Episode 137

Ever heard of DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine)?

It’s a naturally occurring psychedelic made in the body.  Yes, your body is manufacturing trace amounts of DMT right now.  And humans aren’t the only ones making DMT; many plants and animals from rats to sea sponges produce it, too.

And yet, despite its being so pervasive in the natural world, science is still not sure what it actually does.

Intrigued?  You’re not the only one.

Dr. Rick Strassman is something of a legend in the psychedelic research community.  His studies in the early 1990s re-opened a door that had been securely bolted for almost three decades:  studying psychedelic compounds on human subjects.  And he managed to do so with the strongest psychedelic known to man (spoiler alert: it’s DMT).

DMT is so interesting that entire books could be written about it.  And they have been.  Dr. Strassman’s research eventually led to a book, DMT:  The Spirit Molecule, which detailed his studies into DMT and their fascinating results – as reported by the DMT-recipient research subjects.

Stranger Things

Straight off the bat, there are few strange things about DMT:

  • Your brain needs DMT to functional normally.  That’s right — your brain needs a hallucinogen to functional properly.
  • Guess where in your body DMT is synthesized.  Go on, we’ll wait.  It’s… your lungs.  Weird, right?
  • DMT is “an archaic psychedelic.”  The production of DMT is controlled by a very old gene and is even seen in sponges (a primitive creature if there ever was one).

The Experience of DMT

DMT is unusual in other ways.

It’s a unique psychedelic experience due to the short-lived, but intense nature of the trip.  In the first few seconds after taking it, there’s a powerful feeling of speed — a rush — accompanied by a sound like the crinkling of saran wrap.  The room pixelates, and you feel disembodied. Within 30 seconds, you’ve entered “a world of light,” that’s the brightest, most colorful you can imagine.  The light might coalesce into recognizable physical shapes, or you might just have an extreme feeling of ecstasy.  During the peak, you won’t be able to talk.

The trip is profound, but short.  The main peak takes place within just a few minutes.  You’ll start coming back down to earth in 20 – 25 minutes, and after 30 minutes you could theoretically drive a car.

You can take DMT in a variety of ways, including vaporizing it, intramuscularly, and intravenously.  Injecting it intramuscularly results in a slower onset than vaporizing or intravenous injection, with effects taking a few minutes to be felt. Compare this to the 30 seconds intravenous injection takes.

Unlike other psychedelics, you won’t develop any tolerance to DMT, even if you take it every day.  You’ll still respond the same way to the same dose.  By the way, a threshold dose of DMT is 0.2mg, while a high dose is double that at 0.4mg.

How Does DMT Work?

Continuing our theme that DMT is special, it’s the only psychedelic compound that enters the human brain via “active transport.”  This means your brain actually expands energy to move DMT through the blood-brain barrier and into the brain.

Why is your brain so eager to get ahold of DMT?  Well, that’s a mystery, made even stranger that DMT only exists in the body in extremely small, almost untraceable amount.  What’s more, there’s no agreement as to why DMT exists in the human body at all.

Episode Highlights

0:45Introduction to Dr. Rick Strassman
2:15This Week in Neuroscience: Rats feel empathy for other rats
5:45The Flynn Effect and a television opportunity for college-age listeners
6:43Axon Labs turns 1!
7:49Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)
10:14The beginning of DMT research
12:08Commonalities between deep levels of mediation and psychedelics
14:01The DMT gene
16:41Where is DMT produced in the body?
20:43Is DMT the only psychedelic that gets transported over the blood-brain barrier?
21:23How to get a "psychedelically productive" dose
26:26The chances that DMT's effects were discovered at all
27:58The perceptual effects during a DMT trip
33:09Continuous infusion and repeated dosing of DMT and other psychedelics
38:50The threshold between a psychedelic and a stimulant-like experience
40:23What Dr. Strassman and Jesse would like to see next in DMT research and popularizers of psychedelic trip effects
46:46Dr. Strassman's most recent work and DMT's role in where we "fit" in the universe
52:05Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Why Do We Have Smell Receptors Outside Our Noses?

PS:  Fascinated by mysteries of your brain?  We are too, so don’t miss our weekly email!

Episode Transcript hideshow

— This Week in Neuroscience --

Jesse: Okay, so here’s a scientific study that is just dripping with interesting moral questions.  This was just recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, so this actually is very recent stuff.  This is coming from a research team at the University of Chicago, and they were looking at the effects of anxiety-reducing compounds on the helpfulness of rats, on how helpful socially one rat is to another, depending on the situation. 

So, basically they set up a little rat environment where one rat will be trapped in a tube, a clear tube where the other rats could see him, and the rat on the outside who has space to move around, kind of a nice little rat pin, could, if he so chooses, nose open a little lever that will release the rat that’s been trapped in this clear cylindrical thing.  The trapped rat doesn’t like being a trapped rat—who does?.  And any self-respecting rat with even the slightest inkling of what the other rat’s psychology might be like, if he can put himself in the shoes of the other rat, knows that the rat that’s trapped doesn’t like being trapped.  And so the good helpful rat, he’ll expend a little bit of effort to let the other rat out and come and play in the larger cage.  A more selfish or oblivious rat, they might not let the rat out, and in fact some of them didn’t in this experiment, they would just let the trapped rat stay trapped there.  But most rats, and in fact the untreated rats in this experiment, were pretty likely to let their fellow rat out and scamper around, presumably because the rats have enough of an understanding of the social signals from the first rat that, "Hey, I’m uncomfortable, I don’t like being trapped here, let me out." 

