DMT: You Cannot Imagine a Stranger Drug or a Stranger Experience
"Why this is not four-inch headlines on every newspaper on the planet I cannot understand, because I don't know what news you were waiting for, but this is the news that <i>I</i> was waiting for." —Terence McKenna on DMT
Illustrations by the author
N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is an illegal, psychedelic tryptamine compound found in the human body and at least ~60 species of plants worldwide. Rick Strassman, MD, described it as “the first endogenous human psychedelic” in DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2000), and in an interview in 2011 said that DMT “seems to actually be a necessary component of normal brain function.” Terence McKenna (who, “more than anyone,” Strassman wrote in 2000, “has raised awareness of DMT, through lectures, books, interviews, and recordings, to its present unprecedented level”) called DMT “the most powerful hallucinogen known to man and science” and “the commonest hallucinogen in all of nature” in his 1994 lecture “Rap Dancing Into the Third Millennium.” McKenna wondered why theology had not enshrined DMT as “its central exhibit for the presence of the other in the human world,” and said:
Why this is not four-inch headlines on every newspaper on the planet I cannot understand, because I don't know what news you were waiting for, but this is the news that I was waiting for.
McKenna first smoked DMT as an undergraduate at Berkeley in early 1967. He had experience with LSD—ingesting it “once a month or so”—and other psychedelics, but as he said in an interview in The Archaic Revival (1992):
It was really the DMT that empowered my commitment to the psychedelic experience. DMT was so much more powerful, so much more alien, raising all kinds of issues about what is reality, what is language, what is the self, what is three-dimensional space and time, all the questions I became involved with over the next twenty years or so.
From 1967 to 1994, McKenna smoked DMT—an orange, crystalline, earwax-y substance that “smells vaguely of mothballs”—30 to 40 times. He described composites of his DMT trips in “Rap Dancing into the Third Millennium,” “DMT Revelations,” and “Time and Mind.” Below is my composite of McKenna’s three composites, arranged chronologically, with approximate amounts of time, in minutes and seconds, elapsed since the initial toke of DMT, vaporized in a glass pipe:
0:00. First toke. Colors brighten, edges sharpen, distant things gain clarity—”there is a sense as though all the air in the room has been sucked out.”
0:10. Second toke. You close your eyes and “colors begin racing together, and it forms this mandalic, floral, slowly rotating thing”—”usually yellow-orange”—which McKenna called “the chrysanthemum.” Then “you either break through it, or you require one more toke.” (“The leather-lunged hash smokers among us have a leg up in this department.”)
0:20. Third toke. The chrysanthemum parts. There’s a sound of “a plastic bread wrapper, or the crackling of flame,” and “an impression of transition.” Then ”it’s as though there were a series of tunnels or chambers that you are tumbling down.”
0:40. You burst into this “place.”
In one composite, at this point, McKenna said: “And language cannot describe it—accurately. Therefore I will inaccurately describe it. The rest is now lies.” And later: “I mean you have to understand: these are metaphors in the truest sense, meaning that they're lies!” McKenna’s awareness of and engagement with this aspect of DMT increases my interest in his DMT accounts. In one lecture, he said:
The reason it’s so confounding is because its impact is on the language-forming capacity itself. So the reason it’s so confounding is because the thing that is trying to look at the DMT is infected by it—by the process of inspection. So DMT does not provide an experience that you analyze. Nothing so tidy goes on. The syntactical machinery of description undergoes some sort of hyper-dimensional inflation instantly, and then, you know, you cannot tell yourself what it is that you understand. In other words, what DMT does can’t be downloaded into as low-dimensional a language as English.
The place, or space, you’ve burst into—called “the dome” by some—seems to be underground, and is softly, indirectly lit. The walls are “crawling with geometric hallucinations, very brightly colored, very iridescent with deep sheens and very high, reflective surfaces—everything is machine-like and polished and throbbing with energy.” McKenna said:
But that is not what immediately arrests my attention. What arrests my attention is the fact that this space is inhabited—that the immediate impression as you break into it is there’s a cheer. [...] You break into this space and are immediately swarmed by squeaking, self-transforming elf-machines...made of light and grammar and sound that come chirping and squealing and tumbling toward you. And they say, “Hooray! Welcome! You’re here!” And in my case, “You send so many and you come so rarely!”
