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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.)