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03.27.2006 | SCIENCE

Among the most powerful synthesized molecules, none are as hard to find or pronounce on first sight as N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Known by its World Wrestling Federation-slash-monster truck sounding initials, DMT, the Waldo of the psychedelic family is not designed for partying or daytripping through the park, so you'll rarely find it in your local candy store next to Mickey Mouse blotter acid. Those who do manage to track it down will find their search rewarded by an event of relatively quick duration; emphasis on relatively. The DMT trip by intramuscular injection, easily timed by a stopwatch, is the biggest blast-off of them all.

Because of DMT's unique power, its acolytes form a sort of elite psychedelic strike force -- the Army Rangers of Inner Space. There are exclusive DMT chat rooms for the initiated, and DMT support groups for those who come out the other end of a trip with a need to meet others who have seen the same things, and met the same "beings."

These "beings" are at the rapidly beating heart of the DMT experience as documented by Rick Strassman, a professor at the University of New Mexico medical school who in 1991 commenced the first official psychedelic research program in the U.S. since 1970. In 2001, Strassman published his findings and post-experiment speculations in DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Park Street Press). Five years later, the book continues to sell steadily, and is even acquiring something of a low-key cult status.

Despite its clinical voice and lab-coat skepticism, few of Strassman's professional peers knew what to make of The Spirit Molecule. The book opens up some Very Big Questions about the Nature of Reality. It entertains all manner of cosmic speculation about parallel universes and inter-species communication. Driving this speculation is a peculiar recurring experience reported by more than half of Strassman's subjects. After a high-dose DMT injection, these volunteers report "making contact" with thin, alien-like beings. These accounts often mirror those of the alien abductees who have become postwar punch lines, famous for their small-town homes and probed anuses.

Strassman's subjects are less easy to caricature. They were an educated, skeptical and psychedelically experienced group. Many of these volunteers describe being carried through a tunnel and deposited in a dazzling, brightly colored advanced civilization where they are surrounded by dominant beings that usually communicate some variation of the same message: "We've been waiting for you." Many report being prodded or questioned by these beings. I have heard the climax of the film version of Carl Sagan's Contact described as a passable filmic approximation of the experience.

"The 'life-forms' looked like clowns, reptiles, mantises, bees, spiders, cacti, and stick figures," writes Strassman in The Spirit Molecule. "It still is startling to see my written records of comments like, 'There were these beings,' 'I was being led,' 'They were on me fast.' It's as if my mind refuses to accept what's there in black and white.

"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies," writes Strassman.

"Nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences. Neither, it seemed, were many of the [psychedelically experienced] volunteers. Also surprising were the common themes of what these beings were doing with so many of our volunteers: manipulating, communicating, showing, helping, questioning."

Strassman's findings were not the first in the scientific literature to describe DMT-induced "contact." A DMT study from the 1950s reveals what Strassman calls "eerily consistent reports" of similar encounters.

Five years after the publication of Spirit Molecule, and in the centenary of Albert Hoffman's birth (the Swiss godfather of all psychedelic research), Freezerbox spoke to Strassman about the state of the field, the FDA, and why the pineal gland may hold a secret of the universe or two.

Five years on, has The Spirit Molecule accomplished what you'd hoped in terms of "expanding how we perceive nonmaterial worlds"?

I wrote the book for the educated thinking layman, and to that extent, I'm happy with its success. Sales continue steady. The book has elicited very little reaction from the academic psychiatric community, which is more or less what I expected. My hope was not that it would stimulate clinical research with these drugs; but rather to get people thinking more about psychedelics, and their role in our lives.

I would have expected your book to reactivate the dormant field of serious psychedelic research...

I am surprised not much more has been accomplished in the clinical research field since I left it nearly 11 years ago. People are very timid and circumspect, generally, in studying these drugs. No one has picked up on our DMT research where we left off; no LSD studies. And the psilocybin studies, at least the published studies, have been modest in their scope and have used low doses.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is trying to get FDA approval for a new LSD project. Are you a part of this effort?

