This chemical represents the latest chapter in the Psychedelic Science research renaissance…
Written by: Pascal Immanuel Michael
Art by: Sotiria Kai
It is fair to say that N-N-Dimethyl-Tryptamine (DMT) is the most potent hallucinogen known to mankind. Research pharmacologist Dennis McKenna, of British Columbia Institute of Technology, maintains that DMT is ubiquitous in nature; virtually all plants contain it, and it has been detected in mammalian brains such as rats, and even human tissues. Readers may be familiar with the Amazonian shamanic brew, Ayahuasca. Brewed from Psychotria viridis (a tropical plant rich in DMT), and Banasteriopsis caapi (which contains Harmine and Harmoline, monoamino oxidase inhibitors), the decoction thereby blocks the gastral degradation of DMT, conferring its intense psychedelic effects.
Famously, Rick Strassman, psychiatry professor at New Mexico University, pioneered the DMT research renaissance, leading to his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule. DMT represents a convenient opportunity to research psychedelic states and crucially, consciousness itself, due to the uniquely powerful yet short-acting properties of the curious compound. It peaks at approximately two minutes post-onset, plateauing to baseline by minute 12. Strassman (1994) describes the effects as a distinct rush at onset, loss of bodily awareness, sensing the presence of other intelligences (the ‘sensed presence phenomenon’), and (especially bizarrely) finding oneself in a technological environment. This aligns with recurrent reports: your body vibrates, elemental geometry gyrates, until your mind is propelled violently to some alternate reality seemingly comprised of a laboratory-like space; for a select few it seems (as elegantly caricatured by David Luke, parapsychologest at Greenwich University) populated by 9ft praying mantis-like emotion-farming proctologists who loom over you expectantly.
In the ongoing PhD research by Chris Timmermann, of Imperial’s Psychedelic Research Group, 13 healthy and DMT-experienced volunteers were intravenously administered either 7mg, 14mg, or 20mg of DMT. The participants spoke of experiencing “a different dimension”, which “felt more real than this reality” and that they “felt presences of other sentient life-forms”. Subjects were interviewed directly after their psychotropic sojourn and asked to draw their visual experience, which included lattice matrices of interlocking hexagonal patterns at low dose and more kinetic, animated aesthetics such as cascading, hyper-colourful geometries at middling doses. Finally, high doses elicited the sense of being transported, receiving ‘information’, profound emotion, and of course, the prevalent ‘sensed-presence’ effect.
This latter 20mg dose gave way to such reports of seeing: ‘Fabergé eggs, expanding into more Fabergé patterns, inside of which [was] some kind of Cosmic information’ (see insert). Another volunteer stated: ‘A presence was trying to make me pay attention to lessons so that I could remember them…about compassion, gratitude, empathy and kindness…I was being shown the interconnectedness’, while another said: ‘There were beings that wouldn’t allow me to trespass. Putting a lot of pressure for me to stay on this side’. These vignettes are remarkably reminiscent of the ‘near-death experience’ (NDE), wherein one may encounter ‘Beings of Light’ who inspire the value of love and humility, and urge you to share it with humanity, and an image of a ‘boundary’, such as a fence or river, beyond which point return to Earth is no longer possible – as first popularly described by Raymond Moody, in his seminal Life after Life, 1975.
Indeed, Timmermann confirmed the astonishing parallels between the DMT experience and the NDE, with subjects scoring highly on NDE-distinguishing questionnaires (Greyson, B., 1983), endorsing such items as ‘being surrounded by brilliant light’, ‘seeing deceased or religious spirits’, or ‘suddenly understanding everything’. For precisely this reason, reductionist NDE-researchers toy with the idea that there may be an (unfortunately termed) ‘DMT-dump’, a rise in DMT levels, in the brain at the point of death.
The Imperial study also observed significantly increased mood and reduced neuroticism one week post-DMT, finding that the higher the participants scored on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ), the greater this reduction in depressive experience. This latter evidence dovetails with the success of many recent studies on the psychiatric effects of psychedelics, such as Griffith’s (2016) observed correlation between MEQ score and depression amelioration in terminal cancer patients who were given a dose of the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocybin.
Timmermann also used EEG devices to record electrical activity of the outer cortex of the brain during administration of this mysterious molecule. Both alpha and beta waves (rhythmic electrical patterns of the brain) were diminished, correlating with experience-intensity ratings, but more importantly with the massive broadening of neural diversity; Carhart-Harris (2016) found the same effect with psilocybin. This entails the brain becoming exceptionally plastic, opening communication between areas typically functionally segregated from each other – the very possible basis from which the experience of synaesthesia (for example, ‘seeing’ sounds) occurs, or by which thoughts become drivers of visual imagery, creating the quintessential dream-like quality of the psychedelic experience. The so-called ‘Default-Mode Network’, through which neuronal impulses are normally funnelled, serving as a form of ‘connector hub’ for neural efficiency, is shut down and diversions created for novel pathways to manifest. This is the hypothesised foundation for the marked anti-depressive effects of these psychedelics – through the dissolution of rigid, maladaptive thought-processes and ruminatory behaviours.
Thus, this elegant molecule – 16 Hydrogens, a dozen Carbons, and a couple of Nitrogens – has the capacity to metamorphose our minds, may be instrumental in comprehending consciousness, and could be employed to assuage psychiatric suffering. As the brain’s computational constraints are liberated, so Mind at Large, the term coined by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception, is unleashed.