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DMT is in your head, but it may be too weird for the psychedelic renaissance

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You know that psychedelics are making a comeback when the New York Times says so on page 1. In “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In,” John Tierney reports on how doctors at schools like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and NYU are testing the potential of psilocybin and other hallucinogens for treating depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism—and for inducing spiritual experiences. 

Tierney’s brisk overview neglects to mention the most mind-bending of all psychedelics: dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. It was first synthesized by a British chemist in the 1930s, and its psychotropic properties were discovered some 20 years later by the Hungarian-born chemist Stephen Szara, who later became a researcher for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Why is DMT so fascinating? For starters, DMT is the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human body. In 1972, the Nobel laureate Julius Axelrod of the National Institutes of Health discovered DMT in human brain tissue, leading to speculation that the compound plays a role in psychosis. Research into that possibility—and into psychedelics in general–was abandoned because of the growing backlash against these compounds.

In 1990, however, Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, obtained permission from federal authorities to inject DMT into human volunteers. Strassman, a Buddhist, suspected that endogenous DMT might contribute to mystical experiences. From 1990 to 1995, he supervised more than 400 DMT sessions involving 60 subjects at the University of New Mexico. Many subjects reported that they dissolved blissfully into a radiant light or sensed the presence of a powerful, god-like being.

On the other hand, 25 subjects underwent what Strassman called “adverse effects,” including terrifying hallucinations of “aliens” that took the shape of robots, insects or reptiles. Some subjects remained convinced that these aliens were real in spite of Strassman’s efforts to convince them otherwise. In part out of concern about these adverse effects, Strassman discontinued his research, which he describes in his 2000 book DMT: The Spirit Molecule.

DMT is also the primary active ingredient of ayahuasca, a tea that Amazonian tribes brew from two plants and drink as a sacred medicine. After hearing about ayahuasca from the legendary Harvard botanist Richard Shultes, the beat writer William Burroughs traveled to South America and swilled the stuff in 1953. In a letter to the poet Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs said that during his first ayahuasca trip he thought he had been poisoned, and he felt himself turning into half-man-half-woman. Burroughs nonetheless drank the tea again and praised its ability to facilitate “space time travel.”

By the mid-20th century, ayahuasca had also been adopted as a sacrament by several urban sects in Brazil. The largest of these is the Uniao Do Vegetal, which combines elements of Christianity with indigenous Indian beliefs. Researchers led by the UCLA psychiatrist Charles Grob (who is mentioned in Tierney’s story) have reported that Brazilian UDV members are on average healthier physiologically and psychologically than a control group. UDV members also claimed that ayahuasca had helped them overcome alcoholism, drug addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. A decade ago, a branch of the UDV based in New Mexico sued for the right to consume ayahuasca legally in the U.S. In 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the group.

In Antipodes of the Mind, the Israeli psychologist Benny Shanon, who has consumed ayahuasca more than 100 times, provides a gripping account of his own and others’ visions. Shanon says the tea transformed him from a “devout atheist” into a spiritual believer awestruck by the mysteries of nature and the human mind. Yet Shanon, like Strassman, acknowledges that these hallucinogenic experiences pose risks. Quoting one ayahuasca shaman, Shanon warns that ayahuasca can also be “the worst of liars,” leaving some users gripped by delusions.

I drank ayahuasca a decade ago while researching my book Rational Mysticism . It tastes like stale beer dregs flavored with cigarette butts. After I threw up, I had a cosmic panic attack, in which I was menaced by malevolent, dayglo-hued polyhedra. I have no desire to repeat this experience.

