenaline among others, knowledge that one is in a life-threatening situation would also greatly impact the mental “set” of the individual). I wouldn’t say that is necessarily evidence DMT is not the chief mechanism of the NDE.

    I am also curious how Potts can state that permanent changes after the DMT experience are an exception while following the NDE they are a rule. What are these permanent changes? I assume he means psychological (desire for more time with loved ones, less time spent at work, etc.), but the psychedelic experience is regularly cited as a life-altering event by many users, especially so for first-timers. Add to that the fact that the NDE may very likely be the first psychedelic experience an individual goes through, added with the fact that they nearly died (a life-changing experience in itself I assume), and I can see how this experience would be different than if an experienced psychedelic user had smoked some DMT in his private and safe home environment.

    All that being said I didn’t purchase the article so this may all have been refuted by Dr. Potts in his research. I just wanted to point out a few other possibilities that he may have overlooked in his search for a Methodist answer.

    1. Perspective.
      Something to note before reading: I am primarily a creative thinker but i do respect and use critical thinking often as well to form my ideas etc…

      I agree with your statements and thoughts. That being said i would like to add mine to it in relation to the things you have said. I think scientists have had issues when studying psychological and experience based phenomena.

      I am unsure what methods the credited doctors in the above article used to come to those conclusions on this subject but I would say it doesn’t seem like Potts actually took the DMT himself or used the opinions of NDE/DMT experiencers to come to his conclusion nor do i know what his sources for information really were. Also the way his quotations are wrote would suggest to me that he really wasn’t confident on writing any detailed conclusion seems more like he used words that generalize and vaguely describe a conclusion. Perspective is something that effects science everyday it seems like many scientists are primarily critical thinkers versus creative thinkers. The psychology of people effects not only our hypothesis but also our conclusions, You can get some vary different results simply from the same data based just off of someones psychology, In my opinion.

      As a scientist, If i was trying to weigh the similarities in an effective way to get a good judgement on the hypothesis that DMT was responsible for NDEs, then I would have DMT experiencers and ND experiencers with various stories talk to one another in many different instances if possible and then publish the findings. I’m no scientist nor do i believe i know any true facts in life. Having experienced dmt on various occasions and speaking briefly with my grandpa during his long fight against a rapidly forming cancer I would have to say it really sparked similarities. I have went online our of curiousity and watched videos NDE survivors speak about their stories and then directly/immediately watched videos of DMT experiencers speak about their experiences and i think many could say that the similarities are definitely similar. Two elements seemed to be most common of both experiences. The first element is the tunnel of light and the Second element is people recalling that they met some type of sentient entity or entities that interact with the experiencer. It seems that each experiencers decide who the entity is. Many people think they are meeting a religious figure such as Jesus, God, or even an alien. It seems like many cultures had different ideas and thoughts about such entities.

      Some people don’t believe that DMT actually exists in our pineal glands but it seems to be a strong scientific conlusion that it does exist in the pineal glands of rats, According to information cited below to support such statement. I didn’t do much investigation into any of the doctors studies nor did i research into the following doctors studies so with that being said please i encourage you to look into them and see what you find.

      The source for information based on the scientific study of dmt in rats.

      cottonwoodresearch pineal 2013 study

      Doctor credited for such study: Jimo Borjigin, PhD

      I would think if a pineal gland in a mammal such as a rat contains DMT then ours would too. We have many very similar anatomical similarities as do many mammals.

      Sorry for any grammatical errors or structural issues of any kind i typed this fast as a casual listing of thoughts on the matter, I only posted these things because they are my opinion im always happy to learn other peoples opinions and I would appreciate the same from anyone else who participates in such conversations involving opinions. No part of me is invested into this hypothesis or discussion so much so that my opinions are concrete and they are subject to change at any time as i see fit. Thanks

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