Dr. Rick Strassman M.D. is the author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule and DMT And The Soul Of Prophecy, in addition to co-authoring Inner Paths to Outer Space. His undergraduate studies occurred at Pomona College and Stanford University, his medical training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. He served his psychiatry residency at UC Davis, and undertook a psychopharmacology fellowship at UC San Diego.
JC: It has been 15 years since your book DMT: The Spirit Molecule has been published. It covers aspects such as the trials and tribulations of the various administrative branches of the government you had to work with in order to get your studies approved. It also documents your experiences in finding the proper dosage to optimize patient experience, documenting patient experiences, and the results/aftermath of your study itself. Would you have changed anything about that experience if possible?
Dr. Strassman: I wouldn’t have changed anything about the design of the initial DMT study. It needed to be a meticulously designed and executed dose-response study, rather than psychotherapeutic. And the follow-up study attempting to develop tolerance to closely spaced repeated injections of DMT, a natural follow-up within the psychopharmacological model, was incredibly interesting. I was however, increasingly constrained by that model as my studies progressed. That is, I needed to begin attempting to identify the specific receptor mechanisms mediating the DMT effect, and that would require a blockade of particular aspects of the DMT experience. These latter studies were difficult to recruit for and were frustrating for both the volunteers and me because of their focus on attenuating the DMT effect. Lack of colleagues in other disciplines, such as psychotherapy or substance abuse treatment, also limited my options at a certain point.
In retrospect, I needed a better team around me — both within the department of psychiatry and the research center. I had for so long been used to being a lone voice in the wilderness that once my study actually got underway, it was difficult to ask for the help and support that I obviously needed in shouldering the responsibility for such a complex project.
JC: What has been the overall feedback from the general public, the scientific community, and the spiritual community since then?
Dr. Strassman: The general public has been quite enthusiastic about the DMT work. The original DMT book — DMT: The Spirit Molecule — has sold 150,000 copies, and generally sells more every year. The DMT documentary based on my work, and with the same name as the book, has been enormously popular and successful too.
The scientific community was caught unprepared for my work as it seemingly came out of nowhere after a 20 year hiatus of such research in the U.S. As an indication of this, I took another ten years after I finished my study before the Johns Hopkins work with psilocybin began being published. When I presented my data in the early ’90s it was met mostly with some bemusement by the older generation of researchers or bewilderment by my contemporaries, but no hostility.
As I describe in the DMT book, my Zen community did not take well to my research nor writings about it, but ultimately that was a silver lining since it freed me to return to my own spiritual roots in order to find a more cogent model for the DMT effect. That model I articulate in my new book about the DMT state vis-à-vis the prophetic experience recorded in the Hebrew Bible, DMT And The Soul Of Prophecy.
JC: One of your theories is that DMT gets released in the brain and/or quickly synthesized in the pineal gland upon the moment of death. Have you developed this theory to tie in your own beliefs as to “spirituality” and why humans exist and our creation in totality?
Dr. Strassman: We have known for nearly 60 years that the lungs make DMT. I marshaled a lot of circumstantial evidence in the DMT book for a pineal role in DMT synthesis, but this was only established a couple of years ago. We still do not know whether DMT activity increases as we die. However, to the extent that the subjective correlates of the dying process share features with the DMT state, it makes sense that endogenous DMT may play a role.
I think that the universe, including humans, exist out of God’s beneficence, and once having created us, He would like us to know and love Him, to the extent that those concepts/words capture the essence of that “desired” relationship. In my new theory of theoneurology, I propose that the brain is so designed that we are able to communicate with God, and perhaps endogenous DMT is involved in mediating the phenomenological contents — visions, voices, emotions, etc.— that accompany the interactive religious experience with God.
JC: Many people from scientific backgrounds shun the notion of anything outside of our measurable, physical world existing. You have included DMT in some theories such as out of body experiences, near death experiences and alien abduction experiences. There appears to be a consistency in reports amongst people that have had an externally derived “DMT experience” and those that have had some of these phenomena occur without ingesting DMT. Is it the consistency of anecdotal reports and statistics that led you to develop this theory or something else altogether?
Dr. Strassman: My original impetus to do the DMT work was noticing how similar the effects of psychedelic drugs were to descriptions of the effects of certain Eastern religious meditations and near-death experiences. It seemed that there must be some common biological denominator. That is, perhaps psychedelic drugs and meditation techniques activated the same part of the brain, to the extent that the two syndromes resembled each other. I only became aware of the correspondences between the DMT experience and the alien abduction literature after finishing my study.
JC: In terms of EEG findings which would shed some light as to the brain functionality and brain wave types during DMT ingestion, have you seen anything that surprised you or any consistency that should be noted? I ask because different brain wave states appear to correlate with varying levels of different hormones being produced.
