Since the turn of the millennium the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” has slowly been growing, with a number of dedicated researchers tirelessly working to legitimize a field of science profoundly stigmatized by decades of social and political disapproval. Psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms, is currently speeding into Phase 3 human trials as a treatment for major depression, while MDMA, commonly known in recreational circles as ecstasy, is quite literally on the cusp of final FDA approval as a groundbreaking PTSD treatment.
These compounds, for years labelled as illegal, taboo, recreational drugs, with no scientific or medical value, are now being rediscovered for their extraordinary therapeutic potential. Psychedelic researchers are increasingly being welcomed back into the fold of large institutional structures that had for years ostracized this kind of study.
It is relatively easy for previously close-minded scientific communities to understand modern psychedelic research when it is focusing on a drug’s therapeutic value. A subjective psychedelic experience may be somewhat eccentric and obtuse, but if we can slot it into a clinical trial structure and show it to be effective in treating specific conditions, then we can legitimize it as a medicine.
And we all understand how medicines work …
While psychedelic science itself still lives on the outskirts of mainstream science, the world of psychedelic science has its own fringes. This is research not explicitly focused on specific therapeutic outcomes, but instead on investigating subjects as broad as the very foundations of consciousness.
Last year Johns Hopkins University launched the first dedicated psychedelic research center in the United States, called the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Of course, this multi-million dollar enterprise is primarily focused on studying the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, from its uses in depression and anorexia, to its potential as a smoking cessation tool.
But that is not all that is going on at the facility. It’s no accident the name of the center mentions psychedelic and consciousness research. Roland Griffiths, the center’s director, is a true pioneer of psychedelic research. In the early 2000s Griffiths led a landmark study investigating how high-dose psilocybin can produce mystical experiences of religious or spiritual significance. This was the first study using psilocybin in decades to receive regulatory approval in the United States.
The fringe of the fringe
Alan Davis is an adjunct associate professor currently working with the psychedelic research team at Johns Hopkins. His clinical experience and research interests have previously been grounded in exploring better ways to treat subjects suffering from trauma-based psychological problems. However, more recently some of the work he has been involved with has investigated the weirder edges of psychedelic science.
The latest study published by Davis and his team at Johns Hopkins is the largest survey of its type ever conducted. It explores the variety of experiences people have encountering autonomous strange entities after smoking the powerful, fast-acting hallucinogen, N,N-dimethyltryptamine, commonly referred to as DMT. Speaking to New Atlas, Davis excitedly describes the team’s findings while also recognizing how deeply strange this kind of science can fundamentally be.
“I think of it as psychedelic science is already on the fringe in a lot of ways,” says Davis, “and this is even further out there … frankly it lives on the fringe of all science.”
The specificity of this new research topic grew out of a survey by the Johns Hopkins team last year exploring what were deemed “God encounter experiences” triggered by classical psychedelic substances. That study laid the foundation for a new, and much more targeted investigation.
Davis notes there is a significant volume of subjective anecdotal accounts describing highly detailed encounters with strange entities while under the influence of DMT. One 2006 report compiled 340 detailed DMT trip reports and found 66 percent of experiences recounted interacting with independently existing entities, while under the influence of the drug.
An iconic series of experiments in the 1990s by Rick Strassman also chronicled a number of DMT-induced entity encounter experiences. Strassman’s landmark book DMT: The Spirit Molecule described these landmark studies, which were ultimately discontinued after concerns began to grow around the possible adverse effects these deeply strange experiences were having on the participants.
Elves, aliens, robots and more
There is no doubt these powerful stories have created a certain narrative around DMT for several decades, but the new research set out to try and produce a volume of empirical data to better understand exactly what kinds of experiences people are having.
“There’s a lot of discussion about machine elves, and aliens, and very intriguing encounters with robots,” says Davis. “So that made us very curious to try to figure out, even though that is what’s reported online, is that actually what people are experiencing?”
The new study gathered data from an online survey, initially accessed by over 10,000 people. After whittling down responses to only include subjects with no prior diagnosis of psychosis, who were reporting pure DMT experiences that led to encountering a specific autonomous entity, the study was left with over 2,500 responses.
And those responses ultimately surprised Davis and the team. The breadth of experiences reported in the survey differed from the classically iconic narratives chronicled in Rick Strassman’s landmark work.
“In fact it differed so much that it really surprised us how many people were describing experiences that were very dissimilar to what Rick Strassman described,” Davis notes. “I don’t think it means that those experiences weren’t reported. We certainly had some people reporting experiences like that, but what I think our study shows is that there is a much larger variety of experience that people have.”