I applaud the psychedelic renaissance, with this caveat: Spiritual texts often emphasize the dangers of mystical experiences, whether generated by drugs, fasting, meditation or other means. That is the theme of an old Talmudic tale in which four rabbis are brought into the presence of God. One becomes a heretic, one goes crazy, one drops dead and one returns home with his faith affirmed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 "DMT entity" artwork courtesey of Roger Essig

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ku1185 3:29 pm 04/16/2010

    @tharriss: it’s that hallucinogens are awesome, lol. Also, IIRC, today is the 67th anniversary of the first "acid trip" by Albert Hoffman.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ku1185 3:30 pm 04/16/2010

    @tharriss: it’s that hallucinogens are awesome, lol. Also, IIRC, today is the 67th anniversary of the first "acid trip" by Albert Hoffman.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Alex_on_the_beach 3:47 pm 04/16/2010

    @tharriss

    Those of us with a deep and lifetime love affair with science usually discovered
    the passion when we were very young and first encountered the idea that
    the world is absolutely FILLED with mysteries that the adults knew no more
    about than we children did.

    In fact, the Universe is MADE of those mysteries, and nobody actually has any
    authentic answers.

    What could be more authentically thrilling than that?!

    If you are born into the world with an explorer’s soul, but where the satellites
    have mapped every square inch of the planet, it can feel like you’ve been
    cheated by destiny to have no opportunity to be a Marco Polo, or Sir Richard
    Francis Burton, or Magellan…

    So I would answer the guy that left that cynical comment:

    The science of what we already know is not science at all. It’s simply
    historical knowledge, and is best left to teachers and not credible scientists.

    It is the vast terrain of the unknown, of the delicious mystery of who we are
    and what our place and meaning is in the Universe that is the shared soul
    of both science and spirituality.

    This article is a call to action for anyone who has the spirit of either a scientist
    or seeker of spiritual knowing. It’s an entire strange land yet unmapped by
    the satellites.

    Link to this
  4. 4. agenthucky 4:34 pm 04/16/2010

    As with ALL psychedelics, the subject effects the outcome. Our bodies react very similarly when given many chemical compounds, which makes testing on volunteers in some cases, legit. However, when teseting psychedelics, along with anything that interacts with the human brain, the similarity between subjects is almost lost completly. Fact is, the drug is the control, and the brain in the variable. Until this is sorted out, educational persuit of these compunds will be met with much resistance.

    DMT has cured many addictions, including William Burroughs herion addiction (not mentioned above), and it an invaluable tool for certain people. Problem is, study is done on many different subjects, leading the statistics to show something aweful.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I think the public has more sympathy for the person who lost their mind, then the impression from curing addictions. If 6 of 7 people walked away with their dependence on a chemical reduced, and 1 walked away saying there are robotic elves opening doors in space, the public gets horrified of what it can do to your brain, and it becomes illegal to study. Thankfully, we are past the age of putting valuable tools on the shelf for the sake of possibly protecting your impressionable teen’s mind.

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  5. 5. agenthucky 4:36 pm 04/16/2010

    Also interesting, are the effects from DPT, which a close copy of DMT, but with the methyl part replaced with a phenyl part. It is supposed to be DMT’s evil twin, reporting no benefits, and in almost all cases, haunting the person trying it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. DiscomBob 4:52 pm 04/16/2010

    "tea transformed him from a “devout atheist” into a spiritual believer "
    Why in the world would it do that? For a rational person, I would think this would confirm that these feelings are a manifestation of the chemistry of the brain and not grounded in reality. How dopey.

    Link to this
  7. 7. ralphskinner@hotmail.com 4:56 pm 04/16/2010

    Alex, How right you are.

    Link to this
  8. 8. catcurious 5:17 pm 04/16/2010

    The public (in this country, at least) has been taught to fear these "mind-altering drugs," regardless of the good they may do – therefore it seems remarkable to me that any research has been allowed into beneficial uses or experiences at all! Congratulations to those who have continued the research over the years since the 1960′s.

    Also, there have been many reports of negative experiences following "prayer," yet those are never studied in this context, as they should be. One possible hypothesis – any experience that calls into question an established and safe world construct (cognitive dissonance), or that stretches concepts of reality too quickly, may invoke a panic fight/flight response. That would be very understandable, but not a reason to quit searching for all that consciousness has to show us.

    Link to this
  9. 9. AllThatExists 7:42 pm 04/16/2010

    DiscomBob wrote- "Why in the world would it do that? For a rational person, I would think this would confirm that these feelings are a manifestation of the chemistry of the brain and not grounded in reality. How dopey."

