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Beyond Machine Elves: Cataloguing the variety of entities encountered during DMT trips

Say “machine elves” to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychedelics, and they will immediately know what you are referring to: entities encountered while under the influence of the powerful psychedelic DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). The descriptor ‘machine elf’ , however, was widely adopted from the experience of just one person, ethnobotanist and psychedelic proselytizer Terence McKenna – so how commonly is such a being really encountered while in the DMT realm (and really, what exactly was McKenna describing with those words anyhow)?

Researcher Jennifer A. Lyke of Stockton University partially answered this question a number of years ago with a study of 149 DMT trip reports posted on Erowid from 2006 to 2015. In a talk titled “DMT Entities: Not everyone gets machine elves“, Lyke noted that the descriptions of entities encountered while in the ‘DMT realm’ actually varied quite widely.

Subsequent research has confirmed Lyke’s findings: for instance, the findings of a large-scale survey undertaken by John Hopkins University researchers of 2771 DMT trip reports were published in 2020, with the section on entity encounters reporting that “respondents commonly endorsed non-specific terms to describe [them] (e.g. “being,” “guide,” “spirit,” “alien,” or “helper”) with a wide variety of more specific terms (e.g. “animal spirit,” “clown,” “demon,” “gnome,” “monster,” “deceased person,” “devil”) being endorsed at low rates (i.e. <10%).”

And now a new study of the various themes and content experienced during a DMT trip, published in Nature Scientific Reports (“Phenomenology and content of the inhaled N, N-dimethyltryptamine (N, N-DMT) experience“), has provided yet more data. Researchers in this study analysed DMT experiences posted to the r/DMT Reddit community in a ten-year window between 2009 and 2018. To be included, posts had to be firsthand descriptions of an inhaled N,N-DMT experience (ie. not injected DMT, nor related substances such as 5-MEO-DMT, nor any mixes with other drugs).

A total of 30,652 posts were identified, of which 3305 posts containing 3778 unique inhaled N, N-DMT experiences were included in the study. The median dose reported in these posts was 40.0 mg, while the median experience duration was 10 minutes.

Researchers catalogued the content of experiences under a number of major thematic domains, including (1) physical and somatic experiences; (2) visualizations and imagery; (3) entity encounters including entity phenotype, descriptors, attributes, disposition, and characteristics of the interaction; (4) typology, architectural features, structural characteristics, and scenery of the “DMT world”; (5) alterations in consciousness (including mystical experiences, out-of-body experiences, and ego-dissolution); (6) emotional responses (including positive, rewarding, difficult, and challenging); and (7) statements of profundity.

The most common somatic effects were somaesthesias (37.5% of reports) and an auditory ringing (15.4%):

An out of body experience (OBE; including floating out of body, body dissolving, spirit/soul leaving body, falling away from body) was reported in 655 experiences (17.3%). A sensation of accelerating, falling, or moving at a high velocity was identified in 332 experiences (8.8%). An auditory ringing-type sound was reported in 583 experiences (15.4%). Descriptors for this sound included ringing, buzzing, vibrating, humming, static, crackling, “electric”, popping, a high pitched or tinny tone, droning, pulsing, hissing, whining noise, and an auditory carrier wave.

(Anyone interested in the auditory aspects might like to read this essay.)

If some of those descriptions sound similar to the NDE, it should also be noted that visions of relatives (dead or alive) and visions of “previous lives” were described in 75 (2.0%) and 31 (0.8%) experiences, respectively. (For more on this topic, see “Are Near-Death Experiences Caused by the Release of DMT in the Dying Brain?“) More common visuals in the reports predominantly consisted of fractals, shapes, patterns (32.6% of cases) and vivid colours (25.2%).

Architecture and structural features of the “DMT world” included descriptions of alternate or higher dimensions (25.2%), rooms (15.4%) and a tunnel (10.3%). Reports of profound, mystical and ego-dissolution experiences were common, along with an acceptance/removal of the fear of death.

In terms of ‘locations’ visited and architectural themes encountered, the most-reported environment was ‘alternate or higher dimensions’ (25% of all experiences), followed by simply ‘rooms’ (waiting room, medical examination room, a nursery etc) at 15%. Many other alien and exotic locations were reported at small percentages, including astronomical environments (5%) and ancient places/cultural themes (1.9%). (I was surprised to find that only 0.4% of reports mentioned ‘impossible objects, tesseract, or 4-dimensional objects’, given how many times I have heard about this aspect.)

Entity encounters

One of the most common experiences, however, was that of contact with an entity: encounters were found in 45.5% of trip reports. Entity interactions were predominantly positive: around 35% of entity encounters were described as intrinsically ‘positive’ (welcoming, healing etc), 32% of interactions were of a ‘guide’ or teaching type, while just 11% were ‘negative or difficult’. Interestingly, 9% of DMT entity encounters described a ‘medical-type interaction’, including examinations, implantations of a device, surgery and probing. This will surely interest those who have considered a link between DMT entity encounters and the ‘alien abduction’ phenomenon.

Even more interesting perhaps were the descriptions of the entities themselves. Though Terence McKenna’s ‘machine elves’ have become the defacto term for DMT entities, and beyond that there has been much talk about alien or insectoid beings (perhaps on the basis of Dr Rick Strassman’s research, as presented in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule), the study found that the most predominant term describing DMT entities was “Feminine” (e.g. ‘Goddess’, ‘Mother Nature’, ‘feminine presence’), with almost one in every four accounts of entities containing this description. The next most common descriptions were “Deities/Divine Beings” at 17%, “Aliens, Celestial Beings and Extraterrestrials” at 16%, and “Animal or creature-based” entities at 9%.

Indeed, ‘machine elves’ as a specific description only featured in 2.9% of the reports, ‘insectoid/praying mantis/arachnoid’ in 2.3%, and ‘Grey alien’ in 1%. However, other previously reported archetypes were more common: a ‘Jester, joker or clown’ type entity was present in 6.5% of the accounts surveyed, and ‘Robot or machine entity’ in 6.7%.

While these results seem to indicate that we should put ‘machine elves’ to bed as a term describing DMT entities, it should be noted that the survey no doubt has some biases – not least that the vast majority of respondents were male, but also that analysing reports from a web forum comes with distinct limitations:

Reddit users are likely nonrepresentative of DMT-users at-large and may have introduced a selection bias not controlled for in the results. Moreover, previous reports on the Reddit platform may influence the experiences and reporting of fellow Reddit users… Reddit users are also potentially more likely to post experiences that were interesting, meaningful, consequential, and/or positive which would bias the results of this study towards the inclusion of experiences that were more notable and/or favourable.

Nevertheless, the multiple studies that have now been conducted on DMT trip reports that have analysed the encounter aspect all do tend to confirm that there are a wide variety of ‘taxonomies’ when it comes to DMT entities, and it may be well past time to move on from ‘machine elves’.

For those interested in more details, the paper offers a comprehensive breakdown of the elements reported in each of these thematic domains – far too many to expand on here, so I recommend you read the entire paper, or at least click through from the paper to the linked data tables that list the entire datasets in easily scannable format.

Link to paper:Phenomenology and content of the inhaled N, N-dimethyltryptamine (N, N-DMT) experience” (webpage, with PDF download available)

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