Rick Strassman, MD Interview with Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. - PART 1Biographies
Martin W. Ball holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Native American Traditions and Entheogenic Shamanism. He is the author of the books Mushroom Wisdom: How Shamans Cultivate Spiritual Consciousness and Sage Spirit: Salvia Divinorum and the Entheogenic Experience. He is also the host of a weekly podcast about entheogens and spirituality, the Entheogenic Evolution, which can be found at www.entheogenic.podomatic.com or on iTunes. For more information about Dr. Ball’s books, music and art, visit his website at www.martinball.net.
Dr. Rick Strassman, pioneering psychedelic researcher and author of the book, DMT – The Spirit Molecule, discusses his new book, Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies, Zen Buddhism, psychedelics and spirituality, Old Testament prophecy and more in this fascinating interview. Dr. Strassman conducted the first federally approved psychedelic research in the US in nearly a generation with the compound dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, in New Mexico in the mid 1990’s. Though expecting mystical raptures and deep psychological insights, in his study he was astonished to find many of his volunteers reporting unexpected encounters with strange and sometimes disturbing alien beings with advanced technology in what amounted to classical UFO "abduction" experiences. Unable to explain away the volunteers’ experiences, he concluded that these were genuine encounters with independent sentient beings in otherwise normally invisible dimensions. For this interview, I visited with Dr. Strassman in his home in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, where he currently works in a clinic for psychiatric medicine and is busy laying the foundation for his new research facility, the Cottonwood Research Foundation, where he plans to do continued research on psychedelics and their relationship to spiritual experience, creativity, and higher states of awareness and perception. More information on Cottonwood can be found at www.cottonwoodresearch.org.
MB – It’s a great pleasure to meet you and come out here and do this interview with you. Your new book just came out, Inner Paths to Outer Space. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about it.
RS – Sure. It’s a multi-authored book, non-fiction. It’s pretty much the brain-child of the second author, whose name is Slavic Wojtowicz, who is an oncology researcher for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, and who also happens to be a big science fiction buff and illustrator. He read my book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, and felt that there was a lot of overlap between the material we presented there and the kinds of things that people read and write about in science fiction. He felt it would be a fun and helpful thing to educate people in the science-fiction community about some of these overlaps and areas of similar interests. He asked me if I’d like to collaborate with him, and I agreed. I asked another colleague of mine, Louis Eduardo Luna, who is a South American anthropologist who divides his time between Brazil and Helsinki and has been working with Ayahuasca for a few decades now. He has probably got one of the more balanced and sophisticated overviews of how to look at and apply the states and plant wisdom information that is associated with Ayahuasca. And so Louis Eduardo agreed to collaborate, and then Louis had a friend in Budapest Hungary named Ede Frecska, who is a Hungarian psychiatrist and has written a lot on new science views on shamanism – having to do with quantum mechanics and non-local theories of information transfer and storage – and so Louis Eduardo asked Ede if he’d like to collaborate. So that’s how the four of us came together to collaborate on writing the book.
Each of us contributes three or four chapters. I wrote an overview chapter on psychedelics and DMT and also describe some of the range of experiences that occurred during our research on DMT. My last chapter in the book is probably the one I’m most proud of, which is a fairly long and involved chapter on getting ready for the journey – kind of how one prepares to take a psychedelic trip. Louis Eduardo wrote several chapters on his relationship with Ayahuasca and the way that he supervises Ayahuasca sessions and Ede Frecska wrote some chapters on shamanism and new scientific paradigms of consciousness through which he explains some of the findings in shamanism. And Slawek wrote some chapters pointing out the commonalities between the material in science fiction books and films with the material that is more well known within the psychedelic community.
MB – Something that comes up time and time again in people’s experiences in your book, DMT – The Spirit Molecule, is that when volunteers are being injected with DMT, they experience UFO’s, alternate technologies, and really sci-fi kind of material, so I can see how that would definitely speak to people who are interested in science fiction. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what those kinds of experiences were like for people and what they were encountering.
