Good, I got you to rage-click on this article.
Maybe you’re reading this because a DMT entity bestowed upon you a life-changing download. Perhaps a DMT alien told you where the pot of gold is hidden at the end of a rainbow. Or, maybe they gave you directions to the Garden of Eden or the Fountain of Youth, and you understand the true meaning of life now.
But just because it feels real, doesn’t mean it is. So, let’s talk about why you believe DMT aliens are floating around in your head – and why you’re absolutely wrong.
What Are DMT Entities?
If you’ve never heard of psychedelic entities visiting you when you’re at the peak of a full-blown trip, then you’ve likely never heard of the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna. Aside from making the discussion of psychedelics seductive to the masses with his whimsical voice, he popularized the psychedelic N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, otherwise known as DMT. McKenna often mentioned that when a person consumes a “heroic” dose of DMT, they get whisked away to a cavernous dimension populated with self-transforming machine elves. He said they resembled perpetually shifting iridescent gems and would communicate with him by creating wildly abstract and colorful objects. Not only that, but these “hyper-dimensional beings” would also urge McKenna to communicate with them in the same vivid way. Eventually, these fractal creatures would descend back into their otherworldly cave, and the DMT trip would effectively end.
If you expect me to say something negative about McKenna, you’re reading the wrong story. Without Terence McKenna, I probably wouldn’t have pursued an academic career in psychedelic science. His words profoundly impacted my life—but this whole DMT entity thing doesn’t pass the baloney test.
“But We’re All Seeing the Same Stuff!”
Terence McKenna isn’t the only one who encountered machine elves. Apparently, tons of people who consume DMT have relatively similar psychedelic trips; an experience characterized by getting spirited away to a realm of entities that desperately want to communicate with humans. According to my research at Maastricht University, these DMT entity encounters have a significantly high rate of occurrence.
Does this mean we all visit the same extra-dimensional world and its inhabitants? Or does it imply that despite our vast cultural, geographical, behavioral, and ethnic differences, we’re all relatively using the same neurological machinery in our brains to process the same drug, resulting in a similar psychedelic experience? Kind of like how the taste of chocolate cake is sweet to everyone, regardless of whether a person is from India, Ireland, Iowa, or Iceland. Our sensory organs—such as our tongues—yield remarkably similar experiences because they activate the same taste receptors in our brains that produce a uniform flavor palate. Is it really that anomalous for DMT to trigger a similar sensory experience in people?
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Terence McKenna—who cornered the domain of DMT knowledge early on—basically instilled a cultural expectation for people to see otherworldly entities while on DMT. It’s sort of like prompting a response to get a response. Or the power of suggestion. We know that much of the subjective experience of psychedelics is determined by a person’s set, which is the mental predisposition, or mindset, of a person coming into a psychedelic experience. Is it really such a stretch to think that McKenna’s suggestion—along with the multitude of folks worldwide who share DMT information rooted in his evangelism—could shape someone’s psychedelic experience? True psychonauts know that expecting something to happen within a trip increases the probability of its occurrence –expect a hit of LSD to deliver a bad trip, and it will most likely deliver a terrible experience. Psychedelic therapists often tell patients to “set your intentions” before a trip, which is yet another way to prompt a desired outcome.
Power of Your Brain
Most people drastically underestimate the sheer power the brain has on creating reality. Skilled fiction authors construct casts of characters who speak in dialogues, and sometimes in different dialects or languages. These characters have their own unique backstories, idiosyncrasies, and interesting relationships with other characters while living in fictional cities, worlds, and universes with made-up histories. The same goes for video games and even conspiracy theories (but more on that in a second).
The mass sitting inside our skulls is the single most complex object humanity has ever encountered. Your brain creating entities for you to have stoned discussions with is not the most interesting thing it can do.
Take light, for example. It travels at a speed that, by all physical limitations, is the fastest anything can ever move. To be precise, 671 million miles per hour is quite literally the universe’s speed limit. Despite the incomprehensible speed of light, our brains have developed an ingenious method for capturing each fleeting zeptosecond, transforming this rapidly moving radiation into a stable chemical signal that our minds can grasp. This interplay between the retina and the brain is a waltz that occurs every day for the duration of our lives—and, while this may be mind-blowing, our eyes only offer suggestions of reality. We mostly see our external reality with our brains.
The Science of Predicting Reality
Our visible universe is not created with what we see, but rather with predictions of what we should see. Your brain, even at this moment, is predicting what you see before you even see it—including the words you’re reading right now.
It’s called predictive processing, the leading theory of how we perceive our reality. How does it work? I could dive into Hamker’s visual cortex equations, but a better question is why our brains predict what we see before actually seeing it.
Your brain is an energy-efficient piece of bio-machinery. Your brain uses 60 to 80 percent of its energy to communicate with itself about what it sees and will see based on your current understanding of reality.
Even if you’ve never taken a physics or anatomy course, you actually have a firm grasp of these subjects. You know how fingers articulate. They’re not going to turn into clouds of sawdust when you type, nor will they morph into Sour Patch Kids when you twiddle your thumbs. These premises are ridiculous, and our brains know this. But, it uses this understanding of anatomy, physics, and your general knowledge of how the world works to predict possible outcomes of your environment and objects within it. It’s a way for the brain to conserve energy. If our brains actually used every sensory organ (eyes, ears, nose, etc) to update every detail of our reality, our brains would be pushed to critical capacity and our heads would spontaneously explode.
Ok, not explode, but your brain would be overloaded, leaving no room for regulatory homeostasis tasks, like astrocytes maintaining synapse formations. But how does all of this relate to you having full-on conversations with DMT entities when you’re tripping?