    Perhaps because the experience caused him to take a step back and question the very nature of reality itself. If such "real" experiences can seem as real as this world and yet be nothing but an illusion, then how do you verify that this world is even real, instead of some DMT trip or other type of illusion? What is reality? Am I real, or am I just a chemically induced apparition of your own mind? *plays twilight zone theme*

    Link to this
  10. 10. AllThatExists 7:43 pm 04/16/2010

    DiscomBob wrote- "Why in the world would it do that? For a rational person, I would think this would confirm that these feelings are a manifestation of the chemistry of the brain and not grounded in reality. How dopey."

    Perhaps because the experience caused him to take a step back and question the very nature of reality itself. If such "real" experiences can seem as real as this world and yet be nothing but an illusion, then how do you verify that this world is even real, instead of some DMT trip or other type of illusion? What is reality? Am I real, or am I just a chemically induced apparition of your own mind? *plays twilight zone theme*

    Link to this
  11. 11. abyssalmystery 8:32 pm 04/16/2010

    The unfortunate reality is that whenever humans find something that feels good there is a tendency to abuse. If people could have the experience of a "trip" without expecting to do it five times a week it would propbably not be a problem.

    When I was was 17-19 I experience several LSD trips. Fortunatly, none were threatening to me. I have not had any LSD trips since (I am 54 now). If I had continued I am sure I would have caused damage at some point.

    These LSD trips were certainly a different state of consciousness for me. They opened up a world to me that exists to this day. While I am unlikely to take LSD again, I am happy I did when I was young.

    For those of you out there who have taken LSD or similar drugs, can you really explain to those who have not had the experience what its all about?

    Link to this
  12. 12. roger essig 12:12 am 04/17/2010

    I feel lucid dreaming is as confronting and spiritually dangerous, whatever that may mean, as any psychedelic experience. If practiced enough, it can induce flashbacks, delusions, panic attacks and a disconnection from a sense of normalcy. None of these things are really a bad thing!

    If one can accept the transitory nature of experience, one can accept and work with all the feedback that comes with intense exploration of the mind. This can be applied equally with the psychedelic experience.

    Using learnt and practiced lucid dream techniques, one can approach the DMT experience and be temporarily all three of the aforementioned rabbi’s, hopefully avoiding being the dead one. You just need to be fit and healthy enough to cope with having an elevated heart rate, same risk in experiencing confronting lucid dreams too.

    The ultimate realization I have personally gained from curiously exploring, is the fact that clarity of awareness is a tangible feeling. You can actually touch the clarity with your perception. It feels great and the clearer the feeling, the more the realization of ‘how things should be’ . Thanks for the request to use my artwork.

    Link to this
  13. 13. kemdub 6:10 am 04/17/2010

    I guess this is all old news now, but I can’t help think of my own experience. Wanna hear?

    Link to this
  14. 14. kemdub 6:22 am 04/17/2010

    If the manifestastion of the chemistry of the brain is not grounded in reality, where is it then?

    Link to this
  15. 15. jtdwyer 8:56 am 04/17/2010

    The author states:
    "I drank ayahuasca a decade ago while researching my book Rational Mysticism . It tastes like stale beer dregs flavored with cigarette butts. After I threw up, I had a cosmic panic attack, in which I was menaced by malevolent, dayglo-hued polyhedra. I have no desire to repeat this experience."

    Well I’m relieved the author didn’t inhale, I mean didn’t enjoy it. This was purely in the interest of research, you see. This was serious, not just frivolous recreational use…

    It seems that ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer communities pretty much had to take their hallucinogens the way the found them. Little voices tell me that LSD doesn’t have such severe gastroenterological effects, as if they’d know anything about it!

    Link to this
  16. 16. jbairddo 9:07 am 04/17/2010

    This won’t make me popular (most of my posts don’t) and surely will be contradicted by someone with no experience at all, but when all said and done, it is another drug being used for a situation that usually can be addressed with a couple of sessions of hypnosis by a decent hypnotist. Yes, as with all professions, some suck, some a decent and some really good, but the studies are behind it (no they aren’t double blind because they can’t be). And if not that, there are other non pharmaceutical bases therapies that can help. Meds kill many thousands each year, bringing in a therapy that needs a lot of training and support while using isn’t really helpful or therapeutic to the masses where it is needed.

