Insights into Inner-Space: An Interview with Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Rick Strassman

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope recently sent photos to earth of a previously unseen population of seven primitive galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago, when the universe was less than 3 percent of its present age.  These photographs present a primitive portrait of the universe, 350-600 thousand years after the big bang. As our technological capabilities increase, with the help of instruments like NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers and physicists will be able to penetrate even deeper into outer-space and pave the way for new insight into origins, primordial states of nature, and the history of physical reality to which we are descendents.
While physicists and astronomers reach further into the Cosmos, inching closer to the impression of the moment of creation, with eyes to the sky, instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope provide no vantage points into the invisible realities of dark matter and dark energy, which comprise 96 percent of the universe.  To physicists the landscape of inner-space or consciousness remains hidden and the contemporary models of physics that we use to think critically about reality, even those which acknowledge concepts like dark matter, dark energy, many worlds, and multiverses, lack the tools and vocabulary to describe the nature of the inferred invisible realities with any scientific credibility.

The field of psychedelic studies, however, is one branch of inquiry leading humanity to begin penetrating into the ocean of inner-space, which some hypothesize to be the house of much of the phenomena illustrated in today’s cutting edge theoretical physics.  However, psychedelic explorations fall awkward into the domain of science, religion, magic, and taboo.  And naturally, these violently adversarial superstitions germinate skepticism around ambitions of unification.

Psychedelic scientists study a colorful spectrum of topics.  From the effects of administered psychedelics on volunteers in spiritual, creative, meditative, therapeutic, etc, contexts to naturally occurring psychedelic experiences in similar sets and settings.

One special strain of psychedelic inquiry is the data collected on the effects of Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, the chemical cousin of psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms), ibogaine (psychedelic Tabernanthe Iboga root), mescaline (psychedelic Peyote cactus). In psychedelic circles the reputation of DMT precedes it.  DMT is known to be one of the most powerful and psychedelic compounds found in nature; and individuals who have experienced the compound vehemently testify to its unique effects.  For example, individuals have been known to experience a complete separation of mind from body, experiences of enlightenment, religious or mystical revelation, travel through multidimensional space, but also alien encounters.

Noted expert and pioneer of psychedelic studies Dr. Rick Strassman is the first scientist to revive psychedelic exploration in the United States since the 70’s.  Strassman’s research involved the powerful naturally-occurring compound, DMT – N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Led to this substance through his earlier study of the pineal gland as a potential biological locus for spiritual experiences, he administered several hundred doses of DMT to approximately 60 volunteers between 1990 and 1995. He wrote about this research in the popular book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which has sold over 100,000 copies, has been translated into 12 languages, and is now available as an audio-book. It also inspired an independent documentary by the same name, picked up by Warner Bros distributing in Fall, 2011. With three distinguished collaborators, he co-authored Inner Paths to Outer Space, which looks more carefully at the common ‘other worlds’ experience that volunteers frequently reported during his research.

In a recent conversation I was fortunate to have with Dr. Strassman we spoke in depth about the science and philosophy underlying his research.  According to Strassman, DMT exists in body fluids of every mammal that has been investigated, including those of human.  The fact that there is an endogenous [naturally occurring] compound that seems to provide access to, for lack of a better word, spiritual states, suggests that we are hardwired for such experiences. In addition, DMT may be the mediator between the physical and spiritual. By spiritual, I mean a complex of experiences that partakes of a number of variables which combined in a particular manner elicit a constellation of effects that people refer to as spiritual. For example, extreme emotions, novel insights, the seeming separation of consciousness from the body, visions, voices, and so on. A rabbi and I were talking about DMT several years ago and he wondered about its relationship to a particular Hebrew/Kabbalistic concept that has to do with the most spiritual of the physical and the most physical of the spiritual. Perhaps DMT fits into that definition.  Alex Grey [a visionary artist] referred to my labeling DMT as the ‘spirit molecule’ as a conundrum or a paradox. I think that is an accurate portrayal of the notion.”