“Being” or “Guide” were the most common descriptive terms used to label the entity people encountered during a DMT experience. The vast majority of respondents also used positive emotional labels (joy, trust, love, kindness) to describe their sense of the experience.
“A lot of the entity encounters that [Strassman] described were people being probed and prodded. Kind of an alien-like situation. And that was relatively uncommon in our study,” says Davis. “Certainly people described that to some degree, but more what was reported was this benevolent, loving, joyful, spirit or being that was there to communicate and relay information in some way.”
Gauging the metaphysical implications of these encounters, a striking 80 percent of all subjects reported the experience as altering their fundamental conception of reality. The majority of respondents labeled the experience as more real than their everyday waking life, and 72 percent claimed the entity encountered continued to exist after the DMT experience.
I want to believe
Perhaps one of the most intriguing findings in the study is that more than half of those subjects identifying as atheist or agnostic before the DMT experience, no longer identified as such after the entity encounter. This type of decrease in atheistic self-identification following psychedelic experiences is not a particularly novel finding. Prior research into psychedelic-induced spiritual experiences has seen similar results. However, Davis suggests it is remarkable that such a single, short experience, lasting no more than half an hour in most instances, can generate such powerful changes in subjective belief.
“What’s fascinating to us is that people are describing themselves and their religious, or belief orientation, in one way, and there is a fundamental difference after the experience in terms of how they view the universe. And that’s pretty remarkable to us that an experience can have that kind of profound shift and change.”
Davis is cautious to note the DMT-induced entity encounter experience cannot be reduced into one that simply transforms atheists into Christians, for example. But instead, what was seen in a variety of reports was an indication that the experience was so deeply profound that is was difficult to not have it shatter one’s preconceived belief system.
“They went from a firm belief in nothing, to potentially a belief in something,” says Davis describing many of the reports from former atheists. “And their experiences were so visceral and real that it couldn’t not change their understanding of their place in the universe.”
In the conclusion to the study, Davis and his team point out the vast majority of the 2,500 reports classified the DMT-induced entity encounter as one of their, “most meaningful, spiritual, and psychologically insightful lifetime experiences, with persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose and meaning attributed to the experiences.”
The psychedelic clinic of the future
This research may seem completely dislocated from the so-called “rigorous” studies into psilocybin or MDMA as therapeutic medicine, but Davis disagrees, suggesting all this research is connected, and important in establishing any future potential for clinical psychedelic therapy.
“When you look at the core molecules for these substances all of the classic psychedelics have a DMT base in the molecule. What we find when we look at DMT, or psilocybin, or 5-meo-DMT, is we’re getting a window into a different piece of the psychedelic spectrum – based on route of administration, and duration of the experience, and the setting, and all the beliefs people bring into the experience.”
So could DMT play a role in future psychedelic clinical therapies?
And could entity experiences play a role in that therapeutic process?
Davis suggests those questions are things future studies will need to grapple with, but he does see major therapeutic potential in DMT. From a simply pragmatic perspective, the short-acting nature of DMT makes it a much more useful drug than something like psilocybin, which is a long eight-hour experience demanding an entire day, oversight from multiple trained therapists and expensive resources.
“What a short-acting tryptamine does, like DMT, is it makes it conceivable that you could have multiple sessions happen in a day with multiple patients. So you could have someone come in, have a psychedelic experience in an hour, and then process it with their therapist and go on and have their day,” hypothesizes Davis.
He envisions a future similar to one described by Rick Doblin from MAPS. Psychedelic therapy clinics across the United States would offer a variety of psychedelic medicines that can help different types of problems, with varying severities.
It’s certainly an ambitious vision, but it is not without a robust scientific foundation. Both psilocybin and MDMA have recently been granted a Breakthrough Status designation by the FDA, meaning initial clinical trials have demonstrated meaningful and valuable success.
And, while these kinds of studies looking at DMT-induced encounters with strange otherworldly beings may seem worlds away from the robust psilocybin-for-depression trials currently underway, Davis stresses this fringe research actually mirrors some of the positive outcomes seen in the human psilocybin trials.
“What we did see with this study is that even though these people weren’t describing having mental health problems or using DMT for that reason, they were describing enduring positive changes in their mood, in their relationships, in their attitudes and their beliefs. Those things are the same signals we are seeing in the psilocybin trials. So to us there is some potential there worth exploring.”
The new study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
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