Enter Midazolam.  Midazolam is an anti-anxiety drug, an anxiolytic.  This is one of the class of benzodiazepine compounds that’s the backbone of a lot of human antidepressants on the market now.  And some of the rats on the outside they would treat with midazolam, and the rats that were treated with midazolam were a whole lot less likely to release the trapped rats.  What seems to be going on is that under normal circumstances, the rat on the outside would recognize the anxiety, the discomfort of the trapped rat, feel some level of anxiety/discomfort himself, and in order to reduce his own anxiety, would flip the lever and release the rat, would probably get the positive surge of prosocial chemicals that it got from helping its buddy.  And, in fact, follow-on studies would show that having released a rat once would make the releasing rat more likely to release other rats in the future.  So, there did seem to be a positive feedback loop where the rescuer rat would realize, "Hey, that felt good before, I should do it more in the future." 

But by contrast, the rats that were on this benzodiazepine, they had their anxiety blunted.  So even though they could see this trapped rat and should be able to tell by context clues, "Hey, this is an uncomfortable rat, this is a rat in need of rescue," they personally weren’t that bothered by it.  So, they didn’t do anything about it despite having the ability to perform this rat rescue, they just kind of shrugged their rat shoulders and it wasn’t worth their time. 

They added another wrinkle to this study.  They wanted to see if maybe the rats that were on the antidepressants had lesser energy, they just weren’t motivated to do anything.  And so inside the cylinder with the trapped rat, then they’d put some chocolate, and the rats on the antidepressants would push the lever to release the rat and get the chocolate.  But just releasing the other rat was not enough of a motivation.  So, they still wanted the chocolate, they still had that basic need, but what they didn’t seem to have when they were on the antidepressant was the sense that, "Hey, because my fellow rat has a problem, that I’ve got a problem, too."  They didn’t pick up the spillover anxiety from the rats in their social group.  So, with all the antidepressants out there, this is a study that has big bearing on what might these things be doing to human society.  Are they blunting our sympathetic prosocial responses to fellow human beings in danger or in misery?.  A study like this is suggestive that the answer might be yes, which is really kind of a devil’s bargain, choosing between prosocial behavior and helpfulness, which I think most of us would agree is a good thing, and lower levels of anxiety and reduced depression, which we would also agree is a good thing.  So, some really tricky issues uncovered here, but maybe the takeaway from this one is if you’re in need of a rescue and everybody around you is on antidepressants, it might be a good idea to carry a couple spare chocolate bars. 

— Main Interview --

Jesse: So, I’m about to be speaking with Dr. Rick Strassman, he is an MD as well as a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.  And he’s probably best known for his work studying dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT, but given what an amazingly potent substance this is, it’s strange that DMT itself is not better known.  When people talk about psychedelic compounds, by far the most well-known psychedelic in the popular imagination is LSD.  But for real psychedelic aficionados, DMT seems to be the reigning heavyweight champion of all time for its actual effects on the human brain.  Among other extremely interesting things about this compound is that it naturally occurs within the human body as well as tons of other plants and animals.  It’s also the only psychedelic compound that enters the human brain via something called active transport, meaning that your brain will actually expand energy to move DMT across membranes and into the brain.  Most psychoactive compounds that are able to enter the brain do it by simple diffusion.  There’s more of it outside the brain than there is inside, and pretty much by luck of the draw at the microscopic level, some of the stuff on the outside stumbles its way in.  Not so with DMT, not so with anything that’s actively transported.  In that case, the cell membranes are actually expending energy to pull these compounds that are on the outside and move them into the brain for the brain’s own purposes. 

So, what are the brain’s purposes when it comes to getting DMT inside the brain?.  That’s what’s so fascinating, is that despite the studies that have been done so far, nobody really knows, there’s not an agreed upon reason that DMT exists within the human body at all.  But it does exist normally in extremely small, almost untraceably small amounts.  However, when taken exogenously, when we put more DMT into our bodies than would normally be there, it has profound psychedelic effects, although interestingly very short active ones.  Unlike most psychedelics—LSD, psilocybin, which tend to be multi-hour trips, you’re investing a good half a day into being in an unusual headspace if you’re committing to an acid trip—not so with DMT.  Despite the depth of the psychedelic experience that people can have, it can really be something where the main rise and fall of the experience takes place within just a few minutes.  Twenty minutes later, you’re talking and feeling fairly normal, 30 minutes later you could drive a car or walk on stilts, do any of the stuff that you could normally do. 

I first read Dr. Strassman’s book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, probably almost ten years ago.  It blew my mind reading it then, just reread it again prior to doing this interview, and it’s fair to say it’s a drug that just defies hyperbole if the reports that users say about it are to be taken at their word.  But I don’t want to be regurgitating this information second or third-hand, so let’s go to the source, talking now with Dr. Rick Strassman. 


Dr. Strassman: Well, the DMT research, which began in late 1990, was the culmination of a longstanding interest of mine in the biological basis of the spiritual experience, which became sort of kindled in me in the early 1970s when the influx of both psychedelic drugs and Eastern meditation techniques were kind of beginning in full force.  Those were two relatively reliable means of producing quite highly altered states of consciousness, one through chemical means and one through psychological means.  But at the same time, there was quite a bit of overlap in the descriptions of those two states, and I began wondering if there weren’t some common underlying biological denominators underpinning both syndromes. 

Put simplistically, it would be something like this: that either meditation turned on or turned off certain brain states or brain processes for the meditative state, and the psychedelic drugs also would have the same biological properties or the same biological brain effects, to the extent that the two syndromes resembled each other.  If you look at the descriptions especially of some of the more complex and fulsome descriptions of meditation, some of them are rather psychedelic.  There’s visions and there’s voices, there’s out-of-body experiences, there’s ecstatic or terrifying emotions, there’s new insights into the nature of reality and one’s relationship to it.  So, that’s one of the reasons that I became interested in the biology of the psychedelic drugs, in order to understand states of consciousness.  I was interested in states of consciousness to the extent they could help explicate what took place under the influence of psychedelic drugs. 

