The Biological Basis of Mysticism? | A review of DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman

12 Mar

DMT: The Spirit MoleculeAs you’re well aware of, I’m a geek for questions about consciousness. I love to think about issues such as understanding and defining experience, the nature of reality, the essence of the spiritual experience from both a physical and mental standpoint, and so on.

So when I stumbled upon a book with the title of DMT: The Spirit Molecule you can imagine that I nearly wet myself with excitement.

I didn’t think anyone was allowed to do research like this anymore. And if they were, I’d fear the culture of the scientific establishment would prohibit any conclusions not ordained by skepticism.

But someone did. And thankfully, they published the results for the world to see.

DMT is sitting inside your head right now.

It’s release into the brain is mediated by the pineal gland, a curious part of the brain no bigger than a fingernail, whose purpose isn’t exactly understood.

And what is DMT anyway?

It’s an extraordinarily powerful psychedelic.

And it is found throughout the natural world. In practically everything, too: “mammals, marine animals, frogs, toads, mushrooms, barks, flowers and roots.”

And as mentioned, it’s in you and me too.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule is based on Dr. Strassman’s research into the effects of this substance on live subjects. Amazingly, he was able to secure government approval and funding for these experiments.

The ensuing experiences reported by his volunteers are nothing short of mind blowing.

A few themes dominated:

  • separation of consciousness from the body
  • mystical and spiritual revelations
  • a belief that they had actually died or were dying at that very moment
  • encounters with various beings

Those 4 points are a lot to take in.

It is this last bit about “beings” that I find the most interesting.

What exactly are these “beings”?

They are described in a variety of ways: “spiders, mantises, reptiles, guides, helpers, beings, clowns, bees, cacti, stick figures.”

Half of those involved in the study report making contact with “beings” or “presences.”

This is all very strange and was not an expected part of the study.

The study was actually intended to explore the therapeutic value of DMT, analogous to the way psychologists and scientists in the past explored LSD as a means of understanding mental illness and as a therapeutic aid.

(That is, before popular opinion towards drugs made this research impossible. Dr. Strassman gives a fascinating (and a bit overblown) walk through the history of this type of research.)

But instead of finding a substance well suited for therapy, he found a substance that provoked many more questions than answers, the main question being this:

Being that naturally occurring DMT exists in the body and can be released into the brain via the pineal gland, could it be the biological basis for what we recognize as mysticism, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and the modern day alien abduction story?


If DMT sounds vaguely familiar, you might recognize it as one of the ingredients in ayahausca, the shamanic brew taken for thousands of years as a way of experiencing the divine, communicating with dead ones, seeing into the future, and visiting the dream-time.

People who have taken DMT have labeled it as brutal. The effects arise suddenly and without warning, completely consume your entire being before you know what’s happened. It’s so quick you can’t really smoke it. The experience hits you so hard you’re likely to drop the pipe before you’re even finished inhaling.

Dr. Strassman got around this by directly injected DMT into the bloodstream. Using this method it took about 15 seconds for the experience to start.

And what is that experience like?

A fairly typical description of the DMT experience is described as “a startling rapid onset of effect, a kaleidoscopic display of visual hallucination, and a separation of consciousness from the physical body. And most curiously, there was a feeling of “the other” somewhere within the hallucinatory world to which this remarkably psychedelic allowed them entrance.”

Nearly everyone in the study reported feeling vibrations brought on by DMT.

This point really intrigues me because vibrations are associated with out of the body experiences and certain lucid dream induction techniques. According to certain mystical traditions and, conversely, scientific theories such as string theory, vibrations are also seen as the basis of all matter and existence.

Being that I’m intensely interested in dreams and lucid dreaming, I also couldn’t help but see the parallels to some of the reported experiences to the dreamworld.

Understandably, no one in the study wanted to label the experience as a dream – they felt this was akin to dismissing its reality and importance. I’m intrigued that people on DMT reported feeling nothing like intoxication but clarity in these other places. In these other realms, just as in lucid dreaming, the sense of experience was there, inside that realm. They could walk around and explore, touch, feel, sense, etc. It wasn’t murky or cloudy or a drunken-type experience. It wasn’t that they felt they were really sitting in a bed and having this experience in their head. Instead, the point of perception existed inside that inner realm, just as in lucid dreaming, despite the body resting on a bed back in the “real world.”

Curiously, one participant remarked that “there was something about this that was different from a dream, even the lucid dreams I sometimes have.”

And there’s that implication again – an experience that is somehow more real than real. Funny how this description comes up in mystical experiences, drug-induced realm hopping, and in intensely lucid dreams. How can it be that an experience in the “imaginal realm” of dreams and DMT feels more real than, well, real?

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of this book is its fearless venture into the alien abduction and UFO phenomenon and how this could in fact be a result of DMT in the brain.

People in the DMT study occasionally reported experiences that sounded a whole lot like a standard alien abduction story.

