The Psychedelic Effects of DMT

Science and spirituality are two spheres that are rarely seen overlapping.  However, the powerful psychedelic drug, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) appears to be capable of bridging this gap. In fact, this drug has alternatively been dubbed “the spirit molecule” [1].  It is known to produce vivid and brightly colored kaleidoscopic hallucinations that seem to have interwoven themes running through them. High levels of DMT induce a separation of consciousness from the body, often accompanied by feelings of euphoria, anxiety, or both simultaneously [2]. These effects have been described as “more vivid and compelling than dreams or waking awareness” [2]. More intriguingly, this drug has been linked to experiences of near-death encounters, contacting otherworldly beings, and accessing mystical dimensions that are both illuminating and divine, as well as dark and disturbing. [1].

Psychedelic drugs affect aspects of our consciousness, that which we consider to be the core of what makes us human. As Rick Strassman articulates, “Maybe that’s another reason why the psychedelics are so frightening and so inspiring: they bend and stretch the basic pillars, the structure and defining characteristics, of our human identity” [1]. Thus, the importance of understanding the functioning of psychedelics such as DMT is that they could shed light on our experience of consciousness, including experiences many have had of spirituality and naturally occurring mystical states.

What makes DMT unique and even more fascinating is that it is considered an endogenous trace amine transmitter [3]. Indeed, DMT is found ubiquitously in nature in a number of organisms including fungi, marine sponges, frogs, legumes, and grasses [4]. However, it is perhaps best known for its presence in the plant Psychotria viridis, which is used in combination with the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, to prepare the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, a Quechua Indian word meaning “vine of the soul” [5]. This brew originates from the Amazon and has been used by indigenous peoples during shamanic ceremonies [4]. The potent hallucinogenic effects of pure DMT in humans were first described in 1956 [4]. In 1965, DMT was reported as a normal constituent of human urine and blood [6]. It has even been found in cerebrospinal fluid [7]. This compound is one of the first endogenous human psychedelics that was characterized [1].

DMT functioning is mediated through its effects on the serotonergic system, trace amine system, and on sigma-1 receptors [4, 8, 9]. Despite a basic knowledge of mechanisms through which DMT exerts its action, little is known about DMT’s role in regulating normal physiological processes. Based on behavioural observations, it seems to be involved in naturally occurring altered states of consciousness, such as imagination, creativity, and spiritual experiences [1]. A study performed in 1996 measured the biological and psychedelic effects of DMT administration in experienced drug users and found that psychedelic effects began nearly immediately within 2 minutes of administration and were completely resolved within 30 minutes, indicating that DMT acts rapidly in the body [10].

On the other hand, psychedelic effects have been better characterized. Although visual hallucinations were common with DMT administration, auditory effects are not [10]. As previously stated, dissociation of awareness from the physical body, conflicting feelings, and sensations of alternating heat and cold were prevalent among subjects [10]. The higher dose effects completely replaced ongoing mental experience, and were usually described as more compelling and convincing than reality or dreams. The threshold for hallucinogenic effects is 0.2mg/kg [10]. Lower doses (0.1 and 0.05 mg/kg) primarily affected physical and affective functions with little perceptual disturbances. This indicates that the potency to achieve the psychedelic effects of DMT is higher than what it is to achieve physical changes [10].

Perhaps one of the more unusual qualities about the hallucinations produced by DMT is is the existence of common themes researchers have discovered running through them. Users often feel a sense of familiarity surrounding the hallucinations, even as they enter other realities and experience distortions in their sense of time, space, and self [11]. Some of the more specific scenarios encountered include the following: clowns/jesters, circuses, mischievous or playful elves/dwarves/imps, insectoid or reptilian creatures (aliens), futuristic settings, complex machinery or advanced technology, and being observed and/or experimented upon [11]. While elves, aliens, and insectoid entities appear regularly, they are not the only entities chanced upon in the DMT world- others include angels, demons, monsters, chimeras, animals, and more [11]. Research subjects used expressions such as “entities,” “beings,” “aliens,” “guides,” and “helpers” to describe them [1]. Sometimes, the entity manifests as an overwhelming presence that seems extraordinarily powerful [1].

