The second time he tried DMT, Ali broke through. (His name isn’t actually Ali, but that’s what we’ll call him for privacy’s sake.) The initial onslaught of kaleidoscopic shapes gave way to a more familiar scene: The bedroom, twin mattress and all, from which he embarked on his DMT experience. Only, the room’s features weren’t quite right. They were distorted somehow, like an unfinished rendering—and he had company.
Five silvery beings surrounded him, he describes, their towering, slender bodies cloaked in what can only be described as alien skin (or maybe just gray spandex). But their imposing nature wasn’t the most unusual thing about them; it was their faces. Their faces matched Ali’s friends, who had already been in the room before his DMT experience began.
And yet, these entities weren’t just his friends; they were distinctly different. Their faces were jumbled, abstracted, and leaking colored light. Ali had the uncanny sense that these beings were of their own world entirely.
Ali had journeyed into the spirit world.
What Are Clockwork Elves (Machine Elves)?
Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a powerful and fast-acting hallucinogen produced naturally by many plants and animals, humans included. (Yes, DMT is found in the mammalian brain.) In all of 15 minutes, the molecule can inspire a bombardment of visuals that begin with a snow of overwhelming shapes and colors and peaks—if you’re lucky—with an entry into another realm, a step into what feels like a different world.
“It was such sensory overload, it was so dense, that even if I describe it, it doesn’t really give any indication of what [the experience] was actually like,” says Ali. “It felt like [time was] completely arbitrary, kinda scary like maybe you could live like a year in there.”
There’s a reason why DMT has well-earned its nickname as “the spirit molecule.” For some, the molecule may only inspire intense and awesome visuals. But, many who try DMT do so looking for something, or rather, someone specific—the spirits.
Seeing DMT entities or experiencing some kind of “presence” is a common experience for those who cross a certain dosage threshold with this unusual drug. For Terence McKenna, psychedelic activist and second-wave pioneer, these entities are best described as “self-transforming elf machines.” McKenna is one of the first and loudest activists to speak openly about his (many) DMT experiences.
“I encounter self-transforming elf machines, which are creatures, entities perhaps, although they’re not made out of matter,” McKenna explains in a recorded interview. “They’re made out of, as nearly as I can figure it out, syntax-driving light.” By syntax, McKenna really does mean language.
“They use a language which you see,” he continues. “It is made out of sound, it is sound, but you see it. And the entire point of the encounter, from their perspective, is to teach you to do this.”
Language took on visual quality in Ali’s trip, too. “They were speaking and words were coming out of their mouths, just floating along,” he says. Instead, this mysterious speech drifted out like rainbow-glowing vapors constructed out of an indiscernible rune-like language. “It was like captions coming out of their mouths, very cartoon-like,” he adds. “I felt totally focused on it, like I was going to understand it, but I’m not sure that I ever did.” What Ali did understand was the deep-seated feeling of tranquility that presided despite the intense visualizations. “I felt like I was meditating,” he says. It felt intuitive.
Why Are They Called “Machine Elves”?
The answer to this question is simple: They’re called “machine elves” or “clockwork elves” because that is the terminology that McKenna introduced to the world. McKenna’s openness and honesty about his personal experiences on DMT created a pathway that others could eventually use to describe and interpret their own psychedelic experiences. Through his description of “machine elves,” McKenna donated trip terminology that has been widely adopted by psychonauts who follow in his footsteps.
But machine elves are not unique to McKenna; many people who try DMT relate to features the ethnobotanist described in his trips. Geometric shapes, visualized speech, beings, vibrant colors, and sparkling, ethereal light are commonplace in DMT trips. And yet this isn’t always the case; many people may not even remember their DMT visualizations upon waking from their journey.
What Do Machine Elves Look Like?
Forget images of gears, steam, computers, and engine parts. For some people, these “machine elves” can be a far cry from the robotic and mechanized creations we commonly see in sci-fi space operas today—DMT spirits can be fractal, or they can be humanoids, animals, faces, or aliens. They can be merely a presiding voice, or simply the feeling of a presence, or anything else the mind can conjure up.
