In this naturalistic field study (n=36) participants were observed inhaling DMT at home (40-75mg). The experience was immediately followed by a semi-structured interview to assess the ‘other,’ one of the major domains of the breakthrough experience. The major themes identified included 94% of participants reporting encounters with other ‘beings,’ while 100% reported emerging into other ‘worlds.’ In light of these findings, the neural mechanisms of these otherworldly breakthrough DMT experiences are discussed.
“Introduction: N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is an endogenous serotonergic psychedelic capable of producing radical shifts in conscious experience. Increasing trends in its use, as well as new trials administering DMT to patients, indicate the growing importance of a thorough elucidation of the phenomenology the drug may occasion. This is particularly in light of the hyper-real, otherworldly, and often ontologically challenging yet potentially transformative, nature of the experience, not least encounters with apparently non-self social agents. Laboratory studies have been limited by clinical setting and lacking qualitative analyses, while online surveys’ limitations lie in retrospective design, recreational use, and both of which not guaranteeing ‘breakthrough’ experiences.
Methods: We report on the first naturalistic field study of DMT use including its qualitative analysis. Screened, healthy, anonymised and experienced DMT users (40-75mg inhaled) were observed during their non-clinical use of the drug at home. Semi-structured interviews using the micro-phenomenological technique were employed immediately after their experience. This paper reports on the thematic analysis of one major domain of the breakthrough experiences elicited; the ‘other’. Thirty-six post-DMT experience interviews with mostly Caucasian (83%) males (8 female) of average 37 years were predominantly inductively coded.
Results: Invariably, profound and highly intense experiences occurred. The main overarching category comprised the encounter with other ‘beings’ (94% of reports), with further subordinate themes including the entities’ role, appearance, demeanour, communication and interaction; while the other over-arching category comprised experiences of emerging into other ‘worlds’ (100% of reports), in turn consisting of the scene, the content and quality of the immersive spaces.
Discussion: The present study provides a systematic and in-depth analysis of the features of the otherworldly encounter within the breakthrough DMT experience, as well as elaborating on the resonances with both previous DMT studies and other types of extraordinary experiences which also entail entity encounters. These include the alien abduction, folkloric, shamanic and near-death experience. Putative neural mechanisms of these features of the DMT experience and its promise as a psychotherapeutic agent are discussed in light of such findings.”
Authors: Pascal Michael, David Luke & Oliver Robinson
DMT is an endogenous serotonergic psychedelic capable of producing radical shifts in conscious experience. Laboratory studies and online surveys have been limited by clinical setting and lacking qualitative analyses. We report on the first naturalistic field study of DMT use including its qualitative analysis. The major overarching category comprised the encounter with other ‘beings’ (94% of reports), while the other overarching category comprised the experience of emerging into other ‘worlds’ (100% of reports). The present study provides a systematic analysis of the features of the otherworldly encounter within the breakthrough DMT experience, and discusses its promise as a psychotherapeutic agent.
DMT is an indole alkaloid and potent serotonergic psychedelic, which is endogenous to humans and found in the cerebral frontal cortex and pineal gland. DMT is the major active constituent in the Amerindian shamanic decoction, ayahuasca, which is typically blended with Psychotria viridis and Banesteriopsos caapi. Its use is increasing, and it has been suggested that DMT may be involved in a host of altered states including dreaming, psychosis, and NDEs.
Few studies have been dedicated to the acute phenomenology of psychedelics, while some have explored the subjective mediation of psychedelic therapy. There has been a recent surge in interest in the phenomenology of DMT, including its cultural history, and the gnostic insight and essential liminality that is defining of the experience.
Sai-Halasz, Brunecker & Szara (1958) conducted the first research study in human participants, using 0.7-1mg/kg I.M. DMT. They divided the experience into coarse and pathological categories, including anxiety.
Strassman (2001) documented the experiences of 60 participants undergoing over 400 DMT doses, with at least half of the high-dose participants reporting otherworldy adventures with other beings. Cott & Rock (2008) coded 19 narrative reports from an online survey, and Lyke (2019) conducted a content analysis of entity descriptions across 149 online published DMT trip-reports (90% male, mean age 25 years) from 20092019.
Seventy-seven percent of the sample were male, slightly lower than the prior studies, and 85% were Caucasian/white. They had used DMT an average of 14.5 times, and 67% reported that their most memorable entity encounter was their first encounter.
The thematic analysis by Cott & Rock (2008) and the encounter survey by Davis et al. (2020) are significantly limited in the following ways: small sample size, under-representation of the general population, relying on narratives (instead of interview) or fixed-answers, retrospective reports resulting in potential memory bias, and respondents’ self-selection.
This study aimed to analyse high-dose breakthrough experiences via the micro-phenomenological technique, which involves bracketing, i.e. encouraging participants to avoid judgements of experiences into predefined cultural categories. The present paper aims to achieve a finer phenomenological resolution via the above improvements, leading to a greater understanding of the qualitative nature of the DMT experience, including the encounter with non-self entities. This is crucial given the increasing use of DMT among the population.
