The DMT Research of Dr. Rick Strassman
Dimethyltriptamine, commonly referred to as DMT, is a fascinating compound that produces intense non-ordinary states of consciousness. It is distinguishable from other psychedelics, however, because of its presence in a myriad of living things, including the human brain, lungs, and blood. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, Strassman developed a very particular research interest that encompassed the prodigious goal of coming up with a comprehensive theory of consciousness. DMT, Eastern religions, and psychoanalytic theory and practice formed the basis and main pillars between which Strassman’s investigations would attempt to find links that corroborate his hypotheses about consciousness.
One of his initial research goals was to find whether the pineal gland in the brain was a source of endogenous DMT. The pineal gland is a small organ located in the center of the brain. It is said to have a shape similar to that of a small seahorse. For a while, very little was known about the pineal gland. Strassman had an inkling that there was a connection between many ancient funerary and cultural practices and depictions of the brain that afforded some kind of special characteristic to the pineal gland. For example, the ancient Egyptian process of embalming and mummifying the dead, removing and preserving certain organs while discarding the brain. Perhaps there was a compelling reason to remove the brain. Another connection is the fact that the pineal gland develops in a human fetus forty-nine days after conception, in Tibetan religious philosophy, it is said that it takes forty-nine days for one soul to re-assume incarnate form in another physical body. These are among many other accounts that prompted Strassman’s research questions and curiosity in DMT.
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After holding back on his research proposal because of the stigma around psychedelics, Strassman was finally granted permission to carry out his studies on DMT twenty years after he first developed it. His work has culminated in a book titled DMT: The Spirit Molecule, in which he outlines the inferences and conclusions that his research supports. Included in those ideas is the concept that our brains produce and seek out a certain amount of DMT in order to regulate its normal perceptual functions. Another is that the pineal gland, together with DMT, is the point in which our consciousness connects to our physical body. Thus, it is a form of affirmation that there is a larger spiritual world in which our consciousness lives on without our physical forms. Another way that DMT seems to confirm the existence of an infinite consciousness is the way it produces a semblance of non-ordinary states of consciousness that also come about through practiced meditation or even descriptions of near-death experiences. Strassman wanted to investigate the link between the consciousness revealed by DMT and the consciousness “described by mystics throughout the ages, across all cultures.”
In addition to the affirmation of a higher, infinite consciousness, Strassman believes that DMT has a number of valuable therapeutic uses. In one study of what Strassman called a group of “spiritually sophisticated” volunteers, DMT helped them work through things in a better manner both psychologically and spiritually.
The Pineal Gland: The Third Eye and the Gate Into and Out of the Physical World
In 1990, Strassman began his research into DMT and the pineal gland at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He found that the pineal gland produces all the necessary components to create DMT. Aside from the metaphysical history surrounding the pineal gland, very little scientific research had been done to investigate its role. Strassman’s work helped establish the role of the pineal gland and has prompted further questions not only about its function in our everyday lives but also its role as a gateway to the afterlife. It’s also interesting to note that another psychedelic –psilocybin- is used in therapy to help terminally ill patients overcome their existential distress and fear of impending death. Many of those patients attribute this lighter perspective on their fate to the fact that psilocybin allowed them to realize an objective truth about reality: that there is something beyond death and that life is a transitory process. Similarly, DMT provides a glimpse into another plane of consciousness that seems to be telling us that there is a continuation of our souls and spirit after our physical death.
The pineal gland and DMT, according to Strassman, form the biological basis of mystical states like the kind that occur during meditation, other spiritual practices, and tellingly –near death experience. Once Strassman studied the chemistry of the pineal gland and discovered that it is capable of making DMT, then the prospect of studying the effects of exogenous, “abnormal” levels of DMT in order to confirm its endogenous purpose.
The Therapeutic Value of DMT
By studying the pineal gland and DMT, Strassman discovered that DMT is actively transported into the brain. It seems that it is drawn by the brain for the very specific purpose of maintaining a certain amount of DMT for basic perceptual brain function. “The brain seems hardwired to use DMT and to seek it out,” in order to allow us to navigate everyday reality. In addition to the change in perspective DMT gives about death and the existence of a rich afterlife on another plane –DMT may have a role in keeping our perspective of the world sharp and bright –forming a sort of natural buffer against depression. Strassman states that some anti-psychotic medications “flatten out one’s perception of the world” making things more dull and lifeless. DMT is necessary to keep our perceptual apparatus at an appropriate level, thus making the world a more beautiful and interesting place. It may also serve as a way to mitigate our fear of death, in the way that psilocybin helps the terminally-ill. Echoing the sentiments of other psychotherapists conducting research with psychedelics, Strassman emphasizes the importance of set and setting. He stresses that he doesn’t believe any psychedelic is inherently good or bad, but achieving an optimal emotional, psychological, and spiritual experience depends upon one’s intentions for ingesting the substance and whether there is a trained mediator and doctor present to help volunteers assess their encounters on DMT. Furthermore, Strassman says that psychedelics have the potential to be destabilizing as much as they can be grounding. Therefore, it is essential to administer them under the guidance of someone with considerable training.
Another way DMT has therapeutic value is the way it “mediates profound mental experiences.” The pineal gland is quite protected from against stress, but if the stress is severe or intense enough –as in a near-death experience- it releases an abnormal amount of DMT, setting off the kinds of altered states of consciousness parallel to those reached by practices that separate body from consciousness. This experience of feeling the distinguishable difference between consciousness and physical body could produce a myriad of psychological and emotional benefits including new, inspiring perspectives on the meaning of life and can also give a sense of grounding comfort in the knowledge that our consciousness will not perish with our bodies.
Influence of Buddhism
Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, formed part of Dr. Strassman’s initial research inquiries. Strassman was drawn to Buddhism because of the way its own canon of psychiatry –the Buddhist Abhidharma—described states of consciousness “in a relatively objective manner.” Strassman considered the Abhidharma a good way to rate and measure the states of consciousness he anticipated would come about in the volunteers in his studies. For himself, as a doctor and coach for the experience of his volunteers, Strassman cites that Zen meditation and the “active passivity” it induces was useful in helping with mediation of their experiences and the entities they encountered while on DMT.
Effects of Exogenous DMT and Encountering Intelligent Entities
Many of the volunteers in Strassman’s studies have cited encounters with highly intelligent entities. By entities, Strassman refers to beings or a grouped consciousness that does not take human form. By administering his volunteers with small, periodical doses of DMT, he sought to build up their tolerance to it and thus ease and draw out the mystical states it catalyzed. One volunteer described “a highly intelligent entity” that resembled a bee. The volunteer felt a strong sense of kindness, safety, and sensuality as the entity showed the volunteer the hive in which the community lived. This could be interpreted as a constant energy that exists in a different plane of reality that we cannot feel on the regular, endogenous levels of DMT produced by our own bodies. This furthers the idea that consciousness continues after death.
All of Strassman’s investigations are with the goal of bolstering the idea that there exists a biological basis for mystical states that have been recorded for as long as human history. The integrated study of DMT, the pineal gland, and religious spirituality bolster the inference of the existence of a higher, infinite consciousness. If administered in an appropriate setting with trained guides, DMT could help patients expand their perception of the nature of life and death, empowering them with new inspiration, hope, and excitement for life and whatever lies beyond.
- Sofia Vidal
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