It is undisputed that DMT is capable of rapidly hurling the user into exquisitely convincing and unusual, yet inexplicably familiar environments often inhabited by apparently intelligent creatures [11]. Remarkably, DMT users remain confident of the existence of the “DMT world” even after its effects have subsided [11]. In fact, some researchers, too, have acknowledged the reality of the DMT world due to the regularity and consistency of reports from users and this world’s verisimilitude that has users convinced of its authenticity [1].

Perhaps most compellingly, parallels have been drawn to the regular and repeated appearance of non-human entities met in the DMT world with deities, demons, and other “strange discarnate beings” that appear in the mythology and folklore of many religious and spiritual traditions [11]. Strassman notes that DMT also reproduces many of the features of the enlightenment experience. These include timelessness, coexistence of opposites, the certainty that consciousness continues after death of the body, a first-hand knowledge of the basic “facts” of creation and consciousness, as well as contact and merging with a supremely powerful, wise, and loving presence, sometimes experienced as a white light [1].

These effects further lend  credence to the classification of DMT as an entheogen. The term entheogen, derived from the Greek word entheos, which means ‘“god within,” has been increasingly used to describe the ability of some substances to provoke mystical experiences and evoke feelings of spiritual significance [12]. This term suggests that these substances reveal or allow a connection to the ‘‘divine within’’ [12]. From this discussion, it seems plausible that DMT may have and perhaps continues to play a deep-seated role behind spirituality and religion, especially in light of its endogenous production. Overall, it is evident that the psychedelic effects of DMT are extremely powerful and vivid.

Contrary to previous thought, new research is now showing that DMT may be produced within the brain itself as opposed to peripheral tissues. The pineal gland has a rich spiritual history. Descartes, a French philosopher, believed that the pineal was the “seat of the soul,” the gateway between the spiritual and physical worlds [1]. Both Western and Eastern mystical traditions place our highest spiritual center within its confines and it is frequently referred to as the “third” eye [1]. The enzyme INMT, which is involved in the biosynthesis of DMT, has now been localized within the pineal gland [13]. Strassman discussed the “DMT hypothesis of pineal function,” speculating that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives. Interestingly, the pineal gland also makes β-carbolines, which inhibit the action of monamine oxidase, an enzyme that metabolizes DMT. Strassman noted the pineal’s proximity to cerebrospinal fluid channels provide its secretions easy access to the brain’s deepest recesses, as well as to the limbic system. An experiment conducted in 2013 discovered the presence of DMT in the pineal gland through analysis of the fluid or microdialysate of the pineal gland obtained from the rat [14]. This indicates its possible biosynthesis and release in the rat pineal gland. More research needs to be done in order to determine whether DMT is produced in humans and if so, when it is released.

Evidently, DMT is a very unusual psychedelic due to its endogenous production and unique effects. However, it is also very understudied due to legal restrictions. DMT has been classified as a Schedule One controlled substance with the implementation of the US Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which has significantly impeded its scientific research [15]. Modern day research on this drug is building momentum and the unfolding of its mysterious properties is now underway. Nevertheless, the more it is studied, the more evident it becomes that the effects of this substance are very complex. Explanations of the role of DMT in humans and nature remain elusive. Indeed, there is no comprehensive theory of DMT, a particular perplexing situation given its ubiquity of throughout nature and its endogenous production [3]. There seems to be no clear explanation as to why humans, as well as other organisms have evolved an endogenous compound to produce hallucinations, especially since there are no reasons to expect such false perceptions of reality to be adaptive [3]. Nevertheless, its psychedelic effects have intertwined it with powerful spiritual experiences, making it a fascinating and noteworthy drug of study.


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Ikreet Cheema is an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary majoring in neuroscience. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.