Made of Bright Light
Scientist reflects on his psychedelic research
Dimethyltryptamine is a psychedelic substance produced naturally in animals and plants. It resides in the brain of every human. When smoked or injected, DMT, as it's commonly known, is powerful and immersive, though generally short-lived.
Over the course of five years, Dr. Rick Strassman dosed 400 volunteers with DMT at the University of New Mexico. The study was the first in the United States since the ’70s in which subjects were given psychedelics. Getting the project off the ground required a coordinated effort between Strassman, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Research began in 1990. At 8 a.m., the volunteers would meet up with Strassman. The doctor administered all of the injections himself, then sat with his test subjects as they underwent the DMT experience. The drug kicks in almost instantly, he says, within a couple of heartbeats. The peak comes after only two minutes, then people start coming down. Within half an hour, volunteers began to feel normal again and were able to drink tea and answer questions. They'd talk for an hour or so and then head home around 10 a.m.
Strassman also tested to see if people develop tolerance to DMT when it's injected repeatedly. He would give good-sized doses to the same person four times over the course of a morning, spaced about 30 minutes apart. "It was just as intense every time,” he says. “That was pretty remarkable."
After the study was over, Strassman participated in an ayahuasca ceremony in Brazil, which is completely legal in that country, he is sure to note. Ayahuasca is an infusion that includes a DMT-containing shrub. It mostly just made him sick, he says.
Strassman's interest in the subject ignited when he was an undergrad contemplating the relationship between brain chemistry and consciousness. It was the late ’60s, and psychedelic drugs and meditation had become part of the subculture. "That got me thinking about some common biological denominator that might underlie the brain's experiences of both of those states," he says.
I didn't study any undergrads. I only studied one grad per department so there wasn't jockeying for position.
Since the study, he's become interested in the content of the psychedelic trip, he says, the information it contains. He's read the Old Testament and noticed striking similarities between the reports of his subjects and the reports of prophets in the Bible. "The interactive quality, the colorful quality, the moving quality—it was quite relational as opposed to unitive." He's working on a book that will psychedelicize the Old Testament, which could be published this year.
He’s surprised that his study still has as much traction as it does. Every year, his original book DMT: The Spirit Molecule sells more copies. "More people are becoming interested in DMT, rather than less." In total, he’s sold 100,000 copies, and it’s been translated into 12 languages.
Strassman spoke with the Alibi about the results of his DMT study, alien abduction and the Old Testament.
Some describe your work as an extension of Timothy Leary's research. Do you see it that way? Was that an inspiration?
It's completely different on a number of counts. One is that Tim loved being in the public eye, and I don't. So that's one difference. Tim was using LSD, and LSD is about an eight- to 12-hour experience. DMT is quite short. Tim was studying these drugs for either spiritual or therapeutic effects. Mine was purely psychopharmacology. We just gave the drug and watched what happened. We collected a lot of blood and gave a lot of questionnaires. We checked blood pressure and heart rate and pupil diameter.
Did you ever hear from Leary about any of your work?
Tim was in Santa Fe for a talk in the early 1990s, and I was living in Tijeras at the time. Someone called and asked if I wanted to meet Tim. It was in the middle of the week. I wasn't that interested in meeting him, to tell you the truth. So I passed.
We never really corresponded on the phone or on email or that kind of thing. But I learned from his mistakes. He wrote a pretty interesting autobiography called Flashbacks. I looked at that really carefully and I thought, OK, Tim did this and look what happened to him. So I'm not doing that.
One of the things Tim did is he studied undergraduates. They're young. There's a lot of competition and clique formation among the undergrads and grads at Harvard where Tim studied. It's kind of like you were in or you were out. I didn't study any undergrads. I only studied one grad per department so there wasn't jockeying for position.
They said, If you want to do this, fine. Just stay out of the newspapers.
Were your colleagues at UNM initially skeptical of your idea?
No, not really. They were quite supportive. If I had just come in cold to UNM and said, "Here I am. I want to give psychedelic drugs to people," it may have been a problem. But I had been there a number of years. I had gotten grants. I had written papers. I had climbed the academic hierarchy, kept my nose clean, and people trusted me. I was a good scientist. They said, If you want to do this, fine. Just stay out of the newspapers.
What did you discover?
I found that DMT reliably caused people’s consciousness to enter into an apparently freestanding independent universe made out of bright light—intensely colored, intensely saturated bright light. It was quite reliable in doing this. Consciousness of the volunteer in that state was also disembodied. The experience to the volunteer felt as if they no longer had a body, and they were just pure consciousness entering into this world of light.
Also, it was quite a common occurrence and reported by volunteers that they encountered beings made of light who were sentient, intelligent and interacted with volunteers. Those were probably the most common things that we found. I was expecting near-death experiences to be more common, but they were quite rare. I was expecting mystical states, like the Buddhist enlightenment experience, to be quite common, and they were quite rare.
What would another round of experiments look like today?
I don't know about any more DMT studies. I just gave so much DMT.
It would be interesting to compare the experiences of people on DMT that have had an encounter with alien abduction experiences. There was a striking amount of overlap between some of the reports of my volunteers and people who claim having been abducted. That would be cool, to give DMT to them and ask them to compare the two states.
I was expecting mystical states, like the Buddhist enlightenment experience, to be quite common, and they were quite rare.
I think it would be interesting to give DMT to scientists who are doing studies with parallel universes and string theory and dark matter and things like that. I do speculate at the end of the book that that could be the location of this other state, this freestanding, apparently independent state. I think it would be interesting to get their opinion on what this seems like to them based on all of their thinking and their computer models.
Do you see therapeutic potential in psychedelics?
Oh yeah, for sure. That's ongoing right now. There's a study out of Hopkins a few years back causing mystical experiences with psilocybin. There was a study a few years ago by UCLA, giving psilocybin to the terminally ill, and it was quite helpful.
There are some alcoholism studies using psilocybin that are either underway or close to being started. There's quite a few studies of ayahuasca being helpful with psychological problems and substance abuse problems.
What do you think of the legal status of DMT?
It's fine. It's Schedule 1. It's an incapacitating drug. I think there ought to be a new schedule created for these drugs—like Schedule 1A or something—where they're still quite restricted but you can use them either in clinical research or in specialized psychotherapeutic settings if you've been properly trained in supervising them.
Since writing DMT: The Spirit Molecule, have you had any new insights into the nature of the substance?
I think I'm more comfortable as thinking of it as a mediator between physical and spiritual processes. By spiritual, I don't mean new age, I more mean things which are occurring out of our consciousness most of the time. With the aid of DMT, you can access things which were previously invisible. Those could be the contents of dark matter. I'm OK calling spiritual worlds dark matter. It's stuff we can't normally see which is still exerting an influence on us.
A documentary about the DMT study, including a Q & A with Dr. Rick Strassman
Wednesday, Jan. 25, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
3405 Central NE
$7, cash only