I'm not involved with the MAPS LSD protocol, which again, is rather modest in scope and dose. I did have permission to begin a dose-response study with LSD, similar in nature to the original DMT study. I had the drug in hand, but by that time I was winding down with the research effort in general, and did not begin the study.

Judging by your website, you seem occupied with other things these days.

No more clinical research for me. I live in Navajo country right now, and before that, northern New Mexico -- both hotbeds of sheep, wool, and weaving. Also, I find myself drawn to studying Hebrew texts and commentaries, in an attempt to further understand the role of endogenous DMT.

You write about the pineal gland as a possible source of endogenous, or natural, DMT. Is it the "Spirit Gland"?

Focus has been on the pineal for the last 50 years or so as a producer of the hormone melatonin, which has an important role in circadian and seasonal rhythms of mood, behavior, and physiology. In the book I put forth a lot of ideas regarding its possible role as a mediator of "psychedelic" experiences, naturally occurring ones, via its production of psychedelic tryptamines, such as DMT and/or 5-methoxy DMT.

How do your theories regarding pineal fluid dovetail with those of Katsuki Sekida, the Zen teacher who studied the physiology of Zen meditation and claimed to show how meditation can wrench open the pineal gland and squeeze out its possibly psychedelic juice?

I'm not familiar with Sekida or his work. Do realize that my pineal-DMT theory is only a theory, and has not been established as fact. I do muster a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence for a pineal-DMT link, but it's not been rigorously examined yet. Nonetheless, there are other sources of DMT in the body that are well established; for example, blood, brain, and lung. Also, the human DMT synthesizing enzyme has been found, cloned, and injected into a virus. When this virus infects cells in the test tube, those cells produce DMT.

Have pro-life groups attempted to publicize or use in any way your theory about "spirit" entering the fetus on the 49th day after conception, when pineal fluid is first produced?

No, actually not. I was thinking this might happen, but it hasn't. Maybe no one in either camp has read my book!

You've both lobbied and advised the Food and Drug Administration. How influenced is the FDA by other fed outfits like the DEA and national drug policy generally?

The FDA was doing what it's supposed to do, with respect to my research application. It wasn't going to make it easy for me, but they weren't going to make it impossible. They just wanted to make sure I was reasonable, rigorous, safety-oriented.

I haven't had anything to do with FDA for over 10 years, so I can't really comment on how they are now. At the time I was lobbying them for my work, they were more providing input to the DEA, rather than the other way around. And DEA was quite receptive to FDA's advice regarding scientific merit and safety of my studies.

Before LSD research came to a screeching halt, there was a lot of buzz about the possibilities for curing schizophrenia and alcoholism, prison recidivism and violent behavior. Should this be the focus of future research?

There are many levels at which to study psychedelics. Research is one way -- that is, generating data about psychedelics' utility as psychotherapy adjuncts, and understanding brain-mind interfaces. These are data-generating models, in which case "help" for people with illnesses or disorders may also be provided. There certainly are other ways to take psychedelics -- the shamanic and religious/spiritual; and the hedonic. Each of them, I believe, has its place.

You mentioned the quiet peer response to The Spirit Molecule. Did any of your colleagues guffaw at the talk, however speculative, of parallel universes and conscious beings awaiting subjects at the end of worm-hole tunnels?

A few psychiatrists and scientists (or so they have seemed, based upon their reasoning and use of data) have called me crazy. But it's been a surprisingly small number.

But no converts.

Not that I know of, at least among the established scientific/psychiatric community. However, I get a lot of gratifying e-mail from students, or prospective students, who want to do research with psychedelics, as a result of their reading the book. Then, I don my hat as career counselor, and freely give advice.

I had a conversation recently with a guy who had just smoked DMT. He described these goddess spirits and pixies that greeted him, just like the aliens and the clowns frequently described by your volunteers. He said another thing that echoed your test subjects: That the beings conveyed to him the idea that they'd been waiting for him.

That's a very strange aspect of DMT, the "beings" expecting the arrival of the imbiber.