All volunteers were experienced DMT users, and provided their own DMT supply. They were selected in accordance with Johnson et al.’s (Johnson et al., 2008) volunteer safety guidelines for hallucinogen research. Sixty-four participants were screened using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Axis-I Disorders – Clinical Trials version (SCID-CT), and 39 were finally included. Thirty-six DMT sessions were the basis of the present thematic analysis.
Participants inhaled DMT at a mean dose of 54.5mg (a crude approximate equivalent of at least 30mg I.V.), weighed using 0.001g microscales.
A semi-structured, micro-phenomenological interview was employed to explore the resultant DMT experience. The interview covered entity encounters, visionary environments, bodily, emotional and cognitive experiences.
The field study and present analysis was approved by University of Greenwich Research Ethics Committee. Participants provided a pseudonym during the SCID-CT screening interview and were led to their home or other suggested location agreed by researchers to serve as the setting for the experience and study. The micro-phenomenological interview was conducted immediately after the subsiding of the DMT experience, and typically lasted at least 30 minutes. All 45 interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded with software package NVivo v. 12.
Thematic analysis was performed on 36 interviews using a hybrid deductive-inductive process. Themes were derived from the interview data and were subsumed under the overarching categories, with further refining processes including merging of redundant themes captured by other themes or expansion of themes covering disparate concepts. For each nested theme, the frequency of interviews with quotation extracts within the given theme is calculated by NVivo, and an idiographic emphasis is assumed by extensively reporting many participants’ accounts.
The following diagram and table present all the themes derived from the full qualitative analysis of the DMT accounts, and their corresponding subthemes are listed in the Supplementary Material.
Thirty-four out of thirty-six participants experienced encounters with sentient entities, most of which had individualised visual form. Some participants did describe sensed presences, but these were either discrete Presences with no imagery or an Omnipresence.
Each case of interfacing with these beings was classified as to a specific role, with the majority of encounters consisting of beings acting as a ‘presenter’ or ‘focuser’ of intriguing objects and ‘focuser’ of their attention upon them.
The appearance of entities perceived by the participants was categorized into 48 subthemes, of which four were human and two were of deceased persons. The great majority of the reports were composed of forms attributable in some way to some Otherly Creature.
Table 2 lists the overt messages received by each participant, including messages associated with the teaching and healing roles.
A constellation of profound communications was expressed independently by 5 participants, all aligned with the idea that the universe is a vast interconnected playground for beings to simply enjoy. The sensual females were playing with me, and were showing me things. They were telling me that I’m like them, and that I have to enjoy the pleasure of this existence, and that life is fun.
While 100% described arriving at a qualitatively different space of consciousness, other proportions reported themes of breaking through the veil and discovering they are Not in Kansas anymore.
Participants reported entering into entirely different domains, which were often familiar to them, and echoed worldly experience. These domains were often surrounded by living mercurial structures, and were again paralleled in their visions of gardens of biblical proportions.
”An artificial world”’ is a series of vision-scapes possessing a particularly unnatural flavour, but most simultaneously expressed using natural imagery. The animals are described as being within a “mechanism” of some description, and the whole thing feels like the natural order of things.
The content-full DMT journey is densely populated with a litany of items and artefacts, most of which are organic in nature. Metaphysical interpretations abound, with six ‘hyperdimensional structures’ recurring with noteworthy frequency.
The Infantile objects were strange, gyrating gadgets that changed shapes and colours. They were starting- it was a screen-saver of Windows 98 with these kind of orbs changing shapes.
At least fourteen experients offered up Miscellaneous objects, perhaps more arbitrarily positioned amongst the vision. However, one experient said that snakes were involved, and another said that the symbols were snake-like.
The synthetic quality of GC’s DNA-complex is evoked by the hypercube phenomenon, where both BB and CGI-like, technological cubes are considered as part of the substructure of reality.
All 36 participants reported experiencing another being, or emerging in a different environment, after smoking high dose DMT. These experiences are consistent with the original human experiments with DMT.
Parallels with Major DMT Phenomenological Studies Shanon’s (2002) categorisations were very closely mirrored in this analysis, including natural or heavenly landscapes, ancient or magical cities, seeing Earth, outer-space voyages, amusement parks and circuses, mythological imagery, scripts and symbols, mathematical formulae, and biological evolution. The content analysis of discarnate DMT beings by Lyke (2019) identified highly similar findings to the present paper’s results, with female entities being more common and poorly defined/featureless being more common.
In both thematic schemes, humanoid beings were the most common entity type, followed by divine beings (10%), alien beings (8%), elves/faeries (7%), animals (6%), then mechanical and geometric objects (6%), though elfish creatures were defined only by appearance versus nature (e.g. Mischievous, Childish). Lyke’s thematic labels for interactions with beings closely converge with the present analysis, with the prevalent-most theme being ‘showing, teaching or guiding’ (25%) – equivalent to the roles of ‘presenter’, ‘teacher’ and ‘guide’ (14%) in this analysis.
