Publisher: Park Street Press (www.InnerTraditions.com)
Cover: Alex Grey/Peri Champine
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 11/15/2006
Summary: Highly recommended. The pineal gland and the effects of DMT.
N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a naturally occurring chemical found in plants and mammals, including humans. Author, Dr. Rich Strassman, points out that the traditional view of DMT is that it is a by-product of metabolism. He rejects that idea. He also rejects the idea that the chemical serves no useful purpose.
In a government permitted study between 1990 and 1995, Dr. Strassman administered DMT to volunteers at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque where he was a tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry. DMT produces a psychedelic affect when administered in strong doses. Strassman prefers the term psychedelic over hallucinogenic because the former “show you what’s in and on your mind, those subconscious thoughts and feelings that are hidden, covered up, forgotten, out of sight . .”. Whether or not this distinction is merely semantics, Strassman’s approach is to look for the commonality of the mind experience through a chemical effects. DMT is the chemical of choice. (The slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry” may seem appropriate here. But for Strassman, there is a catch).
Like all psychedelic or hallucinogenic chemicals (LSD, mescaline, MDMA [“Ecstasy”], psilocybin [“magic mushrooms]), DMT acts upon the brain’s serotonin system. Strassman presents a complete and easily understood discussion of how these chemicals interact with serotonin receptors. There are at least twenty different types of serotonin receptors. “The new, safer, and more effective antipsychotic medications all have unique effects on serotonin”, he writes. Prozac, an antidepressant, also modifies serotonin behavior in the brain.
All psychedelic compounds consists of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, oxygen and hydrogen atoms. In turn, the drugs are divided into two families. Phenethylamines compounds are built from carbon and nitrogen atoms. Mescaline and MDMA (“Ecstasy”) are two resulting drugs. The tryptamine family of drugs include serotonin, DMT, psilocybin, psilocin, and LSD. Tryptamine consists of two nitrogen and ten carbon atoms. Strassman goes on to explain that while we know a lot about the “pharmacology” of these drugs–how they enhance, block or redirect the activity of serotonin receptors–we know next to nothing about “how changes in brain chemistry directly relate to subjective, or inner, experience. This endeavor, as Strassman goes on to point out in the book, is a great deal more convoluted than it would at first appear.
Strassman points out that DMT, like glucose, is one of the few chemicals in the body that is quickly broken down and used by the body. The work is done by enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAO). DMT is being produced in the body all the time, though it is highest during the time we are sleeping. DMT is also one of the few chemicals which can cross the blood-brain barrier and is utilized by the brain in its compound form. The major question science has to answer in this process is where in the body is DMT produced?
Matter Versus Spirit
Once every five years or so, the debate resurfaces over whether the human Mind is merely the fumes and particulate matter resulting from the chemical factory of the body or whether the mind is really a Spiritual receptor, subject to the influence of its physical housing but ultimately without physical moorings. In the 1950s and 1960s, the debate hinged upon the finer points of behaviorism–the physical brain trained to interact with its marco-environment. From the 1980s forward a compromise of sorts was worked out and the debate subordinated the Sprit aspect of the discussion to whether social influence could mitigate structure–the nature-nurture argument. A new debate is in the works, this time fueled by theoretical quantum physics. The debate threatens to become a lot more complex. Strassman’s amazingly clear discussion in DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE does add gist for the mill of debate.
In discussing a previous study he conducted to learn about melatonin–another body chemical–Strassman lays out his contention that the pineal gland is Man’s Spiritual gland. The pineal gland produces melatonin. It is also, according to Strassman, where DMT is produced. Science has not pin-pointed the precise purpose of melatonin though its levels in the bloodstream has been tracked. After puberty, melatonin production declines dramatically. Strassman says that “some investigators think this may allow the sexual apparatus to free itself from the pineal restraint and thus begin functioning in an adult manner”. The only documented effect of melatonin is that it contributes to the drop in body temperature during sleep (usually around 3 A.M.). Melatonin production in the body is reduced when light, any type of light, is present.
