- DMT is a psychedelic drug that is found in many plants and animals, including humans.
- Recreationally DMT is usually smoked or injected.
- In the 90s, a researcher asked people to take the drug and report back what they experienced.
- Volunteers said they experienced something “more real than real,” and some were convinced of life after death.
- Regular users of DMT report being taken to other realms, speaking to divine beings, and often come back with a new appreciation of life.
- DMT has potential to be therapeutic in the future, but research is very much in its infancy.
“This state… cannot be described with words,” Sam*, a regular user of hallucinogenic drugs, wrote to me when he described one of his experiences with N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – known as DMT.
“It’s a state where you exist in your purest form, [a state] of deep peace and happiness,” he said. “This world is beyond cool to look at, and it just so seems that this is the place where we all came from, which is awesome. Spirals upon spirals began to appear and infinite spirals would emerge out of other spirals. I was happiness itself, this world is mine, and the happiness is emerging only from me.”
A trip on DMT is described by users like “breaking out of a simulation.” People report being able to access the true inner workings of their minds, and describe the feeling of being launched into other dimensions, where they experience their consciousness existing outside of their own bodies.
“One may experience coalescence with the very fabric of space-time, followed by the ‘blast-off’ into an alternate, alien realm, termed ‘hyperspace’ by some,” another user called Eli* told Business Insider. “The alternate realm defies all conceptions that we are accustomed to and typically presents as impossible geometric fractal patterns that possess eerie familiarity.”
Time and language are inconceivable, but you may experience telepathic conversations with the beings you encounter, he said. According to personal accounts, a DMT trip is different to hallucinating on other drugs, such as psilocybin (mushrooms) or LSD, because it takes you some place completely different to this world, as opposed to modifying your relationship with it.
In fact, the trip is so intense and abstract, some users have trouble explaining exactly what it’s like. One user told me that attempting to write it down is essentially pointless. But a common theme among users is the opinion that tripping on DMT feels “more real than real.”
Many of the users I spoke to mentioned their minds being “pulled” from their bodies, meeting alien entities or spiritual beings to guide them, in an environment of vivid circus-like colours and patterns. There are also forums on the internet dedicated to particular figures that seem to appear time and time again,such as a jester.
Research into DMT started in the 50s
DMT was first found to be psychedelic by the Hungarian chemist Stephen Szára in the 1950s. In the 60s it was discovered in the human body, with research suggesting it is synthesised in lungs and the pineal gland in the brain. It is now believed to be widespread throughout the natural kingdom, in thousands of plants, and in every mammal that has been investigated so far.
A flurry of research throughout the 60s focused on DMT, including looking into whether it could help explain why some people have schizophrenia (it couldn’t). But then, in the 70s, DMT was placed into a restrictive legal category, and research was halted.
Rick Strassman, a psychologist and psychopharmacologist, led the first new human research in the US into DMT in a generation with his colleague Clifford Qualls between 1990 and 1995.
“I was interested in looking at DMT as a naturally occurring psychedelic for quite a few reasons,” he told Business Insider. “One of them was being interested in the biology of naturally occurring spiritual states. In other words, in whatever manner, some of the symptoms of a near death state, a mystical experience of enlightenment, or religious, unusual dreams. One could make an argument that naturally occurring DMT was also involved in those non-drug states.”
Breathing exercises are a large part of many spiritual and religious communities as a way to reach enlightenment. If DMT is in fact produced in the lungs, this would tie in nicely to how people reach “psychedelic” trance states while meditating.
In the DMT study, Strassman recruited volunteers, all of whom were experienced hallucinogen users. He asked them to take DMT in a clinical environment, and then report their experience when the hallucinations ended. With a regular dose, the effects of a DMT trip are generally over within 30 to 40 minutes.
“There were no bells, no whistles, no Buddhist statues – it was just ‘here’s the drug, and tell me what happened after you come down.'” Strassman said. “So it was kind of like sending people off to explore a new world and telling them to come back and tell us what they encountered.”
Usually, DMT is smoked or injected, as it is broken down too quickly in the stomach to achieve any hallucinogenic effects if it’s swallowed.
When people come down from a DMT high, they often report having profound experiences, such as looking back on childhood memories. Some saw abstract images that told them to spend more time with family. One woman in the study, Strassman said, came back convinced of the persistence of consciousness after death.
“One of the volunteers had a classic near death experience, and that confirmed her beliefs, and made her feel good about the prospect of dying when it happened,” he said. “She said: ‘If everyone knew what was awaiting them after death, everyone would commit suicide,’ and I said, ‘Well, don’t spread the word.'”
DMT is closely linked with spiritualism and death
The link between DMT and spiritualism has been around a long time. A common theory about why DMT is in the body is that we release a large dose of it when we die. When people come back from a near death experience, and report seeing a white light or divine beings, some say this is the result of a release of DMT, which gives the brain a final, all-encompassing hallucination.
In the Amazon, ayahuasca is a combination of DMT and a plant that contains an inhibitor of the enzyme that normally breaks down DMT. The result is a DMT drink that has been used for over 500 years.
“Ayahuasca is a Quechua word and it means the vine of the dead, or the vine of the souls,” Strassman said. “So that points to the belief that drinking ayahuasca somehow provides access to the realm of the dead, or the realm of disembodied spirits. That’s been a belief that’s circulated around ayahuasca, or DMT, for quite a long time.”
There are a number of ways researchers could test whether DMT is present in near death experiences. For example, you could ask someone who has had a near death experience to take DMT, then ask them to compare the two. Strassman said he’s had a few emails from people who have described a lot of similarities.