This includes the subject awakening on a table surrounded by beings. Sometimes these beings would inject objects into their skin or just examine them with foreign instruments.

Despite the popular image of the alien with a small body and big eyes on a big head, there is also a curious reporting of insect-like aliens, just as in the DMT experience.

It’s hard not to imagine that there could be a relationship here. Could it be that the whole alien phenomenon is based on naturally occurring DMT flooding the brain? Whats the simplest of the two explanations?

Personally, I think this theory deserves considerable attention. I also think it can be used to explain similar phenomena manifested in other cultures too – for instance, the fact that a few hundred years ago no one saw aliens, but instead they saw witches flying through the sky or demons surrounding them at bedtime. (For another brilliant perspective on this, check out Carl Sagans “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” where he relates religious visions, demon and witch sightings, and alien abductions under the same umbrella.)

I don’t think alien abductees are just making their stories up. Nor do I think the masses of Christianity made up stories of witches in the sky or angels appearing to them. I think it’s most likely that in many of the cases there is a genuine belief in the reality of the experiences.

This is not to preclude anything in the way of their true existence but either way it seems likely there be a biological basis for humanities tendency towards such experiences.

Could that basis be the DMT in our brains?


In closing, here’s a wonderful quote:

“It is almost inconceivable that a chemical as simple as DMT could provide access to such an amazingly varied array of experiences, from the least dramatic to the most unimaginably earth-shattering. From psychological insights to encounters with aliens. Abject terror or nearly unbearable bliss. Near-death and rebirth. Enlightenment. All of these from a naturally occurring chemical cousin of serotonin, a widespread and essential brain neurotransmitter.

It is just as fascinating to wonder why Nature, or God, made DMT. What is the biological or evolutionary advantage of having various plants and our bodies synthesize the spirit molecule? If DMT is indeed released at particularly stressful times in our lives, is that a coincidence, or is it intended? If it is intended, for what purpose?”

[ReviewAZON asin=”0892819278″ display=”inlinepost”]

18 Responses to “The Biological Basis of Mysticism? | A review of DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman”

  1. Mad Hatter March 16, 2007 at 3:39 am #

    That is very interesting. This is probably the closest I’ve seen science come to nailing the cause of OBE’s etc.

    A breakthrough for sure


  2. Jon March 29, 2007 at 4:26 pm #


    I have a book that I think you might be interested in reading, but couldn’t find a way to contact you directly. Please email me if you’re interested!


  3. David April 30, 2007 at 1:55 am #

    This is interesting because a while back i came across something the guy called his Chemical Eternity Theory. Which is Basically a scientific explanation of the heaven phenomena. He explained it as; the moment death comes upon a person the brain sends out inordinate amounts of chemicals (DMT is likely included) that could put the person into a “dream” state. And in conjunction with the idea that time is relative in dreams and it can “seem” to last for a long time, why couldn’t this last final dream last for and eternity…at least in our own minds. let me know what you think of this..or if you have heard of this kind of theory.

  4. Ben May 6, 2007 at 4:05 pm #

    “Chemical Eternity Theory” – never heard of it but what a kickass name. Pretty interesting yet even if true, I don’t know – does this sound comforting? Sounds almost creepy…an illusion of eternity, like heaven’s just a bad joke. I think I’d rather hold on to nothing.

  5. paul July 24, 2007 at 7:34 pm #

    You asked: “How can it be that an experience in the “imaginal realm” of dreams and DMT feels more real than, well, real?”

    I didn’t used psychedelics (so I cannot comment about DMT experiences, but I can tell about my “more real” than real experiences during sleep).
    I had (non-lucid) dreams which I experienced them (or some part of them) as being more “real” than reality.
    Of course, I asked myself: “How the imagination can be felt more ‘real’ than reality?” I think that the answer could be the “bottleneck” of our real senses.
    For example, the sight: We see clearly at a time only a very small part of our vision (foveal vision), the rest (peripheral vision) is very blurred. Try to concentrate on some object situated at the periphery of your vision. It very, very blurred because the construction of the eye (it has few light receptors for peripheral vision).
    But, in the imagination (dreams,etc.), because everything is generated inside the brain, the “dream vision” can go beyond the real vision. So even the peripheral vision can be very sharp and clear. You can have 360 degrees panoramic sharp and clear vision or (like I experienced during a dream) to see than 3 spatial dimensions. In the last case, my brain just extended the model of 3d space and imaginated (somehow) another space with more dimension (it’s very strange thing, hard to describe into words and even remember clearly 🙂 ).
    Also, I experienced in my (non-lucid) dreams, other senses which doesn’t exist in real life. I didn’t sensed some dream object only with the 5 senses, but I even felt their presence in more intimate way than it’s possible when awake with real objects. They was felt as being “more real” than real objects.
    But, even so, I know that it’s only my imagination (a very vivid one, but still something from inside of my mind) 🙂