Most participants were accustomed to DMT and were in a quasi-controlled space amongst researcher-sitters. The least frequent theme was reminding, though many themes within ‘communication’ had an essence of reminding inherent. Parallels between this study’s results and those of Davis et al.’s (2020) DMT entity survey include many of the same parallels with Lyke (2019), though Davis et al.’s survey employed mostly fixed, pre-categorised responses, meaning fewer and pre-conceived options versus the free vocabulary of this study’s participants.
The study found that particular descriptors were lacking, as were ‘animal-spirits’ (7%) and therianthrope-types (6%). Participants in Davis et al.’s (2020) study endorsed benevolent and sacred entities, with ‘all-knowing’ and ‘hyper-intelligent’ being amongst the next most selected natures. Davis et al.’s (2020) familiarity was slight, whereas over a quarter described the entities’ familiarity in this study. Davis et al.’s messages of ‘insight into world’, ‘love for self/others’, ‘letting go’ and ‘interconnectedness’ were similar to the present analysis’s ‘communications’ theme.
The vast majority of encounters were telepathic, then visual, and caused ontological reorientations, though no specific tasks or purposes were shared.
All participants volunteered many basic features considered endemic to the NDE syndrome, including deep positive mood, bodily dissociation, bright light(s), deceased loved ones (albeit comparatively low), explicitly god-like beings or light-beings, and time transcendence.
The present DMT reports are comparable to alien abduction experiences, where many themes are evocative of abduction, such as the entity roles of ‘presenter’, ‘orchestrator’, and especially ‘experimenter’.
Two participants reported encountering ‘insectoid’ and ‘serpentine’ beings, often with a curious and urging demeanour. The beings were intelligent, powerful and familiar, and used telepathy and visual mode of communication. The two experients in this study, GC and CS, experienced abduction-esque scenarios, despite suggestions that the laboratory environs of Strassman (2001) produced the scenarios. Faerie folklore (of the British Isles) and DMT experiences have been explored, and compellingly demonstrated with ayahuasca (and other shamanic) experiences. Faeries/aliens have been depicted as being ‘trickster’-like, with ‘mischievous’ or ‘deceptive’ inclinations, and as being hyperdimensional. The spirits of the dead may be a prong to the near-death experience, and may be more common than appreciated around alien abduction. Shamanic flights and animistic encounters within other worlds have been shown to have substantial consistency, not only with ayahuasca, but with DMT experiences. The participants’ experiences are mostly comprised of such shamanic elements, including the ‘soul flight’, communications intended for ‘insight’ into the nature of the world.
Similarities between DMT, near-death, abduction and shamanic phenomena may be due to converging downstream mechanisms, such as default-mode network (DMN) disintegration, or the release of innate neural modules, such as a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), which are evolutionarily conserved to identify probable social agencies, including human-like agents in humans. Timmermann (2019) has presented preliminary results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalographic (EEG) studies of the DMT state, which suggest inhibited alpha and elevated theta power, and inverse correlations with baseline theta oscillations.
DMT may disrupt theory of mind by disrupting the posterior cingulate cortex, where higher cortical alpha is otherwise thought to carry forward predictions, thus resulting in inappropriate interpretations of social agency. Under DMT, the PCC and DMN of the medial temporal lobe release their top-down constraining, which may lead to the release of intrinsic driving activity in the mTL and the psychedelic primary state, which may include ToM processes. Despite the putative mechanisms for entity experiences, it still presents a challenge to account for their manifestly baroque and highly profound nature. This may be because the entities are an end-stage result of the brain’s disturbed capacity to accurately predict patterns in ambiguous stimuli. The Jungian archetypes may be encoded into evolutionarily conserved neuronal connectivity patterns in the brain, and may be released into the conscious mind by DMT.
The DMT experience is clearly evocative of all the above classifications of experiences, and this has central implications for its therapeutic potential. The interpersonal and transpersonal insights received during DMT entity communication suggest therapeutic capacity, but could also yield adverse effects for naive and/or patient populations.
DMT experiences share many features with alien abduction, faerie lore and shamanic experiences, but there are a few that are unique to DMT.
The current report’s cellular-molecular or skull-skeletal imagery are not typical of faerie or abduction literature, though may well be found in certain shamanic contexts (including ayahuasca).
The current study has a number of improvements on previous phenomenological studies of the DMT experience, including a prospective nature and in-depth semi-structured interviews. However, certain limitations are still present, including a predominantly male sample and a narrow age-range.
Participants were seasoned users of DMT, typically having vary many past trips, and thus may have reported qualitatively different content, but a key boon of using such ‘psychonauts’ is their deeper acquaintance with the DMT-space and lack of ontological shock expected of first-time users.
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In this naturalistic field study (n=36), participants were observed inhaling DMT at home (40-75mg). A semi-structured interview immediately followed the experience to assess the 'self'. The study reports on five categories of breakthrough experiences, including the onset of effects, bodily, sensorial, psychological, and emotional effects.