0:50. You’re “appalled.” You’re thinking “Jesus H. Fucking Christ, what is this? What is it?” McKenna observed:
And the weird thing about DMT is it does not affect what we ordinarily call the mind. The part that you call you—nothing happens to it. You're just like you were before, but the world has been radically replaced—100 percent—it's all gone, and you're sitting there, and you're saying, "Jesus, a minute ago I was in a room with some people, and they were pushing some weird drug on me, and, and now, what's happened? Is this the drug? Did we do it? Is this it?"
1:00. The elves, or “jeweled self-dribbling basketballs,” come running forward. They’re “singing, chanting, speaking in some kind of language that is very bizarre to hear, but what is far more important is that you can see it [which is] completely confounding!” And also, something is “going on” that over the years McKenna has come to call luv—”not ‘light utility vehicle,’ but love that is not like Eros or not like sexual attraction,” something “almost like a physical thing,” “a glue that pours out into this space.”
1:10. Each “elf-machine creature” “elbows others aside, says, 'Look at this, look at this, take this, choose me!’” They “come toward you, and then—and you have to understand they don’t have arms, so we’re kind of downloading this into a lower dimension to even describe it, but—what they do is they offer things to you.” You realize what you’re being shown—this “proliferation of elf gifts,” or “celestial toys,” which “seem somehow alive”—is “impossible.” This “state of incredible frenzy” continues for about three minutes, during which the elves are saying:
Don't give way to wonder. Do not abandon yourself to amazement. Pay attention. Pay attention. Look at what we're doing. Look at what we're doing, and then do it. Do it!
4:10. Then—“and only 5 percent report this,” McKenna noted—“everything stops and they wait, and you feel, like, a torch, a spark, lit in your belly, that begins to move up your esophagus.” Then your mouth “flies open and this language-like stuff comes out.” It’s sound, but “what you’re experiencing is a visual modality where these tones are surfaces, shading, colors, insets, jewels, and you are making something.” The elves “go mad with joy.”
4:40. “The whole thing begins to collapse in on itself, and they literally begin to physically move away from you. And usually their final shot is they actually wave goodbye.” There’s “a ripple through the system, and you realize these two continua are being pulled apart.” (Once, “as the pull-away maneuver began, all the elves turned simultaneously and looked at” McKenna and said “déjà vu, déjà vu.”) McKenna added:
And often it’s very erotic, although I’m not sure if that’s the word. But it’s almost like sex is the surface of which this is the volume. And I’m a great fan of sex; I don’t mean to denigrate it. I mean to raise DMT to a very high status.
5:00. “You’re raving about it.”
7:00. “You can’t remember it.” You say “this is the most amazing thing, this is the most amazing thing, this is—what am I talking about?” McKenna thought DMT “might have a role in dreaming,” in part because “the way a dream melts away is the way a DMT trip melts away—at the same speed.” McKenna discussed this in an interview:
There is a self-erasing mechanism in it. I have the feeling that you find out something there that is so contra-intuitive that you literally cannot think of it sitting here. So as you go from there to here, there comes a moment where it slips below the surface of rational apprehensibility.
The experience of DMT was, to McKenna, “of a fundamentally different order than any other experience this side of the yawning grave.” He said it was not a drug, but “something masquerading as a drug.” The experience of it, he said, would be different for everyone, but “in some form at least what will be similar to my description is how dramatic it will be.” He provisionally concluded:
This has to be taken seriously. In other words, the “it's only a hallucination” thing—that horseshit is just passé. I mean, reality is only a hallucination for crying out loud, haven't you heard? So that takes care of that—it's only a hallucination. What we’ve got here, folks, is an intelligent entelechy of some sort that is frantic to communicate with human beings for some reason.
McKenna described the DMT entities, among other names, as “translinguistic elves,” “friendly fractal entities,” “elf legions of hyperspace,” “tykes,” “meme traders,” “art collectors,” and “syntactical homunculi.” He presented his theories regarding what these entities were, some of which I have outlined below, “without judgment,” he said, because he was “not sure.”
They could be aliens—”you know, evolved around a different star, possibly with a different biology, may not even be made of matter, came across an enormous distance sometime maybe long ago, has some agenda which we may or may not be able to conceive of, this is it—the real thing.”
If an extraterrestrial wanted to interact with a human society, and it had ethics that forbade it from landing trillion-ton berrelium ships on the United Nations plaza—in other words if it were subtle—I can see hiding yourself inside a shamanic intoxication. You would say, “Let's analyze these people. OK—they're kind of hard-headed rationalists, except they have this phenomenon called "getting loaded" and when they get loaded they accept whatever happens to them, so let's hide inside the load and we'll talk to them from there, and they'll never realize that we're of a different status than pink elephants.
