PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY • 39
hormone, and temperature regulation, as well as sleep, feeding, mood,
perception, and motor control.
Now that we've looked at what psychedelics "are" and "do" in the worlds
of objective and measurable data, let's turn our attention how they/eeZ to
us, for it is only in the mind that we notice their effects.
It is important to remember that while we understand a great deal
about the pharmacology of psychedelics, we know nearly nothing about
how changes in brain chemistry directly relate to subjective, or inner,
experience. This is as true for psychedelics as it is for Prozac. That is, we
are far from comprehending how activating particular serotonin receptors
translates into a new thought or emotion. We don't "feel" a serotonin re-
ceptor blockade; rather, we feel ecstasy. We don't "see" frontal lobe
activation; instead, we observe angels or demons.
It is impossible to predict accurately what will happen after taking a
psychedelic drug on any particular day. Nevertheless, we will generalize
about their subjective effects because we must gain a sense of a "typical"
response. We can do this by averaging all of our own and others' experi-
ences, all of the "trips" that have gone before us. (By "trip" I mean the
full effects of a typical psychedelic drug like LSD, mescaline, psilocybin,
or DMT. A trip is difficult to define, but we certainly know when we are
The following descriptions do not apply to "mild" psychedelics such
as MDMA or usual-strength marijuana, nor do they describe responses to
low doses of psychedelics, for which effects are similar to those of other
non-psychedelic drugs, like amphetamine.
Psychedelics affect all of our mental functions: perception, emotion,
thinking, body awareness, and our sense of self.
Perceptual or sensory effects often, but not always, are primary. Ob-
jects in our field of vision appear brighter or duller, larger or smaller, and
seem to be shifting shape and melting. Eyes closed or open, we see things
that have little to do with the outside world: swirling, colorful, geometric
cloud patterns, or well-formed images of both animate and inanimate ob-
jects, in various conditions of motion or activity.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS
Sounds are softer or louder, harsher or gentler. We hear new rhythms
in the wind. Singing or mechanical sounds appear in a previously silent
The skin is more or less sensitive to touch. Our ability to taste and
smell becomes more or less acute.
Our emotions overflow or dry up. Anxiety or fear, pleasure or relax-
ation, all feelings wax and wane, overpoweringly intense or frustratingly
absent. At the extremes lie terror or ecstasy. Two opposite feelings may
exist together at the same time. Emotional conflicts become more painful,
or a new emotional acceptance takes place. We have a new appreciation
of how others feel, or no longer care about them at all.
Our thinking processes speed up or slow down. Thoughts themselves
become confused or clearer. We notice the absence of thoughts, or it is
impossible to contain the flood of new ideas. Fresh insights about prob-
lems come, or we become hopelessly stuck in a mental rut. The significance
of things takes on more importance than the things themselves. Time col-
lapses: in the blink of an eye, two hours pass. Or time expands: a minute
contains a never-ending march of sensations and ideas.
Our bodies are hot or cold, heavy or light; our limbs grow or shrink;
we move upward or downward through space. We feel the body no longer
exists, or that the mind and body have separated.
We feel more or less in control of our "selves." We experience others
influencing our minds or bodies—in ways that are beneficial or frighten-
ing. The future is ours for the taking, or fate has determined everything
and there is no point in trying.
Psychedelics affect every aspect of our consciousness. It is this unique
consciousness that separates our species from all others below, and that
gives us access to what we consider the divine above. Maybe that's an-
other reason why the psychedelics are so frightening and so inspiring:
They bend and stretch the basic pillars, the structure and defining char-
acteristics, of our human identity.
These are the psychedelic drugs. There exists a complex and rich context
for viewing them, a perspective that few appreciate. They are not new
PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY • 41
substances, and we know an enormous amount about them. They ushered
in the modern era of biological psychiatry, and their highly publicized
abuse prematurely ended an extraordinarily rich human research endeavor.
It was into this seething matrix of conflict, ambivalence, and contro-
versy that I looked for a point of traction and a clear line of sight in order
to formulate my own research agenda. Where could I get a toehold? In
which direction should I look? I needed a key with which to open the lock
keeping psychedelic research buried.
Out of this virtual swamp emerged one small obscure molecule: DMT.
Its call was one I could not ignore, even though I had little idea of how I
might get to it. Nor could I possibly expect where it would lead me once I
What DMT Is
IN , N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is the remarkable main character
of this book. While chemically simple, this "spirit" molecule provides
our consciousness access to the most amazing and unexpected visions,
thoughts, and feelings. It throws open the door to worlds beyond our
DMT exists in all of our bodies and occurs throughout the plant and
animal kingdoms. It is a part of the normal makeup of humans and other
mammals; marine animals; grasses and peas; toads and frogs; mushrooms
and molds; and barks, flowers, and roots.
Psychedelic alchemist Alexander Shulgin devotes an entire chapter
to DMT in TIHKAL: Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved. He aptly en-
titles this chapter "DMT Is Everywhere" and declares: "DMT is ... in
this flower here, in that tree over there, and in yonder animal. [It] is, most
simply, almost everywhere you choose to look." Indeed, it is getting to the
point where one should report where DMT is not found, rather than where
WHAT DMT Is • 43
DMT is most abundant in plants of Latin America. There, humans have
known of its amazing properties for some tens of thousands of years. How-
ever, it is only in the last 150 years that we have gained some inkling of
the antiquity of DMT's relationship with our species.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, explorers of the Amazon, particularly
Richard Spruce from England and Alexander von Humboldt from Ger-
many, described the effects of exotic mind-altering snuffs and brews
prepared from plants by indigenous tribes. In the twentieth century, the
American botanist Richard Schultes continued this dangerous yet excit-
ing line of fieldwork. Especially striking were the effects of, and the manner
of administering, the psychoactive snuffs.
