Rick Strassman discusses the powerful healing properties of psychedelics like DMT.

Rick Strassman discusses the powerful healing properties of psychedelics like DMT. Copyright: Brad Yeakel, 2016.

Of all psychedelics, DMT may be the most mysterious, most profound, and the most important in our understanding of human consciousness, altered states, and spiritual experiences. The single most powerful psychedelic known to man, DMT is actually found and produced naturally in the human body, animals, and scores of plants. People who take DMT report experiences that defy language or reason, interactions with strange beings, alternate dimensions, and utterly novel sensations that appear to have no precedent in modern human experience but, on deeper investigation, may be related to experiences described in ancient texts.

Leading the effort to illuminate this fascinating area of study is Dr. Rick Strassman, one of the great pioneers of modern psychedelic research. His groundbreaking research on DMT in the 1990’s broke the decades-long gap in psychedelic research that came after the post-60’s backlash against psychedelic drugs, and it lead to the widely successful book and documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule. Psychedelic Times was excited to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Strassman about his new book DMT and the Soul of Prophecywhich draws fascinating parallels between DMT, normal and altered consciousness, spirituality, and prophetic experiences as described in the Hebrew Bible. His new book touches on a vast array of fascinating subjects, and we asked him to unpack a few of the most tantalizing ones.

Thank you for speaking with us, Dr. Strassman. In your new book, you mention that a significant portion of contemporary Western use of psychedelics is for hedonistic purposes and that those who do use psychedelics overtly to cultivate a spiritual experience often lack the appropriate “indigenous” spiritual scaffolding on which to understand and contextualize their experiences, drawing instead on Eastern mysticism, shamanism, New Age ideas, and so forth. Do you feel that the Hebrew prophetic tradition might be a good alternative tradition for Western psychedelic explorers to investigate?

I believe that the Hebrew Bible’s articulation/explication of a “prophetic state” is a viable, if not superior, alternative. One of the reasons is that it comports more closely to the psychedelic experience in general and that of the DMT one in particular. The DMT experience is highly interactive, full of “things” with whom/which the experiencer engages in a more or less fulsome manner. This was contrary to both my and the volunteers’ expectations of a unitive, white light, mystical experience that lacked discernible discrete content, one that was empty of ideas, feelings, perceptions, thinking, and so on—typical of the Buddhist enlightenment experience, or kensho. In the DMT state, our subjects retained their sense of self and perhaps even felt it more compellingly. They were able to willfully interact with the contents of their experience. While time and space were most definitely altered, they also most definitely did not disappear.

Another element of the DMT state quite commonly reported is the sense that what one is witnessing is more real than everyday reality. Approaching the experience as an hallucination, the result of deranged brain metabolism, or the expression of heretofore unconscious psychological conflicts, impulses, or drives—something which Buddhism (at least the sanitized Western version that most of us are familiar with), psychopharmacology, and psychoanalysis propose—flies in the face of one’s experience in the full-on DMT state. Thus, a model that takes into account this “more real than real” property is advantageous. In the Hebrew Bible, this is an invariant characteristic of the prophetic experience—it is more real than everyday reality, and its importance, valence, [and] significance make those of the everyday world pale in comparison.

Then there is the Western “flavor” of the Biblical tradition, which I think is necessary for any religious model of the psychedelic experience to gain traction in the West. One of these is the presence of God in the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic tradition and texts. While Latin American shamanism accepts the reality of the spiritual world and the beings that inhabit it, it lacks a theistic core, which I think turns off many who might otherwise be attracted to it. This is also the case with Buddhism, at least as most of us understand it (although my teacher used to teach that Zen is theistic but veils that teaching in order to help the practitioner accomplish the preliminary increases in self-reliance, self-discipline, and so on that are necessary before entering into a relationship with God).

In addition, Latin American ayahuasca shamanism is a very dark art, even in the most well-lit versions. That is, aggression, warfare, revenge are the basis of the shamanic view of illness and healing. Illness is caused by another shaman’s curse; healing involves removing that curse (and usually hurling it back at the original perpetrator). The original perpetrator now must save face with a counterattack and so on ad infinitum. Spiritual warfare underlies the entire system. Not surprisingly, the ethical and moral milieu of Latin American shamanism is rife with violence, sexual predation, financial shenanigans, charlatanism, etc. While Western religions certainly have not avoided any of the above, there is a written tradition which one may refer to when attempting to practice the tradition free of malign clerical influence.

