DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is a natural hallucinogen produced both by plants in nature and by the human pineal gland. Though shorter-acting (minutes rather than hours) than LSD or mescaline, DMT has similar effects in that it initiates `spiritual', `cosmic consciousness' and other-worldly experiences. It is speculated that one of DMT's natural functions may be the initiation of such religious, transcendent experiences and might, for example, be the source of so-called `near-death experiences.'
Rick Strassman MD was for 10 years a tenured Professor of Psychiatry at The University of New Mexico. A keen advocate of the potential of psychedelic drugs for therapeutic psychiatric use, between 1990-95 Strassman designed and supervised several double-blind clinical trials on the effects of DMT on groups of carefully chosen and supervised volunteers. This book is the full story of this project, from original proposals through dealings with the FDA to gain approval, difficulties in obtaining a medically approved pure source of DMT, agreeing protocols, screening volunteers, trial design, and what the subjects reported having experienced.
Strassman's detailed explanations of the chemistry, biology and psychiatric background to his project occupies roughly the first half of this quite lengthy (345 pages) book, useful for the non-psychiatrist to more thoroughly understand what he is trying to do. However, the most interesting part kicks off about half way through, as the volunteers begin to record their experiences both orally and by filling out lengthy and detailed written questionnaires. For a small minority - even experienced users of hallucinogens - the `screening dose' given to each research subject was enough, and they left the study. The great majority, however, continued with the project and reported some perplexing and indeed astounding experiences.
Many subjects consistently experienced `interactions' with what they variously described as `aliens', `elves' or `others' whom they insisted were real, separate entities and with whom they had meaningful dialogue; not, they insisted, some dream or artefact of the imagination. These entities were described as `waiting for me', `taking charge' or `pleased to see me', and took various forms from humanoid to beings of `light', to on one occasion giant insects and to another subject, `crocodiles.'
It is Strassman's intelligence and open-mindedness in reporting these encounters which is most refreshing. Rather than slavishly following a reductionist scientific paradigm and dismissing the consistently similar experiences of his research subjects as some artefact of the mind under the influence of DMT, he speculates that our current model of reality may be insufficient; that some kind of inter-dimensional interaction between different sentient species might be possible. One is strongly reminded of the intelligent perspectives of Professor John Mack, MD, as expounded in his book `Passport to the Cosmos', and indeed Strassman admits that the consistent findings of his research forced him, reluctantly, to study the alien abduction phenomenon in more detail (something about which he previously knew almost nothing) only to discover many parallels between the reports of serial abductees and those of his research subjects under DMT.
Strassman is a good writer (maybe not a great one though) with a conversational style, and the book contains just the right amount of scientific detail for the intelligent but non-expert reader. His concluding chapters are wide-ranging and cover his personal dealings with Buddhism (the local Buddhist community ultimately rejected his investigations as potentially damaging and `wrong', and this is in itself a very interesting story), reactions from the American psychiatric community to his research, and what the implications for his findings might be.
Though the narrative occasionally drags a little, overall `The Spirit Molecule' is excellent: a deeply though-provoking and 100% original piece of work. The book has a good notes section but no index (which would have been useful), and the only illustrations throughout are molecular diagrams of various hallucinogens on pp32-37. Rick Strassman is to be commended for his courageous persistence in the face of bureaucratic obstacles, resisting and overcoming barriers created by the litigious medical environment in the USA which above all encourages risk-averse behaviour, and his intelligent and open-minded conclusions about what his DMT studies reveal about the nature of reality.
A film has subsequently been made (in 2011) about Strassman's work with DMT, directed by Mitch Schultz and with many of Strassman's research subjects from NM interviewed on camera. Check it out.