DMT researcher Rick Strassman

Rick Strassman on DMT and the Mystical State

Before we claim that spiritual experiences heal, we must agree on what a spiritual experience is.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated March 12, 2021

The psychedelic research community rejoiced when Rick Strassman got approval to study DMT in humans in the 1990s. In 1970, when Richard Nixon signed The Controlled Substances Act into law, it effectively ended government-sanctioned research on psychedelics and began a decades-long ban among the therapists and scientists exploring their therapeutic potential. Many pinpoint Strassman’s study, which later inspired his well-known book, “DMT: The Spirit Molecule,” as the start of what we’re now calling “The Psychedelic Renaissance.”

In his book, released as a documentary in 2010, Strassman writes about the profound, spiritual experiences that subjects had on DMT. From 1990 to 1995, he injected 60 volunteers with the substance, one of the most powerful psychedelics known to man and the psychoactive component of the Amazonian brew, ayahuasca. Interestingly, though, most subjects did not experience what psychedelics researchers now describe as a “mystical experience.”

In the prominent studies on psilocybin now, researchers expect to see a relationship between how mystical a person’s trip is and how much healing they receive from it. So, for example, the more a person experiences certain qualities defined as “mystical,” the more they’re expected to receive healing from whatever it is they needed healing from, whether that be substance dependency or depression. Volunteers in psychedelic trials are actually given a survey called the “mystical experience questionnaire” as a measure. It asks them about things like the extent to which they experienced a “transcendence of space and time” and “internal unity” (a merging with ultimate reality) while tripping.

Strassman points out that a potential problem with this survey, though, is that it’s loaded with assumptions. “The mystical-unitive experience is the benchmark, so research efforts are focused on looking for it,” Strassman tells DoubleBlind. “It’s important to understand what we mean by using the term ‘God.’ For some, this is an undifferentiated white light, void of ideas, nonverbal. For others, it is a human-appearing figure who speaks, moves, touches you.”  

That’s what Strassman learned when researching DMT. As a Zen practitioner for more than 20 years, he too expected high doses of DMT to produce a particular kind of mystical experience. Instead, he found that people on DMT “interacted with a highly articulated ‘world’ that often felt ‘inhabited.’” He writes about this in “DMT: The Spirit Molecule”—the aliens, angels and spirits of DMT. This brings up questions about how suggestability (i.e. the placebo effect) shapes psychedelic experiences in clinical trials or on psychedelics, in general. To what extent do we experience things when we’re tripping cause we think we’re going to? And if those things occasion healing, does it matter whether they happened cause we expected them to? DoubleBlind sat down with Strassman to explore this and hear his predictions on where the psychedelic movement is headed. 

DB: I’d like to start out by talking a little bit about your DMT studies. In the 1990s, you were the first researcher to receive approval for a new human study with psychedelics in decades. How did that come about? And why DMT?

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RS: I developed an interest in the biological bases of spiritual experience during my undergraduate years. In particular, I was struck by the similarities in descriptions of the psychedelic drug state and changes in consciousness associated with meditation practice, and thought there might be some common biological denominators. I began with melatonin in the mid-1980s, as the pineal gland (which synthesizes melatonin) had a long history in “spiritual biology” and there was also preliminary data indicating that it was psychedelic. We found melatonin was sedating only, and by then I had learned about DMT, which is both endogenous (something that’s created naturally in the human body) and highly psychedelic. One of the unstated reasons for my study was to assess the degree of similarity between the DMT state and nondrug spiritual experiences. Since this was the first new American clinical study with psychedelics in so long, there was a lot of bureaucracy to deal with. People were uniformly helpful in the government; the primary problem was that effective channels of communication between the FDA and DEA around this kind of work needed to be developed. Also, it was difficult to find someone to make clinical grade DMT. Dr. Dave Nichols at Purdue University was our angel in that regard. 

There’s been reporting in the media and research that’s indicated there’s a direct relationship between how spiritual someone’s experience is on a psychedelic and the amount of healing they receive from it. Do you believe there’s a correlation there?

Discussions regarding the relationship between the psychological effects of psychedelics and their utility in treating various clinical conditions usually focus on what is referred to as a “mystical-unitive spiritual experience.” This is a psychological syndrome with specific features, such as joy, loss of the sense of self, merging with the white light or other undifferentiated imagery or idea, ineffability, abolition of time and space, and resolution of paradoxes. Linking these types of experiences to therapeutic benefit is a model that gained prominence in the 1960s as a result of research taking place at Harvard and, in particular, at the University of Maryland’s Silver Springs Hospital. Their belief in its efficacy turned on transpersonal, Eastern religious, and psychodynamic models and practices. Their results treating alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety/depression were quite positive, and correlated with “peak,” “transpersonal,” or “mystical” mental effects, usually the result of high dose drug administration, in particular LSD.

