For centuries now, philosophers and scientists have been fascinated by the potential of psychedelic substances. In the earliest days of Greek philosophy, members of the heralded Mystery School would take trips to Eleusis to consume a mystical drink called Kykeon.
While the exact contents of the drink are still unknown, some historians believe that it contained ergot, a fungus that can produce hallucinogenic visions and is one of the principle ingredients in LSD.
Research into these drugs was at the center of psychological study in the 1950s and 60s, but was brought under fire following their association with hippie ideas and revolutionaries.
After the scheduling of psychedelics in 1970 (essentially eliminating opportunities for any real scientific discussion or study into the effects of hallucinogens), research was halted and shelved for decades.
However in 1990 at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine, Dr. Rick Strassman was compelled to investigate the effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) after theorizing that our endogenous production of the substance could be related to the pineal gland (pineal body) located within the brain.
Over the course of five years, he administered approximately 400 doses of DMT to 60 human participants of varying academic, experiential, and religious backgrounds.
DMT is known to be one of (if not the most) potent psychedelic substances currently known to man. Many users have reported strange, paranormal visions; Some elucidating the numinous nature of extrasensory realms, others displaying nightmarish realizations of terror. Regardless of where you stand on the drug’s purpose (or your experience with it), it is hard to deny that DMT is, at the very least, a peculiar substance that has warranted the attention it has received in recent years.
While DMT's recent mainstream interest is new, the relatively enigmatic pineal gland has been at the center of philosophical discourse for centuries after being popularized by mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes.
Descartes called the pineal body the “principal seat of the soul” in his first book, Treatise of Man thus sparking much of the conversation surrounding the gland’s functionality (and it’s relationship to spirituality) in modern western philosophy.
We do know that the pineal produces melatonin and is involved with circadian cycles.
As iconic as Dr. Strassman’s research has become, he remains cautious about championing psychedelics as he feels it must be stated that these substances are not without adverse effects and circumstances:
“Keep in mind that these drugs can be terribly misused. Don’t forget Charlie Manson and his murderous LSD-using community; the Hells Angels’ being responsible for most of the LSD distribution in the Western states during the 1960s; the CIA’s covert psychedelics-as-enhanced interrogation program; and clinically: suicides, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, etc.”
Nevertheless, the documentation of this research in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences has inspired an entire generation of curious explorers and scientists.
Here we discuss the experiment, what could be happening to the users, and the importance of virtue.
Prox: Why do you think your research with DMT has become so iconic?
Rick: There are many reasons. One is that the study was a landmark event, the first new human research in the US in the generation since psychedelics were placed into Schedule I in 1970.
Another is that the drug we studied, DMT, produced such extraordinary effects in our volunteers. These trip accounts are compelling.
The book approaches the DMT phenomenon using many perspectives of interest to a general readership: psychology, pharmacology, psychopharmacology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, Zen Buddhism, contemporary physics, consciousness studies, and so on.
Another factor relates to the speculations that the narrative reports, combined with the endogenous nature of DMT, suggests.
For example, it is theoretically possible to understand many “non-drug” experiences as being mediated by alterations in the activity of the DMT system within the human body. Related to these speculations are those concerning usually non-visible spectra of reality and how DMT may provide access to apprehending those.
In addition, the approach I took to telling the story was one I hoped would be as engaging as the content itself. I intended to describe it as a narrative, one that took many interesting and unexpected turns and detours. I decided to self-disclose because readers enjoy being privy to the background, motivation, and reactions of a research scientist tracking a scientific (and spiritual) mystery.
Our experimental setting was unique, too, with minimal expectations on the part of the volunteers, other than careful observation and reporting of the state. We had no other goals in mind like causing a mystical experience, reducing substance abuse, treating depression, etc. We also gave maximally tolerable doses of the drug, contrary to contemporary research models, which require greater attention to tolerability issues. The accounts in the DMT book may end up as a reference to very high dose drug effects that won’t be replicated for some time.
Finally, both the volunteers and I were unprepared for and surprised by the effects of DMT. We all expected one thing or the other, and it turned out to be quite different for both them and me. How one adjusts course midstream, reacts to unexpected yet compelling findings—these also contribute to an interesting story relating the evolution of a scientific study into such compelling topics.
Prox: Could you tell us about some of your own personal insights while under the influence? Which substances have you found to be the most epistemologically valuable?
Rick: I don’t discuss my own drug use or non-use. My books describe DMT effects reported to me by a highly sophisticated group of volunteers. Not my own experiences or lack thereof. The volunteers’ reports are the data I’ve worked with, analyzed, and theorized about, and which comprise the material I write and speak about. More politically, if I admitted to using psychedelics, I might be seen as a zealot; and if I denied ever using psychedelics, I might be seen as ignorant of the phenomena.
Prox: In your opinion, what do you think is happening to the consciousness and perception of the user?
Rick: Psychedelics at the bare minimum are chemical substances that modify brain function. So, without the brain and the substance, there would be no psychedelic experience. While we understand some of where and how in the brain psychedelics modify brain function, it’s less clear how this relates to subjective experience. While we may be able to correlate brain changes with rating scale effects of various mental functions, there may be physiochemical and subjective processes taking place that we cannot measure or are unaware of.
I’m getting more interested in how psychedelics affect what philosophically, beginning with the Greeks, is called the “imagination.” This doesn’t refer to things that are make-believe or made-up but rather refers to the location and activities of representatives of “material” things. Things like sensation, feelings, vision, and the like. Imagination is the site of the impression of those experiences, and this is where those impressions are stored, retrieved, and combined into new objects. This is to be distinguished from what the Greeks called the “intellect.” Here, ideas are the currency, rather than anything in the material world.