Dr. Strassman: We did some EEG work with DMT, but the data were not especially useful because of technical difficulties — a fine tremor muddied our ability to separate muscle artifact from brain wave changes. There are ayahuasca brain imaging and EEG data coming out of Jordi Riba’s lab in Barcelona.
JC: I know that you have done extensive studies on melatonin and its effects on the body. While you found melatonin had no psychoactive properties, have you studied any relationship between this compound and that of DMT? In our previous discussion, I informed you that I believed melatonin could be transmuted into DMT by inducing alkalosis. Any thoughts on that in particular?
Dr. Strassman: I performed my melatonin studies from 1985 to 1987. The primary psychological effect of high doses was sedation rather than more psychedelic-like effects, despite early suggestive evidence that these latter states might result. We did determine the first known role for endogenous melatonin in humans, which was the regulation of the minimum of core body temperature in the middle of the night.
We did discuss the hypothetical transformation of melatonin into DMT by alkalosis… However, I am not familiar with this pathway. Dave Nichols in North Carolina may have something to say about that possible pathway, as might Stephen Barker at LSU.
JC: In your theory of theoneurology you propose that the brain is designed to communicate with God. Are you insinuating that the brain acts like an antenna? If so, would this insinuate that our brains inherently have the capability of receiving information in a “telepathic” manner?
Dr. Strassman: My theory of theoneurology suggests that God designed the brain in order for us to be able to communicate with Him and His intermediaries/angels. I think it is more complicated than simply an antenna; rather, perhaps a better analogy would be a television set which is able to display information received from an outside source using a number of different modalities. In the case of the brain, that would involve all of the components of subjective experience, including perception, cognition, emotion, and so on.
JC: It’s rather well known that the brain operates utilizing electrical conduction which has been studied extensively via EEG. I was curious about the role DMT played in the enhanced electrical capabilities of the brain. After exchanging emails with Dr. Ede Frecska and Dr. Meyer Jackson, I received clarification of DMT’s role in terms of sodium. It appears as though DMT halts both the inflow and outflow of sodium in the cells. When studying the various mechanisms of respiratory alkalosis it seems as though an end-point by- product is a decrease of calcium ions in the brain, which causes an activation of sodium channels. What I’m getting at is… does it sound reasonable that DMT signifies a maximum intracellular sodium capacity, which would equate to maximum voltage capacity, which would equate to increased electrical capability of the brain? Does that make sense? Without DMT to regulate these sodium channels it would appear that an over flux of sodium would drive into the cells causing them to potentially burst from too much water.
Dr. Strassman: Ha ha. That is simply beyond me. Ede is much better situated to address those questions.
JC: I’m not sure if you are familiar with the work and readings of Edgar Cayce. His name is rather controversial in scientific circles as modern science isn’t entirely accepting of the fact that “seers” have legitimate capabilities. In any case, I was wondering if you have looked into any research regarding a gland known as the Leydig (or lyden) Gland? Modern science does seem to accept that Leydig cells exist, but does not seem to acknowledge the existence of Leydig glands found in both men and women in close proximity to the reproductive system. It doesn’t seem to be as well known as the pineal gland, but Cayce cited its importance when referring to the spiritual / energetic / electrical body. He even cited abnormalities of this gland as a reason for schizophrenia.
Dr. Strassman: Similar to my knowledge of sodium pumps, my knowledge of Edgar Cayce is even more rudimentary. All I can say for certain about him is that I know he existed and diagnosed and treated people using psychic powers.
JC: Based on your studies and reports documented in your book, many participants in the DMT experiment report a different outlook on dying after having experienced a full DMT experience. It seems as though some of them overcome their fear of death in totality. Can you explain why this is so? What are your own thoughts on the process of dying? Do you believe in the concept of reincarnation?
Dr. Strassman: When all was said and done, I gave my volunteers only two pieces of preparatory advice regarding how to manage their high dose DMT experience: that it was very rapid, and that they might believe they were dead. Regarding the latter piece of advice, I suggested there were two ways to deal with this: to panic and fight it all the way, or to keep one’s wits about themselves and pay attention to where they were and what was happening.
This turned out to be good advice, because nearly all of the volunteers experienced a separation of consciousness from their body on the higher doses of DMT, and only a very small number experienced initial panic during the transition into the full-blown state. This feeling of the mind separating from the body indicated to them that consciousness is able to exist in a non-physical plane, and provided many of them with reassurance that after the death of the body consciousness would survive.