Jesse: Besides the first-person descriptions of what the experience feels like perceptually, are there any real physical commonalities?.  Like, okay, for LSD, famously people have very large dilated pupils, and I think that’s common to several of the psychedelics.  Are there any physical-level responses to deep states of meditation that are similarly in sync with drug-induced psychedelic experiences?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, there probably are.  To be honest, I kind of scoured and became an expert on the biology of meditation just at about the time that the research in the field was really taking off—this was early 1980s or so.  So, I would imagine that there’s a lot of brain-imaging work out there now on the effects of meditation.  But to be honest, to be able to compare those, brain imaging or brain physiology, or even endocrinology accompaniments of meditation and comparing them to what’s known about the effects of these psychedelic drugs, I really couldn’t make a cogent comparison. 

To the extent that I do know something about the biology of the psychedelics, in the case of DMT, and with all the other classical psychedelics like LSD, and psilocybin, and mescaline, all of them work through activation of certain serotonin receptors.  So, I studied DMT because it’s a naturally-occurring psychedelic.  It occurs in the human body, it’s made in the lungs, that’s been known for almost 60 years now, and it was just discovered to be made in the pineal gland of living rodents about three years ago.  So, it’s being made all the time in the human body.  The gene responsible for the formation of the enzyme which completes the synthesis of DMT in the body has been located, isolated, sequenced, all of those things; it’s been placed into a virus, which if it infects mammalian cells, will produce the enzyme which is responsible for DMT synthesis. 

Jesse: Now that they’ve identified this gene, have they done anything to determine whether that’s a gene that’s been conserved for a really, really long time all across the phylogenetic tree of life, or is this something that could have arisen independently on several different occasions?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, Dennis McKenna is an expert on the phylogeny of that gene, but it’s a very ancient gene.  I think it appeared extremely early in the evolutionary tree.  It’s an archaic hallucinogen, so to speak, or an archaic psychedelic drug.  It occurs in sponges, which are quite primitive organisms…

Jesse: Right, they don’t have a nervous system. 

Dr. Strassman: Right.  Well, plants don’t either, strictly speaking, and thousands of plants contain DMT, most likely. 

Jesse: It’s so interesting that it’s present in so many different forms of life which have really different physiological needs.  Do we have any idea what its usefulness is in, say, plants vs.  animals?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, not really.  And even individually or specifically, we don’t really know what its function is in plants, we don’t know what its function is in animals.  But I guess there’s causality and there’s effect.  Because of the properties of DMT in plants, plants that contain DMT are treated differently than plants which don’t contain DMT.  For example, in the Amazon, people grow plants that contain DMT, so there’s an evolutionary advantage to a plant possessing DMT because it’s symbiotically favored because of the psychological effects of one of the compounds it contains. 

With respect to the human functions of DMT, that still is a real question mark.  We don’t even really know what turns on the DMT-synthesizing apparatus or turns it off.  We’ve got some tantalizing hints.  For example, DMT is actively transported into the brain using energy in rodents, and that indicates that the brain requires DMT for normal function because the brain only treats certain compounds that way which it isn’t able to make on its own which it requires for normal metabolism, like certain amino acids and glucose, things like that.  So it may be that naturally-occurring DMT in the body is responsible for maintaining a window of normal perceptual function.  A few years back, it was also discovered that the activity of the gene responsible for DMT synthesis is also quite active in the retina of primates.  Besides DMT, perhaps being a kind of reality thermostat, as it were, for normal brain function, it also more specifically may be mediating our perception of the visual world as well. 

Jesse: You mentioned the lungs earlier as a secretion site of DMT within the body, and I know in your book there’s also a lot of speculation about the pineal gland.  What do we know at present about where DMT is coming from within the body?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, the main place where DMT is synthesized is most likely the lungs.  Every study which has ever looked for it in the lungs has found it.  It was discovered to be psychedelic in the 1950s, in a Hungarian study.  Then it was discovered in the rabbit lung in the 1960s, and after that, it was discovered in human body fluids, like blood, urine, and spinal fluid.  So, the lungs are the main source.  But as you mentioned, I did begin my studies looking at the pineal gland, and I was drawn to the pineal gland—actually, I began studying it or learning about it in the 1970s.  There wasn’t very much that was known about it at the time, especially in humans.  Melatonin had been discovered in the late 1940s as a skin-blanching agent.  If you would inject melatonin into the skin, it would cause some blanching because of the bunching up of the pigment-containing cells in the skin.  And after that, it was discovered to have anti-reproductive effects in certain mammals.  But the human effects weren’t all that well-known. 

But in the meantime, for thousands of years, people have venerated the location of the pineal gland or the pineal gland itself as a kind of spiritual location, a spiritual locus, as it were.  Both in Kabbalah, the Keter, or the crown, sephirot, or in Hindu physiology, the thousand-petaled lotus, they both correspond to the area that’s directly below the fontanelle, on top of the head.  It was supposed to be either the source or the place of activation of the highest possible spiritual states.  So when people looked around in the brain for a possible correlate of that subjective experience, they located the pineal.  And Descartes was interested in the pineal as well, because it is the only unpaired organ in the brain.  And Descartes, through his introspection, determined that one could only think one thought at a time, and thought, "Well, if the pineal is the only unpaired organ in the brain, perhaps that is where thought originates."  And he developed a metaphysical model of the pineal gland secreting thought as a result of downflow of spiritual influence.  Which was interesting, because the cerebrospinal fluid which occurs in the ventricles of the brain used to be considered the "liquid of thought," or thoughts would be conveyed from one part of the brain to the other. 

Jesse: Right, kind of like what blood is to physiology, that was to thought. 

