Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The DMT ‘elves’ people meet while tripping
Why do so many people encounter these 'elves' after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
The psychedelic drug DMT can conjure powerful visions. In low doses, people often hallucinate fractal patterns, geometric shapes, and distortions in the physical space around them. But things get much stranger with higher doses.
When people consume enough DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) to have a "breakthrough" experience, they often encounter beings commonly known as 'elves' that seem autonomous, existing in a reality separate from our own.
The form and nature of DMT elves vary in reports, but one thing remains curiously constant: People tend to rank these encounters among the most meaningful experiences of their lives. For some people, these encounters change their beliefs about reality, the existence of an afterlife, and God.
A recent survey provides some of the most detailed information about these encounters to date. Published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the survey includes responses from 2,561 adults about their single most memorable encounter with a being (or beings) after smoking or vaporizing DMT. (DMT is an endogenous chemical, meaning the body produces it naturally, though it's currently a Schedule I drug in the U.S.)
Most respondents had used DMT about a dozen times in their life. The survey excluded experiences in which people consumed other drugs with DMT, and it didn't include experiences with ayahuasca, which is a brew that contains DMT.
The results show:
The encounters produced an emotional response for 99 percent of people. The most common emotions were "joy (65%), trust (63%), surprise (61%), love (59%), kindness (56%), friendship (48%), and fear (41%) during the encounter experience, with smaller proportions reporting emotions such as sadness (13%), distrust (10%), disgust (4%), or anger (3%)." Interestingly, 58 percent of respondents said the being also had an emotional response, almost always a positive one.
The encounters felt more "real" than reality. This was true for 81 percent of respondents during the encounter, and 65 percent after the encounter. One respondent wrote: "There was an indescribably powerful notion that this dimension in which the entity and I convened was infinitely more "real" than the consensus reality I usually inhabit. It felt truer than anything else I'd ever experienced."
People described the entities in different ways. The most commonly chosen labels "were "being," (60%) "guide," (43%) "spirit," (39%) "alien," (39%) or "helper" (34%). Other labels selected by small proportions of respondents (range 10–16%), included the terms "elf," "angel," "religious personage," or "plant spirit," and very few (range 1–5%) reporting the terms "gnome," "monster," or a "deceased" person."
Most people said the beings weren't hallucinations. About three-quarters of respondents said they believe the being was real, but it exists in some kind of different dimension or reality. Only 9 percent said the being existed "completely within myself."
Most described the beings positively. "When asked about the attributes of the entity, a majority of the sample reported that the entity was conscious (96%), intelligent (96%), benevolent (78%), sacred (70%), had agency in the world (54%), and was positively judgmental (52%). Fewer reported that the entity was petitionable (23%), negatively judgmental (16%), or malicious (11%)."
Most received a message during the encounter. About two-thirds of respondents said they received "a message, task, mission, purpose, or insight from the entity encounter experience."
What kinds of messages? Some people were shown that death isn't the end, that everything and everyone is connected. Others had personal insights revealed to them, such as bad behaviors that they should stop.
Some messages were strangely practical — one respondent said the beings revealed the location of a Zippo lighter that had been missing (it was buried deep in a couch, go figure). There was also the respondent who said a being "was teaching me the rules/regulations of the NFL."
The encounters were often followed by lasting changes in well-being and beliefs. About one-quarter of respondents said they were atheist before the encounter, but only 10 percent said they were after.
"Additionally, approximately one-third (36%) of respondents reported that before the encounter their belief system included a belief in ultimate reality, higher power, God, or universal divinity, but a significantly larger percentage (58%) of respondents reported this belief system after the encounter."
What's more, 89 percent of respondents said the encounter led to lasting improvements in well-being or life-satisfaction. Why? The researchers suggested that "ontological shock" — the state of being forced to question your worldview — may "play an important role in the enduring positive life changes in attitudes, moods, and behavior attributed to these experiences."
"As such, it is possible that, under appropriate supportive set and setting conditions, DMT could show promise as an adjunct to therapy for people with mood and behavioral problems (e.g. depression and addiction)," the researchers wrote.
The study also noted that DMT encounters have a lot in common with near-death and alien-abduction experiences, which also have been shown to produce long-lasting changes in personal beliefs.
What are DMT elves?
Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?
The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once described one of his DMT experiences:
"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.
These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"
McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien." But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.
Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to speak directly to the gods. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.
In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that "at least half" of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.
"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".
Of course, many people believe that DMT elves are merely hallucinations. But the question remains: Why do so many people encounter similar beings?
One answer: That's exactly what people expect to encounter. After all, it's likely that people who seek out a rare and intense drug like DMT have researched it, and possibly stumbled across McKenna's machine-elf idea. So, that's the image their brain produces. (An Erowid survey on the topic of DMT beings once included the question: "Do you know who Terence McKenna is?" 54 percent of respondents reported having some knowledge of him.)
Another explanation comes from a 2004 DoseNation article by James Kent, the author of "Psychedelic Information Theory — Shamanism in the Age of Reason". Kent argued that "humans across all cultures have alien and heavenly archetypes embedded in their subconscious, and psychedelic tryptamines can access the archetypes with a high level of success."
Kent said he's encountered DMT elves during his own experiences, and that he's even managed to have "rudimentary conversations of sorts" with them. In his personal experiments, he tested whether these beings could reveal to him any information that he himself would be incapable of knowing. They couldn't.
Manuel Medir / Getty
"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."
It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look nothing like elves or aliens. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.
In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves?
You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.
Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point.
In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."
DMT elves may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.
- Will Ayahuasca One Day be a Go-To Mental Health Prescription ... ›
- 5-MeO-DMT: The new psychedelic with promising mental health ... ›
- DMT and near-death experiences are similar, study finds - Big Think ›
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.