    Link to this
  17. 17. oldtroll57 9:39 am 04/17/2010

    Every single thing is made up of some kind of chemical cocktail.
    The problem is, that the mix is always changing. You can give 10 subjects the exact same dosage of a chemical, on 10 different occasions, and you will get a different result EVERY TIME. So all we can do is, keep tripping, ( er testing ) , till we get more data..

    Link to this
  18. 18. Bops 11:52 pm 04/17/2010

    Weird people do weird things…

    Link to this
  19. 19. DainMiller 12:29 pm 04/18/2010

    @John "After I threw up, I had a cosmic panic attack, in which I was menaced by malevolent, dayglo-hued polyhedra. I have no desire to repeat this experience."

    Let’s stop this for one minute and break the bonds between what we view as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Once we do that, we realize that the Universe just creates – it doesn’t create for bad and or good, it acquires that state once our minds enter the equation. Given that, it would make sense that we should embrace and learn the lessons from our experiences on hallucinogens no matter if we ‘think’ its good or bad.

    So please don’t underthink experience you had. I was profoundly moved by your one sentence description, because of the importance of geometry and it’s sacred messages (Aka sacred geometry – it is a message in itself).

    So, I believe, you were looking essence in the face during this trip. Why wouldn’t you try it again – your experience was profound.

    I agree that it can be hardly the best thing to have another panic attack, especially on a cosmic level, but this is why the Universe gives us a little tool in our toolbelt. It is called, "Acceptance". You literally, and I’m not kidding, have to accept anything that happens within your mind – as it is going to happen and it runs at full speed some times, we must let it sprint. Your attempt to throw hurdles in front of it with rational thought causes the brain to jump over them at first like a world class hurdle jumper, but then if it overcomes it’s jumping height it will crash and get possibly get hurt or damaged. Be careful and don’t throw down those hurdles, accept and let it be.

    Your journey could be an unbelievable cosmic voyage. I hope you make the right decision.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Brokko 1:51 am 04/19/2010

    I’ve been doing research to DMT for a while now and the DMT that humans consume in general is NN-DMT. This compound is for as far as I know not naturally accuring in your body. The form of DMT that we find in our bodies is called 5meo DMT. There are several plants that contain this substance in their rootbark, leaves, pods or other parts of the plant.
    I don’t think that DMT is to weird for the psychedelic rennaisance, I think that it takes away your ego and if you do it in the right time and setting and if you’re not showing fear for the possible effect it will always reward you. I’ve been smoking DMT crystal for quite a while and I never had a terrifying hallucination or feeling. I don’t think DMT is for everyone, but it will definitely be a big contribution to the Psychedelic rennaisance.

    Brokko.

    Link to this
  21. 21. ormondotvos 3:11 pm 04/19/2010

    Brain examining itself. Yeah, right… Set and setting, trusted observers? Never mentioned. Bad experimenter. Sit in corner. Humans, and their brains, are social chemical machines. Sure, you can chop off half the needed elements and make a brain act weird. What’s your point? Stick a plastic bag over your head. You’ll die. Therefore, you must ban plastic bags, and cars, and guns, and fatty foods.

    Link to this
  22. 22. jgrosay 5:53 pm 04/19/2010

    I once read a science fiction story dealing with aliens invading earth by moving across dimensions and time. To defend the planet, armymen were looking for psychics to open an space connection and reach the invader’s source place. That kind of thing would be the only way to support and justify the use of any hallucinogen, but it’s not real. Is it?. Unclever conversation on the issue can induce some, or even many to experience a drug with an extremely high destructive potential. Some law regards penalties and fines for inducing somebody to self-destructive behaviour. How good is the author’s civil liability insurance? Please watch your step.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Cosmic 8:19 am 04/20/2010

    I did research on the analysis of similar substances before they were so illegal. I have a feeling that your diet and electrolyte balance could play a role in the good trip vs bad trip experience. Making all of thee substances schedule 1 cut into the research done on them.