Along with total mind-body separation, it seems to be the seminal part of it for a lot of people.

It's pretty characteristic of a very high dose of DMT.

When I mentioned your study and the many identical descriptions of "alien and clown" beings, my friend surmised that those forms were the result of the hospital environs of your study, and said that a beach at sunset, which is where he imbibed, will produce softer, more lovely beings, like his pixies. What do you think?

The aliens and clowns are a universal motif; I don't think the hospital influenced their form. But, it's possible the intrusive experimentation type visions were related to the hospital. Nevertheless, there are plenty of such visions in people who've been "abducted," which I believe in some instances may relate to endogenous DMT release. And flying saucers and alien motifs certainly crop up in Ayahuasca sessions in the Amazon, among people with very little exposure to the west; for example, Pablo Amaringo's images in Ayahuasca Visions, a book he co-authored with Luis Eduardo Luna.

I've not conducted tests outside the hospital. But, when I was interviewing people who had smoked DMT, before I began my study, in order to learn more about what to expect, I heard many reports of people encountering all manner of beings. Some of the beings in our studies were frightening, but many were quite beneficent and supportive.

Does your mind still "refuse to see what's there" as you write in the book? How has your thinking evolved over the years?

I'm certainly much more comfortable with letting in the idea that DMT regularly gets people somewhere that they encounter beings. I am less nervous about suggesting this is somehow an experience of an "inhabited" non-corporeal/"spiritual" realm.

DMT seems to be unique among psychedelics, and drugs in general, in that it can be very tough to find. Also, the impact on people, for such a short trip, is incredibly powerful and long-lasting.

It does seem more reliable than most other "classical" psychedelics to cause a dissociation of mind and body, and to allow entrance into "other realms." Whether this is a function of its rapidity of onset not allowing people to resist or manipulate its effects, or whether it is a function of some unique pharmacology, isn't clear to me. Whether it is unique qualitatively in terms of where it seems to lead people is debatable, but many people seem to believe it is. It certainly is unique in terms of its time course among the classical psychedelics. On the other hand, Salvia Divinorium, which is unlike DMT and other classical drugs in its pharmacology, also has a very rapid onset, and also provides access to "other worlds" quite reliably.

Speaking of classical psychedelics, I was surprised to learn in January that Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD-25 the year Hitler met Chamberlain at Munich, was alive to celebrate his 100th birthday this year. Were you at the Basel bash?

I wasn't in Basel, but I did have tea with Dr. and Mrs. Hofmann some years ago at their home. I think he's a fine man. I was so impressed by his humility -- he drove to our hotel to pick us up. He was proud of his home and property -- loved showing us his plants, his grounds. He also had a one-lane swimming pool in his house, which I thought might be key to his amazing longevity.

What do you think about nominating Hoffman for the million-dollar Templeton Prize, the prestigious award that recognizes "progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities"?

That's a good idea!

What's your take on the old Aldous Huxley-Tim Leary debate. Was Huxley right in warning against the popularization of psychedelics in the early-60s? Or was Leary right to spread the word, whatever the fallout...

I thought Leary was a great popularizer -- while Huxley was more of the cloistered, "leave it to a small cadre of initiates" type. I think both views have their pro's and con's. For example, many of us would never have tried psychedelics if it weren't for Leary's popularizing them. These drugs really set up projections of other people onto you, however, and I think perhaps Leary succumbed to these projections more than Huxley did. That is, it seems he may have started saying things more for the reaction he expected, than for the truth of the matter.

Finally, your advice to those interested in making the DMT leap.

I never advise people to take drugs, nor to break the law. If someone believes he or she must take DMT, they ought to be as prepared as possible. Letting go in the early stages of the intoxication is critical to a successful experience, so anything that can help the process of letting go should be developed beforehand -- for example, meditation, working with a therapist about anticipated blocks or fears that might emerge. I also used to tell our volunteers that sometimes they may think they've died; and there are two ways to react to that. One is to freak. The other is to try and keep your bearings -- something to the effect, "Well, I seem to have died. Let's see what's next."

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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