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The psychedelic drug that could explain our belief in life after death

Tao Lin, Flickr

Scientists have discovered DMT, the Class A hallucinogenic, naturally occurs in the body, and may contain a clue to what happens when we die and why people see fairies

DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is the most powerful hallucinogenic drug around. The class A psychedelic is so potent that under the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances its manufacture is strictly for scientific research and medical use and any international trade is very closely monitored. But it also naturally occurs in the human body. Now a Senior Psychologist at Greenwich University, Dr. David Luke, is trying to undercover a link between DMT and 'near death experiences' to explain elves, tunnels of light and centuries old folklore. On July 8th he’ll talk about his research at an event in conjunction with SciArt collaboration Art Necro at The Book Club in London.

Tell me about yourself

I am a psychologist at the University of Greenwich and I teach a course on the psychology on the exceptional human experience, which looks at extraordinary phenomenon of human beings. It’s all about mythical experiences, psychedelic experiences, personal paranormal experiences, mysticism, spiritual experiences, those sorts of things.

I do research on altered states of consciousness and exceptional human experiences, including psychedelics, medication, hypnosis as altered states and the experiences people have in the states such as out of body experiences, possession, telepathy, and clairvoyance – all your usual stuff.

How did you end up focusing on DMT?

I’m interested in DMT is because of my interest in psychedelics and the phenomenology of psychedelic use. DMT is of particular interest because it’s an extremely powerful psychedelic substance. But what’s more interesting than that, is that DMT naturally occurs in many plants, animals and in humans. It’s endogenous, meaning it’s made within the human body. So it’s more than just a natural plant psychedelic - it’s in us. That makes it extremely curious.

Wait – we naturally produce DMT? Why?

We don’t really know. It was first isolated as a chemical about 100 years ago in various plants. For example in ayahuasca, (a hallucinogenic brew from South America) the other chemicals that were isolated in a plant were named telepathine because users reported telepathic experiences. DMT was later found to be naturally occurring in the human body, found in large quantities in the cerebral spinal fluid. It’s thought to be produced in the lungs and in the eye. It’s also speculated, but not proven, that it’s made in the pineal gland.

What’s the pineal gland?

The pineal gland is a weird organ. During the daytime it produces serotonin, which we know keeps us happy and buoyant, and at night the serotonin gets converted into melatonin. It’s also thought that the gland produces DMT, which is converted from serotonin because they’re similar, it just an enzyme that converts it. The gland is part of the brain’s structure, situated just outside in the spinal fluid in a cavity. It’s really interesting. Why would we have an extremely strong psychedelic substance being produced in our brains? What is its ordinary function in humans? It’s not very well understood, largely because there’s not much done into it. The initial speculation thought that it was perhaps responsible for psychosis, in that people with schizophrenia may have an overproduction of DMT. There was some research conducted into it in the 1960s, but that didn’t get any consistent findings. So that idea was abandoned. Shortly after that, the research with humans stopped because psychedelics became illegal. It didn’t really stop people from taking them, but it did stop researchers from reaching the affect in humans.

Recently, research has begun again. A pioneering medical doctor in the 1990’s called Rick Strassman , started injecting people with DMT as part of a medical research project. About 50 to 60 participants were given high doses and they reported some extremely bizarre phenomena. Approximately half of the participants on a high dose reported being in other worlds and encountering sentient entities, i.e. beings of an intelligent nature which appeared to be other than themselves. The experience was so powerful that participants were convinced of the reality of experience with these other beings. It poses some very interesting questions.

What do these beings look like?

The beings themselves took on various forms. Sometimes they took on the form of little elves or imps or dwarves, sometimes they’re omniscient deities, other times they’re angelic beings. But they’re specifically not humans. Rick Strassman also speculated that the DMT experience had a lot of similarities with what we know about the near death experience.

How is being on DMT similar to having a near death experience?

The near death experience is a type of experience syndrome, whereby people perceive themselves to be near death or in danger of dying. Typical experiences include the sensation of leaving the body, entering into a tunnel of light and flashbacks of their lives. People typically meet some kind of being, sometimes a deceased relative or a powerful other, like an angelic being. The being will tell them it’s not their time to die and that they should return. Then the person who’s having the experience will return back to their body. Sometimes it coincides with them being resuscitated if they are having a genuine near death experience, like a cardiac arrest.

Research has suggested that there is an overlap between that experience and the experience people have when on DMT. In that there’s often encounters with beings, out of body experience, life changing experience, which is often said of near death experiences. But there are dissimilarities as well.

Why are these experiences particular to DMT?