RS – I may want to preface my description of some of those kinds of encounters by stating at the outset neither I nor the volunteers expected anything like the frequency of those kinds of experiences to occur which actually did take place. Both myself and the volunteers were expecting mystical experiences, near death experiences, psychological breakthroughs, those kinds of things. Now, I was doing my studies in the early 1990’s and there may have been a fair amount out there on UFO’s and alien abductions, but the volunteers who were in my study weren’t that interested in that kind of material and I didn’t know much about it and wasn’t interested in it either, so I certainly don’t think, though one could always argue that it was the case, but I don’t think, that it was an example of people expecting to have alien contact sorts of experiences. And Terence McKenna’s descriptions of the machines elves and the dwarfs and the pixies hadn’t really come out to any extent yet – I don’t know if his first book had really come out yet – and not that many people were really familiar with Terence in the early 90’s in the first place. So, in that case as well, I don’t think it was an example of people’s expectations being fueled by their anticipated effects of the drug.
So I think both in terms of more contemporary memes that are passing through our culture, as far as the abduction experience in our culture and Terence’s raps, I don’t think that either of those had really filtered into the consciousness of our volunteers or my consciousness at the time. So, saying that as an introduction, people were certainly not going into our research studies with hopes of seeing entities or beings. Nevertheless, a huge number of volunteers did. I was reviewing my notes in preparation for writing the DMT book. I completed the research in 95, and sort of did other things for a few years and then returned to my notes, and started writing the book a few years later. I had taken about 1000 pages of notes by the beside of the volunteers – 400 DMT sessions that we gave them over the space of about 5 years – and in reviewing people’s accounts of their experiences, probably half, maybe more, reported having the experience of being in some sort of contact, some sort of relationship, more or less passive, more or less active, with these free standing, discretely demarcated, sentient sort of beings. I ended up calling them "beings" rather than "entities" or "aliens" or any of that sort of thing because it seemed like the most neutral term to use, but they were described in various shapes and forms and guises. Sometimes they were humanoid, sometimes they were insectoid, sometimes they were reptilian, and sometimes plant-like. They were more or less aware of the volunteers. Oftentimes they seemed to be expecting the volunteers and were glad to see them, and then began interacting with them.
Other times they seemed surprised and angry that the volunteers’ consciousness, at the very least, had intruded upon the sphere of activity of that particular being. Sometimes the volunteers were treated or experimented on. Sometimes they experienced some type of sexual intercourse with the beings. Some were told scenarios of the future. Others were marked somehow or another for future reference in a way. Others showered light and love onto them. Others were guides to lead them to some other place, like through a tunnel leading to a typical near death or mystical experience. So it was the whole gamut of what you might expect.
Some of the motifs were pretty classical science fiction – kind of flying toward a space station or a space ship, or automatons or robots were busily doing their business. Sometimes they would see very hard to describe hybrid entities – machine/animal, even furniture kinds of conglomerates of beings. So, it was one of those things – in giving DMT, it starts very fast, within a few heartbeats, and is over within 30 minutes or so. One of the advantages of a short acting agent like that is you can write down everything that happens in the course of somebody’s experience. I wrote down every possible thing I could – every thought I was having, everything the person was doing and saying, how they looked, the noises in the hall or outside, the emotional ambiance of the ward at the time. So I took a lot of notes and basically, once I wrote the notes and had them transcribed by my secretary, I really stopped thinking about people’s individual sessions. So it wasn’t until some years later that it really sank in how often indeed people were having those experiences.
MB – And when they’re having these experiences, I’m wondering what their physical natures are like. Are they lying down, moving around, are they active, perhaps even acting out some of the situations they’re going through?
RS – Well, most people, when they get a big dose of IV DMT are just lying down, and in our study, they are kind of hooked up to machines and IV tubes and a blood pressure cuff and a rectal temperature monitor and all kinds of things like that, so even if they could have moved around, they wouldn’t have been able to just because of the physical restraints they were laboring under. But even if they weren’t as constrained, a big dose of DMT, even when you smoke it, is pretty disabling, and they just are lying there. People might start to have a tremor or shiver, but any more formed, articulated, purposeful movements were not really that common. So they were just lying there and within 15 – 20 minutes they would start to talk to me and relate what they had just undergone.
