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Mapping the DMT Experience

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N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, can produce some of the most astounding states of consciousness known to humanity.  What’s more, the content of these experiences is far from random–consistent patterns can easily be observed across individuals.  When vaporized, DMT can produce visions of parallel alien realities populated with entities.  When consumed in the drink ayahuasca, it can produce visions of serpents and contact with what seem like spirit guides.  In order to make sense of the effects of DMT on the human brain, we first need to map out these experiences to see what it is we are dealing with.

DMT & Dose

The first interesting feature of the effects relates to the dose of DMT.  The relationship between dose and the nature of the experience is what scientists call “non-linear”.  A linear relationship is like a straight line on a graph. A step up in dose reliably produces a step up in effects, no matter if you’re dealing with high or low doses.  The effects of DMT do not fall on a nice, straight line of this kind.  Low doses can have mild psychedelic effects, but a threshold is suddenly crossed as you step up the dose. Crossing this threshold produces what is known as a “breakthrough experience,” and this is something completely different from the effects of any other psychedelic at standard doses.

Levels of the DMT Experience

Depending on the dose, one’s experience can peak in any of a number of levels.  There is no agreed-upon system for defining these levels, however.  Some argue there are three: threshold effects, the breakthrough experience, and a transition level in between.  Some have suggested these levels can be subdivided to create as many as eight.  Whichever level you experience as the peak of the trip, one doesn’t simply arrive at that place–you typically pass through the lower levels on the way to the highest state.  How can we go about systematically mapping these experiences?  Most of what we know of the effects of DMT, so far, comes from reports of first-hand experiences.

Threshold Effects

At low doses, typically below 20 mg, standard psychedelic visual effects are perceived.  This will also be experienced in the first minute of a higher dose trip.  Colors may appear more vivid, you may see visual patterns with your eyes open, or the world around you may appear distorted in geometric ways.  A common experience is of the world taking on a more synthetic appearance, as if being transformed into plastic.  Colors are brighter, surfaces are smoother and more symmetrical.  The visual effects here are nothing to write home about, they are largely constant with the effects of other psychedelics.  A person who dabbles with low dose experiences is likely to be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

The Chrysanthemum / Waiting Room / Loading Screen

At higher doses, vivid closed-eye visuals emerge.  There can be a sense of losing contact with the world around you as colorful, fast-moving geometric forms appear.  These transition experiences go by many names, with subtle variations existing.  It typically feels as if some process is taking place that is preparing the immense experience that one is about to undergo.  Many call it the “loading screen”.  The experience can take on the feeling of being in a room of some kind, with the big experience on the other side of the wall.  This psychological space has been termed the “waiting room”. DMT enthusiast Terence McKenna called it the “chrysanthemum”, as a result of the floral appearance of the colorful geometry. 

If one takes an intermediate dose, this can be the end of the experience.  If one has successfully consumed a breakthrough dose, however, typically one is suddenly shot through a tunnel to DMT space.

The Breakthrough

A breakthrough occurs when there is a total loss of contact with the world around you and there is only the experience of the trip.  It is typically felt as existing with another “reality” or “realm”.  One finds oneself entirely immersed in “DMT space”.  A breakthrough can occur with as little as 25 mg if it is all successfully consumed, but can take as much as 50-60 mg.  So far we’ve seen fairly standard psychedelics effects–visual distortions, color saturation, geometric hallucinations.  DMT space is where things get very interesting.

DMT Space

The space encountered during a DMT experience can take on many forms.  It can vary between individuals but also within a single trip.  It is common to find oneself moving through colorful, sci-fi corridors.  The corridors can often seem to extend indefinitely as if you are moving through a 3D geometric hallucination.  The world often has a plastic-looking synthetic appearance.  These features can be thought of as extremes of the low-level effects.  It seems as if the core chromatic and geometric aspects of visual perception are pulled out and are used to construct a new space, since the connection to one’s everyday senses have been lost.

Movement & Hyperbolic Geometry

DMT space is not somewhere where you can chill out in one place.  There is usually the experience of relatedness movement through space, often at high speeds.  This can feel as if you are exploring a giant fractal landscape or being processed into a machine.  In a 2016 essay posted on qualiacomputing.com, the author, Andrés Gómez Emilsson, argues that hypergolic geometry can be used to understand the effects of DMT.  Our typical experience of the world plays out in what is called “Euclidean space,” the familiar three dimensions in which a measurement is the same in all three dimensions.  Imagine distorting the room you are in so that it curves into a sphere.  Your movements in the space are now somewhat distorted–the corner of the room is now the same distance from you as any other part of the wall, for example. 

Mathematicians call this positive curvature, but what if we added negative curvature?  What if we bent our experience of space so that it was the opposite of a sphere?  This distorts space in ways that are harder to imagine (at least while sober) but might capture aspects of the DMT trip.  Small movements can suddenly produce large changes in spatial location, for example.  What’s more, many people report finding themselves in curved rooms and corridors that show hyperbolic geometry.

