A new scientific paper linking the effects of the psychedelic DMT with near-death experiences has been making major news headlines over the past few days, and perhaps merits more calm and detailed attention than the mainstream media is giving it.
The paper, “DMT Models the Near-Death Experience“, is available freely online at the Frontiers in Psychology website.
For the TLDR crowd: the researchers decided to explore the apparent similarities (noted previously by other researchers) between the subjective states of NDEs and DMT experiences – such as “the feeling of transcending one’s body and entering an alternative realm, and perceiving and communicating with sentient ‘entities’. To do so, they gave both a placebo, and DMT to a group of subjects, and then used the ‘Greyson Scale’ (used by NDE researchers) to assess whether the DMT experiences ‘qualified’ as NDEs.
The Greyson Scale (devised by leading NDE researcher, Dr Bruce Greyson) is comprised of 16 questions related to features commonly associated with NDEs, such as feelings of peace, a sense of separation from the body, and encountering dead relatives. For each question, the respondent provides a rating from a three-point scale: 0 if they didn’t experience that feature, 1 if they had a mild experience, and 2 for an intense experience. For a person to be considered as having an NDE, they must score seven or above.
They also compared the results of the DMT group to the Greyson Scale assessment of a group of actual near-death experiencers. Overall, they…
…found a significant overlap in nearly all of the NDE phenomenological features when comparing DMT-induced NDEs with a matched group of ‘actual’ NDE experiencers. These results reveal a striking similarity between these states that warrants further investigation.
This conclusion has led to most reporting of the experiment to suggest that DMT is therefore “indeed able to mimic the effect of an NDE”, as the Independent puts it.
Now, while both DMT and NDEs are big areas of interest for us here at the Grail – and so we love seeing major media coverage of this study – it’s difficult to agree with this finding. And a lot of the reason for that, I think, is in the detail. Those who have read DMT reports (or experienced it themselves), and have read NDE reports (or again, experienced it themselves), will know the experiences – while both certainly ‘ineffable’, and involving a journey to other realms – are vastly different when it comes to the actual content of the experience.
And those details actually show up in the data of these experiments, but are written off as not being scientifically significant enough to be worthy of further discussion (more on that below). Pay attention to the last seven items in this graph of Greyson Scale elements and how they are reported differently between DMT experiences and NDEs:
Among other things, the DMT experiencers report the following, very NDE-specific elements less than those who come back from death: the life review, the border/point of no return, and encountering deceased/religious spirits (that latter point is quite interesting, given the abstract of the paper suggests that the *similarities* between the experiences include “perceiving and communicating with sentient ‘entities’”). The ‘similarities’ between the experiences instead are largely more general, mystical state feelings that are not specific to the NDE.
Now, as mentioned earlier, it should be noted that the researchers didn’t find those last seven items were greatly different, deeming that, statistically, “no significant differences were found” between 15 of the 16 items in the Greyson Scale. However, I feel like this might be more a function of the small sample size (just 13 subjects in the DMT experiment) not allowing for the necessary ‘detail’ to show those differences at ‘significant’ levels. If you asked me what the differences were between the experiences, before I read the paper, I would point out those same NDE-specific items: the life review, crossing a border, encountering *deceased* people. And when we look at the graph, this is exactly where the differences lie.
To me, it’s the equivalent of noting that people who went to New York traveled through a tunnel, and upon emerging saw the Sun in the sky, drove past other vehicles, and then saw a very tall building, and so traveling to New York and traveling to Paris are the same experience.
It’s worth noting that we have covered the question of whether DMT can explain the near-death experience previously here on the Grail: back in 2013 we wrote about another paper that compared the elements of the DMT experience to NDEs using the Greyson Scale. Dr. Michael Potts of Methodist University found – as I feel about the data in this more recent experiment – that while there were some similar phenomena between the two experiences, there were a lot more unique characteristics to each. The similarities between experiences are when asked broad, general questions – the differences are in the details.
More pointedly, as Potts puts it, “the ineffability of being probed by aliens is not similar to the ineffability of NDEs”.
Overall, Potts concluded the opposite to this more recent paper: the evidence for a DMT-NDE connection “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”.
(He also makes a good point that has got a bit lost in the hype over this new study: the drug ketamine “also results in subjects experiencing phenomenological features found in NDEs, often surpassing a score of seven on the NDE Scale.” So the results of this new DMT-related study are hardly ground-breaking when it comes to revealing that a drug can mimic elements of an NDE.)
On the other hand, contemplating these points does raise the question of how we define an NDE – are we self-defining it by a few factors that occur occasionally that suggest survival of death, and call experiences that don’t feature those few as something else (a mystical experience, a hallucination), when they are all actually of a set? (Interestingly, to me the most famous recent NDE, that of Eben Alexander, does not sound much like a ‘typical’ NDE, but closer to a psychedelic trip.)
Perhaps, in this case, the earlier New York/Paris analogy could be modified to the Moon and Mars as a better example? In both cases, the experiencer travels somewhere ‘beyond’ the normal world, though they are vastly different locations. Could DMT be the ‘spaceship’ that can take us to different locations at different times?
Or alternatively, perhaps all of this just indicates that the Greyson Scale might not be exact enough a measure of an NDE to provide worth comparisons. Indeed, as this new DMT-NDE paper points out, the fact that “one participant scored on the threshold for an NDE in the placebo session suggests that the NDE scale may have a somewhat liberal threshold for determining NDEs – and thus may warrant revision.”
(Title image taken from ‘Dying’ by Alex Grey.)