In addition, I have speculated (although there are as of yet no objective data) that DMT may be released while people are dying. I marshal a lot of circumstantial evidence for this in my first book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. If this turns out to be the case, then it may be that a high-dose of DMT may occasion a “dry run” of the dying process. That is, one enters into a state that shares many features with what occurs during the actual dying process. This made intuitive sense to many of the volunteers, and after their high dose experiences of a disembodied but highly conscious state, they believed that they were more prepared for the dying process.
JC: The concept of “out of body” is foreign amongst mainstream scientific circles being that the concept of a “soul” or “spirit” has yet to be very well accepted… However, there are boutique organizations such as The Monroe Institute and the International Association of Consciousness that specialize in this perceived phenomenon. What are your thoughts on reported out of body experiences? Do you believe at some point these types of experiences will be proven in a clinical setting as being something more than simply a hallucination of the mind?
Dr. Strassman: Many of the discussions about the out of body experience involve the phenomena of actually traveling to other places with one’s disembodied consciousness. This isn’t exactly what happens during a big DMT experience, in that no one felt themselves flying over Albuquerque or visiting their relatives’ home in Toledo. While there were reports by many volunteers of being “somewhere else,” this somewhere else partook more of a parallel level of reality then a slice of everyday reality.
The popular notion of out of body experiences could be tested simply by using information from collaterals who were in the locale that one’s individual consciousness seemed to have visited. On the other hand, the objective nature of venturing into and witnessing the contents of parallel levels of reality would require a much more sophisticated validating process. For example, the development of a “dark matter camera,” that could capture images of dark matter and then compare those to the reports of DMT volunteers.
JC: You’ve been quite public about your thoughts on many of the reported “visions” and mystical experiences in religious texts and more specifically the Bible as possibly correlating with endogenous DMT production. You also have a great quote from one of your volunteers in the DMT study stating, “You can still be an atheist until 0.4” (referring to one of the highest doses of DMT administered). Do you believe that convergence between religion/spirituality and science will happen within the next 20 years? If so, do you believe that DMT is one of the connecting points between the two sects of belief systems?
Dr. Strassman: Before Descartes and Spinoza, religion and science were quite closely linked in medieval metaphysics. One could describe natural phenomena, explain their mechanisms, and at the same time posit a higher order of abstraction and organization devolving from God and His intermediaries. One of my goals in proposing a theoneurological model of religious experience is to invite people to consider how it lends itself to both a rigorous scientific methodology while at the same time placing the scientific discipline within a larger moral, ethical, and theological framework. That being said, I think it will be hundreds of years before such a reconciliation can be effectively accomplished, as it’s been hundreds of years since the split.
The recent interest in the biology of spiritual experience provides a great fulcrum, lending itself to these types of discussions. And, to the extent that DMT mediates between the spiritual and physical worlds, it certainly has a role to play in the discussion of the development of a contemporary metaphysics.
JC: You stated that Jim Fadiman has been conducting studies on the effects of low doses of DMT on people. This would in essence negate the hallucinogenic and out of body experiences I assume. Are you aware of any of the reported benefits of these types of low dose experiments?
Dr. Strassman: Jim is studying low doses of LSD primarily. You might want to check with Jim to see how his study is progressing. Over tea one day at his home with his wife Anita in Switzerland near the French border, Albert Hofmann shared with us what he said was the laudable effects of low doses of LSD taken on a daily basis; say, 10 µg. He believed this served a valuable “tonic” function — increasing alertness, mental agility, creativity, mood, etc.
JC: Speaking of meditative techniques and DMT, there was a paper published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in March of 2014 regarding a group of people’s abilities to consciously and actively control their autonomic nervous system and innate immune system. The technique involved in the study was published as “Third Eye” meditation in conjunction with deep breathing practices. Apparently this is the first time in history that the scientific community has measured and documented this innate ability within humans. Based on your body of work and personal experiences, do you believe that DMT is involved? If so, what would be the potential ramifications for our innate abilities to heal ourselves?
Dr. Strassman: If the meditative practices occasioned experiences similar to those resulting from administering DMT, then one could suggest that endogenous DMT were involved. Even if non-fully psychedelic effects were occasioned from the practices, DMT might be involved, but this would be harder to argue for. Obviously, the clinching piece of data would be to determine that such meditation practices elevated endogenous DMT. Because of the technical difficulties involved in measuring such low quantities of the compound, this is not yet feasible.
However, if people are pretreated with an MAO inhibitor, metabolism of DMT is shunted to a more specific metabolite than what normally occurs. In the non-MAO inhibited condition, DMT is metabolized to a compound (indole acetic acid) that also results from the breakdown of several other endogenous substances. However, at least in people who have taken ayahuasca, which contains DMT and an MAO inhibitor, DMT metabolism shifts to the formation of DMT N-oxide, which can only come from DMT. There is research underway to determine if normal volunteers pretreated with an MAO inhibitor (who have not also taken DMT) do actually produce measurable quantities of this N-oxide. If so, then the N-oxide could be used to measure perturbations in DMT activity in conditions like those described in the paper you are referring to.