2. Entities in a parallel continuum
Another possibility, which “is maybe closer to, friendlier to pagan notions,” is that “there is a parallel continuum nearby, essentially right here.” McKenna elaborated:
Call it fairyland, call it the Western Realm—whatever you like—but you don't go there in starships. You go there through magical doorways which are opened via ritual and things like that. That is a possibility as well. Certainly human folklore in all times and places—except Western Europe for the last 300 years—has insisted that these parallel domains of intelligence and organization exist.
3. Dead people
A third possibility is that “what you penetrate on DMT is an ecology of human souls in another dimension of some sort.” This was “hair-raising” to McKenna, who reached this speculation “reluctantly.” Some of his evidence for it:
These things... have a very weird relationship to human beings. First of all, they love us! They care for some reason. Whoever and whatever they are, they're far more aware of us than we are aware of them. Witness the fact that they welcome me. So is it possible that at the end of the 20th century, at the end of 500 years of materialism, reductionism, positivism, what we're about to discover is probably the least likely denouement any of us expected out of our dilemma—what we're about to discover is that death has no sting.
4. Humans from the future
A fourth possibility is the entities are “humans from some extraordinarily advanced future world where human beings are now made of language and are only two-and-a-half feet tall, so I would put it rather far in the future.”
DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2000) by Rick Strassman
Rick Strassman (b. 1952), in many ways, took an opposite angle on DMT than Terence McKenna did—at least in McKenna’s lectures and writings—but discovered things that, I think, were equally, though differently, bizarre and unexpected and overwhelming and profound. In 1990, Strassman began “the first new research in the United States in over 20 years on the effects of psychedelic, or hallucinogenic, drugs on humans.”
From 1990 to 1995, Strassman administered ~400 intravenous doses of DMT to 60 heavily pre-screened volunteers with extensive experience with psychedelics. He documented the results—in fascinating detail, because it “was important that other people knew how to wind their way through this maze,” the two-year, labyrinthine, sometimes Kafkaesque process, involving syncopated interactions with the Human Research Ethics Committee, the FDA, the DEA, and other institutions, of gaining approval to do the studies—in DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which was published in December 2000, nine months after Terence McKenna died.
Strassman’s book included these observations, discoveries, and speculations:
1. DMT is “the simplest psychedelic” and “exists in all of our bodies and occurs throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. It is a part of the normal makeup of humans and other mammals; marine animals; grasses and peas; toads and frogs; mushrooms and molds; and barks, flowers, and roots.”
2. “Compared to other molecules, DMT is rather small. Its weight is 188 ‘molecular units,’ meaning that it is not significantly larger than glucose, the simplest sugar in our bodies, which weighs 180.”
3. “Twenty-five years ago, Japanese scientists discovered that the brain actively transports DMT across the blood-brain barrier into its tissues. I know of no other psychedelic drug that the brain treats with such eagerness. This is a startling fact that we should keep in mind when we recall how readily biological psychiatrists dismissed a vital role for DMT in our lives. If DMT were only an insignificant, irrelevant by-product of our metabolism, why does the brain go out of its way to draw it into its confines?”
4. “Once the body produces or takes in DMT, certain enzymes break it down within seconds. These enzymes, called monoamine oxidases (MAO), occur in high concentrations in the blood, liver, stomach, brain, and intestines. The widespread presence of MAO is why DMT effects are so short-lived. Whenever and wherever it appears, the body makes sure it is used up quickly.”
5. The pineal gland—which is “unique in its solitary status in the brain,” in that all the other parts of the brain are paired—may be where DMT is produced in the human body: “The most general hypothesis is that the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives.”
6. The pineal gland of older life forms, like lizards, is called “the ‘third’ eye” and has a lens, cornea, and retina. As life evolved, the pineal moved deeper into the brain. Finally: “The human pineal gland is not actually part of the brain. Rather, it develops from specialized tissues in the roof of the fetal mouth. From there it migrates to the center of the brain, where it seems to have the best seat in the house.”
7. The pineal gland “becomes visible in the developing fetus” at 49 days, The Tibetan Book of the Dead “teaches that it takes forty-nine days for the soul of the recently dead to ‘reincarnate,’” and forty-nine days, Strassman wrote, is “nearly exactly the moment in which one can clearly see the first indication of male or female gender.”
