Monday, October 8, 2012

DMT, aliens, and reality, part 1

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally occurring psychedelic drug found in many plants and animals, and has been claimed to naturally occur in the human brain itself (Strassman, 2001). DMT, less well-known than other psychedelics such as psilocybin or LSD, is striking for the brevity and intensity of its effects. When smoked, for example, hallucinogenic effects begin almost immediately and resolve within 30 minutes. As a result, it is sometimes known facetiously as the “businessman’s lunch trip” (Cakic, Potkonyak, & Marshall, 2010). One of the most remarkable features of the DMT experience is the frequency with which users encounter non-human intelligences, often resembling aliens. Even more remarkably, some users come away from these encounters convinced that these entities are somehow real (Strassman, 2001). The psychological aspects of such experiences have not yet been adequately explored by scientific researchers.

Kaleidoscopic geometric patterns are typical of DMT visions. 

In the 1990s, psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted pioneering research on the effects of DMT, described in his book DMT: The Spirit MoleculeStrassman (2001) reported that “about half” of the 60 volunteers entered what he described as “freestanding, independent levels of existence” of a highly unusual nature. These places were inhabited by what volunteers described as intelligent “beings”, “entities”, “aliens”, “guides”, and “helpers”. These appeared in a variety of forms, such as “clowns, reptiles, mantises, bees, spiders, cacti, and stick figures.” These beings have been reported by other investigators, including Terrence McKenna, who described them as “self-transforming machine elves,” as well as in more sober case reports from research on people with schizophrenia conducted in the 1950s. Strangely enough, reports of these kinds of beings seem to be unique to DMT, as Strassman was unable to find anything similar in the research literature on other psychedelic drugs.   

There were some consistent themes in experiences of entity contact. Participants frequently reported that the beings seemed to be waiting for them. Volunteers were subjected to an examination by these beings in what appeared to be a technologically advanced setting. Volunteers felt like their mind and body was probed and tested, or even modified in some unexplained way. The beings communicated with the user through gestures, telepathy, or visual imagery. Sometimes the entities seemed loving and caring, other times emotionally detached. Strassman noted the striking parallels between these entity contact experiences and accounts of alien abduction. He considered that “alien abduction” experiences might occur due to the spontaneous release of naturally occurring DMT in the human brain, although this theory has never been tested.  

Intriguingly, many volunteers refused to believe that these experiences were hallucinations or dreams, as they seemed too real. Strassman reported being initially quite baffled by and unprepared for the frequency of these entity experiences among his volunteers. In his book he even entertains the idea that these entities are genuine inhabitants of some sort of normally invisible alternative reality, perhaps of a parallel universe.

From a hard-nosed scientific perspective, such claims are hard to believe, to say the least. The idea that there are invisible realities inhabited by intelligent entities that cannot be detected by any empirical means but can be perceived only by people who are in altered states of brain chemistry is difficult to reconcile with a modern scientific worldview. Strassman expresses a more general belief in what I would call psychedelic mysticism. This is the belief that psychedelic drugs including LSD and psilocybin, as well as DMT, can provide true insights into the deeper nature of reality. For example, after using these drugs, people may become convinced that there are realities beyond the everyday one, that there is life after death, and that there is an objective spiritual presence in the universe.

Why people encounter what appear to be non-human entities while on DMT but not on other drugs is currently unknown. The reasons why some volunteers were convinced these entities are real are also not understood but probably have a great deal to do with psychological factors that influence people’s judgments about what is real. I will discuss these factors in detail in my next post.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Cakic, V., Potkonyak, J., & Marshall, A. (2010). Subjective effects and patterns of use among Australian recreational users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 111 (1-2), 30-37 DOI: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.03.015

Strassman, R. J. (2001). DMT: The Spirit MoleculeRochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.

Strassman RJ, Qualls CR, Uhlenhuth EH, & Kellner R (1994). Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans. II. Subjective effects and preliminary results of a new rating scale. Archives of general psychiatry, 51 (2), 98-108 PMID: 8297217

Image credit: "Land of psychedelic illuminations" by Brian Exton of 

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