MB – Something that I noticed in your book is that many people felt that there would be a point where they had kind of left that aspect of their experience and then returned. Perhaps the DMT is still affecting them, but they feel that they are back in the room at this point. Did you find that people had pretty clear distinctions and transitions between feeling that they are fully in another reality, interacting with these beings and then kind of finding themselves back in the room, back with you, where they could then communicate more freely about what’s going on with them?
RS – Well, in our first study, when we just getting the kinks worked out of the protocol, a lot of times people would open up their eyes as the drug was first starting to affect them. First of all, that was pretty startling and disorienting and actually pretty unpleasant as we were doing the study in a pretty standard clinical research type of environment. It was a hospital room with all the accoutrements one would expect. But beside the disorienting aspect of the actual environment itself, it was also confusing too because the visions that the people were having would be overlaid on the objective physical reality of the room at the same time. So it was just a lot easier to monitor what they were experiencing by closing their eyes and not being distracted by the room so that the feeling of the being in the room wasn’t as impressive. Within a few months it was obvious that we needed to help people keep their eyes closed because it was just kind of a reflex to open your eyes when you’re just so stunned by the onset of effects. So we just got a pair of Wallgreen's eyeshades – the ones you use to sleep during the day time – so even if people did open up their eyes, they would see it was black "outside," so to speak, and just close their eyes again.
The peak of IV DMT occurs within 2-3 minutes of the injection and they start resolving pretty soon after that – so most people could open up their eyes and see me pretty clearly at the 15 minute to 18 minute point, but they’d still be pretty high, and even though they would be pretty eager and quite excited to describe what it was they had just experienced, I encouraged them to keep their eyes closed for another 10 or 15 minutes because there could still be some pretty interesting psychological or maybe emotional material that they could process during that time. And then when they’d open up their eyes again at maybe the half hour point, they were pretty much feeling normal and the visual and emotional effects had pretty much worn off. And that actually corresponded with the blood levels of DMT that we were monitoring all throughout the study. The highest concentrations of DMT occurred within 2-3 minutes after the injection and they’d be negligible or completely gone within 30 minutes and there wouldn’t be any at the hour point after the injection.
MB – Now, in your book, you kind of went out on a limb a little bit in really processing your own surprise with so many encounters with beings, where you write about tuning into, I think you call it, "channel dark matter," in proposing that people seem to be perceiving things not just within their own subjective consciousness, but perhaps perceiving other aspects of reality. I was wondering if you have any additional thoughts on that now, some years later from the study.
RS – It was obviously hard to come up with a model, at least in my mind, at least with what I knew at the time, to really be able to accept and hold and take the stories that people were telling me, and come up with a theory that I could live with scientifically and personally and ones that would make sense to the volunteers.
I’m a clinical psychiatrist. I learned clinical analysis and how to prescribe anti-psychotic medications, so in terms of the kinds of models that I cut my teeth on as a psychiatric trainee and subsequently, there were primarily biological models and psycho-analytic sorts of Freudian psychology models. In the meantime I had undergone a fairly extensive Zen training and study, which I felt, or thought at the time, gave me a pretty firm understanding or spiritual basis for understanding the psychedelic experience. In fact, the questionnaire that we developed to monitor and rate people’s experiences psychologically in DMT was derived from Buddhist psychological principles, so I felt I was pretty well saturated and marinated with Zen Buddhist ideas – including their cosmology of deities and spirits and angels and demons and bodhisattvas and those kinds of things – so I was expecting that I would be able to articulate a theory that would make sense to both me and our volunteers for all the possible varieties of the DMT experience that they might encounter. I just started off with the most gross explanations and worked up from there when those got rejected. The grossest explanation is obviously that of the brain – this is your brain on drugs – you give people DMT their brain does this – this is why people where having these entity contact experiences.
