DMT: The Spirit Molecule

In DMT The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences by Rick Strassman provides insight into the U.S. Government-approved and funded clinical research he carried out at the University of New Mexico between 1990 and 1995. As part of this research, Strassman injected sixty volunteers with DMT, one of the most powerful psychedelics known. His detailed account of those sessions is an extraordinarily riveting inquiry into the nature of the human mind and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. DMT, a plant-derived chemical found in the psychedelic Amazon brew, ayahuasca, is also manufactured by the human brain. In Strassman’s volunteers, DMT consistently produced near-death and mystical experiences. Many reported convincing encounters with intelligent nonhuman presences, aliens, angels, and spirits. Nearly all felt that the sessions were among the most profound experiences of their lives.

This is a severely underrated book on psychedelics. One of its most compelling features is Strassman’s plain telling of events. He describes his thought process while administering studies, his experiences of the participants’ DMT journeys, and provides the participants’ reports of their experiences in the first psychedelic studies done in over twenty years on humans in the United States. His work opened the doors for further work done on other psychedelic substances that are presently occurring. He also recounts his research on the pineal gland and its role in DMT production, his experiences doing research, how he came to conclude that DMT is the spirit molecule, and how his studies of Buddhism shaped his thinking.

Summary Review of DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences

Author: Alex Criddle is an independent researcher, writer, and editor. He has a Masters in Philosophy where his thesis was on the nature of healing in psychedelic experiences. He’s worked as a researcher at a clinic doing ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and as a psychedelic integration guide. His writing and contact information can be found at https://alexcriddle.com

Introduction

  • In 1990 Rick Strassman began some of the first new research in the United States in over twenty years on psychedelics using N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
  • During the five year project, he gave 400 doses of DMT to 60 volunteers at the University of New Mexico.

Chapter 1 – Psychedelic Drugs: Science and Society

  • Strassman gives the basic history of the discovery and usage of psychedelics up through the 1960s and 70s and provides a basic overview of the two main chemical families of psychedelics: phenethylamines and tryptamines.

Chapter 2 – What DMT is

  • DMT exists in all of our bodies and throughout plant and animal species but appears to be most abundant in plants of Latin America.
  • Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara learned to synthesize DMT in the 1950s and found that it had to be injected for it to work. Other researchers confirmed Szara’s research, but there’s very little detail given on the effects of DMT by anyone other than Szara. DMT research was just getting going when it, along with the other psychedelics, were banned in the 1970s.
  • DMT is the simplest of the tryptamine psychedelics. It is also one of the smaller ones. It only weighs 188 “molecular units,” meaning it is barely larger than glucose.
  • DMT is closely related to serotonin, and it is one of the few essential molecules that are allowed to pass through the blood-brain barrier.
  • Once the body produces or takes DMT, enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAO) begin breaking it down. The highest concentrations of MAOs are in the blood, liver, stomach, brain, and intestines which explains why the DMT effects are so short-lived.
  • What is DMT doing in our bodies? Strassman’s answer is “because it is the spirit molecule”.
  • A spirit molecule must reliably elicit psychological states we consider “spiritual” and must lead us to spiritual realms. It is a tool.

Chapter 3 – The Pineal: Meet the Spirit Gland

  • One of Strassman’s motivations behind DMT research was to find a biological basis for the spiritual experience.
  • Both Eastern and Western traditions contain descriptions of enlightenment of blinding bright white lights. In Judaism, consciousness moves through the sefirot, the highest being Keter or Crown. In the East, these are called chakras, the highest chakra being the Crown is at the centre and top of the skull, corresponding to the location of the pineal gland.
  • The pineal gland of evolutionarily older animals is also called the “third” eye with a lens, cornea, and retina. As animals climbed the ladder, the pineal gland moved deeper into the brain. The human pineal gland is not part of the brain but develops from tissue in the roof of the fetal mouth before migrating to the centre of the brain.
  • The pineal is integrated with the adrenal system and synthesizes melatonin.

