Review by Georgia Gojmerac-Leiner, 2008
Strassman, Rick, M.D. DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2001.
Have you ever wondered about the physiology of death? For instance, have you ever asked when exactly the so-called spirit leaves the body? Rick Strassman has an interesting hypothesis about the kinds of experiences that seem to yield information about the death process: near-death and mystical experiences. He attributes these experiences to the functions of DMT, which stands for N, N-dimethyltryptomine. This amazing neurochemical is produced by the pineal gland, a gland resembling a tiny pine cone, the size of a pine nut, and located “deep” within the human brain.
When Rene Descartes learned of the pineal gland, he named it the “seat of the soul.” Dr. Strassman named one of its more spectacular products, DMT, the “spirit” molecule because it makes us spirited, or can give us visions if we are injected with the lab-made version of it. This chemical, naturally produced by the body, Strassman speculates, may linger on after a person is declared dead. “The pineal tissue in the dying or recently dead may produce DMT for a few hours, and perhaps longer, and could affect our lingering consciousness. While our ‘dead’ brain wave readings are ‘flat,’ who knows about our inner mental state at this time?” (76) Strassman also calls DMT the “life and death molecule” (269) because the highest presence of it in the body is during the birthing and the dying processes, and during the most stressful times in our lives.
Strassman’s book is about his research into the effects of DMT. Willing participants receive various amounts of the lab-produced chemical by injection, and then Strassman observes them and their mental states. He and his assistants record the reported experiences at bedside as DMT is very fast acting. While the author claims that these experiences had “features of mystical experience” (234) he admits that the investigators had a difficult time interpreting some of the reports. (238)
Getting all of the approvals to do the study was an arduous process, but as the study went on, Strassman began to wonder about the possibilities of adverse effects for the subjects in the long run. Some of the experiences they reported were not as pleasant as others. He noticed “the dark side to DMT” (249) and came to “the deep and undeniable realization that DMT was not inherently therapeutic” (276). A practitioner of Buddhism himself, he began to feel pressure to stop the research from both professional and personal fronts, and thought that he had more to lose by continuing than by stopping the study. The Buddhists rose up against him! (304)
Nonetheless Strassman has no regrets. He declares that:
It is almost inconceivable that a chemical as simple as DMT could provide access to such an amazingly varied array of experiences, from the least dramatic to the most unimaginably earth-shattering. From psychological insights to encounters with aliens. Abject terror or nearly unbearable bliss. Near-death and rebirth. Enlightenment. All of these sprang from a naturally occurring chemical cousin of serotonin, a widespread and essential brain neurotransmitter. (310)
Strassman remains excited about DMT, asking why Nature, or God, made DMT, and why it is released at the most stressful times in our lives.