JC: What effect do you believe the internet has had on the progression of people’s interest and understanding of the spiritual aspect of life?
Dr: Strassman: As in the case of pretty much everything else, the internet has made more “information” available but it remains as difficult as ever to separate the wheat from the chaff. One example of this may be that many of the theories that I speculate about in my DMT book have been taken as fact, despite my having placed as many brackets and caveats around those conjectures as possible, distinguishing them from objective data. When only excerpts and impressions resulting from reading the book are introduced into the vast web of the internet, more careful discernment isn’t possible. At the same time, people are being exposed to ideas and objects that they never would have been introduced to otherwise, and if by so doing they pursue a more discerning and sophisticated exploration of those things, good may result.
JC: You like to bring up the refrain by Dr. Freedman, “If So, So What?” in regards to psychedelic drug studies. Most people would like to assume that nature is inherently efficient and is in a constant path towards increasing optimization… Survival of the fittest if you will. Being that varying levels of DMT are found in literally every living organism on earth whether it be a plant, marine life and / or land dwellers, it is unlikely this is an insignificant finding / fact. While being formally classified as a psychedelic, do you have any particular beliefs as to why every living being has this compound inside of itself?
Dr. Strassman: We know that DMT exists in every mammal investigated and in hundreds of plants. I would not say it has been found in every living organism on earth. Nevertheless, it is amazingly ubiquitous. One of my pet theories is that DMT may function as a type of cross species Esperanto, in that it allows communication between and among any organisms that possess it.
JC: I just recently picked up your latest book DMT And The Soul Of Prophecy, which appears to be an in-depth look at the evolution of your beliefs. What would you ultimately want to see for humanity in terms of their understanding of this thing we call “life” in the next 10, 20, 100 years?
Dr. Strassman: In some ways, I would like to see a return to a worldview as formulated by the Jewish medieval philosophers. This was a highly sophisticated metaphysics that provided a seamless melding of sophisticated theology with the science of the day. They had extremely refined understanding of the relationship between God and the universe, including the creation and varieties of life. In particular, they exerted themselves mightily in discussing why things are the way they are, rather than some other way.
After Descartes, and especially Spinoza, “medieval” metaphysics came to a halt. However, this was as much due to these philosophers’ rejection of church authority within the political and economic arena, rather than due to a more specific conflict with the metaphysics of their day. However, they needed to dismantle the authority upon which the clerical establishment stood — which was the revelatory nature of Scripture. And by so doing, they brought an end to any further evolution of the metaphysical models that had been so fruitful in other areas.
The scientific study of spirituality seems the perfect nexus around which to build, or rebuild, an overarching view of existence that takes into account both religious and scientific methods, ethics, and theory. This might be done by revisiting in a sophisticated manner the previously successful system that did so.
JC: I appreciate your time and answers Rick. If there are any closing thoughts or comments for the readers that we have yet to touch upon, please feel free to address them.
Dr: Strassman: I want to emphasize the relevance of the Western religious traditions, especially the foundational Jewish one, for understanding the psychedelic drug effect, in particular the spiritual properties of those states. I believe it is useful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, even though Western biblical traditions have been the cause of much evil, the original texts and non-hegemony-based commentaries on them can shed light on these topics in a culturally resonant manner, perhaps even a biologically resonant manner, that is not available using Eastern religious or Latin American shamanic models.
These ideas are encouraging me in two directions. One is to bring to light the life of Abraham, the original ethical monotheist. He lived a life directed by prophecy, the prophetic experience, intimate communication and relationship with God and God’s angels. At the same time, he lived before the revelation of the normative Jewish law by Moses. Thus, he is an excellent archetype for living a “naturally prophetic” rather than “revealed legal” ethical monotheistic life. This may be an entryway for Western secularly educated anti-Western religion individuals into their own tradition that is based on the prophetic state, rather than the law.
The other direction is something dawning on me as I read the emails that my new book has stimulated in my readers. That is, there does not yet exist an English translation of the Hebrew Bible that is approachable, nondogmatic, nonsectarian, and more or less user-friendly. Perhaps after I have finished reading and rereading all of the extant English translations of the classical commentaries, I might take a stab at this.
JC is the founder of Questions for the Lion Tamer [Q4LT.com], a site which aims to ask questions that will allow human beings as a species to fulfill our own inherent potential. Email JC at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter to continue the discussion.