Regarding Buddhism and ethical/moral issues, there is also a hitch, as the core religious experience is nonverbal. Ethical and moral teachings are an afterthought, albeit highly important and coming from highly evolved individuals. Nevertheless, the behavioral and social teachings devolve out of a nonverbal core experience. In the Biblical tradition, the core experience is verbal, a communication with God that runs in both directions. And that verbal message is as much ethical as theological. The ethical message of the Hebrew Bible, inseparable from the prophetic experience, is the Golden Rule around which all of the other behavioral guidelines found in the text revolve.

There are cultural and social elements at play, too. We live in a Biblical society, are swimming in it, and, like fish in water, don’t realize what it is that we are swimming in. Western economics, law, ethics/morality, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, theology, architecture, natural science, mathematics all can be traced to Scripture. Look at the names of our children: Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Abraham, Adam, Solomon, Leah, Eve, Moses, Aaron, Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Deborah, Hannah, David, Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah—the list of names first found in the Hebrew Bible goes on forever.

At the conscious and unconscious psychological levels, I think that we may be grabbing the short end of the stick by relying on non-Western models. That is, we may not be able to reach the same levels of spiritual heights by “strange practices” with which our ancestral and personal psychological heritages/lineages aren’t familiar. How many of us really understand the Eastern notion of “emptiness?” Or “karma?” Or, even “meditation?” Why pray to dead people, divine and semi-divine beings, when above them all ranks something “higher,” which is the Western notion of the one God who created and sustains all of these things?

Finally, and perhaps most speculatively, is the idea that, biologically, Westerners are more attuned to the interactive-relational spiritual experience than the unitive-mystical one. Another endogenous mammalian psychedelic is 5-methoxy-DMT, which produces relatively consistently a unitive-mystical, white light type of experience. I have wondered whether a biologically-determined relative abundance of DMT versus 5-methoxy-DMT might be associated with a biologically-determined propensity for interactive-relational versus mystical-unitive types of experiences, respectively, associated with non-drug spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, fasting, and so on in the West versus the East. Or perhaps those from the West and those from the East differ in their metabolism of one or the other compounds, vary in their sensitivity to one or the other, etc.

One of the most fascinating insights in your new book is that normal waking consciousness itself may rely on endogenous DMT, meaning that what we consider to be sober, unaltered reality could be informed or supported by the DMT naturally produced in our body. Can you expand on this idea and what its implications might be?

Several reports over the last 40 years indicate that DMT is transported into the brain across the blood-brain barrier using an energy-dependent process. The brain treats only essential compounds that it is unable to make on its own in this manner. Examples include glucose and certain amino acids necessary for protein synthesis. This indicates that DMT is necessary for normal brain function, and normal brain function means normal consciousness. I like to think of this process as something like a reality thermostat: too much DMT getting into the brain and things become psychedelic; too little and things become flat, dull. One could see endogenous DMT as regulating the “endo-matrix.”

In addition, it appears that the genetic machinery for DMT synthesis is active in the primate retina. This indicates that perhaps normal visual homeostasis is also regulated by the synthesis of endogenous DMT.

Even more recently, it appears that the human brain synthesizes DMT, meaning it may not need to “import” it from the blood stream, the source of blood DMT most likely being the lung (something we have known for at least 60 years). In addition, it may turn out to be the case that DMT is a neurotransmitter, similar to serotonin, acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate, norepinephrine, and others—another way in which it may regulate brain function and consciousness.

Now, taking the most extreme hypothetical implications of this: does this mean that our consciousness of everyday reality, and in particular our visual consciousness, is a DMT hallucination? And if so, so what? Well, I think there are two things that need to be considered in this case.

