DMT: The Spirit Molecule

First published on Blossom Analysis.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman offers his account of a large scale study on the effects of DMT on the human brain and psyche. The book gives a detailed account of the research, how it came to be, the difficulties in getting it started, and the outcomes. Strassman puts an emphasis on the experiences of the participants and tries to fit them into categories and explanations. Although he makes several disclaimers that he ‘takes the experience at face value only as a thought experiment’ he often shines through that the second part of that sentence had been dropped.

Quick Take

From my perspective, the book is a great resource if one wants to understand what is involved with doing psychedelic research. Without a doubt, he has been responsible for restarting our interest in psychedelic research and paved a path through the regulatory jungle. The latter chapters where he decides not to further pursue research with psilocybin and LSD can be seen as a delay in developing the field, or possibly a blessing because of the non-optimal circumstances of room 531 where they were doing their research.

The experience described by the participants ranges from feelings of euphoria to episodes of terror. They see fractals, beautiful colors, and alien figures. As mentioned in the introduction, I think Strassman went too far in characterizing these experiences as ‘real’, or as being on another plane/place/universe that DMT lets us tap into. Is there not a better explanation to be found in the brain functions that get changed by adding a substantial amount of DMT.

By analogy, if we add caffeine, a lot of us become more alert and focused. If you add MDMA, many feel a warm embrace and safe. How things work in the brain specifically is currently being studied. But that doesn’t preclude one from stating that there are brain structures that let us identify faces, others that let us instinctively respond to patterns that seem dangerous (e.g. the shape and/or movement of a spider). What if DMT activates or brings to consciousness these parts of our brain. And, maybe even more plausibly, what if DMT evokes a dream state (many volunteers showed rapid eye movements (REM), like that in our most dream-prone sleep phase).

All that being said, it’s a great book to read and learn about what DMT does and how it has been studied in the 1990s. Much more research has been done since and the author of this post is less familiar with that. One could say that in general, the psychedelics-as-medicine framing has become much stronger (with very positive trials for psilocybin and MDMA in Phase 2 and Phase 3 of FDA approval). Who knows if DMT will have a significant role to play here too.