(DMT: The Spirit Molecule is available on UK and US Netflix)
In the television series Cosmos (1980) the late Carl Sagan speaks poetically about “standing on the shores of the cosmic ocean”, how mankind has only just begun to wade into the boundless unknowns of the Universe, which wait patiently for our discovery.
“How lucky we are,” he says, “to live in this time, the first moment in human history, when we are, in fact, visiting other worlds.”
Indeed we have begun to extend our gaze upwards and outwards into the Universe, but as vast and unexplored as outer space is, so too is inner space, the mystery that is human consciousness.
The two are not unrelated, our consciousness is, of course, continuous with the Universe.
Solipsistic philosophers wonder whether the human mind is at the centre of the cosmos, that there is nothing outside of our cognition. Time, space mere illusions, an elaborate fantasy of our creation.
One can never know with 100% certainty whether or not this is true.
But it does seem to be the case that time and space are, to some degree, dependent on our perception.
We often experience the sensation of time “slowing down” in moments of incredible stress or (non-chemically induced) euphoria
That this is not just a purely hallucinatory phenomenon is confirmed in an interview with neuroscientist Dave Eagleman in the New Yorker magazine, where he describes time as “a rubbery thing”.
“Clocks offer at best a convenient fiction, he says. They imply that time ticks steadily, predictably forward, when our experience shows that it often does the opposite: it stretches and compresses, skips a beat and doubles back.”
The Persistence of Memory. Salvador Dali (1931) Image Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons
These shifts in perception also become acutely evident when one observes the profound effects of psychedelic experiences on human perception:
“I didn’t know if it was my birth I was re-experiencing; or my death, which was yet to come.
This is the actual core of where all of reality is emanating from. This is where meaning comes from. Symbols were pouring out, they were intertwined, every symbol and letter in every language was pouring out of this point.”
“And so I went right into this white light and as soon as I went into it, I lost any sense of being different, any sense of what I was doing, past, any sense of future.
It was absolutely blissful and euphoric and I just felt like it wasn’t I.
I was everything. I was the light.”
There is no sense of separation, no shadows, no differences, no past, no future, no present.
These two individuals were part of a controlled experiment carried out in the early 1990s by Dr Rick Strassman an American psychiatrist, to study the neurochemical effects of DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine), a naturally occurring psychoactive compound. The participants were injected with the substance and their reactions monitored by Strassman and his team. The excerpts above are from the beautifully crafted documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2010) where, as interview subjects, the participants describe their hallucinatory experiences. Dr Strassman and his assistants were able to observe the powerful effects of this psychedelic drug on human consciousness. An individual’s entire perception of reality: space, time, etc. could be radically disrupted or even obliterated altogether, by simply altering their brain chemistry.
Their state of mind was transformed to such an extent that they could no longer identify themselves as human.
Psychedelics enable exploration of these fundamental parts of our cognisance. Whilst under the influence of DMT, temporal and spatial awareness recedes and the ego dissipates, giving rise to a feeling of “oneness with the Universe”. It can be described metaphorically as “quantum” consciousness, where all the known physical laws of nature and logic are overturned: a state of “pure being” without any sense of a clear and finite identity.
One experiences a profound, cosmic sense of self; acutely aware of existence, of simply being.
“I was everything. I was the light.” “There is no sense of separation, no shadows, no differences…”
I am infinite.
As Cynthia Geist, a nurse who attended to the participants in the DMT study, says in the documentary:
“It’s amazing, amazing what a human being can experience in a hospital bed. I mean they can experience almost the whole Universe: life, death, everything in between.”
Wearing pointed hats, which symbolize the “tombstone of the ego”, their right hands pointed skywards and their left hands, upon which they gaze, earthwards, the whirling dervishes of Turkey spin themselves into an ecstatic state of being. This is what these dancing spiritual artists, the sufis, call “the divine”, “the realm of God”, and they reach this psychedelic state without the use of psychoactive drugs at all. Image Credit: Flickr
Unfortunately, as Dr Strassman was unable to fully model the findings of the DMT experiments, he could only hypothesise as to precisely what these experiences were. In the film he says that DMT may be a type of transmission chemical that allows the brain to receive information it ordinarily cannot, creating the ability to experience alternate universes, parallel dimensions, etc. – all of which are postulated in modern theoretical physics. This is conjecture. The DMT experience may not, in fact, be attributable to multiverses or co-extending dimensions; but that does not diminish it. It still provides unique insight into the functioning of the human brain – of which we still have so much to understand. Ethnopharmacologist, Dennis McKenna, also interviewed in the documentary, describes the experience of DMT as delving into the source code of consciousness.
“ Immersing oneself in the raw data sphere of sensory input, of memories, associations… the brain builds reality out of these things.”
In these psychedelic dreams where we swim to the nebulous depths of perception, submerging ourselves in the mystery of the human psyche. There is a Universe inside my mind.