Dr. Strassman: Yes, and the location of the pineal gland was fortuitous in that respect; it was kind of dangly from the roof of one of the ventricles.  So, Descartes developed this metaphysics of thought as being secreted by the pineal in response to spiritual downflow and then from there would kind of diffuse through the brain.  So I started looking at the pineal gland from a physiological point of view, and my first research project was to look at melatonin.  This was in the early 1980s, when there still wasn’t much known about melatonin, especially in humans, and there was some early preliminary data in humans indicating that melatonin had some psychedelic properties.  So I was thinking, well gee, if melatonin is psychedelic, then there’s my spirit molecule," there’s the naturally-occurring compound that might be responsible for non-drug-related psychedelic states, like meditation or near-death.  But we looked very carefully at its effects, both psychological and physiological, for two years in I think 19 subjects, but not much came of it.  We determined that it was sedating in large doses, and was responsible for the trough in core body temperature, which occurs at 3AM.  But psychedelic properties weren’t especially predominant, so by that time I’d learned about DMT and moved on after completing that melatonin study. 

Jesse: Is DMT the only one of the psychedelics that is actively transported across the blood-brain barrier, are all the others pure diffusion?. 

Dr. Strassman: Yeah, that’s the case—as far as I know, anyway.  I don’t think people have looked at at if 5-MeO-DMT is transported actively into the brain.  It could be, but I don’t know if it’s been looked at yet.  5-MeO-DMT is also extremely common in plants, lower animals, and humans.  It may not be quite as copious, but copious isn’t really the correct word because the concentrations of DMT are miniscule.  But still, it would be interesting to label 5-MeO-DMT and see what happens, if it’s actively transported. 

Jesse: I guess as far as routes of DMT administration in order to get a psychedelically-productive dose… When people are taking it recreationally, typically it would be smoked.  In the studies, you did injections, first intramuscular and then vascular injections.  Then one of the things that’s become popular in recent years is this use of an ayahuasca brew so people can take in DMT along with some other compounds that keep it from being broken down in the digestive tract like it normally would be.  My long-winded question that I’m trying to get to is, short of having some elaborate concoction prepared like is done with ayahuasca, is there any way in nature that either humans or other animals that maybe have different physiologies than ours would ever be eating plants and get a psychologically-active amount of DMT from those plants, or is that just never going to happen in the normal course of one animal eating another?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, that’s an interesting point.  When Stephen Szára from Budapest was first looking at the psychological effects of DMT in himself, he was looking to do some LSD studies in Hungary.  This was in the 1950s, and because Hungary was behind the Iron Curtain, he wasn’t able to import LSD from Switzerland.  So he went to a library, discovered the presence of DMT in these plants, and he went to the lab, synthesized it, and he swallowed increasing amounts of DMT without any effect.  He thought, "Well, maybe it needs to be injected."  So, he gave himself an intramuscular shot of DMT and discovered its effects.  So, pretty much all of the first wave of human studies which occurred in the 1950s and the 1960s used the intramuscular route.  There were one or two studies giving it intravenously, but those were rather scary.  They were giving big doses to schizophrenics, one schizophrenic lady’s heart stopped and they had to resuscitate her.  So it was a little scary to say the least, so most studies were done giving it through the intramuscular route.  And as you mentioned, it has been used recreationally by vaporizing the freebase and then inhaling the vaporized freebase.  That’s what is referred to as smoking DMT. 

In our studies, we were being funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and it was to replicate the "street" DMT effect, as it were.  So in our first volunteer, he had smoked DMT in the past, and we were interested in a safe way of giving it.  The volunteers couldn’t smoke it on the floor of the research unit—it smells bad and god knows what kind of lung effects might be occurring.  So, we wanted to give it as an injection. 

Jesse: It also seems like a really inexact way of knowing how much you’re giving to somebody, too.  Because as I understand it, if somebody loses full control of themselves pretty quickly even in the midst of trying to get a couple of puffs of DMT smoke down, it would be really hard to know how much actually got into their system. 

Dr. Strassman: That’s true, and also people cough.  But yeah, I think it’s more a result of things becoming very strange very quickly and it’s hard to manually manage the pipe or the inhalation apparatus.  So in our first volunteer, we gave the drug intramuscularly and he didn’t really think it was comparable to the smoked effect.  It was slower in onset; as opposed to just a few heartbeats, it actually required about a minute to start coming on.  And the peak effect was slower.  Usually when you smoke it or give it intravenously, the peak effect is within a couple of minutes—in his case, it was about five to ten minutes.  And the overall effect wasn’t comparable, either.  So after that one volunteer, we just switched over to the intravenous route, and in both him and a handful of other people that had smoked DMT before, they described the intravenous route as comparable or even slightly more rapid than the smoked route. 

But with respect to orally active DMT, as you mentioned, ayahuasca is increasingly popular both recreationally and therapeutically and spiritually.  That’s a combination of two plants, one plant contains DMT and the other plant contains an inhibitor of the enzyme which breaks down DMT when it’s taken orally, it’s an enzyme which is called monoamine oxidase.  So through some incredibly fortuitous happenstance, the natives of the Amazon discovered the combination of these two plants which allowed people to have an orally-active DMT experience.  So, it’s a slower onset, about a half-hour to an hour, the peak effect is at around two hours, and most people are down within four to six hours.  But I think short of that, there really isn’t any way to just swallow something or eat something which contains DMT if it isn’t accompanied by an inhibitor, monoamine oxidase, to be able to produce an orally-active DMT experience. 

Jesse: There’s something really poetic and beautiful about the idea that DMT might be to human shamans what pollen is to bees in that there’s this nice symbiosis and a feedback loop.  But if there’s not an conceivable way that a person could eat it in the wild and actually get a psychedelic effect out of it, the idea just breaks down because it’s impossible to think of how a feedback loop like that could get started. 

Dr. Strassman: Yeah, I know, it’s an intriguing finding.  Jeremy Narby, the anthropologist who wrote the book, The Cosmic Serpent, discusses what the likelihood is of pure, random happenstance to be able to come up with that combination of DMT-containing plant and a plant that contains the enzyme inhibitor.  I don’t recall his specific statistic, but the likelihood is like one in a trillion or something like that for the combination to have been discovered. 

