From Italy (hi, Valentino!) comes a question that is interesting on a couple of levels:

Have you ever read the book of Rick Strassman about the endogenous DMT’s role in producing NDEs? I think that a “bad trip” induced by DMT could be a possible explanation of negative NDEs. What do you think ?

Let’s start with what is “endogenous DMT”? DMT—full name dimethyltryptamine–is a naturally-occurring (endogenous) psychedelic compound, like the neurotransmitter serotonin, secreted in minute amounts by the brain. A Journal of Near-Death Studies review of Strassman’s book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, describes DMT: “One of the constituents of snuffs and brews used by South American shamans for thousands of years (it is especially prevalent in South American plants), DMT was first isolated in 1946, and then briefly tested by Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara in the 1950s. DMT gained a reputation as being a rather frightening substance, and lay scientifically fallow for several decades.”

In the early 1990s, however, psychiatrist Rick Strassman, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine was intrigued by the possibility that endogenous DMT plays a role in triggering mystical experience, and obtained permission from the U.S. government and University review boards to study the range of psychological experiences that result from ingesting DMT. Over the next five years, Strassman administered roughly 400 doses of DMT to sixty volunteer subjects.

The experiences they reported ranged from brief episodes that were like full-fledged psychotic episodes with paranoid fantasies to sessions that seemed to be mystical experiences—bliss, ineffability, timelessness. However, it was also evident that for individuals unprepared for the possible effects of DMT, the effects could be terrifying.  Almost half of Strassman’s sample encountered otherworldly beings, described as clowns, elves, robots, insects, E.T.-style humanoids, or “entities” that defied description. They were not always friendly. One of Strassman’s subjects claimed to have been eaten alive by insectoid creatures. In part out of concern about this negative experience, Strassman discontinued his research.

As the Journal article concluded, “Moreover, as the book goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Dr. Strassman himself had come to the “undeniable realization that DMT was not inherently therapeutic,” and that ‘Risks were real, and long-term benefits vague,” and that despite the number of near-death and mystical sessions, there was an “ineffectiveness in effecting any real change.”

In partial response to Valentino’s question, notice how similar the images are, and note also how vastly different these effects are, compared to the effects of near-death experiences.  (Cue background music.)

A few years back, I came upon a quote that throws a curious and remarkable light on Strassman’s findings.

Shinzen Young is an American Buddhist teacher of mindfulness meditation, whose monthly day-long retreats I had been attending in Vermont. Before moving to North Carolina, I ordered his six-disk series of teaching sessions, The Science of Enlightenment. In one of them, he talks about the terrifying images that may appear in advanced meditation —insectoid, grotesquely otherworldly, demonic. (My italics.) Here is what Shinzen says about the images:

[T]hey are best interpreted as part of a natural process of release from the deep archetypal levels of the mind. Such upwelling visionary material is a natural function of human consciousness and should not be cause for the slightest concern:  You are not going crazy. You are not going to get weird. You are not going to be possessed by devils, assailed by Satanists, or devoured by monsters. You are not going to be sucked into another world. However, if you have a history of prior mental illness, you should discuss these phenomena both with your meditation teacher and a therapist.

From a naturalistic perspective, those are the images reported by  Strassman’s volunteers.  Unfortunately, Strassman had not heard Shinzen Young’s analysis, for it might have saved a worthwhile research project.

Over decades the work of Carl Jung and Stanislav Grof has demonstrated that something about the human psyche functions as a gigantic warehouse with the “deep archetypal levels” Shinzen mentions. The deepest levels are what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the repository of  humanity’s symbols and icons and most moving images (and sometimes the most horrifying). But why? How? What do they mean? This blog exists because of questions like those. I hope we find answers as time goes on.

Does this mean that NDEs are only drug responses? No! The point is that DMT, like being close to death, and LSD, and deep prayer and meditation, and hyperventilation, and…and…and…can in some instances give access to those deep, shared archetypal levels of consciousness. A DMT experience is not exactly an NDE, as indicated by their effects; but they share images.

For starters, it seems quite enough that we all join hands and circle ’round—near-death experiencers, pray-ers and meditators, DMT and LSD experiencers, holotropic breathers—and see that we’re on a common dance floor, sharing the same basement storage, and hauling mutually-held images up to the light of ordinary day. It’s quite enough for today to take in the possibility that the images in distressing visionary experiences can be understood as more than punishments from some external source, whether divine or malevolent. Some may be like potholes in the universe (a metaphor, you literalists; see my post last month); others like code, trying to tell us something. But first we have to learn the language of do-si-do. Grab your partner.