Chapter 4 – The Psychedelic Pineal

  • He hypothesizes that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary points in our lives. It’s the physical representation of non-material processes and gives us the vehicle to consciously experience the movement of our life force, e.g. when our life force enters our fetal body, at birth, experiences of meditation and near-death, and as we die.
  • The pineal gland contains the building blocks to make DMT. It also has the ability to regulate the amount of DMT present in the body at any given time.
  • DMT levels are higher, and MAO is less efficient in people with schizophrenia than in healthy volunteers, so it could be that they don’t clear DMT quickly enough resulting in DMT levels that are too high for normal mental function.
  • A less pathological state of altered awareness brought about by DMT is that of transformative experiences in meditation. The various meditative techniques are conducive to particular wave patterns whose fields might induce resonance in the brain leading to weakened barriers to DMT formation.
  • He hypothesizes that pineal DMT opens our senses to profound psychedelic experiences.
  • He suggests that difficult as it may be, the concept of spirit or life force is central to thinking about this. There’s something distinctly different between someone alive one moment and dead the next.
  • The Buddhists teach that it takes 49 days for the soul of a recently dead person to reincarnate. The same 49 day period marks the time from conception to the first signs of when the human pineal appears. As we die, there’s one final flood of DMT in our brains, revealing the intermediary states between life and death and during the next 49 days, we process our life’s experiences before settling into the next physical life form. It takes 49 days to “settle” into the new structure for life before asserting itself as a new life force.

Chapters 5 and 6 summarize how Strassman figured out ways in which to get approval for his DMT study.

Chapter 7 – Being a Volunteer

  • Strassman describes what a generic volunteer for the study looked like and how they introduced the drug and procedures to them.
  • He prepared the subjects slightly for the experience by describing a bit of what it was like. Volunteers were lying down in a comfortable position on a bed with eyeshades over their eyes.

Chapter 8 – Getting DMT

  • There were twelve subjects in his original dose-response study in 1991 and thirteen in his tolerance study. This study showed there was no tolerance to the psychological effects of repeated DMT injections.

Chapter 10 introduces how Strassman approached case reports.

Chapter 11 – Feeling and Thinking

  • One patient, Stan, was an experienced psychonaut, having done LSD “over four hundred times”. He was a part of the tolerance study doing five DMT sessions in rapid succession. The first three were overwhelming, dealing with unresolved anxiety, but the fourth one resolved it. Between the third and fourth session, he finally surrendered.
  • Another patient, Marsha, went into her sessions hoping to meet her ancestors and instead ended up in a carnival. There she worked through her issues with her body and her spouse and came to terms with herself in a way she hadn’t previously.
  • Cassandra was a rape victim who had been in and out of therapy for years and couldn’t have a long-term romantic relationship. In her sessions, she reencountered the psychological trauma through her physical pain in her abdomen, but the DMT made it easier to make that emotional contact with what her physical pain represented and the origin of it. She encountered “elves”, beings who helped her feel love again.

Chapter 12 – Unseen Worlds

  • In this chapter, using patient reports, Strassman is focused on “where” DMT leads us to what realms.
  • He cites four different patient reports of seeing DNA and other biological components in their visions. Other patients reported seeing themselves while sitting above the room, travelling through vast landscapes, entering ethereal rooms, travelling among places where people spoke different languages, and so on.

Chapter 13 – Contact Through the Veil: 1

  • Strassman was continually surprised by how many volunteers “made contact” with “them”. The volunteers used expressions such as entities, beings, aliens, guides, helpers, and life-forms, who all took different physical forms.
  • These sorts of experiences are hard to describe and even harder scientifically to grapple with. There are some similar reports in the 1950s that describe people on DMT making “contact”, but many were in Szara’s schizophrenic studies.
  • Some of Strassman’s patients described having these other beings take control, visiting their homes, a whole different world with different architecture and landscape that they reside in, attempting to communicate with them, seeing gestures made to try to help the volunteer understand, and having these beings show the volunteers around their homes. Others reported being in laboratories, medical offices, or other high-tech rooms.
  • Most patients reported sound and vibration building until the scene exploded into an “alien” realm. The purpose of the content wasn’t always clear, but some volunteers reported a benevolent attempt by the beings to help improve us either individually or as a species.
  • Strassman mentions how at a certain point he had to suspend his reductionist and materialist approach and, as a thought experiment, act as if the worlds the volunteers went to were as real as the room he was giving them DMT in, and this opened up a way to empathize with the volunteers and see where it led to. Although he notes he was worried about some sort of communal psychosis, he was stumbling into.