Jesse: It reminds you of the anthropomorphic principle with cosmologists talking about why the universe seems like it’s well-balanced for human life: maybe this is the only universe that we could exist in, and so this is, of course, the one that we find ourselves in. 

Dr. Strassman: Yeah, if you speak to the natives, they’ll talk about the banisteriopsis plant, which contains the MAO inhibitor, as kind of a psychic tonic.  They would take that plant and walk around the jungle and the plant, which contains the beta carbolines—well, the beta carboline MAO inhibitors, the banisteriopsis caapi—would explain or explicate or magnify whatever the properties of the other plant in question might be.  So, you would kind of walk around in that state without especially being psychedelicized, but you would be sensitized and you would look at and commune with one plant, and in that state you would be more receptive to what the properties of that specific plant would be.  So it may have been, as they were wandering around the jungle in this state of heightened sensitivity, that the plant containing DMT stood out among the others as an especially interesting one to combine with banisteriopsis. 

Jesse: We have not yet talked at all about the actual perceptual effects that somebody can get from a DMT trip, and I would love to hear, based on what you saw, what you learned from the people in your study, could you give a little bit of a highlight reel of some of the things that most stood out to you from the visions and experiences that people had under the effects of DMT?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, after you give a fully psychedelic dose of DMT through the intravenous route anyway, and the time course is pretty comparable if it’s smoked, you feel the effects within a few heartbeats, actually.  There’s a pixelation of the room, either with eyes closed or eyes open, so the visual integrity of the room begins to break up; an extremely powerful feeling of speed and acceleration and inner tension, which also is accompanying the first few seconds of the experience, that’s what people would call "the rush."  Oftentimes there would be an accompanying sound, like a humming or a buzzing or a "wah-wah" kind of sound—crinkling Saran Wrap is the way Terence McKenna used to describe it.  So the feeling of the rush and the sound and the inner tension and the pixelation of the room would culminate within about 30 seconds, 45 seconds or so, with the entry of one’s consciousness into this world of light accompanied by the experience of the separation of consciousness from the body. 

You’d be disembodied at that point and you would enter into this world of light.  And the light was the brightest and the most colorful and the most intense, rapidly morphing and rapidly buzzing activity.  And the kaleidoscopic pattern of the lights and the visual imagery would oftentimes coalesce into recognizable shapes—sometimes mandalas, or flowers, or balls, or columns, those kinds of things.  And oftentimes they would coalesce even into more recognizable objects, living things like insects or animals, reptiles and mammals.  And even without the full-fledged recognition of visual shapes like that, there would be the apprehension of an intelligence and a power and a strength and a wisdom which permeates the space.  If it would take the form of discretely identifiable figures, the volunteer would be able to interact with those figures, or otherwise they would just be able to interact with the state itself.  It seemed latent with information, and it was quite interactive and quite relational. 

I was expecting the white light experience of pure consciousness, emptiness, where there’s no personality left, there’s no time or space, there was no emotion, there weren’t any thoughts or images.  That was kind of my expectation because I did bring to bear a lot of buddhist study and practice to my research, at least from the spiritual perspective.  And most of the volunteers also were practicing some kind of Eastern meditation techniques and were expecting that kind of experience, too.  But instead, it was quite fulsome.  There was interaction, there was questions, answers, things were done on both sides of the aisle to and by the volunteer to that sentience, in that state.  So, it was busy.  You were usually ecstatic after you got over the initial anxiety of the rush.  Sometimes there weren’t any emotions at all.  But the personality was maintained.  One was able to interact willfully with what was going on.  And you were in the state for maybe five minutes, which seemed like a long, long time, and then you started coming down.  In our study, most people were able to start interacting verbally with the research team at about 20-25 minutes, and they were drinking tea and answering the rating scale at around the half hour point. 

Jesse: And from your perspective as a doctor in the room watching the person from the outside, are they asleep?.  Is rapid eye movement going on?.  What’s it look like from your perspective?. 

Dr. Strassman: Most of the time, people were just stock still.  The first couple of seconds, they would take a deep breath and they would relax into the rush as best as they could.  That was the extent of the coaching that I would give people, is to get yourself as relaxed as humanly possible beforehand and to focus on your breathing, to feel the bed under your body, to just relax and to be as comfortable as they possibly could be.  If they felt anxious when the drug was going in, to take a few deep breaths to help focus and ground themselves.  But the majority of people were able to completely lie still, they really didn’t move at all.  If people were squirming or fidgeting or shaking their feet, you might anticipate that they were having a hard time, but they really couldn’t communicate because of being in the throes completely of what it was that was going on.  The ones that could lie still were usually the ones that had the more benign experiences. 

Sometimes I actually did notice rapid eye movement.  I haven’t made much of a point of that over the years, but it is interesting especially because there are some indications, or some theories anyway, that DMT might possibly be involved in REM sleep.  Although as I’ve mentioned before, you can’t really measure levels of DMT in the human body with any sensitivity or accuracy because the concentrations are so low.  But still, the presence of those rapid eye movements in some of the volunteers in the midst of the DMT stages is of interest and ought to lead to further studies of the relationship between the dream state and the DMT one. 

Jesse: One thing that I wondered about while reading your book and the study design is you did your injection of the active DMT over the course of I believe it was 30 seconds for the injection, is that correct?. 

Dr. Strassman: Yeah, and after that we flushed the line with sterile saline for another 15 seconds.  So the entire infusion from beginning to end was less than one minute. 

Jesse: And because DMT is processed pretty quickly by the body and thus the trip is so short compared to a lot of other psychedelics, I just wondered if one were to do a study where there was sort of a constant drip being put into the bloodstream, how that experience could be prolonged, and what the effects might be.  Obviously this is pure speculation, but how that experience might compare to the longer form ayahuasca experience that people have when they have an MAO inhibitor. 