Other groups doing research at that time used a very broad range of psychotherapy approaches: psychoanalytic with low doses, psychoanalytic with high doses, unsupervised in neutral environments, unsupervised in aversive environments. It was difficult to generalize from study to study with these non-Maryland projects, while the volume and quality of data emerging from Silver Springs appeared to validate their model. It is now the most commonly employed method in this current renaissance of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy studies.

However, it may be that other types of psychological effects are equally beneficial. The “mystical” experience measured as a result of this intervention may simply reflect an extraordinarily intense experience affecting a broad range of factors of consciousness viewed through a particular theological-psychological lens. With similar preparation and supervision, as well as follow-up integration, other models might benefit comparably from the nonspecific mental amplification produced by psychedelics. However, there hasn’t been a systematic attempt to develop alternate protocols. The emphasis on religious experience reflects beliefs; in this case, the Richards-Hopkins group’s belief that psychedelics possess religious properties, and those religious properties effect change.

On DMT, they maintained their senses of self, asked questions and received answers, all the while in a seemingly nonphysical “world.”

Did you see this correlation between spirituality and healing in your studies with DMT?

My studies with DMT and psilocybin were not therapeutic. Nevertheless, I had spiritual questions and an orientation that was brought to our studies. I came from a spiritual perspective developed over 20 years of Zen study and practice. Therefore, I expected mystical-unitive experiences as a result of a high dose of DMT. However, only one out of nearly 5 dozen volunteers had what might be considered this type of effect—and he was a religious studies major in college who had always wished for a mystical state. A mystical-unitive state did not occur in any other volunteers, so one might not consider its effects to be spiritual at all. Contrary to the mystical state, our volunteers interacted with a highly articulated “world” that often felt “inhabited” and “more real” than consensus reality. They maintained their senses of self, asked questions and received answers, all the while in a seemingly nonphysical “world.” This led me to go back to the drawing board and look at religious experiences that were not mystical and unitive, but rather interactive and relational. Perhaps if these other types of spiritual experiences were both encouraged in pre-therapy sessions, developed during treatment sessions, and integrated into the follow-up work, the outcome of therapy and other treatment protocols would be similarly effective. 

What do you think spiritual experiences under the influence of psychedelics can tell us about spiritual experiences in general?

There are several ways to look at the “benefits” associated with spiritual experiences. One is that they modify the body’s own ability to self-heal. This is where I believe psychedelics as super-placebos is a useful notion. If any religious experience—mystical or interactive-relational—indicates the maximal activation of the placebo effect, we have discovered a powerful tool in effecting healing.

Psychologically, spiritual experiences may help in much the same way as does effective psychotherapy: bringing repressed memories and emotions to consciousness, providing novel cognitive solutions to previously intractable problems, amplifying important transference relationships in the present, and so on.

A more theological model is that the state of mind modifies one’s receptivity to outside influences. At the moment, these influences are invisible and could be what we now call spiritual, angelic, divine, godly. In the future, we may have more precise characterization of what these outside influences may be. Whatever they are, it may be that the mental/physical state resulting from prayer, meditation, and psychedelics increases our receptivity and responsiveness to those outside healing influences.

So far, as far as I know, there’s only been qualitative surveys that compare mystical-type experiences that occur on psychedelics with naturally occurring mystical-type experiences or encounters with God?

That’s my understanding, too. The mystical-unitive experience is the benchmark, so research efforts are focused on looking for it.

It’s important to understand what we mean by using the term “God.” For some, this is an undifferentiated white light, void of ideas, nonverbal. For others, it is a human-appearing figure who speaks, moves, touches you. And everything in between. Thus, an “experience of God” being compared to the psychedelic state may not relate very well from one set of comparisons to the other.

Is there a more scientific way, besides surveys, to compare psychedelic-induced spiritual experiences and naturally occurring ones? 

One can administer rating scales to people who have taken a psychedelic drug and who have had a non-drug spiritual experience and compare scores. There have been studies comparing descriptions of ketamine and of DMT with descriptions of the near-death experience, which possesses “spiritual” characteristics. But no one with a real NDE, for example, has been given DMT or ketamine to ask him or her to comment on the degree of similarities. And, I haven’t seen any published data where a psychedelic is given to someone with a validated certified enlightenment, mystical, or prophetic experience. It is important to discriminate between the two broad categories of mystical-unitive and interactive-relational spiritual experiences in the construction and analysis of the rating scales. One could also compare functional brain imaging in those undergoing a particular type of non-drug state and those experiencing a psychedelic session. However, one would still need to assure a uniformity of type of spiritual experience psychologically. 