Chapter 14 – Contact Through the Veil: 2

  • In this chapter, Strassman describes two of the more complex cases of contact with beings in their research. These two had significantly more detail and contained more personal meaning to the volunteers. Both of them were able to suspend disbelief quickly and had been through a lot, so they were able to keep their wits during stressful situations and went in trying to learn as much as they could.
  • Rex had commitment issues after having an ex-wife who was a paranoid schizophrenic that did terrible things to him. In one of his sessions, he had beings there who were trying to reassure him and help him. He felt them doing things to his body to help improve him. He had numerous interactions with these beings that gave him a positive feeling.
  • Sara encountered creatures and colours of intense colour. She met some beings who wanted to learn more about our physical bodies, and they said she needed to reconnect with her body. In her next session, she went directly back to them. This time around, they discussed the concepts of feeling and emotions and especially love. She said she felt energy pass through her as she gave them love.

Chapter 15 – Death and Dying

  • Strassman was particularly interested in patients who exhibited feelings of death and dying, but only two really had those themes in their sessions. Likely because many of the participants were already familiar with the experience of dying due to their previous psychedelic experiences.
  • He describes a few patients’ experiences of no longer fearing death during and after their DMT experiences.
  • Willow had an extended experience of going through the death process. She experienced what “the other side” was like and said that if we really knew what was waiting for us, we’d all kill ourselves because of how wonderful the next place was, but we stay in this mortal form to figure it out. She had close to a classic near-death experience.
  • Carlos had taken psychedelics over a hundred times and was a practitioner of urban shamanism who assumed he wouldn’t get much out of DMT. During his session, he was confused and said he’d taken so many psychedelics, and nothing like this had happened; his spirit was smashed. He said he was used to the “I” that is the body, and he’s fine leaving that, but here he saw who he was at a fundamental level. During his next experience, he described a classical death/rebirth experience, how death was what was wrong with him.

Chapter 16 – Mystical States

  • One of the most compelling aspects of psychedelics for Strassman was their similarity to mystical experiences. In a mystical experience, the three pillars of self, time, and space all undergo transformation. There are extraordinarily powerful feelings that run through our consciousness, and we call it “enlightenment” because we encounter the white light of creation’s majesty. We see things in a new light.
  • Many of the volunteers had these experiences in conjunction with experiences of mind-body healing, being contact or NDEs. Willow’s NDE took on an incredibly mystical and spiritual nature.
  • Multiple participants reported being changed at a fundamental level after having experienced God, the universe and the process of its creation, the unity of everything, visions of colours and love in the universe, and feelings of pure being, ecstasy, and oneness. Nearly all of the DMT sessions included multiple aspects of what we call mystical experiences.

Chapter 17 – Pain and Fear

  • Strassman was careful to try to reduce the negative experiences as much as possible. He and his team expected anxiety as the DMT effects began; nearly everyone struggled to keep their bearings. The issue, though, of the risk-to-benefit ratio is very important to working with psychedelics. This chapter looks at the “darker” side of DMT. Older research hinted at potential paranoid or delusional reactions to DMT but nothing further.
  • The characteristics of these sessions were similar to the other ones discussed: personal-psychological issues, unseen worlds, contact with other beings, and near-death and spiritual experiences. What made the effects adverse wasn’t the experience itself but how the volunteer reacted to it; how they responded determined whether they’d continue a fearful descent or come out into a more positive resolution.
  • Several volunteers dropped out of the study because their high-dose experiences were powerfully unsettling. Others had similar experiences but were able to turn these unsettling experiences into something beneficial because they were able to let go and surrender to the experience.

Chapter 18 – If So, So What?

  • The answer to that question is “it depends”. Strassman expected, prior to the study, that participants would have profound psychedelic encounters and hoped that with a safe, reliable clinical environment, the participants could go deeper and further into the psychedelic experiences.
  • The majority of the volunteers reported they had grown in many ways in response to their high doses of the spirit molecule.
  • Strassman describes a number of the follow-up conversations and results in detail. Many of them reported stronger senses of self, less fear of death, and a greater appreciation of life. Some were able to relax better and drink less alcohol. In this study, there were no reported negative long term effects of the experiences.
  • Some might wonder why there were not more obvious benefits to the volunteers. He responds to that question by pointing out these sessions were not focused on helping people with problems; they weren’t treatment studies. The volunteers were relatively well adjusted.
  • He further suggests that DMT is not inherently therapeutic. The set and setting are of great importance to the outcome.