But every explanation that I tried fell on fairly much deaf ears on the part of the volunteers. They either rejected the ideas about this being a brain on drugs, or the other approach that I was taking that was pretty much a psychological approach – these were unexpressed dreams or impulses or drives or motivations to be special or to belong or to have exciting experiences – kind of the Freudian approach. So when that didn’t work, I tried to learn as much as I could as fast as I could, in terms of what Jung had said about UFOs and aliens, so I tried using those models or explanatory systems to kind of encompass people’s experiences. That didn’t work. I tried the more generic approach of interpreting what they were experiencing as dreams, but that didn’t work either.
The idea of the dream state and the DMT state deserves a little bit of thinking about. I think that one of our volunteers summarized it in a succinct and cogent manner when he said that in dreams, you have a dream and then another dream and then another dream, and you kind of pick up with the following dream where the last dream left off. But with the DMT state, as he described it, that level of existence was going on all the while, even when you weren’t in it, and you were just kind of dipping into it at the point where it was just happening. If it was a month between trip to trip, then a month of time, in some form or another, had elapsed in the DMT realms, and you were just dipping into it, at the point at which the DMT state was, not necessarily your state, if that makes sense. It’s kind of like going to India. It isn’t as if you’ve been to India in January and then returned in June, it wouldn’t be that things would begin for you just as they were when you left in January. It’s more that you’re back in India in June and all this stuff is happening over those five or six months. So that was, I thought, a pretty clear and insightful way of differentiating between dreams and the DMT realm – especially when you enter the DMT state over a week or a space of time, either weeks or months or years. Also, from the Buddhist point of view, even though I knew a lot about Buddhist cosmology and their worldview, especially with respect to spiritual kinds of realities, either for my own reasons that I never quite swallowed the whole Buddhist rap, hook line and sinker, or maybe because it was a Zen community and they were more focused on everyday, here and now reality – chopping wood, carrying water – that I just wasn’t feeling that equipped to deal with people’s experiences through the lens of Zen Buddhism. So, I think what the major contribution of my Zen practice was, at the time, to just be as open as I could and to focus more on the immediate situation than being stuck in any kind of theoretical rut that would prevent me from being able to take into account the full impact and depth and variety of what people were experiencing. I tried and discarded various levels of interpretation until I finally just figured I’ll just start to do an experiment assuming that what people are undergoing is real and that indeed they are experiencing or making contact with real, externally verifiable, discrete, freestanding sorts of beings. This is what they’re saying and this is what they’re doing and this is what is going on between them and the volunteer. What happened as a result of that is that people became a lot more comfortable in sharing with me the full range of their experiences. I stopped fighting and trying to pigeonhole a round peg into a square hole – trying to fit their experiences with the theoretical constructs that I was stuck with. I think as a result of my change in attitude or approach that I was getting deeper and richer reports from people about what was going on. But still, as a scientist, I’m into mechanisms of action and when I started to write the book, I started to hunt around for scientific models that might encompass free-standing, sentient, independently existing, outside just one’s mind, explanations for what people were undergoing. So even though I’m no expert on quantum physics or any of the more far-out psychedelic views of cosmology, I did learn a little bit of this phenomena that is known as dark matter, which is non-visible matter that neither generates light nor reflects light, but still makes up 95% or more of the mass of the universe. It seemed to me that if it makes up that much mass of the universe, it could very well be inhabited, and it would just be a question of changing the receiving characteristics of consciousness through chemical changes that occurred with DMT to be able to perceive things that were normally not perceivable. And there are plenty of examples of that in everyday reality – I mean, with a microscope we can see tiny things we couldn’t see normally – with a telescope we can see things very far away we can’t see normally, with ultraviolet sensors we can see things that we can’t normally see – so the only difference, maybe from a philosophical point of view, is that the change in our receiving powers are not tied in with a machine – they’re more in our subjective/receptive consciousness rather than with a piece of metal and electricity and glass and things that can magnify or somehow change the things that we’re capable of seeing. So it’s a bit of a stretch, but I don’t think it’s completely that crazy. The main thing that prevents further movement along the model that I’m