That’s a five and half million dollar question. It’s not well understood. Why do people have this reoccurring theme of apparently sentient entities? It could be that it’s a hallucinatory experience, and for some reason DMT triggers the sense of encountering another being. Or perhaps it’s a misfiring of the brain’s neural network that’s reasonable for those kinds of experiences ordinary.

But it’s curious that the experience occurs in the absence of any kind of objective sentient being in the presence of the person. The other thing is that people quite adamantly testify to the reality of the experience. They say it’s more real than this world. Although we can explain it as a neurochemical misfiring, people who have the experience typically feel dissatisfied with that explanation because it feels so real. But to say it’s a hallucination isn’t satisfactory either.

Hallucination is a bit of a waste basket term for odd experiences we don’t really understand or can't explain. It’s just a label really.

What’s even more baffling is that people seemingly independently have similar types of encounters. They may not know about other people’s experiences of little people, elves, gnomes or dwarves.

We’ve found reports of them right back to the very first DMT experiments conducted by a psychiatrist in Hungary during the 1950’s. He first tested it on himself and then gave it to his colleague.They all reported the same thing.

My colleagues and I think these experiences aren’t culturally mediated. This is when people are primed to expect something i.e. elves and dwarves and so on, because they’ve heard about it. We think people have been having these experiences on DMT naively, ever since it was first isolated and taken by humans. There’s something about DMT itself which cultivates these experiences. We’re just not sure how or why.

So why do you think DMT is present in the human body?

Rick Strassman tried to use it as a way of explaining the near death experience. He suggested that what happens when you have a near death experience is that your brain releases its store of DMT into the brain and it’s this chemical release that gives the experience.

No one has done a particularly thorough job of mapping the classic near death experience to the classic DMT experience. People have attempted crude compassions but no one has looked at it closely. When you do there are some overlaps but there are a lot of differences.

Although the DMT experience broadly contains all the elements of a near death experience, near death experiences are not like DMT ones. You have the experience of being out of the body or a tunnel of light, like you have with DMT, but there are things we find in the DMT experience that we don’t find in the near death one, such as geometric patterns and alien and bizarre experiences, whereas near death ones are typically very earthly.

What’s more Interesting is if you look at the folklore in literature around 100 years ago. People documented verbal accounts of people who had experiences with pixies. Typically in the folklore literature there were most often associated with spirits of the dead, which has some alliances with the idea of DMT being related to near death experiences. How and why that is, that’s anyone’s guess really.

Are we close to finding any answers?

Scientifically it’s somewhat tricky. I’ve been researching in this area for about 10 or 15 years. DMT struck me as being extremely curious because there’s no other psychedelic we know of that naturally occurs in the human body. I mean the human neural system has endocannabinoids which are related to cannabis THC, but there’s a big difference between that and the presence of DMT.

What’s the role of DMT in the body and why do people have such extraordinary intense and bizarre experiences when they take it? Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be. That’s a quite ambitious speculation from a scientific perspective. Because you can’t really know what happens after death.

Strassman’s theory is that the purpose of DMT is to help people transition from a living state to a post-death state, whatever that might be. 

Current mainstream scientific thinking is that the brain dies and consciousness ceases. New research and evidence is beginning to challenge that. If you’re looking at the near death experience research that’s going on, people are reporting having experiences of conciseness and conscious awareness even when there’s no apparent brain activity. When the heart stops beating for about 20-30 seconds, all brain activity that we can detect stops because the brain is starved of oxygen.

In theatre operations when people have had their heart stopped and the blood drained from their brain have reported conscious experience throughout the whole procedure, sometimes lasting an hour or more, during which there is no brain activity that we can detect. This challenges the notion that you can have no consciousness experience without brain activity. Now we can’t be certain that they’re actually having a consciousness experience, because we can’t be sure it’s taking place at the same time as their stops working. They could just conflate the experience when they recover brain activity. Or it could be that there are some parts of the brain that we can’t detect, which still remain active. But there’s no evidence for that. So we’re in peculiar territory here, scientifically speaking.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to test for signs of consciousness after death?

We always like to think we’ll have a better understating in the future and science does tend to progress but it’s quite a tricky area.  Experimentally it’s very difficult. We’re not in a position to experimentally put people into a death state and see what happens. Although we can take note of people who have surgical procedure and are put into a state of clinical death.

We don’t even know if DMT exists in the pineal glands. We have discovered it in the pineal glands of rats, which are anatomically similar to humans. So there is possibility but we have yet to discover what the pineal glands’ actually function is. It seems to be important as a neurological transmitter on certain, little understood, nerotransmitter sites in the brain. It also seems to have important indications in the immune system. But the question remains why we have an extremely potent psychedelic chemical floating around in the human body. Can this account for spontaneous mythical and spiritual experiences?

Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.

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