Furthermore in scientific observations throughout Strassman’s research he subtly points to DMT’s chemical simplicity, as well as its apparent necessary role in the body.  Discussing the results of his study of DMT, Strassman explained to me that DMT is “made in the lungs of mammals and appears to be actively transported across the blood brain barrier using energy in order to get into the brain. The brain only expends energy in getting substances into its confines that it is unable to synthesize on its own and that are necessary for its function.”  Some of the Platonic arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul arise from similar principles of simplicity and necessity.  And while the jury may eternally be out, with regard to the reason for DMT’s influence on consciousness and history in humanity, Dr. Strassman teaches us DMT may be more productively understood as the biological common denominator underlying the soul and science.  So, from this context Dr. Strassman’s declaration of DMT as the ‘spirit molecule’ comes into focus, along with a tool set to prod into inner-space and the genealogy of the human experience of spirit and consciousness.

One of the biggest obstacles facing further research of DMT, other psychedelics, and inner-space in American culture is the issue of integration.  DMT enters boldly into mass culture beckoning as a potential light bridging the gap between the separate and conservative world views of church, science, and superstition, a tough line to take.

Nevertheless, Dr. Strassman in our discussion pointed out to me that “There are a number of ways DMT could be used in the West.  At one level, it can be used to help us understand the relationship between biology and consciousness; that is, what receptors are involved, what parts of the brain, etc., when DMT is drastically modifying consciousness. At another level, one could use DMT as a therapeutic tool to the extent that the therapeutic process, in whatever form, is enhanced through its administration.  If one looks at, for example, treating drug abuse like cocaine or methamphetamine within a spiritual context, one could see the spiritual properties of DMT having an effect. Or, if your model is primarily psychological, you could assess the effects of DMT on those functions of the mind that are involved in traditional psychotherapeutic change, and determine the effects of DMT on those functions. For those who are seeking religious or spiritual insights, or some acceleration of their spiritual practice, DMT could also be used in that context.  In fact, it is being used in that latter context, as in the case of the Brazilian ayahuasca-using churches that have legal permission to practice in the United States.”

However, the schedule 1 status of psychedelic drugs remains a powerful stigma negatively influencing conventional wisdom on DMT; and these influences stifle much of the momentum built around research aimed at realizing the benefits psychedelics could have in Western culture.  So instead of studying the capacity a psychedelic compound like DMT might have on creative, psychotherapeutic, or enlightenment experiences, it seems that major arms of the federal scientific research and drug regulatory apparatus would prefer to study and promote more lucrative endeavors, for example, stimulants, anti-depressants, and drugs to combat impotence.

Still, Dr. Strassman predicts that in time the West will be able to move past its deeply held cultural bias and integrate the study of DMT and other psychedelics using the models it is most comfortable with – the spiritual and the scientific. And as Dr. Strassman commented, “Generally, the scientific and the spiritual do not mix that well.  However, the psychedelic drugs are especially well situated to bridge that gap. For example, there are studies at Hopkins in Baltimore that are recently replicating and extending research that was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s suggesting that these drugs have spiritual import in those taking them who are inclined in those kinds of directions.  I think if the effects of DMT and other psychedelics are mostly kept within the spiritual and scientific models the West ought to be able to manage their effects relatively well. However, when one begins to assess and consider the role of endogenous DMT in our perception of reality, that is, more philosophic and epistemological point of view, things may get a little more controversial.”

The future for explorations into consciousness and inner-space is bright; and in our conversation Dr. Strassman explained the next wave of psychedelic research will entail repeating many of the first wave studies: terminal illness anguish/despair mitigation, substance abuse treatment, treatment of anxiety and mood disorders, and spiritual practice enhancement; “In addition, it would be of interest to assess effects of DMT in those who’ve had NDEs [near death experiences] or abduction experiences.  Or measure levels [of DMT] in people having those experiences, or those in spiritual states.  Another set of data might be to develop a camera that can photograph the contents of dark matter, and compare it to what a DMT subject reports at the same time and place.  We are getting close to being able to see the form and shape of images in one’s brain/mind using imaging technology.”

The road to a unified understanding of consciousness will lead us into the invisible dimensions of inner-space. And with eyes turned inward, psychedelic experiences may transform the human body into an instrument, like the Hubble Space Telescope, and allow the powerful machine that is the human body to collect impressions from the veiled horizons of our genealogy.  And, as Dr. Strassman concluded in our interview, beyond replicating past experiments, “Psychedelic centers ought to be established, where the full spectrum of the human scientific, religious, creative, artistic endeavor can be brought to bear on the psychedelic experience–where treatment, growth, aesthetic, heuristic studies can all occur under one roof.”    

By Matt Ramirez

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