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Dimethyltryptamine, better known as DMT, has been part of the human story since the beginning, as it is produced inside our bodies. Although we have access to our internal supply, for thousands of years, humans have proven resilient in finding external sources of DMT for healing and allegedly connection to other worlds and spirits.

From a scientific perspective, DMT’s function is mysterious. One popular opinion is that a massive amount of DMT is released when we die and is the chemical counterpart to the psychedelic nature of near-death experiences. DMT has been speculated to be responsible for the strange content of dreams, connections to alternate dimensions, and even contact with aliens.

DMT has also been called a "building block of life." While it is surprisingly common in nature, assertions that it is somehow fundamental to life are far from proven. It is only officially recorded in fifty plant species and a handful of animal species. Understanding DMT has not been achieved with rational explanations, but the stories from its past merging with modern science suggest it could be a powerful tool for understanding consciousness.

Ancient Clues and Alternative Views

 Many theories connecting DMT to civilizations long past assume the chemical is somehow used in the pineal gland, a tiny, pinecone-shaped part of our brain. There are no current conclusions on whether or not DMT and the pineal are linked. But, we do know he pineal has a long association with the "third eye," a center of extrasensory perception in spiritual traditions.

There are many rumors about just how ancient DMT use is. Some theories connect it to the Egyptian god Osiris and the Egyptian Tree of Life, associated with rebirth. Many acacia trees around the world contain DMT, and Osiris, the god of the underworld, was born from an acacia, fuelling guesses that the symbols for death and rebirth could be related to DMT’s psychoactive properties.

Other alternative history enthusiasts stretch connections between DMT and the Bible where references to the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle are constructed of acacia wood. Others suggest that the Greek secret society that drank kykeon as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries were consuming a psychedelic beverage containing DMT.

Even the Stonemasons Guild has been thought to have connections to DMT, with sources citing the acacia tree, pineal gland, and third eye appearing in the guild’s symbolism. Other elaborate theories suggest the synthesis of DMT by skilled alchemists involved with the Masons.

The pineal gland is synonymous with DMT and the gland’s pinecone shape found throughout the architecture and art of civilizations worldwide. Osiris of Egypt, Assyrians of Sumeria, Hindu Shiva, Greek Dionysus, and Aztec Goddess Chicomecoatl all have pinecones associated with them. Ruins in Indonesia, the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Sumeria all show pinecones in the architecture, and of course, the third eye symbol is found throughout Asia.

Stories of Masons keeping DMT a secret for the initiated or the pineal being knowledge of ancient civilizations are not in conventional textbooks. The meaning of ancient symbols is speculation, but the ideas remain a part of the modern mystique of DMT.

DMT and Shamanism in the Americas

However, there is an approved historical perspective. The official story of DMT brings us to the other side of the world with the shamanism of Central and South America.

Archeological evidence in modern-day Ecuadoran Amazon found the use of psychedelic snuffs dating back to 1500-2000 BC. The snuff went by many names, today commonly called yopo but other known names are cohoba, vilka, epena, and jurema.

Snuffs contained many mixtures of different plants, like tobacco, and while not all snuffs contain DMT, we know snuffs were used across a large area. Archeological remains of snuff use have been found in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Peru.

The snuffs were commonly made from a ground-up bean Anadenanthera peregrina. While containing DMT, this bean's psychoactive effect is mainly from a compound called bufotenine and 5-meo-DMT. These compounds are chemically similar to DMT but have a significantly different result. This is the first evidence we have of DMT use, but the varied composition of snuffs makes understanding exactly what those using them were experiencing is difficult.

Those taking the snuff would serve up the resulting powder onto sometimes ornately sculpted trays. Then, putting the material in a hollow tube of reed or  carved bone, one person would forcibly blow the powder up the nose of another for a trip lasting about 45 minutes. As much as an ounce of material has been recorded in a single session.

These snuffs served the purpose of connecting to the spirit world and were likely only used by those who could understand how to interpret a vast cosmology within it. Before colonial influence, South American cultures lived in a world that was alive, not only plants and animals but also the mountains, caves, rivers, lakes, the sea. All layers were attached to and influenced by a complex spirit world.

The snuff granted access to this realm along with an ability to interpret the patterns contained within. Working in this dimension could cure illness, find lost objects, predict the season's crops or natural disasters. Interaction with spirits divined practical information relevant to the physical human needs.

The Western Mind Meets DMT

 The first official Western observation of psychoactive snuffs was documented in 1496 on Columbus's second trip to the Americas. Comments about kings snuffing a powder and becoming like drunken men were recorded. Another group of explorers noted that with the snuffs, indigenous "communicated with the devil to predict the future."

It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the DMT containing brew ayahuasca was documented by westerners. Written pre-colonial history is nonexistent; however, it is suspected that lineages of the curanderos of the Amazon go back thousands of years. In the Andes of Bolivia, a medicine pouch with ayahuasca material was dated at around 1000 years old, suggesting that use of the brew might be more widespread than previously thought.