Do you think it’s too broad to talk about the therapeutic potential of “psychedelics” or do they have commonalities as medicines which make this grouping natural?

I believe there are many possible uses of psychedelics, one of which is as therapeutic agents within the medical-psychological disciplines. If one is to refer to them as medicines, then the classical compounds LSD, DMT, psilocybin, mescaline share pharmacological and psychological effects. One of their commonalities, and this is one of the ways in which they are different than medications as we normally understand them, is that the set and setting issues are key in determining whether or not one derives a benefit from their administration. This is why we are seeing such an emphasis on pretreatment preparation, psychotherapy, and other efforts to exploit their effects on suggestibility through the optimization of intent, expectations, coping mechanisms, and cognitive sets. This requires special training for their safe and effective administration.

This special training is why I do not think that they fit into any of the current Schedules. Whereas Schedule I drugs are extraordinarily restricted, Schedule II and above categories do not require special training for their administration. A patient should not be able to pick up psilocybin at the local Walgreens like he or she may be able to pick up the Schedule IV drug like Valium.

Do you think there’s a connection between the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in people with diagnosable psychiatric conditions and the effect it has on the lives of people who are healthy? What is it?

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There are a number of drugs that may be beneficial for illnesses as well as enhance normal functioning. The stimulants, for example. One tailors the dose of the drug, and the set and setting, for the circumstances. Do you want to amplify normal psychotherapeutic processes? If so, a low to medium dose of psilocybin may be helpful. Are you in a creative field and need a major cognitive/imaginative breakthrough? Then a high dose of LSD may be most beneficial. Do you wish to utilize the information and imagery that normally resides in “invisible worlds?” Then DMT would be called for. The effects will differ, too, depending on where one experiences a psychedelic drug: indoors, outdoors, in a hospital, in your own house, at a monastery, with a therapist, by yourself. The variables are nearly infinite—and the variables will affect the response you see.

It’s important to understand what we mean by using the term “God.” For some, this is an undifferentiated white light, void of ideas, nonverbal. For others, it is a human-appearing figure who speaks, moves, touches you.

Do you think the resistance to the research of psychedelic drugs says something more broadly about our society’s notion of mental health? 

I think the resistance to anything to do with psychedelics is because of a lack of objective information about them. These drugs became associated with a particular social movement and substratum and were caricatured, thus precluding substantive debate. As responsible, level-headed, non-overreaching research continues to expand, and responsible, level-headed, non-overreaching media attention addresses it, I think they will become increasingly mainstream.

How much do we know about the way psychedelics operate in the brain? 

One can always refine the data. But we have a general sense of how psychedelics work, where in the brain they modify function. That being said, I think there is much more to be learned about the subjective states occasioned by these drugs, especially high doses. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what psychedelics do and how they do it. They are simply not a more effective Prozac.

The case of DMT is unique, too. It is endogenous, is made in the mammalian brain, and its concentrations are comparable to those of the canonical neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Thus we may be at the early stages of characterizing DMT pathways in the brain. This will raise a host of questions concerning consciousness, especially regarding vision. Similar questions have been raised, but not to the extent that is now about to begin, regarding DMT being transported into the brain across the blood-brain barrier, using an energy dependent process.

Future studies may develop knockout mice who produce no DMT as a way to begin determining its role in normal and abnormal psychophysiological states. A number of genetic engineering projects might then be possible once we learn what endogenous DMT does, and what turns on and turns off its production.

Do you hypothesize that all the effects of psychedelic drugs will be understood in a reductionist model that understands the mind as the brain or do you think there are some aspects of these experiences which will always remain beyond our reach? If it’s the latter, what challenges might this present for the acceptance of these drugs into the Western medical community?

As we learned from the last presidential election, people are going to believe what they want to believe. The model of spiritual experiences being generated within the brain, what I call the bottom-up model of neurotheology, proposes that the brain responds with a “spiritual” reflex to a “spiritual technology” stimulus such as prayer, psychedelics, fasting. And that reflex has evolutionarily advantageous effects. A top-down model is more akin to that which I described earlier, and takes into account the possibility that what we apprehend in the full psychedelic experience resides outside of us. There are strengths and weaknesses to each of these approaches. For example, their organizing principles differ. In addition, they differ with respect to how to place them in the larger context of the common human enterprise.

Daniel Marin Medina is a Colombian-born artist living and working in Berlin by way of New York. He uses drawing and writing as a way of exploring bodies, sexuality, and how the two are intertwined.

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