Latin American indigenous tribes continue to use these snuffs and
have given them many names, including yopo, epena, and jurema. They
take huge doses, sometimes an ounce or more. One dramatic technique is
for one's snuffing partner to blow the powdery mixtures with considerable
force through a tube or pipe into the other's nose. The energy of the blast
may be sufficient to drop the recipient to the ground.
Spruce and von Humboldt reported that natives were immediately
incapacitated by these psychedelic snuffs. Neither, however, went so far
as to see for themselves what they were like. It was enough to watch the
intoxicated Indians, twitching, vomiting, and babbling incoherently. These
early explorers heard tales of fantastic visions, "out-of-body travel," pre-
dictions of the future, location of lost objects, and contact with dead
ancestors or other disembodied entities.
Another plant mixture, this one consumed as a beverage, seemed to
produce similar effects at a slower pace. This brew also went by several
names, including ayahuasca and yage. This drink inspired much rock art
and paintings drawn on the walls of native shelters—what would be called
"psychedelic" art today.
Spruce and von Humboldt brought samples of these New World psy-
chedelic plants back home to Europe. There the plants lay undisturbed
for decades, as neither the interest nor the technology existed for further
analysis of their chemical makeup or effects.
44 • THE BUILDING BLOCKS
While psychedelic plants languished in natural history museum archives,
Canadian chemist R. Manske, in unrelated research, synthesized a new
drug called N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. As he described in a 1931
scientific article, Manske had made several compounds derived by chemi-
cally modifying tryptamine. He was interested in these products because
they occurred in a toxic North American plant, the strawberry shrub. DMT
was one of these.
As far as anyone knows, Manske made DMT, noted its structure, and
then placed his supply in some isolated corner of his laboratory, where it
quietly collected dust. No one yet knew about DMT's existence in mind-
altering plants, its psychedelic properties, or its presence in the human
body. There was little interest in psychedelics in scientific circles until
decades later, after World War II.
In the early 1950s, the discoveries of LSD and serotonin rocked the
staid foundations of Freudian psychiatry and laid the groundwork for the
new world of neuroscience. Curiosity about psychedelic drugs was in-
tense among the growing circle of scientists who called themselves
"psychopharmacologists." Chemists began probing the barks, leaves, and
seeds of plants first described as psychedelic a hundred years earlier,
seeking their active ingredients. The tryptamine family was a logical place
to focus, as both serotonin and LSD are tryptamines.
Success was not long in coming. In 1946, 0. Gongalves isolated DMT
from a South American tree used for psychedelic snuffs and published his
findings in Spanish. In 1955, M. S. Fish, N. M. Johnson, and E. C. Horning
published the first English-language paper describing DMT's presence in
another closely related snuff-producing tree. However, although they knew
that DMT was a constituent of plants that produced psychedelic effects,
scientists didn't know if DMT itself was psychoactive.
In the 1950s, Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara read
about the profoundly mind-altering effects of LSD and mescaline. He or-
dered some LSD from Sandoz Laboratories so he could begin his own
studies into the chemistry of consciousness. Since Szara was behind the
Iron Curtain, the Swiss drug company was unwilling to risk letting their
WHAT DMT Is • 45
powerful LSD falling into Communist hands, and they turned down his
request. Undaunted, he looked up recent papers describing DMT's pres-
ence in psychedelic Amazonian snuffs. He then synthesized some DMT
in his Budapest laboratory in 1955.
Szara swallowed ever-increasing doses of DMT, but felt nothing. He
tried taking up to one full gram, hundreds of thousands of times more than
an active dose of LSD. He wondered whether something in his gastrointes-
tinal system was preventing oral DMT from working. Maybe it needed to
be injected. His hunch predated the later discovery that there is a mecha-
nism in the gut that breaks down oral DMT as quickly as it is swallowed—a
mechanism South American natives found a way to bypass thousands of
In the spirit of "who goes first," Szara gave himself an intramuscular,
or IM, injection of DMT in 1956. In this case, he used about half of what
we now know to be a "full" dose:
In three or four minutes I started to experience visual sensations that
were very similar to what I had read in descriptions by Hofmann [about
LSD] and Huxley [about mescaline]. . . . I got very, very excited. It was
obvious this was the secret.
After later doubling the dose, he had this to say:
[Physical] symptoms appeared, such as a tingling sensation, trembling,
slight nausea, [widening of the pupils], elevation of the blood pressure and
increase of the pulse rate. At the same time, eidetic phenomena [after-im-
ages or "trails" of visually perceived objects], optical illusions,
pseudo-hallucinations, and later real hallucinations appeared. The hallu-
cinations consisted of moving, brilliantly colored oriental motifs, and later
I saw wonderful scenes altering very rapidly. The faces of the people seemed
to be masks. My emotional state was elevated sometimes up to euphoria.
My consciousness was completely filled by hallucinations, and my atten-
tion was firmly bound to them; therefore I could not give an account of the
events happening around me. After 45 minutes to 1 hour the symptoms
disappeared, and I was able to describe what had happened.
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