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In 1990, I began the first new human research with psychedelic, or hallucinogenic, drugs in the United States in over 20 years. These studies investigated the effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, an extremely short-acting and powerful psychedelic. During the project’s five years, I administered approximately 400 doses of DMT to 60 human volunteers. This research took place at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque, where I was a tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry.
I was drawn to DMT because of its presence in all of our bodies. Perhaps excessive DMT production, coming from the mysterious pineal gland, was involved in naturally occurring “psychedelic” states. These states might include birth, death and near-death, psychosis, and mystical experiences. Only later, while the study was well under way, did I also begin considering DMT’s role in the “alien abduction” experience.
The DMT project was founded on cutting-edge brain science, especially the psychopharmacology of serotonin. However, my own background powerfully affected how we prepared people for, and supervised, their drug sessions. One of these was a decade-long relationship with a Zen Buddhist training monastery.
“DMT: The Spirit Molecule” reviews what we know about psychedelic drugs in general, and DMT in particular. It then traces the DMT research project from its earliest intimations through a maze of committees and review boards to its actual performance.
Our research subjects were healthy volunteers. The studies were not intended to be therapeutic, although all of us believed in the potentially beneficial properties of psychedelic drugs. The project generated a wealth of biological and psychological data, much of which I have already published in the scientific literature. On the other hand, I have written nearly nothing about the volunteers’ stories. I hope these many excerpts from over 1000 pages of my bedside notes provide a sense of the remarkable emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects of this chemical.
Problems inside and outside of the research environment led to the end of these studies in 1995. Despite the difficulties we encountered, I am optimistic about the possible benefits of the controlled use of these drugs. Based upon what we learned in the New Mexico research, I offer a wide-ranging vision for DMT’s role in our lives, and conclude by proposing a research agenda and optimal setting for future work with DMT and related drugs.
The late Willis Harman possessed one of the most discerning minds to apply himself to the field of psychedelic research. Earlier in his career, Willis had published the first and only scientific study using psychedelics to enhance the creative process. When I met him 30 years later in 1994, he was President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization founded by the sixth man to walk on the moon, Edgar Mitchell. Mitchell’s mystical experience, stimulated by viewing the Earth on his return home, inspired him to study phenomena outside the range of traditional science, which, nevertheless, might yield to a broader application of the scientific method.
During a long walk together along the central California coastal range one day, Dr. Harman said firmly, “At the very least, we must enlarge the discussion about psychedelics.” It is in response to his request that I include highly speculative ideas and my own personal motivations for performing this research. This approach will satisfy no one in every respect. There is intense friction between what we know intellectually or even intuitively, and what we experience with the aid of DMT. As one of our volunteers exclaimed after his first high-dose session, “Wow! I never expected that!” Or, as Dogen, a thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher said, “We must always be disturbed by the truth.” Enthusiasts of the psychedelic drug culture may dislike the conclusion that DMT has no beneficial effects in and of itself; rather, the context in which people take it is at least as important. Proponents of drug control may condemn what they read as encouragement to take psychedelic drugs and a glorification of the DMT experience. Practitioners and spokespersons of traditional religions may reject the suggestion that spiritual states can be accessed, and mystical information gained, through drugs. Those who have undergone “alien abduction,” and their advocates, may interpret as a challenge to the “reality” of their experiences my suggestion that DMT is intimately involved in those events. Opponents and supporters of abortion rights may find fault with my proposal that pineal DMT release at 49 days after conception marks the entrance of the spirit into the fetus.
Brain researchers may object to the suggestion that DMT affects the brain’s ability to receive information rather than generate those perceptions themselves. They also may dismiss the proposal that DMT can allow our brains to perceive dark matter or parallel universes, realms of existence inhabited by conscious entities.
However, if I did not describe all the ideas behind the DMT studies, and the entire range of our volunteers’ experiences, I would not be telling the entire tale. At best, The Spirit Molecule would have little effect on the scope of discussion about psychedelics; at worst, the book would reduce the field. Nor would I be honest if I did not share my own speculations and theories based upon my decades of study, and listening to hundreds of DMT sessions. That is why I did it. That is what happened. And that is what I think about it.
In sum, it is so important for us to understand consciousness. It is just as important to place psychedelic drugs in general, and DMT in particular, into a personal and cultural matrix where we do the most good, and the least harm. In such a wide-open area of inquiry, it is best that we reject no ideas until we actually disprove them. It is in the interest of enlarging the discussion about psychedelic drugs that I have written “DMT: The Spirit Molecule.”
Strassman's important research contributes to a growing awareness that we inhabit a multi-dimensional universe.
Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
This book is a highly readable, intriguing, provocative description of Rick Strassman's theories and research concerning the effects of DMT.
The American Journal of Psychiatry, August 2002
Rick Strassman’s pioneering research raises fascinating questions about the neurochemical basis of experience and the feasibility of conducting human research with mind- altering drugs in a university medical center. Truly adventurous reading!
Author of Spontaneous Healing
The most extensive scientific study of the mental and perceptual effects of a psychedelic drug since the 1960s.