Dr. Strassman: The concept of the continuous infusion of DMT is getting a lot of traction these days.  Our studies also looked at if people would develop tolerance to repeated dosing of DMT.  Because if somebody develops tolerance to repeated exposure to the drug, then it stops producing its effect relatively quickly.  For example, if you take LSD every day, after the third day you really stop responding or you have to take a larger dose to get the same effect.  That’s also the case with psilocybin and with mescaline, as well; if you give it repeatedly, people stop responding to it, you have to take a break for a couple to three days in order to retain or to regain your normal sensitivity to it.  So in both humans and lower animals, in the older studies it didn’t seem possible to develop tolerance to DMT if it was given once a day.  Even in animals, it was given every two hours for a long time, I think three weeks or something, and animals didn’t develop any tolerance to DMT given every two hours. 

So after we completed the first DMT study, I was quite keen on explicating the whole issue of DMT tolerance.  So we gave it every half hour; over the space of a morning, we gave it four times, once every half hour, and people responded comparably to every dose.  In other words, the fourth time they got DMT, it was as intense a psychedelic than the first time.  So, that established a unique property of DMT in as much as it didn’t create a tolerance to its own effects after repeated dosing.  So, maybe ten years after we published those data, there was a German study which gave a continuous infusion of DMT.  They were interested in its causing schizophrenic-like symptoms and they were comparing a continuous infusion of DMT with a continuous infusion of ketamine because of the theoretical bases for what’s called the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, which they believe were perhaps the result of DMT or could be mimicked by giving DMT, as compared to the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, which they were proposing could be modeled as a result of giving ketamine.  So they gave a two or three-hour infusion of DMT, but they really didn’t describe the psychological effects in any detail at all.  A couple of their volunteers, I think even three, dropped out because the response was just too intense.  So they were kind of gauging the infusion rate based on psychological response as opposed to pharmacokinetics, working out a model of attaining and maintaining the proper DMT levels in the blood as opposed to, "I’m pretty high now.  Oh, I’m really high now.  Oh, I’m way too high now, can you stop?" 

And so as a result, I’ve a colleague in Britain who mostly works in Japan, and we’re actually currently working on a manuscript which describes a model for a continuous infusion of DMT which takes into account the pharmacokinetics of the drug, like how rapidly it’s metabolized, its distribution in the blood and the brain.  And he’s developing his model based on what is known within the field of anesthesiology, because they give drugs continuously, they kind of ramp it up and ramp it down depending on what the need is of the surgeon.  So he’s turning that model to the DMT effect in hopes of being able to convince some clinical researcher out there to do a continuous infusion study in order to characterize that state in a more leisurely manner than is possible either with smoked or injected DMT.  Or even ayahuasca, because ayahuasca, it contains the beta carbolines in the banisteriopsis, those are the MAO inhibitors.  So those complicate pictures, not pure DMT.  Also, you’re throwing up oftentimes because of the banisteriopsis, and you’re really not able to control the blood levels of DMT with the precision which would be possible with a steady state infusion. 

Jesse: Yeah, it sounds like that would be an amazing experiment to do if you were able to pull that off.  The tricky thing would be finding the volunteers for that experiment, because just the five-minute short duration time block that people in your original experiment were doing, you’re asking a lot for people psychologically, and having people do that for an even longer timeframe is really asking a lot. 

Dr. Strassman: Yeah, I mean, you wouldn’t just advertise on CNN or FOX News for volunteers, you would need to be quite careful in your screening and recruiting.  But I don’t think you would need to completely freak people out.  You could start the infusion at a very slow rate as opposed to building up to the full DMT experience in 10 or 30 seconds, which would occur with an IV bolus.  Yeah, you could work up to it over the space of a half hour or even an hour, and if it got to be too much or it was too fast, the volunteer could say slow it down and you’d have a lot more flexibility, which I think would go a long way to reduce some of the anxiety. 

Jesse: What’s really interesting in reading and hearing about the descriptions of DMT, it sounds like there is sort of a threshold that somebody passes through, where suddenly you’re not in the room where your physical body is, and I imagine there might be some sort of middle ground where you kind of have one foot in both camps and could say things like, "Okay, a little too much, blah, blah, blah."  But after some point, they’re really off beyond the point where they can make contact back with the real world until the amount in their bloodstream lowers somewhat.  Is that approximately correct?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, I think it remains to be seen.  But there is that threshold.  In our study, that threshold was 0.2 mg per kg of intravenous DMT fumarate, which is a water-soluble salt of DMT.  And at smaller doses, people could still interact quite comfortably; they wouldn’t really describe the state as psychedelic, it was more stimulant-like or more opiate-like or more kind of uncomfortable, kind of that straddling of two worlds.  But once we gave a dose of 0.2 mg, that was the threshold.  A high dose was 0.4 mg.  In our early studies, we were kind of exploring the outer limits of the highest possible doses of DMT to give, so we gave a higher dose than 0.4, we gave 0.6, which caused a delirium, people just couldn’t remember anything, so we backed it down to 0.4 mg, which seemed just perfect.  But still, people couldn’t interact.  But I think you could maybe train people to give a cue somehow or another, you know, like to move a finger if it’s too much or if it’s enough, that kind of thing.  But like I said, it’s going to be some trial and error out there. 