Ayahuasca was first officially documented in 1851. English botanist Richard Spruce encountered the tea, called yagé, in Brazil. Ayahausca remained obscure to the West until ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes published writing that inspired others to seek out the DMT containing brew.

Ayahuasca is the name of the "vine of the soul," which, in itself, does not contain DMT, but other bioactive chemicals, which allow our bodies to absorb DMT. Usually, when DMT is eaten, enzymes in our gut break it down before it can have an effect. That a workaround to this exists is why ayahuasca remains an impressive concoction. When the ayahuasca vine is combined with DMT containing tree named chacruna, the compounds create an intense journey of many hours.

Curanderos of the Amazon consistently hold the origin of the brew was taught to them by plant teachers during dieta. A dieta is where strict restrictions purify a person allowing for the sensitivity required to communicate with certain plant teachers.

The odds of a chance brewing of ayahuasca seem astronomical. The idea that indigenous knowledge, derived from communication with plants, has verifiable benefits is not fully accepted by rational minds. However, ayahuasca's healing effect is legendary, and the study of DMT consistently challenges assumptions about what is real or possible.

DMT in Western Hands

In 1931 a Canadian named Manske synthesized DMT in the laboratory. While he gets the credit for the chemistry, he did not realize DMT's psychedelic effects. Another chemist named Gonçalves finally isolated DMT in 1946 from plant specimens from South American snuffs, yet also did not manage a breakthrough showcasing DMT's psychoactive powers.

It wasn't until a Hungarian chemist Stephen Szàra that scientific exploration of the altered states DMT produces began. Szàra was interested in LSD research, which was legal and promising at the time. But, the 1950s Hungary was a communist state and when he contacted suppliers, they were unwilling to send the precious compound into communist hands.

Szàra, instead finding inspiration in the South American snuffs, synthesized DMT from Mimosa hostilis instead. After eating a gram, he realized that ingesting it was not going to work. He then began to inject himself and his colleagues, and the trip reports started to come in. A colleague described, “in front of me are two quiet, sunlit Gods. . . . I think they are welcoming me into this new world. There is a deep silence as in the desert.”

While scientists took their first DMT trips, a few years earlier, in 1953, beat author William Burroughs was exploring South America searching for yagé. Burroughs was a heroin addict and had heard that ayahuasca could cure addictions and facilitate paranormal experiences. He published his miserable travel account of South America, creating one of the first non-academic writings about DMT. He did, with some difficulty, find yagé, but his experience was not inspiring.

Years later, Burroughs got his hands on synthetic DMT in Morocco in 1961. He and a doctor friend injected the substance, and afterward, Burroughs dubbed DMT the "terror drug" as he injected far too much. His sitter, the doctor, also on DMT, watched Burroughs writhe on the floor and turn into a "jewel-encrusted crocodile." Later on, Burroughs gave ayahuasca another chance and concluded with enthusiasm, "this is it." His transformative ayahausca experience influenced much of his later creative output.

In the 60s, after hearing about DMT from Burroughs, Tim Leary took the plunge after realizing that the set and setting of Burroughs experience were terrible. Along with Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and Ralph Metzner, positive experiences were published and brought DMT popularity with reports of the “bubbling beaker of the cosmic alchemist, insect friends, and astrophysical television screen," encouraging others to explore DMTs effects.

In the academic world, interest in DMT was peaking after scientists found it to be naturally occurring in human blood and urine. A theory emerged that excess DMT might cause schizophrenia. Scientists conducted research in America on prisoners but failed to document anything spectacular, with one study only asking participants to rate "how high" they were. While there were no mentions of hyperspace, the most experienced drugs users rated a full dose of DMT as “higher than they have ever been.”

There was no conclusive evidence DMT caused schizophrenia. Through the 70s, a Noble Prize-winning scientist Julius Axelrod found DMT in the human brain while others found it in spinal fluid. However, when governments worldwide made psychedelics illegal, research stopped, and DMT disappeared underground.

DMT Re-Enters the Mainstream

It wouldn’t be until the 90s that interest in DMT would resurface in public, with psychedelic evangelist Terrance Mckenna was on the road lecturing about his experiences and theories. He published several books and became particularly well known for promoting DMT and psilocybin mushrooms. His lectures glorified DMT with stories of meeting entities he famously described as "self-transforming machine elves" in what he speculated to be another dimension. His entertaining talks continue to be a waypoint for DMT-curious psychonauts on Youtube.

Terrance was, however, primarily an underground phenomenon. It was Dr. Rick Struassman who brought a fresh scientific perspective to DMT through his interest in discovering a chemical that could explain the spiritual experience.

His search led him to melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep, and the pineal gland. Straussman drew on the ancient stories mentioned earlier and became fascinated with the pineal, learning that it is an actual eye inside our heads with a lens, iris, and cornea along with rods and cones making it light-sensitive. It is even connected to our visual centers in the brain.

Eventually, when melatonin did not answer his questions, Straussman turned to DMT and obtained permits for the first official psychedelic research in decades. His ideas created many modern beliefs about DMT in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule.

