DMT makes your brain think it's dying—and it's completely wonderful

A new study compares the psychedelic DMT with near-death experiences.

Back in the mid-nineties, I read a first-person article about the near-death experience (NDE) one curious traveler braved under the influence of ayahuasca while visiting the jungles of Brazil. The potent brew, which requires plants featuring the psychoactive compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT) as well as plants that provide alkaloids to elongate the hallucinogenic effects, has been ritualistically used for, well, "a long time" is the best guess anyone can muster.


While memory is notoriously spotty, I specifically recall the writer lying down on the jungle dirt and watching his body from the forest canopy. Though disassociated, there was no fear. There might have been something about astral traveling; the fact that he had an NDE and returned, refreshed and reinvigorated, stayed with me.

During my three experiences with ayahuasca (and numerous encounters with the isolated DMT; the effects only last a few minutes), I’ve had a similar experience on one occasion. The boundaries of my body felt porous; the distance between myself and my environment dissolved. I also spent a few years working as the music supervisor for the documentary film, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, watching the original four-plus hour cut. NDEs were the most common anecdote offered by those under the spell of this “plant medicine.”

Beyond anecdotes, I’ve never vouched for the metaphysics of the substance. It offers an opportunity to dive deeply into my own psychology and contemplate my habitual patterns. The “healing,” to me, is confronting patterns I’d rather abandon; the ritual is a powerful reminder of why I should. There’s something special about the dissolution of perceived boundaries that anyone can draw benefit from. Treating the “death” metaphorically can serve as a catalyst for real-world transformation.

A new study, published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, confirms that the NDE is a universal trait of DMT. A team of researchers from Imperial College London, supervised by one of the world’s leading researchers in psychedelic studies, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, injected 13 healthy volunteers with either a compound of DMT or a placebo. They then asked 16 questions, comparing their responses to those preferred by 67 medical patients who had experienced NDEs during a heart attack.

A universal experience not limited to psychedelics, the NDE is defined, in part, by “feelings of inner-peace, out-of-body experiences, traveling through a dark region or ‘void’ (commonly associated with a tunnel), visions of a bright light, entering into an unearthly ‘other realm’ and communicating with sentient ‘beings.’”

Elves, specifically. People on DMT see elves. 

Chris Timmerman, a PhD candidate in Carhart-Harris’s Psychedelic Research Group and lead author of the study, summates the results:

Our findings show a striking similarity between the types of experiences people are having when they take DMT and people who have reported a near-death experience.

Before analogies drawn from sensations after ingesting an entheogen and those from a heart attack are entwined, the authors offer caution. DMT, they write, is like entering an "unearthly realm," while actually nearly dying makes you feel like you’re approaching "a point of no return." Context matters.

That said, Carhart-Harris, who was featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s recent book about psychedelics (discussing how they can help terminally ill patients confront death) notes DMT's therapeutic utility:

These findings are important as they remind us that NDE occur because of significant changes in the way the brain is working, not because of something beyond the brain. DMT is a remarkable tool that can enable us to study and thus better understand the psychology and biology of dying.

Pollan makes a similar point in his book. We often limit medicine to biological specificity. If I have a headache and a pill decreases inflammation associated with it, it “works.” If I have a heartache, am depressed, or am confronting terminal illness, the perspective given by psychedelics has not been treated as equally valid medicine. But it is, as this and other research is confirming. If the goal is healing someone in distress, be it physically or emotionally, all options should be on the table.

As for the common occurrence of seeing little elves after ingesting DMT—I have not, though people I’ve been in a ceremony with have; the most I’ve “seen” is intense fractal patterns playing off of candlelight—the brain is a wonderful and mysterious machine. Dr. David Luke, a senior psychologist at Greenwich University that specializes in consciousness studies and psychedelics, believes that DMT might hold a key to understanding human spirituality.

DMT is naturally produced in the human body (as well as in other mammals). It has been found in our lungs and eyes and, Luke mentions, appear to play a role in our immune system. The popular citation of DMT being produced in our pineal gland, which has led thousands of cosmonauts to speculate that our “third eye” produces the mystical DMT, is currently unfounded. It could be produced there, Luke says—trace amounts have been found in the pineal glands of rats—but research has not confirmed this. As Luke says:

There is possibility but we have yet to discover what the pineal glands’ actually function is. It seems to be important as a neurological transmitter on certain, little understood, neurotransmitter sites in the brain … But the question remains why we have an extremely potent psychedelic chemical floating around in the human body. Can this account for spontaneous mythical and spiritual experiences?

Could be. But as Timmerman concludes about his study, what’s really essential is DTM's therapeutic utility. In this light, research is holding up.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

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Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku

(pexels.com)

While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.