The DMT trials resulted in an unexpectedly high number of encounters with entities in seemingly “freestanding, independent levels of existence.” Strassman wrote he was “neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences. Neither, it seemed, were many of the volunteers, even those who had smoked DMT previously.”
These beings were described as “jokers,” “clowns,” “the entities or whatever they are,” “DMT elves,” “cartoonlike people,” “some presence [which] was not hostile, just somewhat annoyed and brusque,” “aliens,” “guides, “helpers,” “reptiles,” “mantises,” “bees,” “spiders,” “cacti,” and “stick figures.” When participants opened their eyes, the reality of the DMT space overlapped with the hospital room they were in, they reported.
One of the more shocking experiences was by a volunteer named, in the book, Ken. It’s not a representative experience, but I include it here as a kind of counterpoint—equally appalling but wholly different in other ways—to McKenna’s experiences. Notice that, in both accounts, the experience lasts only five minutes.
[Ken] settled down at about the 5-minute point, but grimaced and shook his head. Within a couple more minutes he took off his eyeshades and stared straight ahead. His pupils remained large, so Laura and I sat quietly, waiting for him to come down further. At 14 minutes, looking shaken but keeping some composure, he started [talking],
There were two crocodiles. On my chest. Crushing me, raping me anally. I didn’t know if I would survive. At first I thought I was dreaming, having a nightmare. Then I realized it was really happening.
I was glad he didn’t have the rectal probe in place, this being a screening day.
Tears formed in his eyes, but stayed there.
“It sounds awful.”
It was awful. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to ask to hold your hands, but I was pinned so firmly I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t speak. Jesus!
Ken’s experience was anomalous in terms of what he said occurred, if not in shock-factor, despite—as you read above—the “rectal probe” that was amazingly and actually necessarily, it seemed, used on volunteers during the study and that only one person, named Nils in the book, refused: “The probe was about an eighth of an inch in diameter; it was made out of rubber-coated wire and was quite flexible. It went in about four to six inches and rarely caused any discomfort, except in those with hemorrhoids.”
Strassman attempted psychological models of explanation—Freud, Jung—but those didn’t fit. His research, which eventually included psilocybin, ended in 1995 after, among other difficulties, his former-wife was diagnosed with cancer, his “Buddhist monastic community” began criticizing his research and “withdrawing their personal support,” and he was denied permission to relocate the research setting to somewhere less harsh than the inside of a loud, unpredictable hospital, which in an interview he called “the most distasteful, in some ways, possible place for people to have huge trips.” In 2007, Strassman was asked in an IRC chat discussion: “What is the purpose of DMT in the brain? Why do we have it naturally in the first place?” He answered:
I think we need something in the brain that does what seems to happen to us at various times in our lives. Like silicon in computer chips, DMT is the best material for the purpose of seemingly providing access to free-standing non-corporeal realms. On the other hand, since we are all making DMT all of the time, it may also mediate our perception of everyday reality.
Terence McKenna said in a 1989 interview in The Archaic Revival: “One of the things that interests me about dreams is this: I have dreams in which I smoke DMT, and it works. To me that’s extremely interesting, because it seems to imply that one does not have to smoke DMT to have the experience. You only have to convince your brain that you have done this, and it then delivers this staggering altered state.”
And in “DMT, Mathematical Dimensions, Syntax and Death,” he said:
I once had a fortunate opportunity of being able to turn a very prominent Tibetan lama onto DMT—a name that you would recognize, although not one of the top five, but a more wizened, older, stranger character. And I, you know, he did it, and I said, “So what about it?” You know, these people, these Tibetan Buddhists, have a pretty good map of the territory. He said it’s the lesser lights. He said you can’t go further than that without breaking the thread of return. He said beyond this, there’s no returning. And so, in a very real sense, it’s a look over the edge. But then even that doesn’t solve all the mysteries. I mean, what is it about this wish to convey a language that is seen? What’s that all about? Is it that perhaps language has always been a gift from the other?
As profound, extreme, confounding, and astonishing as DMT was to McKenna, it arguably wasn’t the compound he aligned himself with, advocated, or talked about most. In my view, this would be psilocybin—the topic of next week’s post—which is found in ~200 types of mushroom and, when inside the human body, breaks down into psilocin, which differs from DMT by the addition of one atom of oxygen.
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