Is Dimethyltryptamine the cause of our dreams?
In the early years of my college, I was extremely interested in the effects of psychedelics on the brain. I expected to find a lot of similarities between the dreaming and psychedelic experience but never did I expect to find that DMT ( a highly psychedelic substance) is more closely related to dreaming then I could have ever imagined. This search eventually lead me to try DMT myself and to see the differences and similarities in the experience.
If you don’t want to read the whole article here is the Too Long to Read (TLTR) to help summarize what I am going to be talking about:
- Humans have been obsessed with altering their minds for 1000’s of years
- Besides dreaming humans have figured out ways to create more of these compounds naturally to alter their minds
- During the sleep process, our brains undergo a series of chemical processes
- Chemical processes not only alter our minds but also change our mood and behaviors during the day
- These same chemicals processes could create psychedelic compounds in our brain
- DMT is not known to be at high enough levels in the human brain to cause psychedelic experiences naturally
- Using a psychedelic and having a dream is vastly different but still related chemically
The Obsession with Altering the Mind
Since the beginning of recorded history, people have been wanting to alter their consciousness. They may have wanted to experience something new or different and to see the truth behind things, experience the divine, and to understand nature. Because of this, we see evidence of psychedelic use across many cultures as well as in shamanic traditions and in the mythology and stories around the world.
From the Egyptians and their obsession with beer to the Indians and their use of soma, we have noticed some interesting uses of mind-altering substances throughout history that has altered our perception of the world around us. What is more interesting is that the human body also creates natural mind-altering substances naturally.
Naturally, we can see evidence of mind mind-altering effects has been produced by those who experience extreme pain. It is known that Native Americans have used vision quests to seek ancestorial advisory during their practices into maturity. What is interesting about vision quests is that through the long and trialing process of pushing their bodies into starvation, if a vision was not produced near the end of their journey, they would cut off their finger in order to produce the experience. There are also practices of mutilation from religious sects in order to seek a closer relationship with God.
Chanting and heavy breathing also is a practice that cross-culturally has been used to alter the mind. Religious practices of heavy chanting and breathing are associated with mind-altering effects. Though these experiences are often not associated with a psychedelic experience, there are a large number of enzymes that when converted in specific ways naturally in our bodies, the result is theorized to produce DMT or Dimethyltryptamine as DMT has been found in the lungs of humans and trace elements in the brain. This is still ongoing research but from what we know this is strongly possible. Dr. Rick Strassman who is one of the leading researchers into DMT and its effects on humans has said it many times, that DMT is produced not only in the lungs but also in other areas of the body.
The U of Michigan group did demonstrate DMT in pineal. The gene for the DMT-synthesizing enzyme is active in the pineal as is the enzyme itself. There is very little activity of either in non-pineal brain tissue. So, it’s likely that the pineal is making this DMT.
– Rick Strassman
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What is DMT?
Dimethyltryptamine or DMT is a chemical compound that is surprisingly found in many different plants and animals around the world. There are listed over 60 plant species that contain high amounts of DMT that many different cultures have used to alter their minds. One such popular way that humans have used DMT is in Ayahuasca which uses the plant Psychotria Viridis which contains high amounts of DMT and causes extreme hallucinations that can last up to 6 hours. Other ways that humans have figured out how to use DMT is by the use of 5-MeO-DMT which can be found naturally excreted from the glands of the bufotenine frog and other frog species.
When someone uses DMT they often report being transported to another location, seeing kaleidoscopic type visuals, and experiencing entities other than themselves either advising them or guiding them to learn, change, or improve their lives. DMT can be a very visual experience and 5-MeO-DMT, though related, is often described as being more emotional and less visual in nature. It’s easy to see from this that though there is a relationship between the two compounds, the experience can be different.
DMT is closely related to the chemical compound tryptamine which is also important to humans and their sleep. This close relationship to DMT through tryptamine is one of the reasons why scientists like Rick Strassman started to hypothesize that DMT could be produced in the pineal gland of the human brain. The only issue with this though is that the experiences had on DMT are vastly different than those accounted for in the vast majority of dreams. DMT from plants and the 5-MeO-DMT are also closely related, but just like DMT and tryptamine, the experiences are considerably different. This could be a good indicator that DMT may not be what is the cause of dreams naturally occurring.
So What About Our Brains?
Our brains are a pretty amazing chemical factory that uses and transform chemicals in all kinds of ways. During the day our bodies produce serotonin in our stomachs in large amounts. During the night our brains use serotonin to create melatonin which helps us go to bed at night. Serotonin is also linked to being related to depression and mood and people take medication to help build up more serotonin in the brain to relieve some of these negative feelings. As you can see chemicals are a big part of what makes us act and be who we are.
What is the Pineal Gland?
The pineal gland is a relatively large gland that sits near the center of our brains. It is often referred to as the “3rd Eye” by many new age groups who believe that the gland has a relationship to spiritual experiences. This area of our brain has recently become popular due to the idea that DMT could be produced there, and there are outlandish claims that improving production of DMT in this gland could make an individual more spiritual. Though I am on the fence about the pineal gland being the seat of the soul, the pineal gland does have connections to our eyes and is activated through the absence of light entering the eye. This activation starts a process which converts serotonin into melatonin.
Chemical Formulations in the Pineal Gland During Sleep
In my younger days, I spent a great deal of time reading about these processes and from what I understood created an easy to understand diagram to show what some of these processes are, specifically those dealing with melatonin and the production of beta-carbolines and tryptamine that is produced in the pineal gland.