Chapter 19 – Winding Down

  • Several threads ran through his DMT projects. He wanted to give a lot of DMT, see what various doses did, and then give more. The first two projects, the dose-response and the tolerance studies, felt like the appetizer and the main course. But the model that let him do the studies also constrained what he was able to study. The two frameworks that might contain a project where people “get better” were psychotherapeutic and the spiritual. However, clinical research environments are unfriendly towards spiritual goals.
  • Strassman then describes a few unfortunate situations that led to the conclusion of his DMT and recently begun psilocybin studies.

Chapter 20 – Stepping on Holy Toes

  • There’s little support for the incorporation of spirituality and its non-material, non-measurable factors into clinical research. Likewise, organized religion isn’t quite able to grapple with the spiritual potential of clinical research with psychedelics.
  • Strassman refers to his interest in Buddhist theory and practice throughout the book. Here he elaborates more on that and his training in monasteries.
  • He describes how Buddhist meditation helped develop his rating scale for the studies and helped him make sense of people’s DMT sessions.

Chapter 21 – DMT: The Spirit Molecule

  • In the case reports, we read of the similarities between volunteers’ experiences and experiences of those who undergo spontaneous near-death, spiritual, and mystical states. In this chapter, Strassman tries to consider all possibilities for how this drug modifies our perceptions.
  • First, he discusses the “receiver of reality” function of the brain. So what happens when the spirit molecule takes us beyond our usual levels of awareness? We seem to enter into invisible realms that are inhabited by other beings. And many of the participants seemed convinced of the veridicality of their experiences; they couldn’t be explained away as “dream-like” states. Any of Strassman’s conceptual or interpretive models didn’t seem to resonate with the participants.
  • At some point, as mentioned previously in the book, he decided to take the participants’ experiences at face value and as true. DMT provides regular, repeated, and reliable access to other channels that the brain can receive. These planes of existence are always here; we just can’t always access them.
  • He then discusses his conversations with physicist David Deutsch regarding whether the brain could access other parallel universes. He wasn’t sure it was possible because it would require quantum computing, but even that wouldn’t feel as significant phenomenologically as these experiences; it would feel like normal reality.
  • Strassman then looks at potential connections with the idea of dark matter and weakly interacting massive particles.
  • He also considers that DMT does more than just change the channel of our brain but perhaps provides us with a view of another channel’s program. This is in part because of the empty and contentless nature of the peak mystical experience. DMT configures the brain to stop receiving outside information and is only aware of its own existence and intrinsic nature. 

Summary Review by Floris Wolswijk

From my perspective, the book is a great resource if one wants to understand what is involved with doing psychedelic research. Without a doubt, he has been responsible for restarting our interest in psychedelic research and paved a path through the regulatory jungle. The latter chapters where he decides not to further pursue research with psilocybin and LSD can be seen as a delay in developing the field, or possibly a blessing because of the non-optimal circumstances of room 531 where they were doing their research.

The experience described by the participants ranges from feelings of euphoria to episodes of terror. They see fractals, beautiful colours, and alien figures. As mentioned in the introduction, I think Strassman went too far in characterizing these experiences as ‘real’, or as being on another plane/place/universe that DMT lets us tap into. Is there not a better explanation to be found in the brain functions that get changed by adding a substantial amount of DMT.

By analogy, if we add caffeine, a lot of us become more alert and focused. If you add MDMA, many feel a warm embrace and safe. How things work in the brain specifically is currently being studied. But that doesn’t preclude one from stating that there are brain structures that let us identify faces, others that let us instinctively respond to patterns that seem dangerous (e.g. the shape and/or movement of a spider). What if DMT activates or brings to consciousness these parts of our brain. And, maybe even more plausibly, what if DMT evokes a dream state (many volunteers showed rapid eye movements (REM), like that in our most dream-prone sleep phase).

All that being said, it’s a great book to read and learn about what DMT does and how it has been studied in the 1990s. Much more research has been done since and the author of this post is less familiar with that. One could say that in general, the psychedelics-as-medicine framing has become much stronger (with very positive trials for psilocybin and MDMA in Phase II and Phase III of FDA approval). Who knows if DMT will have a significant role to play here too.

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