Jesse: So, it’s 2016 now, you’ve been able to be thinking about these issues for the last almost three decades, and luckily, thanks in large part to a ball that you started rolling, the research climate is a lot friendlier than it was back when you got started on this.  What would you like to see in the next round of experiments into DMT or anything related?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, I think from the prospective biology, I’d like to see people start to understand what is the regulation of the DMT system, what turns on the gene and what turns off the gene.  I think to be able to start to correlate normal states or everyday states with the activity of the DMT system is going to be crucial.  For example, what happens if you knock out the DMT gene?.  What is an animal like that doesn’t make any DMT?.  Does it dream?.  Is it hallucinating?.  Is it depressed?.  What does it do?.  Or even like the knockdown model.  If the gene is only expressed, let’s say, 50% full strength, what is that animal like?.  So, from those studies we’d be able to start to get an understanding of what is the role or the importance of naturally-occurring DMT. —when is it active, when is it inactive, what happens if it’s more active than normal, what happens if it’s less active than normal.  So, that is an important area which needs to be looked at and isn’t really at this point.  There are a number of studies occurring both in the UK and in Switzerland, looking at the brain-imaging results of giving various psychedelics, like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline—even ayahuasca, there’s some brain-imaging studies of ayahuasca in Spain.  And the group in the UK is about to start a DMT study with brain-imaging.  So, those are ongoing projects, they’re pretty straightforward to do, the regulatory red tape isn’t especially onerous.  I think it’s important to understand as best as we can the nature of the DMT state itself, the subjective reality of it. 

So, I think by immersing people in an extended exposure to that state, which might be possible with a continuous infusion, we’d be able to start to explore that state of consciousness with much more precision and care.  For example, what is the nature of the DMT beings that people so consistently describe?.  Are they purely psychological constructs?.  Are they freudian-repressed images and impulses and drives being expressed visually?.  Are they the inhabitants of dark matter?.  Are they purely subjective constructs, or purely objective, or some combination thereof?.  So, I think it would be possible to do experiments to start to look at the nature of the DMT beings, like pose them in possible mathematical questions for example, and if they answer it correctly, that would be pretty mind-blowing.  If they didn’t answer them correctly, you wouldn’t be any further behind or ahead.  But on the small chance that you got a correct answer for the roots of prime numbers, well, you’d have to kind of re-examine your views of a lot of things. 

Jesse: This would be an easy enough experiment to do and it would be so interesting… I remember reading a couple of years ago that the way that people go crazy in different parts of the world is actually culturally mediated, like the types of psychological disorders in, say, Japan are different than psychological disorders that we have in the West, or different than they might be in Sub-Saharan Africa.  And they’re sort of getting more homogenized as we get more of a global culture, but it would be really interesting to see if the types of experiences that are reported by DMT users in other cultures bear culture artifacts, or if they’re more common than we might suspect, I guess. 

Dr. Strassman: I think with respect to the longer acting drugs, like LSD and psilocybin, there is quite a bit of interplay between one’s culture in psychology and what the experience is like.  But I think with DMT, we’ve got the pure pharmacological effect of the psychedelic drug.  You really can’t prepare, you really can’t react, you really can’t control what you’re about to see.  It’s just the pure effect to the extent that the pure effect is comprehensible.  Because you don’t have time to interact with it or build up to it or relate to it, it’s just there, you’re just kind of picked up and plunked into this state.  So, I think when you’re looking at the pure culture of the psychedelic experience, that DMT is a really good model for that.  Psychosis-wise, I think it’s more of the culture determines one’s interpretation of it.  They’re still our voices.  The phenomenology I think is more similar than not.  There’s visions and there’s voices, but how they’re interpreted and dealt with differs from culture to culture. 

Jesse: In reading psychedelic literature, I kind of feel like there’s popularizers of different types of trips.  Like Terence McKenna has written and spoken more about psilocybin than anybody else ever will feel the need to talk about psilocybin.  But I wonder how many subsequent people that have had psilocybin experiences, to some extent, have been impacted by expectations of, "Well this is what Terence McKenna said it was going to feel like, and thus it’s going to feel this way to me," or, "I read about Timothy Leary’s version of an acid trip before I experienced LSD myself," and thus that’s sort of imprinting what maybe like my default experience would otherwise be like.  Do you feel like that’s a reasonable concern or expectation?.  Basically, is it better to research the heck out of something and see what people have already broken ground with those chemical experiences have had to say about it, or there may be more insight going into it essentially blind?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, I think there’s a lot to be said for doing your homework, to learn what other people have said, what the pros and cons are, the ways to prepare yourself for the good and for the bad.  It’s like going to any foreign country.  Do you want to go completely cold or do you want to go with a map and with other people’s journals and travel logs?.  So, if you’re vaccinated against yellow fever or malaria, and if you know what to wear, and you’re familiar with the language or at least certain phrases, like "Where’s the bathroom" and "Where’s the bus?" and "I’d like some coffee," I think those can only be helpful.  It would be like going to India for the first time.  You can read about it all you want, you can listen to people’s description of it, but when you’re there it’s still your own experience, and that might comport with what other people have said, but it won’t be exactly the same.  And if there are any cons to being prepared or having an expectation, I think they would pale in comparison with the pros of knowing what to expect and how to interact with the natives and the environment. 

Jesse: So, I first came across your work probably about ten years ago when I read your initial book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and that’s probably what you’re best known for to most people.  You’ve had a documentary and some other things that have spun off of that original study and the book that resulted from it, but I know you’ve also been writing other things since then.  What have you been working on most recently?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well, I had contributed to a collected works, it came out in 2007, called, Inner Paths to Outer Space, and it mostly discusses the contents and some possible mechanisms of the other worlds’ phenomena, which is so common with DMT.  But my newest solo book is called DMT and the Soul of Prophecy, and it’s the result of a long course of mostly self-directed study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in which I compared the descriptions of the prophetic experience in figures in the Bible with descriptions from my DMT volunteers.  I was drawn to the Bible because I wasn’t really that satisfied with any of the other models for possibly explaining the real quality or the objective reality or the amazing consistency of the DMT experience, what the meaning of that state was, why things were configured that way, the more kind of existential and religious/spiritual sorts of questions which were raised by my DMT work. 