    Link to this
  24. 24. jgrosay 6:12 pm 04/20/2010

    Early in the 20th century, marihuana cigarettes were sold without a prescription in pharmacies for the relievement of asthma, heroin was first introduced as an OTC product for cough reduction, and Pope in Rome received as gift a bottle containing a liquor with "coca de Peru". Drugs became illegal after the harm they do was realized and not for other reasons.
    Part of the sluggish development in Bolivia may be due to the use of cocaine during pregnancy, there is a NYAS Annals volume on the effects of cocaine in the developing brain, and if you add to low environmental oxigen, poor nutrition and infectious diseases a drug such as this, the effect on the people can be a catastrophe, taking several generations to cure. Use of dangerous products must be discouraged from its very beginning, once the drug is incorporated to some kind of culture, it’s almost impossible to escape its destructive consequences

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  25. 25. Evan Teleomorph 8:01 pm 04/20/2010

    Correction:
    Horgan states that "DMT is the only psychedelic known to occur naturally in the human body." This not true; Bufotenine and 5-meo-DMT are two other extremely powerful psychedelics that are also found in the human body.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Evan Teleomorph 8:03 pm 04/20/2010

    DMT is indeed found in human blood and urine, as is 5-meo-DMT and the psychedelic tryptamine, bufotenine.

    Link to this
  27. 27. hiddenbasin@gmail.com 11:13 pm 04/20/2010

    We found in the 60s that DMT trips could be "aimed" with a little preprogramming.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Cerebral*Origami 9:24 am 04/21/2010

    It was the thrill of discovery and the knowledge that there were no blank spaces left on the map the encouraged both my interest in science and my life-long love of SCUBA diving.

    Link to this
  29. 29. bucketofsquid 11:45 am 04/21/2010

    If this DMT had a 99% chance of curing my depression and anxiety disorder with no bad side affects, I’d take it in a heart beat. Since it does not I’ll let other people destroy themselves for the sake of science.

    Human experimenting with substances this dangerous reminds me of Josef Mengele. Thanks but I’ll pass.

    Link to this
  30. 30. chenry8 6:02 pm 04/21/2010

    "On the other hand, 25 subjects underwent what Strassman called adverse effects, including terrifying hallucinations of aliens that took the shape of robots, insects or reptiles."
    You apparently were not paying too much attention Mr. Horgan these "terrifying hallucinations" were not labeled "adverse effects" by Dr Strassman. Learn to read and stop misquoting people.

    Link to this
  31. 31. buddhacosmos 11:43 am 04/23/2010

    There is an explorer in each of us. But exploration is not for all explorers.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Billy Lenox 2:45 pm 04/27/2010

    DMT certainly is a unique experience. In Chapter 4 of my on-going online novella, "The Summer of ’85," several of the characters smoke DMT. It’s a brief, moderately realistic depiction of DMT intoxication. Check it out at http://www.summerof1985.wordpress.com, if you feel like it.

    Link to this
  33. 33. arranfrood 4:30 pm 04/27/2010

    Nice article, although DMT was discovered in the human body before the 1972 brain tissue paper; see this 1965 Nature paper for more: Tryptamine, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, N,N-Dimethyl-5-hydroxytryptamine and 5-Methoxytryptamine in Human Blood and Urine, Nature 206, 1052 (5 June 1965) | doi:10.1038/2061052a0

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  34. 34. wellnessWithIn 2:17 pm 05/29/2010

    The people that I have known that have tried DMT and ayahuasca have reported that it was the best experience of their life. From what I hear, if youre doing it for recreational purposes, itll knock you on your ass, but if done with the intension of self-realization and increasing consciousness, it can be the most healing experience of your life. The people that I know who have done it have reported the breakthroughs and realizations of being in the equivalent of about 20 years of therapy. Theyre more happy, less stressed, and seem to have found a inner peace.

    Link to this

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