As our brains go through natural stages during the night we also experience chemical processes that happen throughout the night. These processes happen during the different phases and allow us to have dreams. Here is a short breakdown of the states of sleep and those conversions. The diagram is a bit outdated since in 2008 the Sleep Association of America changed the total stages of sleep to be 3 and stage 5 is now REM but it still works the same.
Melatonin is an interesting hormone produced in the pineal gland. At the time of me writing my old articles, there were theories that the pineal gland also produced natural DMT for the brain to use. In 2013 Dr. Strassman was able to show statistical evidence that in fact DMT is produced in the pineal gland of rats and his team is still in the process of seeing if it is produced in human pineal glands. What does this have to do with dreaming?
The pineal gland is connected to our eyes. When our eyes are shut it starts to convert serotonin that is located in our brain into melatonin which assists us to go to sleep. Melatonin also regulates core body temperature which is important to understand when it comes to why we get hot and cold at night. Once our brains have melatonin we are able to convert the hormone into tryptamine and pinoline. From there we convert the pinoline into beta-carbolines and guess what, the brain could combine the now larger amounts of tryptamine and beta-carbolines into small amounts of DMT. This may sound like some alchemical magic but this process what discussed by medical researcher J. C. Callaway, who discussed that DMT could be connected to the pineal gland and the processes that place while we sleep.
Dreaming and DMT, the Difference
There are those of us on the planet who altered their minds by other means than a good dose of dreams at night. Some of those people have done so for spiritual reasons and used plants such as Ayahuasca which is a medicinal plant used by South American shamans and some religious sects throughout the United States. Ayahuasca is a plant but also a psychoactive drink that is made by combining two different kinds of plants. Oddly enough those plants closely resemble the chemicals in our brains, tryptamine, and beta-carbolines. Looking at these chemical relationships is one thing, but hearing peoples personal experiences who have used Ayahuasca is another. They explain that dreaming and the experiences they get from Ayahuasca are vastly different. Why is this? Shouldn’t they have at least a similar experience?
It’s important to understand that the situation that our brain is in during sleep and how naturally that is to our minds. The body is paralyzed through natural processes, we are unconscious the majority of the time, and the trace amounts of DMT in our brain is most likely so small that it’s not causing a full-on psychedelic experience. Think of it like this, dreaming is like having a cup of old drip coffee, having an Ayahuasca experience is like getting 20 shots of espresso when you never had coffee before. It’s very reasonable to see that these experience would vastly be different and the one being a bit more enjoyable than the other. Its also reasonable to see that just because the experiences are different, they can still be related.
Many people have described psychedelic-like experiences in their dreams. From out of body experiences, kaleidoscope, and fractal visualizations, to full-on psychedelic episodes, people have experienced these all in dreams. Often people who have never used mind-altering substances before have reported seeing visuals in dreams that they later, after using psychedelics, have confirmed were psychedelic in nature. This is a strong indicator that it is possible that not all dreams are initiated by DMT or quantities needed in order to have large psychedelic experiences.
Typically, however, dreams are not psychedelic in nature. Most accounts of dreams occur during REM and most REM based dreams are represented by mundane daily activities or experiences that represent similarities to real waking life. DMT experiences as well as any psychedelic experience is anything but normal and are often considered as profound and life-changing, unlike most everyday dreams. This though does not account for Big Dreams or Out of Body Experiences, Lucid Dreams, Hypnogogic hallucinations experienced during sleep paralysis, and other NREM dreams. These type of dreams are often discussed as being just as profound as many psychedelic experiences and can be just as traumatizing and confusing to the dreamers. The question we ask ourselves though, is there enough evidence to still think that DMT is the dreaming drug?
Is DMT the Answer?
When it comes to DMT and explaining this hallucinatory compound as the reason that we dream, there are a number of holes. DMT has not been found to be in high enough levels in the brain to make it active to the point that it could cause hallucinations much like those discussed in Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule. There are however better alternatives when it comes to substances that could cause and be related to normal human spiritual experiences including Big Dreams. When it comes to exploring the mind scientifically, we must look at the most likely scenario when it comes to what causes these experiences, and sadly DMT is most likely not the cause.
Here is a great video discussing the science behind DMT, why its proposed that its the reason for dreams, and why it falls short as the dream drug.
In this video, Dr. David Nichols maps out a logical explanation as to why DMT does not account for the experiences that we have during sleep, near-death experiences, and other mystical states. What he does determine is that the kappa opioid receptor activation is the most likely cause of these experiences, and oddly enough there are other psychedelics that play a role in its activation. Salvia, a psychedelic plant does modulate the kappa opioid receptor and can cause experiences much like those found in dreams. In regards to Dr. Nichols work, Saliva would be considered closer experience to the dreaming experience than DMT.
A Word of Caution
I have used Ayahuasca and other psychedelics on a number of occasions. Psychedelics are very powerful substances and should never be taken by anyone who has mental disorders or without the trained professional. Psychedelics can cause severe negative experiences and should not be abused.
Lee Adams is a Ph.D. candidate in Jungian Psychology and Archetypal Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute and host of Cosmic Echo, a lucid dreaming podcast, and creator of taileaters.com, an online community of lucid dreamers and psychonauts. Lee has been actively researching, practicing, and teaching lucid dreaming for over twenty years.