The diversity of the DMT hallucinatory experience was reported early on by famed psychedelic researcher, Dr. Rick Strassman. Strassman is undoubtedly accomplished. He currently holds an associate professorship in psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, but his work and research on DMT span decades. In 2000, he authored the first major book on the hallucinogen, DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Drawing from his early research, Strassman tells DoubleBlind, “not that many people in our study saw ‘elves,’ but many saw beings possessing other shapes and forms.”
Strassman’s findings are confirmed by more recent research. In 2019, a small study of DMT users found that, more often than not, when consumers did see DMT elves, they didn’t look like elves at all. Rather, most entities appeared more amorphous and hard to describe. The study was performed by Dr. Jennifer Lyke, professor of psychology at Stockton University, who surveyed the popular site Erowid for common descriptions of DMT deities.
In a much larger study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, a research team led by Alan Davis gathered and analyzed survey data from a grand total of 2,561 different DMT consumers about their best experiences with the hallucinogen. In this study, only 10 to 16 percent of respondents used terms like “angel” or “elf” to describe DMT entities. Instead, words like “being” and “guide” were far more common. Although, it’s important to mention that the vast majority of the study participants were white, male, and Western. In Lyke’s study, 90 percent of the respondents were male.
What Do DMT Elves Do?
While the visualizations inspired by DMT are certainly noteworthy, it’s the spiritual qualities of the trip that are perhaps the most impactful—and no one can articulate this impact better than Strassman. “The function of the beings is to communicate, and what they communicate is information,” he says. “Their shape or form may contain that information, but more importantly, there is an exchange, a relationship between the observer and the beings, sometimes verbal, sometimes nonverbal. Then it’s up to our mind, our intellect, to decipher the communication, to extract meaning from it.”
Strassman’s interpretation is supported by data pooled from recent surveys, like the Davis study. According to Davis’ study, most consumers interact with DMT spirits via emotional, intuitive, and telepathic means. These clockwork elves often feel real, like the arbiters of a deep, true, and hidden truth. Many report that experiencing them is a hallmark or life-changing experience, with notable impact on mood, wellbeing, and life outlook.
In Davis’ study, an impressive majority of psychonauts reported feelings of love, trust, kindness, and joy both coming from themselves and the perceived spirit entities. A large majority of people also reported that they felt like the entities had intelligence, a consciousness of their own. Most felt that they were sacred, that they existed in their own world, and that they had a message to deliver. Over half of those who had identified as atheists before the DMT experience no longer identified as such afterward.
Over half of those who had identified as atheists before the DMT experience no longer identified as such afterward.
But, Davis and his team aren’t the only scientists to find that DMT can have a positive impact on life outlook. A 2018 study suggested that combining frequent Ayahuasca sessions with mindfulness therapy increased participants’ capacity for acceptance, a key component of mental health. Another study from 2015 found that a single dose of ayahuasca successfully improved mood in six patients with recurrent depression, even 21 days after treatment. DMT is one of the primary active compounds in the hallucinogenic drink. Although, freebasing DMT, like Ali did, produces a notably different psychoactive experience.
And of course, this isn’t to say that everyone will have a positive DMT trip. A good number of people may not enter the “spirit realm.” Nor is there any guarantee that experiencing DMT entities will have spiritual significance. For many people, DMT hallucinations may actually be quite frightening. The Davis survey found that 41 percent of consumers felt fear during their experience. A total of 23 percent reported that they felt that the beings had an authoritative presence, 16 percent felt negatively judged by the beings, and 11 percent felt maliciousness—not to mention, how these experiences may be compounded by the health, safety, and legal hazards of experimenting with Schedule I substances.
Even Ali experienced some uneasiness toward the conclusion of his trip: “Toward the end of it, I started to realize that I wasn’t home. Like this isn’t a virtual reality experience on top of something else—I [was] definitely in their territory…I really started to feel unwelcome from them.”
What Causes DMT Hallucinations?