Your brain is excellent at predicting your reality – but it’s not perfect. Occasionally your brain makes mistakes. When a prediction from the thalamus (a subcortical region of the brain that handles all sensory processing) doesn’t quite match up with the information seen in the areas of the brain where we experience sensory information (like the visual cortex), it goes back to the thalamus to correct its initial prediction and then sends it back to the sensory area to correct itself. This is a built-in “reality-check” your brain does subtly, but persistently over the course of our lives.
When we take psychedelics, this entire process gets flipped on its head. All bets are off. Seeing enhanced colors, skewed perceptual environments and, of course, entities are commonplace during these psychedelic experiences.
“But the DMT Experience Is Different!”
The data (both colloquial and scientific) shows the DMT experience is much different than any other psychedelic. Why would this be? Is there something distinctly different about how DMT interacts with the brain that causes this?
DMT is a tryptamine, meaning it’s a serotonergic agonist and more akin to psilocybin mushrooms than LSD, for example. They all bind to 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, which appear to be the receptors responsible for the subjective effects (or the trip) of all psychedelics. However, DMT is also a Sigma-1 agonist, meaning that it also binds to neuroreceptors called “Sigma-1.”
Could this Sigma-1 receptor activity be responsible for DMT’s perceptual experience? The concept of Sigma-1 agonism with DMT is a fairly new idea. In fact, science just discovered its importance with the research of Írisz Szabó at the University of Szeged in Hungary. In this research, they found that due to DMT’s Sigma-1 activation, the psychedelic has the unique ability to prevent cell death in the case of an extreme lack of oxygen in the brain, like a stroke.
This is all we know about Sigma-1 activation with DMT at this juncture in psychedelic science. It appears to be a unique aspect of the drug, but can this Sigma-1 activation also be responsible for the entity-manifesting abilities of DMT?
The real answer is we just don’t know.
The subjective experience of DMT could be the brain having some evolutionary response to an abundance of ischemic neuroprotection–like an excess of survivability. Perhaps in this state, areas of the brain (like the fusiform gyrus and medial prefrontal cortex) create bizarre alien-esque creatures that we empathize and communicate with. However, the more likely answer is it’s a neurological process that the scientific field is not sophisticated enough yet to understand. We’ll get there, though.
“But How Do You Really Know There Are No DMT Entities?”
Couldn’t there be some parallel dimension that DMT grants us access to when it’s combined with the unique frequencies of the brain? Like a portal in which aliens from another reality can temporarily migrate into our minds?
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Pay attention to the language used to argue for the existence of DMT creatures— it’s science fiction vocabulary to describe our reality. Point to where a “portal” exists in nature. Show me pictures of “aliens” in a biology book. Our only knowledge of these things comes from movies and books—the same works of fiction that entertain us. Now we’re using the same fictitious language derived from fantasy to define and explain reality.
Over the Summer, I had a friend who told me he always sees UFOs fly in the sky when he takes psychedelics, almost like the aliens know when he’s tripping. Never did it cross his mind that psychedelics—a class of drugs known for inducing visual distortions— just might cause him to see things that weren’t really there.
This mode of thinking isn’t just exclusive to psychedelics. People often jump to strong conclusions even when evidence is lacking because they want to believe something is real or happening. Take the entire QAnon movement in America, for example. Believers sought messages from an anonymous 4chan poster who signed all of their cryptic posts using the moniker “Q Clearance Patriot,” or “Q” for short. Q made outrageous predictions on monumental socio-political events in America. It didn’t matter that the “predictions” were vague and never came true. It also didn’t occur to these folks that they were getting hoodwinked by elaborate internet trolls. What mattered was Q’s narrative aligning with what they wanted to believe.
Another example is the pseudoscientific flat Earth theory. It doesn’t matter that astronauts from around the world have selfies in outer space with our extremely spherical planet in the background. Or that GPS technology and all cell phone signals sent and/or received operate because of satellites orbiting around our round planet. To a Flat Earther, all of this is wrong, a lie, or a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the entire field of science to cover up the hidden truth that the Earth is actually flat.
Now why is this?
People tend to replace concrete data with emotion and reinforce a lack of evidence by doubting real data and evidence. Perhaps this happens because of a person’s misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of science. It’s easier to believe what you can understand, and harder to believe in things you cannot. That’s why conspiracy theories are believed to be so abundantly true. They create a storyline that is understandable and entertaining, which in turn, makes it believable.
The same thing is true with DMT elves: The story of a potent psychedelic shifting a person’s brain frequency to unlock a portal to an extra-dimensional reality in which creatures can communicate with humans for a brief period of time before the portal abruptly closes again is enticing.
Look, I know some people reading this will write me off as a reductionist scientist who can’t see beyond what he understands. But hear me when I say I want the DMT elves to be real. To have everything we know about our universe toppled on its head is a seductive perspective. It’s fun to consider that DMT entities are real beings in some far-off dimension. But, if I say neuroscience shows that it’s most likely caused by depolarization of pyramidal cells that attenuate thalamo-cortical circuits and disrupt thalamic afferents that cause a perturbation in functional connectivity of cortical and subcortical regions, which makes us see entities—it sounds like scientific doublespeak nonsense. The average person has no idea what most of those words mean, so why would the average person believe the scientific explanation of DMT trips?
But portals and aliens—everyone can get behind that.
As we delve deeper into the psychedelic renaissance, it’s important to maintain an open mind. But not so open that your brain slips out of your ear and onto the floor.
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