Entities

One of the most surprising features of DMT space is that it is often populated.  People routinely have the experience of meeting and communicating with seemingly autonomous entities.  In 2020, researcher Alan Davis in the lab of Roland Griffiths at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, published the result of a study that sought to map out the kinds of entity encounter experiences people have while under the influence of DMT.  They gave DMT users a survey to complete and analyzed the responses.  The researchers found that the most common labels used to describe the entities, in descending order of frequency, were Being, Guide, Spirit, Alien, Helper, Angel, and Elf.  Anecdotally, it is also not uncommon to encounter insectoid or reptilian beings.

Emotional Tone

In the same study, they mapped people’s emotional responses to these entity encounters.  In descending order of frequency, the most common feelings were Joy, Trust, Surprise, Love, Kindness, and Friendship.  While these positive emotions were the most prominent, the next most common emotion was fear.  While DMT appears to produce these positive emotions, it may be the overwhelming nature of the experience that is capable of producing the fear component.

Hyperreality & Familiarity

Arguably the most striking aspect of the DMT experience isn’t something visual.  It is a sense of profound familiarity, of certainty regarding the existence of DMT space.  It can feel like DMT space is the foundation of reality, the “A game” with everyday reality being the “B game”.  This can give people the feeling that our everyday reality is some kind of simulation or dream.  Scientists recently quantified the extent to which DMT space feels “more real than real”.  The same study quantified how much more “real than real” the experience felt to participants.  During the experience, the DMT space felt just over 50% more real than everyday reality, on average.  After the experience, it felt just over 25% more real than everyday experience.  Feeling 100% more real would mean it felt twice as real, so 50% is a significant increase. 

The positive emotional tone, sense of certainty, familiarity, and reality may all be related.  Plato equated what was good with what is real. Perhaps this connection is wired into our brains in a way that DMT allows us to experience.

Ayahuasca

The DMT experience is rapid, and many psychonauts who are interested in the nature of this experience seek a way to slow it down.  While DMT itself isn’t orally active, the ayahuasca preparation allows it to be slowly released into the brain via the digestive system.  This slows down the experience but also changes its character.  The seminal text that sought to map the ayahuasca experience is the Antipodes of the Mind by Benny Shanon.  Shanon is a cognitive psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has extensive experience with the Amazonian brew.  He reports that the experience is routinely characterized by organic imagery, with snakes and jaguars being widespread.  Compared to the sci-fi intensity of the pure DMT experience, what produces these more natural images is currently unknown. 

Ayahuasca contains other psychoactive compounds in addition to DMT, which very likely contributes to this effect, but how is currently unknown.  Ornate palaces are also a common experience under ayahuasca, an experience that may mirror the 3D geometric effects of pure DMT.  Another common experience of meeting a feminine spirit guide that people often call mother ayahuasca.

Psilocybin Similarities

Given the chemical similarity of DMT and psilocybin, some have argued that we can think of the latter as orally-active DMT.  In high doses, psilocybin produces DMT like experiences.  Terence McKenna advocated using five dried grams of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms in silent darkness to connect with the entities one meets on a DMT trip.  The late Kilindi Iyi, a martial arts and psychedelics advocate, experimented with doses ten times greater than this and found the experience to be very much like a DMT trip.  He reported the effects as being like tumbling through a subatomic sci-fi environment with the appearance of Khemet (Ancient Egypt).

The Prospect of the Extended DMT State

The DMT experience is so striking that it leads some scientists to develop new cosmologies to make sense of it.  Neurobiologist Andrew Gallimore, author of Alien Information Theory, argues that this world is a simulation that DMT allows us to temporarily escape. Rick Strassman, author of the DMT: The Spirit Molecule and DMT and The Soul of Prophecy, argued in the latter book that DMT might be a divine communication channel engineered into us by the God of Abraham.  In 2016, these researchers teamed up to publish a method for delivering DMT intravenously in a manner that would make it possible to extend the DMT state to any length of time.  This would make it possible to conduct experiments in order to investigate the nature of DMT space in more detail.  Daniel McQueen of The Center For Medicinal Mindfulness is hoping to make this research a reality.

Only Just the Beginning

The DMT experience is one of the most astounding things in existence.  No satisfying theory exists that can account for the full range of mind-bending effects of this incredible substance.  Mapping out its characteristics is the first step on a journey to making sense of what this experience means.  So far, DIY psychonauts are largely to thank for our understanding of the structure of DMT space.  In recent years, scientists have begun to tentatively map these experiences by analyzing these reports and administering surveys.  We’re going to need a lot more work if we are ever going to truly make sense of the DMT experience.  With the psychedelic renaissance gathering steam, we can look forward to science spearheading these efforts to help us get a better handle on this baffling experience.

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