Dr Rick Strassman, author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule, is responsible for groundbreaking research on dimethyltryptamine that reopened the legal doors for serious psychedelic study after decades of stagnation. Between 1990 and 1995, Dr Strassman helped 60 patients enter the void and then documented their experiences at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. Aside from his scientific observations, he has also suggested that DMT might have ties to stories of alien abduction, and that the release of DMT from the pineal gland into a foetus roughly seven weeks after conception “marks the entrance of the spirit”.
My third book, The Quest for Gnosis, was released last month and features interviews with many of the leading minds in psychedelic study, including Dr Strassman. His work has been a profound influence on my own life and research, and I was privileged to speak with him about DMT, ecstatic states, alien encounters, religion, death and the legalisation of psychedelics. The below conversation is an excerpt from the book, which you can buy here.
Some lady smoking DMT, probably seeing God. (Photo by John Barclay)
VICE: You wrote the groundbreaking book DMT: The Spirit Molecule and were granted the first clinical study of psychedelics in 20 years. How did it feel to have that much riding on the research?
Dr Rick Strassman: I felt a lot of responsibility, but at the same time I knew that the people aware of the research and monitoring it were relatively few. I wasn’t directly responsible to that many people, even though the long-term effects of my research made me feel a lot of responsibility to perform the study with the utmost rigour and care. Besides making certain to minimise the likelihood of adverse effects, the degree of direct observation and supervision was quite manageable. I recognised the importance of my work for the future of American psychedelic studies, and I wanted to make certain that it was performed in broad daylight. That way I felt the responsibility was shared among everyone involved in the process.
There is much debate about whether or not the psychedelic experience is entirely within the mind, or possibly reaching outside of it. Can you cite an example within your ongoing research that leads you to a conclusion of one or the other?
At this point, I don’t believe that it is possible to objectively determine how much of what we apprehend under the influence of psychedelic drugs is internally generated or externally perceived. It makes sense to me to suggest a spectrum of the phenomenon. There are times when our own personality predominates, rather than the awareness of something external to us. At other times, what we see is more external to us rather than self-generated. It’s impossible, though, to have a pure culture of one or the other. Without our personal life experience and biological makeup, we’d be unable to decipher what it is we are seeing.
For example, one of the DMT subjects, Marsha, saw a profoundly psychedelic vision of manikin-like 1890s figures on a merry-go-round. With some questioning, we decided the vision related as much to her body image in the context of her marriage as to something more metaphysical. Another volunteer in the study, Chris, entered into a blissful yellow-white light and merged with it, along with very few contents that he could associate with personal psychological themes.
At the time of your research on DMT, you were a Buddhist. What benefit did your own spiritual path bring to the table as a scientist, if any?
I’m not an active member of any Zen organisation these days. I practice sitting meditation most days. Unquestioningly, I would have been unable to pursue serious study of the Hebrew Bible without my Buddhist training. While the material that my DMT volunteers reported was beyond my understanding of Buddhism, the meditation practice helped determine how we supervised drug sessions. From the results point of view, the interaction of my sitting – a spiritual practice coming out of a well-characterised religion – and how I acquired and analysed the data as a scientist were linked. The greatest impact on how I interpreted our results was on the development of our rating scale for the DMT effect. This was based on Buddhist psychological concepts and pointed to future studies that could tease apart the pharmacological underpinnings of the Buddhist skandhas.
Gnosis in the traditional sense is an experiential knowledge that removes the necessity for “blind faith”. How is gnosis in this sense important, if at all, in a spiritual pursuit?
If you are speaking of gnosis as a particular type of spiritual experience, it may function as a goal of spiritual practice. However, for gnosis to be important the information it contains needs to be transmittable. I say this for at least two reasons: to verify the experience as truly gnostic, and to educate and exhort others.
(Photo by John Barclay)
How would you like to see us, as a society, handle psychedelics in the future? Graham Hancock, for instance, claims that the ability to explore our own consciousness is a core human right and that we should demand legal access to these substances. What’s your take, both as a scientist and a citizen?
Psychedelics are potentially destabilising, and to either take or administer them requires a fair amount of training so as to provide for optimal positive effects and minimal negative ones. Thus, specialised centres might be developed where that type of training is provided. The various settings could be religious, creative, psychotherapeutic and so on.
How does belief change test results and how do you, as a scientist, withhold your own assumptions in order to have the most objective outcome possible in your research?
Generally, test results are difficult to change by belief. One can design a study based upon one’s beliefs that would make more likely the yielding of particular results reinforcing your beliefs. More often, one’s beliefs affect the interpretation of those results. With respect to our data from the DMT study, we divided it into objective and subjective. Or rather, we had turned the subjective into objective by the use of the rating scale. So we had objective data to treat with various analyses. In my scientific work, my conclusions were aligned with the model in which the studies took place: human psychopharmacology, psychometrics and psychology. I suggested certain explanations for our findings and called for future research to help answer unresolved questions.
Let’s end with an age-old existential question: What do you think happens when we die? Why do you think we are here?
The founder of Japanese Zen, Dogen, said that our death is just another moment in time. Life goes on without us. Our impact has the potential to be immortal, however. One of my favourite authors is Olaf Stapledon, who suggested that our task on Earth is to interact creatively with our environment. Maimonides, one of my favourite medievalists, reminds us that the universe was not created for mankind. That leaves us quite a bit of leeway.