DMT The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman
Originally published in 2000 ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’, by Rick Strassman, has quickly become one of the leading books in psychedelic literature. Strassman presents a genuine attempt to tie up the esoteric and the scientific in a manner perhaps unrivalled in the genre. Powerfully written, the book contains elements of autobiography, scientific research and psychedelic speculation and Strassman’s skill in maintaining an objective outlook throughout creates an engaging narrative.
Since the counterculture fall out, there had been 20 years where human testing with psychedelics vanished from the scientific radar. It wasn’t until Rick Strassman, after a lengthy bureaucratic battle that is described in detail in the book, was given permission to study DMT that the curtains began to lift. For five years, between 1990 – 1995, Strassman gave approx. 400 doses of DMT to experienced and stable psychonauts in order to examine the ‘mystical experience’.
Strassman’s working hypothesis is that DMT, which is naturally found in the body, is produced by the pineal gland within the brain. During near-death experiences he postulates that the gland releases DMT and results in a partial detachment of the mind from the body. In order to test the theory, he administers, via injection, DMT to his volunteers and examines both their physical and subjective response in relation to ‘naturally occurring’ mystical states.
Interestingly, there are two assumptions that Strassman works from. Firstly, that the pineal gland produces DMT and secondly that DMT is the most likely candidate for the ‘spirit molecule’. The existence of the spirit molecule is the alchemical gold, which, if it exists, provides science with its first measurable insight into the ‘mystical experience’, the world of otherness and pure consciousness. This bridge, or trigger, lays the foundation for a good deal of psychedelic speculation and what makes Strassman’s style so engaging is his ability to contextualise possibility.
“Keep in mind that a spirit molecule is not spiritual in and of itself. It is a tool, or a vehicle. Think of it as a tugboat, a chariot, a scout on horseback, something to which we can fix our consciousness – A spirit molecule also leads us into spiritual realms. These worlds are usually invisible to us and our instruments and are not accessible using our normal state of consciousness.”
The book has a typical psy-lit structure. There is the usual dose of history, which for Strassman largely focuses on the chemical understanding but does also lend to the cultural as well. There are well written outlines examining the science involved and the autobiographical element of his own beliefs. The processes of gaining permission to experiment, conducting and analyzing results are also explored in depth. The book is, in one sense, a palatable scientific paper and, in another, it exemplifies the social prejudice that psychedelics still maintain among the general populous and institutions; this is the constant discourse that fuels the narrative.
There are several chapters dedicated to examining the experience of the volunteers and these are perhaps among the most interesting I’ve read. Strassman divides DMT experience into roughly three categories; ‘personal’, ‘transpersonal’ and ‘invisible’. The ‘personal’ experience is a sort of self-reflective psycho-analysis, wherein one engages with the structures of normal consciousness. The ‘transpersonal’ relates distinctly to the ‘mystical experience’, or what Leary might call the ‘ego-loss’, or what psy-lit generally categorizes as the ‘white light’.
The third type, the ‘invisible’ was, for Strassman, the most difficult to evaluate. Touched upon by Terence McKenna when he described his meetings with ‘self-transforming machine elves’, the experience involves contact ‘cross-dimensionally’. “Beyond our own loss of control, some volunteers felt another ‘intelligence’ or ‘force’ directing their minds in an interactive manner. This was especially common in cases of contact with ‘beings’.” These experiences took on an almost science-fiction like quality and proved to be fertile ground for speculation.
In the end, I felt the most important element of the book was the contextualization of the questions most important in psychedelic research. Strassman keenly recognizes and extrapolates the areas that appear to be most vital in the further study and theory of psychedelics. For example, the hypothesis that the pineal gland produces DMT remains only a hypothesis; for our understanding to move on, science needs to turn its attention to these speculations and Strassman constantly reiterates the need for an objective framework.
The book also lends further credence to the “set and setting” understanding that Leary et al developed in the 1960s: “The spirit molecule is neither good nor bad, beneficial or harmful, in and of itself. Rather, set and setting establish the context and the quality of experiences to which DMT leads us. Who we are and what we bring to the sessions and to our lives ultimately mean more than the drug experience itself.”
Drawing a line between the subjective and objective understanding is perhaps the biggest challenge facing psychedelia, if it is in fact an obstacle at all – Quantum Theory undertones, which may become the vital component in psychedelic theory, are always too garbled. Unlike McKenna, who felt that experience was primary, Strassman seems a little more reluctant in his appraisal.