talking about is just the verifiability between two people – like can two people see the same thing at the same time – like if you have two people looking through the same microscope at the same time, they can pretty much see and describe the same thing – but is it possible for two people to take DMT at the same time, or not even at the same time, and be able to see the exact same thing? There are all kinds of caveats about how one would do an experiment like that – especially if there is a wide range of DMT related states, if it’s not just one state. I think a lot of what people perceive is based on their own consciousness – their instrument of perception – so if they’re depressed or tired or if they’re in a good mood or over-energized, didn’t get as much sleep as they normally do, or got more sleep than they normally do, I think all of those things will factor into affecting where they will go on any particular DMT experience. One interesting historical footnote is that when people were first studying Ayahuasca, which is a brew from the Amazon that contains DMT and also another plant that has a substance in it that allows the DMT to be orally active - otherwise when you just swallow DMT it’s broken down – but the Amazonian Indians discovered that if you combine a DMT containing plant with another plant which contains an enzyme inhibitor that the oral DMT then becomes active – when chemists were first looking at the chemical composition of Ayahuasca, one of the compounds that they isolated they named telepathine, which I think was a reflection of how commonly it is reported by South American natives that they share perceptual effects when under the influence. And I actually know a couple of Western scientists who were doing some studies down there some time ago and they were in a small circle and they both drank DMT together and they both had the exact same vision of a big bird, like a vulture, sitting just outside the circle, which just the two of them were able to see – no one else did in their group. So I think experiments can be designed that can try to standardize as many of the independent variables as possible to see if people do enter the same state with DMT and other really powerful psychedelic drugs, and if they did, then that would lend some more credibility to the idea that it is something that isn’t just one’s individual hallucination.
MB – It sounds like part of the difficulty, coming from a Western standpoint, is that we don’t really have a sophisticated model of consciousness. We’re getting very sophisticated with neurochemistry and neurobiology and looking at brain states in relation to neurons and chemicals and molecules in the brain, but we don’t really have a firm model of subjective states of consciousness, and it sounds as if this research could really be paradigm shaking if we can get to performing this at a high level of examining what’s really going on.
RS – I think we’d also have to have some models that can incorporate those sorts of experiments and if those findings did come through in the way that I would expect them to, and to interpret those findings. In this new book, Inner Paths to Outer Space, Ede Frecska describes some of the theories that are being circulated regarding non-locality and also some of the network ideas with respect to microtubules, and microfilaments that are contained within the nervous system – so I think we’re starting to develop some theoretical models.
MB – Coming from quantum biology then...
RS – It isn’t really coming from within mainstream psychology or psychiatry, it would have to be some kind of hybrid of quantum science and maybe even an introspective science, like some of those that have been developed in introspective traditions that have been around for thousands of years. It is interesting that in terms of the long span of human history we are one of the few cultures that does not believe in a free-standing spiritual level of reality. We’ve kind of thrown out anything that can’t be objectively measured or imaged or photographed into the waste bin of superstition or supernaturalism, and we’ve got this view that things that can’t be seen by a group of people at the same time are not real – that’s a relatively recent development in the long span of human consciousness. That’s not necessarily to say that old ideas are true ideas, but the vast majority of humans, for the vast majority of time, have firmly believed in and utilized to the best of their abilities the belief in and the conviction in a free-standing spiritual level of reality. That could mean that it’s a true fact – that there is a non-visible, only subjectively experienced, spiritual level of reality that we’re so far ignoring or relegating to unreality. It may be that it’s through the tools of science and pharmacology that we are also able to validate non-corporeal levels of reality and we can learn from and interact with the inhabitants there of and maybe get back on course.
MB – So, let’s step back in time a little bit and talk about what inspired you to do this DMT study. I think that yours was the first study to be done in something like 30 years for research on psychedelics in the United States, and you write about in your book how this was a very difficult challenge to actually make that happen. So I’m kind of curious about what inspired you to delve into that hornet’s nest and also what made you choose DMT as what you wanted to study.