One is to determine what happens without any DMT in the system. What is left in our minds? We ought to be able to develop relatively soon lab animals that are “knocked out” regarding the genetic mechanism for DMT synthesis. These will be DMT-free organisms. And we can begin to explore what their world is like for them.

The other issue is more of a philosophical one, for lack of a better term. Or perhaps more specifically, an epistemological one; that is, how do we know what we know, and what is it that we do know? And, does it make any difference? At this point, I don’t think it does, if our world is a DMT hallucination. We presently live in a world of cause and effect—the past determines the present, and the present determines the future. What we do, think, feel, and perceive all influence us and everything around us in ways with which we have all become familiar. We know what happens if we are mean, bad, [and] aggressive and we know what happens if we are kind, good, and peaceful. Of course, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between our activities and the immediate outcome resulting from them, but we have a general sense, and this is what our ethical/moral and scientific systems have worked out over thousands of years. So, until any data appears that upends evidence for the existence of cause-and-effect, we are best served by continuing in our lives “as if” this is all there is. At the same time, “all there is,” even in this reality, encompasses an incomprehensible degree of complexity.

A central concept in your book is that of theoneurology, the idea that our brain is the agent through which God or divinity communicates (an alternative to the idea of neurotheology, which says that the brain simply generates what we call spiritual experiences). This idea has been supported by many others who describe the brain as a receiver that can be tuned to different frequencies of reality like a radio or television. If this is true, what does that mean for our understanding of reality, consciousness, and spirituality?

The top-down theoneurology model I have developed is intended to balance the bottom-up neurotheology one. The top-down model provides a higher level of abstraction and organization than neurotheology, the latter proposing that spiritual experiences are an after-the-fact naming of the subjective correlates of a brain reflex. This brain reflex is triggered by any number of stimuli, collectively known as “spiritual,” and include prayer, meditation, near-death, fasting, auditory driving, sleep deprivation, psychedelic drugs, etc. This brain reflex creates the impression of communicating with God—experiencing the Divine. My model, on the other hand, suggests that God designed the brain in such a way as to allow communication with It. And DMT may be the means by which abstract information is given apprehensible form.

I built my model using a modernized version of the Jewish medieval philosophers’ metaphysics, in particular the system taught by Maimonides, a physician-philosopher who wrote in the 1200’s. He modified Aristotle’s metaphysics of the rational faculty (the intellect) and the imaginative faculty in accordance with his own Jewish philosophical and theological constructs. Briefly, Maimonides taught that Divine influence affects the rational part of the mind, but that Divine “information” is so unlike human knowledge that it requires representation in the imaginal realm first. These representations provide form—visions, voices, feelings, bodily states, and other “apprehensible” garb to incomprehensibly abstract notions. Then, the necessarily equally highly developed intellect of the prophetic figure is able to extract “human” information that is embedded in the imaginal contents. In this model, DMT is involved in the imaginal representation of the hyper-abstract Divine “download.”

One might ask, “Why is the brain configured in this manner?” The neurotheology approach suggests that there are evolutionary advantages obtained by having these kinds of experiences. However, that is gilding the lily and flies in the face of what we all have seen. That is, spiritual experience—drug induced or otherwise—is no guarantee against misuse, perversion, and harm resulting either to the person experiencing that state or to those who happen to be in his or her sphere of influence.

A theoneurological approach suggests that God created and sustains our biological mind-body complex so as to provide a means of communicating with the Divine. The result of this communication and following Divine guidelines (which are simply an anthropomorphized explication of cause and effect), [is that] we draw closer to God via love and knowledge of His creation—the theological explanation for our being endowed with free will and consciousness in the first place. This helps explain why not all spiritual experiences are indeed good for humanity, individually or as a species.

In the case of my theoneurological model of Hebrew Biblical prophecy, the information is coming from outside of us rather than from inside of us, and, as Maimonides likes to say, “The world was not created for our sake.” “The world” includes all of existence, including how our brain is configured. We need to anchor ourselves in an ethical moral system, as laid down in (in my opinion anyway) a careful reading of the Hebrew Bible. Some of the information might be inexplicable, but that only makes sense. There will always be things we never understand but are compelled to attempt to understand it, and in the meantime, make the best decisions possible in how to apply that information.