  6. Ben July 24, 2007 at 8:01 pm #

    Wow, that’s a really interesting point. This idea that experiences within our imagination feel more “real” than reality due to a kind of bottleneck of our senses that can be removed in the imagination is fascinating. I’ve never heard this explanation before.
    Would love to hear more about dreaming beyond the 3 spatial dimensions; if only it could be put into words, right? 🙂

  7. paul July 24, 2007 at 8:32 pm #

    “Would love to hear more about dreaming beyond the 3 spatial dimensions; if only it could be put into words, right?”
    This dream I had last year, in october. In it I saw at the TV a rotation of someone, who in the same time was me (I saw myself at the first from the 3rd person, and after that at the first person). I perceived another kind of depth which was different than the known 3 axes. I don’t remeber if there was one or more additional depths, because I wasn’t lucid in that dream and I didn’t payed attention about this during the dream and, after I was awake, the memory started to fade very fast (a possible hypothesis of why it fade faster than usual is given below).
    I was rotated, and the result made me to become mirror-like me (my left would became my right and vice versa). It wasn’t a 3d rotation (as you can do if you turn around), but another kind of rotation which flips the 3d objects.
    Like, for example (by an analogy), if you have a 2d letter like “p”, you may rotate it around 3rd axis and you’ll get “q” (it’s mirror image). You cannot do this only in 2d: you need an additional dimension to do it.
    I guess, that these kind of dreams are not uncommon for everybody, but they are very easily forgotten, because they are too different than the real world (they are more “forgetable” than “regular” or lucid dreams). It’s like trying to remember chinese phrase if you don’t know chinese. For you it sound’s like gibberish and there are great chance to rapidly forget it.

  8. Liara Covert October 29, 2007 at 6:58 am #

    It makes sense that such research may confirm and substantiate lucid experiences you may have already had without drugs. Science is often perceived as a stable and believable authority yet its useful and meaningful to evolve to also trust yourself.

    This book does sound like it brings forth scientific revelations. The author deserves respect for his ability to pursue reseach interests on the fringes of the status quo.

  9. Adam McPhee January 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm #

    The “Chemical Eternity Theory”,is whats known as the “Seven Minute”theory,where after you die there is still brain activity for approx. seven minutes…
    These seven minutes are not ordinary minutes to the deceased,the are dream minutes,flooded with every molecule of DMT,Seretonin,etc.thus creating a dream state flooded with every emotion causing chemical.
    Now everyone has had that dream where it seems like you’ve been asleep for hours when really its only been a minute,well imagine that times infinity,the results are endless!

  10. Dante April 27, 2008 at 3:25 pm #

    Hey some thoughts of mine are that dmt takes you on a journey to understand the truth of who we really are…I suggest that we are considered higher-level beings to many alien life forms because of our’emotions’ which is very important to help you realise that aliens understand the laws of the universe far better than we do but i beleive that emotions create the universe so actually we create everything into existance by having an emotional reaction to it.Think about it an emotion brings something into existance/awareness..reality it directs action/motivation / ..emotions are the basis of the world around you and im not talking about my world…

    emotions are chemicals that are activated inside our brain it makes sense to me to suggest that dmt makes our emotions run wild a state of egolessness where no emotion is judged and everything just is.. im gonna go abit further and say that the world today is designed to manipulate your emotions to make you say/feel/think things to conform to whats normally acceptable.With this sheep mentality we have lost touch with what we really want and what we are really here for…to experience EMOTIONS to live in unconcious bliss ..we walk around like zombies now operationg from our head instead of our gut..well people the good news is i found a way out and i made a decision to myself that changed my life/future..

  11. Adam July 6, 2010 at 4:07 am #

    “People who have taken DMT have labeled it as brutal. The effects arise suddenly and without warning, completely consume your entire being before you know what’s happened. It’s so quick you can’t really smoke it. The experience hits you so hard you’re likely to drop the pipe before you’re even finished inhaling.”

    This is not true! I have smoked DMT before, and it is one of the best ways to use the drug. It’s the most common way to take the pure powder. The experience is VERY intense and does hit you in seconds. Usually enough time to hit the pipe three times before you are off!

  12. Mr Poppy Pods December 2, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    i just read this books it was killer !
    looking forward to watching the documentary

  13. Ben December 4, 2010 at 12:57 am #

    Me too!! I can’t wait to see the DMT spirit molecule movie / documentary. There’s a lot of buzz about it on Facebook / etc already.

  14. Janice February 12, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    This reply goes to David who posted on April 30 2007: Hi David, I thought you might find my experiences rather intriguing as I used to have out of body experiences around the ages of 8 and 9. I was in reading class, fully awake, fully conscious, and the closest thing in life that I could find that talked about similar types of experiences were books that started being published about ‘near-death’ experiences, as the perception of ‘being up in the ceiling and being able to look down at myself or others’ is exactly what I was doing. When the teacher would call on me to answer one of the questions at the end of the story, my perception would immediately be back from within my body. (You might find crystalinks to be an interesting website.)

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