There is no documented purpose for DMT. But Strassman theorizes.
The facts are fascinating. The pineal gland does not become visible in the developing fetus until “seven weeks, or forty-nine days, after conception”. The gland, located in the center of the brain, develops from tissue in the roof of the mouth. It ends up in it’s final position before birth and is not a part of the brain itself, though it is embedded within the folds of the brain. According to Strassman, in stressful situations the pineal gland produces DMT instead of melatonin. Under extreme stress, a jolt of DMT alters the mind’s perception of the environment, producing a psychedelic experience of varying levels of connectivity to reality. Thus, near-death experiences, encounters with aliens, “blinding white light, encounters with demonic and angelic entities, ecstatic emotions, timelessness, heavenly sounds, feeling of having died and being reborn. . .”, and other altered mind-states can seem real to the person undergoing the experience.
The body seems extremely well equipped to regulate and curtail the presence of DMT and other mind-altering chemicals in the blood stream and entering the brain. This, conversely, is one of the arguments Strassman makes in defining DMT as the spirit molecule. He discusses the possibility that “[W]hen our individual life force enters our fetal body, the moment in which we become truly human, it passes through the pineal and triggers the first primordial flood of DMT”. He farther theorizes that when we die, the last substance produced by the body–for up to an hour or more after brain-wave death–is DMT from the pineal gland.
Finally, Better Living Through Chemistry
Where does the “I” in “me” come from?
In a sense, what Strassman’s hypothesis about the pineal gland and the production of melatonin and DMT point toward is a unified theory of consciousness. It is rather beautiful in its simplicity.
Parents beget a physical entity–the fetus. At forty-nine days, this fetus is imbued with consciousness from an external source. The external source could be called God, Universal Consciousness, or more generically, the Life Source. Once this Consciousness enters the physical entity, it is constrained by the limitations of its physical world. At the end of its sojourn in this physical world, the Consciousness leaves the physical body and returns to its non-physical reality. At appropriate times–or inappropriate, as the case may be–the physical body may loosen its grip upon the Consciousness through a relative flood of DMT or other chemicals flooding the body and seeping across the blood-brain barrier set up to lock Consciousness in place. But for the most part, Consciousness is locked in place until the physical body expires. This theory pretty much covers the spectrum of mystical and religious perceptions on how the human experience originates and ends.
Is there a problem, Mr. Zulu?
Well, yeah. If Consciousness opts to enter the physical entity in the first place, why is there such a headstrong, seemingly life-long push to leave–prematurely as it would be?
Yes, and this is really the question Dr. Strassman raises toward the end of the book, though not in those words.
After examining the weird experiences reported to him by the volunteers subjected to varying doses of DMT and taking those experiences at face value, as something originating from an alternate reality, Strassman reported that “there was a nagging discomfort in taking this approach in responding to reports of contact. I began wondering if I were starting a descent into some sort of communal psychosis”. Communal psychosis indeed.
With his training as a Buddhist, Strassman eventually turned to that training to place his DMT experiments in perspective. He quotes from a letter he received from a Buddhist abbot in which she says, “That DMT might elicit enlightenment experiences is delusional and contrary to the teachings of Buddha; Hallucinogens disorder and confuse the mind, impede religious training, and can be a cause of rebirth into realms of confusion and suffering. . . .”
The abbot’s assessment of the DMT “trips” experienced by Strassman’s volunteers is in line with most established religions regarding chemicals and spirituality. In simple words, it is a dead-end. But this does not necessarily invalidate Strassman’s unified theory of consciousness. In fact, it might just support it.
DMT: THE SPIRIT MOLECULE might at first glance seem to be one of those books you could skip reading to go on to something with seemingly more substance, such as Dean Radin’s ENTANGLED MINDS. But Stassman’s book is a definite must read because it nicely straddles the divide between science and religion, demolishing some of the pillars underlying both. The process leaves us with questions. Questions are a good thing.