“Psychedelics have the ability to dissolve the sense of self or identity and generate an experience of inseparable unity between the person and the world,” he told us from London.
DMT, or Dimethyltryptamine, has been present as a compound since the beginning of the earth. It can be found in plants, animals and even us human beings.
It is also a powerful psychedelic drug that is capable of generating visions in a short period of time (5 to 10 minutes) when it is smoked.
Those knowledgeable about drug culture know what DMT is and how long it has been among us but western culture knows about it from the same time as other psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, since the end of the 20th century. First came the research of the psychiatrist Rick Strassman between 1990 and 1995, which was the first time DMT was brought to a laboratory. Later came the popularization of its use as a part of the counter-culture and 2009 saw the release of the magnus opus of Gaspar Noe, Enter The Void. To contend that only the movie was responsible for popularizing the drug in western culture is perhaps overreach, but it did get people talking and made many people curious. The premier in 2010 of DMT: The Spirit Molecule confirmed that the time had arrived to talk freely about Dimethyltryptamine, about its effects and its deep affinity with transcendental experiences.
“Psychedelics have the ability to dissolve the sense of self or identity and generate an experience of inseparable unity between the person and the world“
Christopher Timmermann is a psychologist educated at the Catholic University of Chile with a Masters in Neuroscience and Neuropsycological Therapy from the University of Bologna and is a current doctoral student in Neuropsycofarmacology and Neurosciences at Imperial College London since 2015.
He is also one of those responsible for bring DMT back to the labs, since still not much is known about the molecule. In London he is carrying out research into the biological effects of the drug and what could be its therapeutic uses.
We talked with Christopher.
Why is there so little research into this drug?
We could say there is a certain taboo around research into psychedelic drugs within the mainstream of scientific circles, principally owing to its illegal status and the large quantity of bad information about the risks associated with its use, which are actually minimal if the proper precautions are taken. The association of these agents with the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and the role they played in this context also frequently causes people to reject studies about them.
Why have you now centered your research around DMT?
In the last few years this has begun to change owing to the potential these compounds have in the study of the consciousness and their utilization in therapeutic contexts, such as in the treatment of depression and addiction. Numerous studies in recent years have focused on investigating psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms), LSD and ayahuasca towards the same end. My interest in the study of DMT is centered on its ability to generate a significant change in the state of consciousness and what the relation this has with its effects in the brain. Its ability to generate visions that create a complex world rich in details, as well as long-lasting impressions in its users, make it a very useful tool to explore the mind and its relation with the brain in the neuroscientific research.
How is it that our bodies contain DMT and how is that we can have these experiences ingesting the drug?
It is difficult to explain why our bodies contain DMT. There are some theories that point to it being a neurotransmitter that fulfills important roles in the generation of dreams and spiritual experiences. There also other theories and some evidence that points to DMT possibly fulling a role in repairing body tissues in moments close to death but there is nothing conclusive right now. More research is necessary in this area.
There are a series of possible experiences consuming DMT and one won’t necessarily have a spiritual experience or something involved with death or birth. Many of these experiences are related to our personal history, our relationships with significant others and our beliefs. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that effectively there is a large number of reports related with encounters with beings or entities following the consumption of DMT. These are fascinating phenomena that we are interested in researching in our lab.
Neuroscientific research with psychedelics can help us understand the relation between the brain and the human experience in general.
DMT is most known for its spiritual effects. How is this related to consciousness?
A central part of human consciousness is based on the idea that we are people with a fixed and stable identity across time, which is distinct and separate from the identity of other people and the environment that surrounds us. This confirms our sense of the self. Drugs that contain DMT, like ayahuasca and psychedelics in general, are capable of expanding the limits of consciousness and the self, which can generate a significant experience of connection with others, nature, the world, etc. In this way psychedelics have the ability to dissolve the sense of the self or identity and generate an experience of inseparable unity between the person and the world. These experiences of unity also are frequently found in accounts of mystical or spiritual experiences. There is a crossover point between psychedelic drugs like DMT and spirituality. However it is also important to mention that not every time they are going to lead to a mystical experience.
The first research into DMT was done by Richard Strassman in the 1990s after decades of prohibition. How is your research different from his?
The research of Rick Strassman consisted of looking at the effects of DMT in human beings. He basically focused on the effect it has in basic body indicators such as heart rate, temperature, hormones and in the fascinating subjective experiences of his participants. My research is centered on elucidating what the effects are that DMT has on the brain and the human experience and a large part of my project is focused on creating connections that explain the relation between both areas.
Neuroscientific research with psychedelics is important to understand what happens with the brain when there is a radical change in the state of consciousness generated by these agents, but it can also help us to understand the relationship between the brain and the human experience in general. Given that we know that DMT is capable of causing strong visions and experiences (as if the world around us were replaced by a different one while we are under the effects of the drug), to discover what the mechanisms are in the brain that underlie this significant change of consciousness can also help us to understand how the brain participates in the construction of the world in which we live day to day.
Bad trips on DMT are almost non-existent. Why does this happen? Is there something in the brain that suppresses fear?
Experiences that generate transitory anxiety or fear are possible with all psychedelic drugs, including DMT. Its effects can cause strong anxiety but it is very short lived since the whole experience only lasts a few minutes when it is smoked. It also important to mention that the probability of these bad experiences is significantly reduced if you are in a good environment (being with someone you trust, in a safe space, without an excess of stimulation) and in a good mental state in general.
Your research focuses on the biological and personal effects on the therapeutic level. What ailments could the use of DMT help to combat or relieve?
There is evidence that points to DMT being a great tool to reduce levels of depression and help with addiction, especially when its effects come from ayahuasca, which also contains other drugs. This extension of its effects can lead to experiences that can be meaningful in making personal and therapeutic progress. Nevertheless it is important to mention for this to happen the environment where you consume is important. In many cases, what has been called the process of integration is also important, which is when the person reflects on their experience to incorporate what they learned into their daily life.
Parallel realities and beings from other dimensions
What relation does the use of DMT have with the creation and knowledge of other planes or dimensions?
It is not difficult to find accounts that mention the ingestion of DMT leading to an experience in which one has access to knowledge about other dimensions or parallel realities, as well as spiritual or mystical revelations. It is also common to find descriptions of learning a lot of overwhelming information as wel as encounters with beings from other dimensions. Other psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin (magic mushrooms) can generate similar experiences. However with DMT these experiences are notably common, which makes this a fascinating compound. At the same time it is very difficult to try to decipher if these experiences are influenced by what people have heard about the drug, by their personal experiences or by their expectations with regards to what is going to happen once they ingest the drug.
What is your opinion regarding the legalization of drugs?
It seems to me that there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the large costs that current drug policy has had on people. I think that decriminalization is a necessary step to improve the current situation, in addition to a policy focused on the reduction of harm. There should be a distancing from the currently dominant prohibitionist policy. There are some highly successful examples of this, as in the case of Portugal, where they have lowered the high costs and harm associated with the use of drugs in society. It can be said that consumption increases with the decriminalization of drugs. However the focus should be on the harm created by one policy or another, not if consumption increases or no. As such, the evidence points to a important reduction in the number of deaths and costs associated with decriminalization, while the opposite happens in the case of prohibition. At the same time, I believe that the process to get to that point and the required implementation in each context is something that requires a lot of thought as to how to adapt it to each case.