A theoneurological model, by virtue of its being top-down, invites us to learn about the nature of the “top,” the organizing principle, the creator and sustainer of this biology. To the extent that the Hebrew Bible is a prophetic text, and to the extent that prophecy shares features (and a hypothetical underlying biology) with the psychedelic (in particular the DMT state), the text may provide an interpretive key to unlock the spiritual meaning and value of the psychedelic drug state previously lacking in the West.

Using the text, we can gain cognitive tools for preparing ourselves for the drug state, learn to recognize what we see within it, carry into that state the most effective questions, and have available vocabulary and concepts allowing us to understand the information we receive and subsequently communicate it to others. For example, Jeremiah the prophet and Solomon the king provide examples of preparation for the divine encounter—recalling God’s greatness and incomprehensibility, our utter dependence on God and thus the nature of God’s grace in His providence/regulation of the natural and spiritual worlds. Then we can ask for what we wish, those preparations making it more likely that whatever we receive will benefit us. “When starving, don’t ask for food; rather, ask for God’s mercy.”

There are clinical research implications for making a distinction between the mystical-unitive and the interactive-relational religious experiences. By so doing, we see an iteration of the larger Western cultural question of the different approaches to understanding and integrating the spiritual properties of the psychedelic drug state. This larger question has to do with incompatibilities between the world views of Eastern religions and Biblical—especially Hebrew Biblical—ones.

In the research field, the unitive-mystical experience, especially as articulated in Eastern religions, has been the benchmark ever since Leary and Alpert embraced Buddhism and Hinduism at the same time they were developing models for understanding the psychedelic drug state. This was a time of rejecting the old and embracing the new, and incorporating novel and exotic religions into the novel and exotic psychedelic drug state experience made sense. The assumption that Buddhism—and to a lesser extent mystical Christianity—and the psychedelic effect were pointing to the same reality became part of the 1960’s (and onward) zeitgeist, including that of the clinical research arena.

One of the advantages of the Buddhist enlightenment model, that of kensho, where there is no content, whose defining characteristic is “emptiness,” is that whatever cognitive overlay one wishes to place on the experience is as consistent with that state as any other. Since there is very little in the way of content, intellectual or rational information, the emphasis has been on what I have referred to as the imaginal content—feelings and intuition in particular. As a case in point, the benchmark rating scale for the Hopkins’ spirituality research is the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which taps many religious notions that are absent in the prophetic state; e.g., joy, ineffability, loss of self.

There seems a certain intellectual oversight in negating the peak religious experience of more than one half of the world’s population. However, it is also understandable. The interactive-relational spiritual experience, the hallmark of which is prophecy as articulated in the Hebrew Bible, is nearly always verbal. There is a message being received, a message which addresses issues extending far beyond the clinical research laboratory—the existence, nature, and activities of the God of the Hebrew Bible; the Golden Rule; the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, among others. In Buddhism, it is “no-self;” abolition of time and space. The cognitive, rational, intellectual, verbal overlay is secondary and highly fluid.

The interactive-relational psychedelic/spiritual experience’s relative absence in discussions within the clinical research setting does not preclude its diffusion into the larger culture. Whenever one walks into a head shop, all of the accouterments are either Eastern religious, and now increasingly, Latin American shamanic. Why not expand the discussion? Let’s see some posters of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea. Cain and Abel offering their gifts to God. Jeremiah bewailing Jerusalem. These can be displayed alongside Medicine Buddhas, Avalokitishvara, Tibetan prayer bells and dorjes, ayahuasca art, Japanese incense. My guess is that such images would be much more evocative during a psychedelic drug experience than what has previously [been] available. And by so doing, might fuel a new understanding and application of the West’s own religious traditions from a psychedelic perspective.

We are extremely grateful to Dr. Strassman for sharing his thoughts on this fascinating new take on DMT, consciousness, and spirituality. Integrating the Hebrew tradition into the vein of psychedelic experience may not be for everyone, but it opens up the world of of psychedelic exploration to many who would have never considered it otherwise, and it compellingly widens the discussion of psychedelics, spirituality, and consciousness in the West.