DMT The Spirit Molecule
Almost 20 years after its publication DMT The Spirit Molecule has undoubtedly found its place among the classics of the psychedelic literature. The author, Psychiatrist Dr. Rick Strassman, takes the reader through a labyrinth of modern brain research, mind-altering drugs, administrative bureaucracy, political issues, alien encounters and mystical states of consciousness. Though the previous statement may sound like a sales pitch for a modern fiction thriller, those approaching DMT The Spirit Molecule will soon realize that it is an account of true events. During a span of five years, Dr. Strassman administered intravenous N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a known psychedelic substance, to volunteers at the University of New Mexico Hospital. Details about the research, from the circumstances that ignited the first spark of curiosity in Dr. Strassman to his final conclusions drawn from the collected data, are weaved in a very accessible narration.
Early in the book, just at the end of the short introduction, I paused to consider how the author’s persona was subtly gleaming through the text. Being acquainted with Dr. Strassman reports on scientific literature, I expected a much more dry read. Instead, I found myself listening to a warm human being offering the results of years of hard work in a humble and compelling way. Many times in the chapters throughout the book I would take a moment to gauge the implications for a Psychiatrist openly exposing such fringe ideas. Even today psychedelics remain an edgy topic but twenty years ago this book could have meant the end of a scientist’s career.
Rick Strassman, M.D., author of DMT : The Spirit Molecule, and co-author of Inner Paths to Outer Space, lives in Taos, New Mexico, and is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
The DMT Study
After a brief prologue relating the first sessions where two volunteers were injected large doses of DMT, DMT The Spirit Molecule is divided into six sections. The first of them gives the reader a general background on the history of psychedelics, what they are, and how they function. Useful basic concepts, definitions, and classifications are paired with historical information and illustrations of chemical structures pointing to the ubiquity and relative simplicity of the DMT molecule. Here the author also introduces his proposal that the pineal gland could be the source of naturally produced DMT in the human body. Having studied general pharmacology and neurochemistry in medical school and the particularities of psychedelics on my own I did not find much new information. Nevertheless, I understand that most of us have not been exposed to psychedelic science and history which is essential to have a fair grasp of psychedelics and their socio-historical context.
I find controversial that DMT is portraited as the “The Spirit Molecule” Dr. Strassman makes his case for it on this section supporting it with the following arguments:
“A spirit molecule needs to elicit, with reasonable reliability, certain psychological states we consider spiritual…Such a substance may lead us to an acceptance of the coexistence of opposites, such as life and death, good and evil; a piece of knowledge that consciousness continues after death; a deep understanding of the basic unity of all phenomena; and a sense of wisdom or love pervading all existence.” (Strassman 2001)
“A spirit molecule also leads us to spiritual realms. These worlds usually are invisible to us and our instruments and are not accessible using our normal state of consciousness.” (Strassman 2001)
However, a light review of the literature available will immediately reveal that such statements are true for many psychedelics, salvinorin A and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) are two examples. The fact that DMT is naturally found in our bodies and is possibly secreted by the pineal gland during birth and death may give it an edge, but this could also imply that experiences under other, non-endogenous psychedelics, are less “spiritual” and we have sufficient empirical evidence suggesting otherwise.
The lengthy and complex process to obtain the necessary permits and funds allowing the clinical trials and laboratory production of the compound is the central theme of the second section of DMT The Spirit Molecule. The patience and resourceful personality Dr. Strassman is put to the test throughout the sixth chapter. Almost two years transcurred between the submission of the research proposal and its final approval. After working the bureaucratic systems of several regulatory agencies, Phillip, the first volunteer was given the first dose of DMT on November of 1990 after decades of virtually frozen psychedelic research in human subjects. I have not read about a definitive date signaling the importance of this event which I consider marks the beginning of a new era in psychedelic science. It was the primal seed of what would soon be the Renaissance of Psychedelic Research that continues to the present times. Dr. Ben Sessa, a historian of the psychedelic movements, also points to Dr. Strassman pioneering studies as the launchers of a new research era. (Sessa 2012)
DMT The Spirit Molecule continues with two sections describing the administration of DMT to the volunteers, their subjective experiences under the effects of the drug, the evolution of the models used by the researchers while helping to integrate the experience and a delineation of the emerging patterns. This part of the book will capture the attention of most readers.
The first time I held this book on my hands, around three years ago, I was looking for a gift at the Mystic Journey bookstore in Los Angeles. Lured by the art of Alex Grey on the cover, I picked DMT The Spirit Molecule from the top shelf. As usual, I read the back, the contents page, then opened the book and did a light reading on the chapters of this section, I aimed to decide if the book was worth a read. I still remember how odd and bizarre it all sounded to me. -Another Psychiatrist gone too far, I thought. Three years ahead, having had my fair share of encounters with the molecule, the text became alive on the same hands that years before had put it back on the shelf with an arrogant demeanor.
The variety, depth, scope and overwhelming nature of the DMT experience are hardly expressible through a systematic form of communication. Those that have crossed the psychedelic threshold and reached transcendental states of consciousness know how difficult is to put it all into words. Language clearly shows its limitations when trying to convey the seismic magnitude of twenty minutes under the effects of DMT. As I was reading last week, kept pausing to visit the memories of my own solitary expeditions to DMT-land. Interesting ideas based on the main themes of the volunteers’ accounts are presented throughout the text. I invite prospective readers to take the time to do a slow, careful, inquisitive reading on the volunteers’ reports. Though your conclusions might differ with the author’s, as some of mine do, I believe a careful read on will yield the most relevant messages of the work. I also recommend watching the homonymous documentary directed by Mitch Schultz featuring Dr.Strassman, some of the volunteers and other respected experts.
A Controversial Ending
Parts five and six are the most controversial, Dr. Strassman postulate ideas connecting DMT to the entrance and exit of the soul from the body and the possible perception of dark matter after crossing the psychedelic threshold. Reading other reviews on the book I encountered many readers disappointed by the proposed ideas. However, I must note the author did a great job drawing a clear line between what the research proves and his own speculations. He even goes as far as suggesting to future researches ways to prove or disprove his ideas.
By enlarging the discussion about psychedelics, DMT The Spirit Molecule, accomplished its main purpose. Even more, it reintroduced the idea to the scientific community that psychedelics could be a powerful tool when used by certain people in the right context. Experienced researchers will find details about dosage, administration route, objective and subjective data and some golden nuggets on the endnotes.
One for the History Books
Lay readers will get precious information on an obscure topic that could be decisive on our approach to mental health, spirituality and the next evolutive stages of human consciousness. A couple of hundred years in the future we might have a better understanding of psychedelics. Such understanding could render the information contained in the book to historical data, but at the very least the book will serve as a testament to what humility, courage and honest intellectual curiosity can achieve. Dr. Strassman has not only made his mark in the history of psychedelics, his writing style tells us much about his kind nature and a profound sense of connection to human suffering. I would adventure to say that his spirit has gained a well-deserved place in the hearts of future researchers and explorers that choose to walk the wondrous path of psychedelics.
You can get a copy of Dr. Strassman’s book from his publisher at Inner Traditions as well as other great books to continue learning about DMT, psychedelics, and research surrounding these topics.
José is currently a medical student and night-shift librarian at the University of Medical Sciences of Havana. Interested in the intersection between Psychiatry, Pharmacology, and Spirituality, his work focuses on the exploration and reification of dream and trance as tools in mental health and human spiritual development.
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