You could also potentially test the levels of DMT in someone who is having a near-death experience, or look at the expression of the gene that’s responsible for the synthesis of DMT in dying people.
Strassman said there is some unpublished data that indicates DMT levels increase in the brain in dying animals. If research in this area is looked into further, the connection could be strengthened, he said.
DMT could answer some questions about the human brain
As for where DMT research could go in the future, Strassman said it could help us define certain aspects of consciousness.
“I’m keen on the old Aristotelian definition of the mind, with the intellectual functions and the imaginative functions,” he said. “I think DMT in particular, but psychedelics in general, must likely stimulate the imaginative faculty of the mind more than the rational faculty… So it could be that once we start looking at the biology or the neurophysiology of the imaginative faculty versus the rational faculty, DMT may help us understand the imaginative faculty’s function.”
There are also still a lot of questions to answer, like the explanation for what DMT is doing in the body in the first place. It’s clearly important, Strassman said, as it is actively transported into the brain using energy. There are very few compounds that the brain absorbs this way, such as glucose and amino acids that are required for normal brain function, but can’t be made by the body on its own.
“That makes you wonder if DMT might be involved in the regulation in every day normal consciousness as well,” Strassman said. “And something else that has been discovered over the past few years is that the enzyme and the gene that synthesise DMT are quite active in the retina. So it could be that DMT is regulating a visual perception in particular as well as regulation of consciousness.”
What that suggests in regards to theories about us living in some sort of simulation, I’ll leave up to you.
One problem with researching DMT is that it is very quickly broken down in the body. That’s why a trip only lasts about half an hour. In 2016, Strassman and his colleague Andrew Gallimore published a paper which described a way to give DMT continuously over a number of hours.
There are a number of reasons for the benefits of this: one, is the effect could be categorised more carefully, and two, the therapeutic effects it has the potential for.
“Lots of people describe the therapeutic benefits of ayahuasca… and if you could extend the DMT state you could be able to apply it for therapeutic purposes,” Strassman said. “More practical experiments would be to extend the state and see if that has applications for therapy.”
Whatever its purpose, DMT has a profound impact on people
Regular users of DMT are convinced that the drug has tons of potential, both to open people’s minds and to be used in mental health treatment.
Sam believes the hallucinogenic has the ability to “raise global human consciousness and change the world in this modern era.”
He said before DMT he was struggling with an existential crisis, and at times was suicidal because he couldn’t see the point in anything in the world.
“It got to the point where I became so frustrated at this life that I resolved to take my own life unless I could be given a proper reason to continue living,” he said. “I knew I wanted to help the world in some way but to me it just seemed hopeless to even try. The answer came to me in the form of DMT and it felt like the universe embraced me in a soothing ocean of love.”
From then on, he said his cynicism was replaced by optimism. He became refreshed and energised, and felt he could start his life with a new “positive and clear outlook.”
As well as the enlightenment that users of hallucinogenics tend to talk about, Sam felt DMT really pulled him back from the edge. In some sense he found the answers he was looking for, but he also had a new appreciation for living.
“I thought to myself that I must try DMT as a last ditch effort before committing to the plan of suicide. Luckily for me the outcome was better than I could’ve imagined and I can say that it really did save my life,” he said. “I believe DMT can be utilised in a therapeutic setting as a revolutionary treatment used to heal people… The world is changing and I think we’re entering a new era of human civilisation.”
Anthony Castellanos believes himself to be one of the most experienced users of DMT. He told Business Insider that the drug could definitely be used for treatment in reducing anxiety, stress, and depression. After one trip, he felt he had access to “inner parts” of his imagination for four months afterwards.
“With some meditation I could drift myself away into new places far from my body,” he said. “I had a portal inside me that my soul could walk through that would take me into the realm of love and beauty and God. And I’m not even religious.”
There is also discouragement from some
Like any drug, DMT should be used with caution, Castellanos warned.
“Because of its vivid infinite intensity, it has the potential to be mentally damaging,” he said. “It removes one from his or her routine perception of reality, and it can be difficult for some to readjust after a trip.”
Research into DMT is just getting off its feet, Strassman said. Unfortunately, some scientists are willing to write it off as a research area because they believe the concentrations of DMT in the human brain are too low to be significant.
“It’s too bad those arguments are being floated because they are discouraging research into this incredibly interesting field,” he said. “And that’s kind of weird… Even if concentrations in the whole brain are low, that could still mean that concentrations in specific areas of the brain could be high.
“The brain is a big mysterious black box in a lot of ways, but we’re understanding a little bit more and more.”
All drugs come with risks, and some people see this as a barrier to recreational drugs being used openly. According to Talk to Frank, the drug awareness and advice website, a bad trip on any drug, including DMT, can result in triggering mental health problems, or worsen issues someone already has. Also, it can raise blood pressure and heart rate, so may harm those with a pre-existing heart condition.
Regardless, there are many champions of DMT, both those who take it and those who want to experiment with it. And many supporters of recreational drug use argue that decriminalisation and regulation of drugs such as DMT can make their use safer and enhance the potential benefits.
Researchers may only just have started tapping into DMT’s potential, wherever it came from. And wherever the research goes, there will probably be a lot of people following the story as the mysteries unravel.
“DMT is an elixir for existential dread,” Eli said. “It reveals how meaningless and transient our corporeal existence is, and in that revelation, one can understand and appreciate how special it is to be alive.
“That seems paradoxical… but so does everything about this drug.”