His book outlined a theory of the pineal producing DMT and offered an explanation for near-death experiences as a colossal release of DMT. His theory was the spirit molecule was a “chemical interpreter through which the body and spirit met and communicated.”

Yet, once Struassman began giving psychedelic doses of DMT, nothing prepared him for the result. At least half his research subjects met “them” when they burst into “someplace else.”

Metaphors for the environment participants found themselves in were intriguing- the structure of DNA, the Taj Mahal, or “Mayan hieroglyphics turning into the room,” along with entities described as clowns, giant praying mantis, aliens, guides, and cacti, to name a few. Intense interactions with these entities left participants shaken and awed.

Strassman is a clinical research psychiatrist, yet his psychological explanations consistently fell flat. The research subjects repeatedly resisted biomedical descriptions of “hallucinations.” The research was fascinating, but he couldn't prove his pineal hypothesis or show benefit to sending people “out there.”

Unable to probe the depths of whatever was happening with scientific tools, Strassman moved on to other research. However, he would cite his period of researching DMT as the most important of his life.

Strassman opened many minds to the curiosities of the DMT experience. He recorded patients traveling to other dimensions and communicating with entities with scientific tools. A moment's thought could now be given to claims from folks like Terrance Mckenna or stories of shamans traveling to the spirit world.

Now DMT was known in western culture, just as the internet-connected the world. A vibrant underground online sprang up. Suddenly anyone could easily download instructions for producing DMT. Websites like Erowid or DMT Nexus became hubs for citizen science, and conversations about DMT scientists couldn't touch – was it another dimension? Were entities real?

DMT in the Modern World

DMT, however, was not to stay in underground or in the jungle. The current psychedelics renaissance is compounding quickly more research with MDMA, ketamine, psilocybin mushrooms, and LSD is quickly getting accepted by the mainstream. DMT, too, is back in the laboratory.

Currently, DMT is more difficult to study than LSD or psilocybin. In studies with other psychedelics, ego dissolution or mystical experience has been linked to benefits for people dealing with depression, addictions, or end-of-life anxiety. While the fast and incredibly intense DMT trip can create these “peak experiences,” the overwhelming nature of the journey is difficult to integrate and translate into clear outcomes.

But positive DMT results do exist. For example, a survey conducted of people who encountered entities during DMT trips reported high life satisfaction and wellbeing afterward. There is also research connecting DMT and other psychedelics to neurogenesis, which is the growth of new nerve cells in the brain. Another study has suggested connections to the immune system, and anti-inflammatory responses.

The compound has also caught the interest of venture capitalists. DMT, in particular, is lucrative because it works so fast. Several start-ups are working with some of the biggest names in psychedelic research to figure out novel DMT therapies. The idea of taking a 45 min journey with synthetic DMT in the clinic appeals to customers and investors looking for solutions that require less overhead and fewer expensive hours of supervision like psilocybin or LSD.

Doing DMT to cure your depression on your lunch break might be on the horizon, but another angle is also being explored - extended state DMT. With machines used by anesthesiologists in long surgeries, researchers hope to deliver DMT in a controlled way over many hours. The theory is a gentle entry and exit may facilitate healing similar to ayahuasca.

What is the Future of DMT?

While the healing potential of DMT deserves the attention it is getting- there is still the question of what is it? Why is it in our bodies? Is it really another dimension? What are entities? How does it work? Venture capital and mental health treatment don't address questions DMT brings up about the nature of consciousness or its actual function.

Answers to these questions are big challenges. However, they have inspired an organization called DMTx to train psychonauts for extended state DMT journeys. Rather than solely understanding biochemical healing mechanisms or commercial applications, the goal is to explore DMT hyperspace and the potential contact with other life.

Andrew Gallimore, who, along with Rick Strassman, first proposed extended state DMT, suggested contact with other entities should be a huge deal, and we should be training our best people for the job. He thinks of DMT as a technology to access different dimensions, in line with a comment of study participant of Strassman's - "it's ridiculous to think of space travel in little ships."

This adventurous spirit captures the imagination but is undoubtedly an alternative view. Yet, it takes us full circle back to the indigenous use of snuffs or ayahuasca. It turns out intensive training to journey into another dimension with DMT is not a new idea.

In Graham Hancock's famously banned Ted talk about psychedelics, he asserted that curanderos of the Amazon began giving ayahuasca to foreigners to help us reconnect to spirit. This was combined with the warning that the planet faces destruction if we do not figure out how to reconnect.

These are heavy words, but it brings to mind how the emerging Western scientific and commercial approaches avoid some of the more fascinating implications of DMT. Current buzz is primarily about data, profit, or measurable psychiatric outcomes without touching any more profound questions.

The cultures that used DMT long before the West are pretty clear about what DMT does. DMT served as a connection to another world populated with spirits, and learning to navigate this realm led to profound healing and knowledge.

If DMTs future position in society will have anything to do with its past is still a difficult question to answer. It seems likely it will find a place in modern medicine, but if it has still more to show us is a question worth keeping in the conversation.

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