My sense is that psychedelics stimulate the imagination preferentially over the intellect. This model helps explain a lot of the subjective reports of psychedelic experiences and may provide a useful scientific model for future studies.
Prox: Why is that so many people report coming into contact with entities (guides) or gaining new insights about themselves and the “oneness” of the Universe?
Rick: Psychedelics have many effects. They can enhance psychotherapeutic progress, either performed by a therapist or within self-therapy. This is probably due to an enhancement of the normal processes of psychotherapy.
The report of contact with beings I think represents an example of how psychedelics stimulate the Imagination. I think those beings are the perceptible representations of invisible ideas or information. If that is the case, where does that information come from? And how do the beings, in their role as mediators, assume whatever characteristics that they do?
These questions I believe are all capable of being studied empirically.
Jungians, Freudians, brain imaging experts should all contribute to a better understanding of this phenomenon.
The issue of “oneness” with the universe or of the universe is a complicated one. I think it has been put on a pedestal and anything other than that as the ultimate goal of the psychedelic experience has been ignored. For example, experiences of psychedelic relatedness that may occur in such states may be more useful and insightful than those of oneness.
The model I have been working with, the Hebrew Bible’s notion of the prophetic experience, never refers to oneness. Rather, the “divine encounter” is the peak experience within that stream, and the one that bestows the greatest social benefit—but, note, not personal benefit.
Nevertheless, many people have such experiences of oneness and find them extraordinarily valuable and pleasurable. They may be “our brains” or they may be “God.” The truth probably will end up lying somewhere between those two poles.
Prox: Why is this such a cathartic and introspective experience for some?
Rick: Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. In the best of circumstances that can be, if that is what one is looking for. This has to do with the question of set and setting, one’s own mental, physical, spiritual, psychological state; and the physical and interpersonal environment, including the set of those around whom you are taking the drug. If someone wishes for catharsis and introspection, works with that intent and clarifies it, and takes it in a setting encouraging such experiences, psychedelics may provide such effects.
Prox: Many Eastern and Shamanic cultures from various regions around the world refer to the space entered while under the influence of entheogenic substances as a “realm”, meaning that this is a place that you can enter and leave as you would any other spatial plane. How accurate is this in your opinion?
Rick: The location of the psychedelic “realms” or “worlds” is of course a huge question. One can take the psychopharmacological approach and say that they are reflexes in the brain, relatively constrained by biology, activated by psychedelic drugs, and witnessed within our consciousness. Or one could take a psychological approach and propose that the feeling of being in, and the contents of “another” world are simply perceptual representations of the unconscious. Or, Buddhist approach would combine those two ideas.
On the other hand, it may be that those realms are outside of us, now apprehensible by the effects of the psychedelic on the brain-mind complex. What those realms are to be understood using the models of modern physics: branes, dark matter, parallel universes; or those of the religious traditions: that is, the spiritual worlds.
Prox: If these substances are so synonymous with human intellectualism why is it that they are still considered taboo?
Rick: Well, I’m not sure I share the assumption that psychedelics are synonymous with human intellectualism. But why are they so tightly regulated?
Again, the idea of psychedelics as some kind of super placebo may be relevant to understanding the anxiety with which regulators consider these drugs. That is, they can be used for any number of reasons, depending on the set and setting. Drugs like that are obviously as potentially dangerous as they are potentially helpful.
“Taboo” is a notion of “we can’t talk about or do something.” Something bad might happen as a result of talking about or taking psychedelics. One way in which the current generation of researchers is dealing with that taboo is by placing psychedelics within the mainstream in as many ways as possible. We read in the news: psychedelics are healing drugs, they are spiritual accelerants, they are creativity enhancers, and so on. These are not taboo topics, in fact people are quite interested in them. So, the drugs themselves are losing their taboo, and in so doing, those interested in the non-mainstream effects are not presently being attended to.
Prox: We seem to be hardwired for this sort of transcendental activity. What do you think are some of the evolutionary purposes and benefits of psychedelia?
Rick: Maybe this variability of effects is explainable by understanding psychedelics as primarily active in the Imagination, and more specifically with respect to enhancing the placebo effect. No other drugs are so dependent on set and setting for their primary effects as the psychedelics. This suggests that they may, at some level, simply do what we or others want them to do. So, then maybe what we are hardwired for is suggestibility.
Many of us are drawn to virtue and wish to avoid vice. In other words, living a more fulfilling and useful life. Some are drawn to vice and wish to avoid virtue. In other words, disregard others and overindulge themselves. Psychedelics have been used in both cases. Thus it seems to me more of a effect of the set and setting rather than the brain and the drug. That is, the brain and the drug result in a certain mental field, but the end result is more dependent on one’s intent and the outside encouragement and shaping of that intent.
Prox: Almost all of the classical psychedelics have shown some efficacy in treating Depression, Post-Traumatic Disorder (PTSD) and psilocybin even has neuro-regenerative properties. What do you think the future holds for psychedelics as medicine?
Rick: Yes, if in the right hands, with the right set, setting, and dose, we are seeing very impressive therapy outcomes in patients suffering from intractable psychiatric problems. The neuro-regenerative properties of some psychedelics are fascinating. Maybe what we’re seeing is the nervous system effects of a super placebo. If that data is applicable to humans, all the more reason to work on virtue and avoid vice. We want those regenerating neurons to be laid down for good, not for ill.
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