Why exactly these “entities” are a common trope in DMT experiences is a mystery. But, after decades of research, Strassman is able to provide insight. “People can only imagine things that they have already seen or experienced,” he says. “The component parts may rearrange themselves in different ways, but those component parts must already exist in the mind of the subject. Colors, shapes, movement. Psychedelics including DMT help us perceive things that are normally invisible, and those have to be made manifest in a way that is visible, that we can recognize, no matter how strange.”
Strassman’s work complements a new wave of neuroscience research that is slowly unveiling mysterious layers of how we experience consciousness—studying DMT and other psychedelic drugs may prove to be an integral part of this broader research. Unlike psilocybin and LSD, the human body produces its own DMT naturally. And this endogenous DMT may play a role in the construction of our everyday waking reality, according to some speculative medical hypotheses.
The study of consciousness is one that spans a multitude of disciplines, from philosophy to religion, and the hard sciences. But while science cannot necessarily tell us about the meaning of our experiences or, ultimately, why we’re here, they can reveal key information about the ways in which we perceive and engage with the world. Over the past twenty-five years, advancements in the great-wide-world of neuroscience have helped us understand that our minds do not simply observe the physical world through refracted light that meets our eyes: We may actively hallucinate it, all the time.
This groundbreaking theory has been the lifework of popularizer Anil Seth, a cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. To oversimplify a complex topic, Seth postulates that, while our conscious mind does interact with and process information from the physical world, the human brain also “fills in” the details from memory, experience, and expectation. Our brain builds much of how our conscious reality appears for us.
The gist of this theory of consciousness was loosely summarized in a 2016 review published in Brain Research Bulletin. In their review, authors Theresa Carbonaro and Michael Gatch write:
“Waking reality is created in a similar way to altered states except that the normal state correlates with event[s] in the ‘physical’ world. Thus, waking reality can be thought of as a tightly regulated psychedelic experience and altered states arise when this regulation is loosened in some fashion.”
As it turns out, the construction of both waking and dreaming reality may be one of the reasons why the human body naturally produces DMT—at least, according to a semi-recent hypothesis. In 2008, scholar J.V.Wallach proposed a novel idea. Humans and animals may naturally produce DMT as a neurotransmitter that helps us construct our everyday reality, engaging with parts of the central nervous system that control our sensory perceptions.
A 2019 study from the Imperial College London adds nuance to this hypothesis. In the study, researchers treated 13 participants with intravenous DMT. Then, they put on electrode hats to measure the participants’ brain activity. Amazingly, the researchers discovered that DMT was like dreaming while awake. Measurements of brain activity found that the DMT brain was less active than what is expected for waking reality, but far more active than what is most often seen during sleep.
Still, research on both externally consumed and endogenous DMT is in its infancy. So, although these hypotheses are interesting, many conundrums still exist. Why do so many people on DMT see entities, for example? And why do different people have such similar experiences? Why does the spirit world seem so natural, so real, and so true? As McKenna says best: “I don’t know why there should be an invisible syntactical intelligence giving language lessons in hyperspace.”
Strassman offers a more practical perspective. “It says more about our mind-brain complex than the spirit world. We can’t necessarily assume that we’re tapping into an objective freestanding external level of reality. It may simply be our brain on drugs.” Strassman, however, believes that a combination of these factors is more likely. He continues: “The drugs modify our brains in ways that only our individual brain can be modified—because of who we are individually—and then we perceive things that we normally cannot perceive.”
“These things may exist within us, in our psyche; or, they may exist outside of us. What is ‘outside of us’ is difficult to determine, because the arena, the platform within which we experience the psychedelic state is our subjective mind, consciousness. Thus, it doesn’t really matter, at least at this point, where that information resides—dark matter, our visual cortex, God, the Pleiades—what matters is how much information we can garner in the state, then how to apply it for the greatest benefit.”
Anna Wilcox is a writer, anthophile, and perpetual student. Published on Herb, Leafly, and Green Flower. Reach out on Twitter @anna_wlcx.