So, I poured over the Hebrew Bible, retaught myself the book of Hebrew, and was really struck by a comparison of the descriptions of the prophetic state in the text with descriptions from my DMT volunteers.  The quality of the visions and the voices, the emotional responses, the physical effects, the auditory/visual effects, they were quite similar, the phenomenology overlapped to an extraordinary degree.  So as a result, I speculated about what the differences might mean, what the similarities might mean, and developed a top-down model for the spiritual experience which occurs with the DMT states relative to the prophetic one, kind of like God designed the brain including DMT as a means to communicate with humans.  As opposed to the bottom-up model, which just posits that the brain creates the impression of communicating with a divine entity.  So, it kind of turns the biological model on its head, so to speak, to provide a counterpoint to the purely materialistic approach. 

Jesse: If the next, let’s say, 10 to 15 years of study were to show pretty definitively that DMT exists to make humans have dreams… And that’s what it seems to do in the human body, there’s not a whole lot more to it than that, it’s a pretty cause and effect sort of relationship, and basically there’s no sign that DMT has anything to do with our greater place in the universe or anything deeply profound or mystical like that.  Would you be satisfied with that more parochial role for DMT, or would that be a bit disappointing?. 

Dr. Strassman: Well it’s interesting, there’s a group right now in Hungary which is building off of some data which came out of Madison, Wisconsin a few years back on the relationship between the sigma site in the brain and the periphery in DMT, and the sigma-1 site in the brain seems to be responsible for neuroprotection, among other things.  So this group in Hungary right now is looking at the possible role of DMT in preserving brain function during anoxia, like after a heart attack or stroke or drowning, those kinds of things.  So, it may turn out that DMT is released in larger amounts when the person’s about to die and the brain needs to be protected.  So, I think any compound that’s as ubiquitous as DMT which is actively transported into the brain most likely 24/7 has got a fairly diffuse, widespread function.  I think it’ll probably turn out to be one of the regulators of consciousness as opposed to like a specific state or one specific function. 


Jesse: So, thank you so very much to Dr. Rick Strassman for taking the time for that interview.  That was a longer interview for us and I still feel like we barely scratched the surface, and maybe that’s because I’m so curious about this drug myself.  I found myself, both times while reading this book, extremely jealous of the participants in this experiment that were able to have the experience of this medically-supervised directly-injected DMT.  As a non-smoker, I wouldn’t really trust myself to be successfully handling a pipe and administering what—if I got it through whatever channels—would be just an illegal drug, while being launched into hyperspace.  I sort of assume that I would be like the psychological equivalents of one of those rockets that blows itself up without ever really making it off the launch platform. 

But what the volunteers of that experiment got to do, the way that they were able to get DMT into their system, actually it really sounded quite ideal from an exploratory perspective.  The book I mentioned before, I’ll mention it again, it’s called DMT: The Spirit Molecule.  It’s kind of a half-and-half between the user reports of the people that went through these DMT experiences, like a Kafkaesque story of one man fighting bureaucracy and Rick Strassman’s efforts to get the view boards to allow him to do these experiments in the first place.  Dr. Strassman has got two other more recent books that he’s been either author or co-author on, so he’s got a website, we’ll put the link up.  It is, not surprisingly, RickStrassman.com.  If you’re a listener, if you’ve got DMT experience personally and wanted to give kind of a "been there, done that, saw this" story of your experience and share that with the audience the way we’ve done in a few previous episodes on different compounds, drop me an email.  That might be interesting to drop a couple of user stories into a future episode.  But now let’s do the big gear shift and move along to the Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick. 


— Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick --

Jesse: It is well-known that we have smell receptors inside of our nose.  What many people, including myself, did not know—or did not know until now—is that smell receptors actually exist in all sorts of different places outside your nose in the human body, and the weird thing is they’re semi-autonomous smell receptors in most cases.  They do not fire information back to the brain, but often times cause direct responses in the actual tissue.  So there are parts of your body that are sniffing things and changing their behavior based on what they smell and not even telling your brain about it, so this happens outside of our conscious perception, outside of our brain’s subconscious perception.  The examples of where these smell receptors lie are places as different as the heart, the lungs, and the kidneys.  The kidneys, believe or not, they sort of smell your pee as it’s collecting and going by, and depending on what chemicals they notice there, they’ll regulate other levels of compounds within the body.  Even the little tiny human sperm actually has the ability to smell all by itself, and it uses odor receptors to follow a kind of chemical jelly bean trail to find its way upstream to the egg. 

Now, in a lot of these cases when they’re talking about smell—or the olfactory sense in science lingo—they’re actually talking about things that take place inside of a liquid medium.  Your kidneys, your heart, and other internal organs, they’re not smelling air, so I’m not quite sure why they’re considering this a sense of smell rather than a sense of taste.  But in some cases, it is airborne scents that are getting picked up, like the smell of a specific oil from the plant sandalwood, which human skin has the ability to smell directly, and intriguingly it’s just a couple of varieties of sandalwood that actually trigger the response.  So, not just are other parts of our body smelling, but they’re smelling very, very specific things, which opens some interesting questions.  For something like sandalwood oil, we probably had no reason to evolve specifically sandalwood oil smell receptors, so there must have been something else in the environment that would have been making those receptors useful in the first place.  But as it is, science hasn’t identified what this might be, but the awareness that these smell receptors exist open up a lot of interesting questions.  And some of the stuff you hear people say, "Oh, you know, my body knows such and such," as hippy-dippy as stuff like that can sometimes sound, evidence like this, that we have elements of our nervous system that never actually connect back to the central nervous system but sort of act autonomously, it lends some interesting and plausible mechanisms of action behind ideas like that. 

Written by Jesse Lawler
Jesse Lawler is a technologist, health nut, entrepreneur, and "one whose power switch defaults to On."  He created Smart Drug Smarts to learn how to make his brain do even more, and is greatly pleased to now see his little baby Frankenstein toddling around and helping others.  Jesse tweets about personal optimization, tech, and other stuff he finds interesting at @Lawlerpalooza.
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