RS – In terms of what got me interested in the whole field in the first place, I went to college in the late 60’s and the early 1970’s, when there were two very interesting converging lines of research and experience. There was a discussion going on and a whole new level of experience was being had by people and these were, on one hand, the Eastern religious practices and traditions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, and on the other hand, there was this influx of experiences being brought on by the ingestion of psychedelics. And it didn’t escape all that many people’s attention that there was a lot of similarity in people’s descriptions of those two sets of experiences. So I started thinking to myself, if the descriptions of meditators comport so closely, at least in some respects, with the reports of some people taking psychedelic drugs, then there must be some kind of biological concomitant going on in the brain at the time that people are having deep mystical experiences. So I began to search for a biological basis for mystical experience because it seemed as though there must be as they were so similar. It seemed like there must be something going on in the brain at the same time that people were having these non-drug induced experiences that might at least in some ways be similar to what happens in the brain in reaction to a psychedelic drug. So I began to hunt around within the literature for a biological basis for mystical experience. I didn’t know about DMT at the time – this was in the late 60’s – and actually a lot of the research on psychedelics in humans was winding down. But I did learn about the pineal gland, which is a small organ in the center of the brain which had been thought to have a spiritual role to play in the spiritual physiology of the Hindus, in particular in regard to the chakra system. So I started to learn about the pineal. It was a few years later that the whole phenomenon of winter depression became current, and there was an interest in the role of melatonin, which is the main hormone of the pineal gland, which is involved in causing winter depression. So that was actually the root through which I was able to get involved in clinical research regarding my unspoken interest in spiritual states and spiritual consciousness. I ran a study at the university of New Mexico looking at the role and the function of melatonin. And even though it was a pretty psycho-pharmacological kind of study, looking at a whole range of hormones and autonomic functions, my underlying interest was to see if there were any psychedelic effects of melatonin. So when that came up short, I decided to switch fields and go more directly into the field that I was fundamentally interested in, which was the psychedelic work. I had learned by that time about the existence of DMT as a very powerful psychedelic chemical that exists in plants and animals, including mammals and including humans, and the great amount of interest that DMT had garnered in the psychiatric research field in the 50’s and 60’s and the early 70’s, and so even though there are no data yet connecting the pineal gland with DMT, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggested a relationship between the two things. There were a number of reasons that I chose to begin using DMT, one of which was its possible but still unproven relationship to the pineal. The other is its endogenous nature – it occurs in human beings and I felt it was important to study it carefully and find out more about the effects of a naturally occurring psychedelic. I mean, nobody is looking at this, really, even to this day. It’s still kind of a minor substance of abuse, but when you really think about the existence of this incredibly mind-blowing psychedelic that’s being made in our bodies at all times by the lungs and the red blood cells and the brain, those sites of formation are fairly well established at this time . . . Nobody is thinking or really talking about what could be the role of DMT in normal consciousness and in extraordinary states of consciousness. When people first were looking at naturally occurring DMT in humans, they of course were looking at it from the psychiatric point of view. For example, perhaps it causes schizophrenia. And there were a number of studies that compared the levels of DMT in the blood of schizophrenics versus normal people and they really weren’t able to find any differences. But the levels of DMT occurring in everyday existence are so low that you really need incredibly sophisticated equipment to make a differentiation between the levels you might find in one group of people compared to the levels you might find in another group of people, so I think those studies suffered from a lack of technological expertise that hopefully we have made some progress in overcoming in the last 20 or 30 years.
In terms of a rationales to study DMT, one of the reasons I presented to the regulatory and funding bodies was that it was important to understand more the effects of externally applied DMT so we could then start to determine the levels of similarities and differences between psychosis and between the state of DMT intoxication that we were expecting to see in our volunteers. The other reason I chose DMT was because it was relatively obscure and it had been a couple of decades at least since anybody in the US had done human studies giving psychedelics to people. I was afraid that if we began our studies giving people a drug like LSD, or even psilocybin, that it would garner a lot more publicity than beginning with a relatively obscure drug like DMT. The other reason we chose DMT was because of its extremely short duration. I was thinking that it would be pretty stressful for our volunteers to being given a psychedelic drug in the hospital and I was suspecting that people would perhaps undergo adverse affects or panic or get pretty disabled or disoriented. I was thinking that it would be much more manageable to deal with a 10 or 20 minute bad trip than a 6-10 hour bad trip.
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Rick Strassman, MD Interview with Martin W. Ball, Ph.D. - PART 2 >