The Spirit Molecule


EXCERPT: [...] the psychiatrist Rick Strassman has championed the pineal gland as a possible source of the powerful psychoactive compound DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine). Struck by the ‘blinding light of pineal DMT’, Strassman has suggested in his 2001 best-seller, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, that the mammalian pineal gland could be a gateway between life and death.

That book described the first new research on psychedelics in the United States since the 1960s. In groundbreaking work conducted at the University of New Mexico in the first half of the 1990s, Strassman administered intravenous doses of DMT to nearly 60 volunteers, more than half of whom described encounters with ‘entities’, beings that were variously clownish, elven, angelic, demonic, alien, robotic, insectoidal, and more. These reports triggered Strassman’s provocative proposition that the pineal gland, under stress, could release enough DMT into the brain to cause extraordinary transpersonal experiences. After Strassman’s subjects reported encounters with aliens and other non-human forms, he conjectured that visionaries and prophets throughout history may have been in the throes of a pineal surge of naturally occurring DMT.

[...] In 1986, Strassman had a pivotal encounter with [Terence] McKenna at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur in California, followed by a working session at McKenna’s house in Sebastopol, CA, two years hence. ‘If it weren’t for my friendship with Terence, it’s unlikely I ever would have studied DMT,’ Strassman has recalled. ‘Nor would the form of my research be the same without [that] particularly memorable brainstorming session in his library in the summer of 1988.’

It was not long after this encounter that Strassman began his arduous and eventually successful gambit to gain approvals from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration to trial DMT with healthy individuals. Observing the phenomenological effects reported by participants in the New Mexico trials, Strassman documented the alien ‘worlds’ into which his volunteers plunged. The drama and authenticity of these reports caused Strassman to challenge the view of DMT as the ‘nightmare hallucinogen’ promoted by legendary drug experimentalist William S Burroughs. Under Strassman’s watch, DMT was now the ‘spirit molecule’. Something was happening here, and for Strassman, the pineal gland was the smoking gun.

[...] Strassman and his colleagues reported that DMT had been identified in the pineal glands of rats, a finding met with considerable interest in the growing psychedelic research community. But while these findings boosted Strassman’s theories, the debate over whether the human pineal gland could manufacture DMT in psychedelic quantities still rages on.

And as the search for solid proof continues, the runaway ‘DMT gland’ meme continues to fuel films, our literature and our cultural myths, impregnated with opposing perspectives on the human condition. In staking their claims, cultural producers have exploited the uncertainties associated with DMT and its profoundly unpredictable out-of-body effects, which make the compound ripe for imaginative storytelling....


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