"DMT - The spirit molecule" ~ Rick Strassman (Part 2)

The Pineal:
Meet the Spirit Gland

One of my deepest motivations behind the DMT research was the search for a biological basis of spiritual experience. Much of what I had learned over the years made me wonder if the pineal gland produced DMT during mystical states and other naturally occurring, psychedelic-like experiences. As a Stanford University undergraduate in the early 1970s I performed laboratory research on the development of the fetal chicken nervous system. I was curious about how a single fertilized cell could result in a fully grown and functioning organism. This was an exciting research field, and I wanted to see how I liked laboratory science.

Western and Eastern mystical traditions are replete with descriptions of a blinding bright white light accompanying deep spiritual realization. This "enlightenment" usually is the result of a progression of consciousness through various levels of spiritual, psychological, and ethical development. All mystical traditions describe the process and its stages. In Judaism, for example, consciousness moves through the sefirot, or Kabbalistic centers of spiritual development, the highest being Keter, or Crown. In the Eastern Ayurvedic tradition, these centers are called chakras, and particular experiences likewise accompany the movement of energy through them. The highest chakra is also called the Crown, or the Thousand-Petaled Lotus. In both traditions, the location of this Crown sefira or chakra is the center and top of the skull, anatomically corresponding to the human pineal gland.

We first read about the physical pineal gland in the writings of Herophilus, a third-century B.C. Greek physician from the time of Alexander the Great. Its name comes from the Latin pineus, relating to the pine, pinus. This little organ is thus piniform, or shaped like a pinecone, no bigger than the nail of your pinkie finger.

The pineal gland is unique in its solitary status within the brain. All other brain sites are paired, meaning that they have left and right counterparts; for example, there are left and right frontal lobes and left and right temporal lobes. As the only unpaired organ deep within the brain, the pineal gland remained an anatomical curiosity for nearly two thousand years. No one in the West had any idea what its function was.

Interest in the pineal accelerated after it attracted Rene Descartes's attention. This seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician, who said, "I think, therefore I am," needed a source for those thoughts. Introspection showed him that it was possible to think only one thought at a time. From where in the brain might these unpaired, solitary thoughts arise? Descartes proposed that the pineal, the only singleton organ of the brain, generated thoughts. In addition, Descartes believed the pineal's location, directly above one of the crucial byways for the cerebrospinal fluid, made this function even more likely.

The ventricles, hollow cavities deep within the brain, produce cerebrospinal fluid. This clear, salty, protein-rich fluid provides cushioning for the brain, protecting it from sudden jolts and bumps. It also carries nutrients to, and waste products away from, deep brain tissue. In Descartes's time, the ebb and flow of the cerebrospinal fluid through the ventricles seemed perfectly suited for the corresponding movement of thoughts. If the pineal gland "secreted" thoughts into the cerebrospinal fluid, what better means for the "stream of consciousness" to make its way to the rest of the brain? Descartes also had a deeply spiritual side. He believed that thinking, or the human imagination, was basically a spiritual phenomenon made possible by our divine nature, what we share with God. That is, our thoughts are expressions of, and proof for the existence of, our soul. Descartes believed that the pineal gland played an essential role in the expression of the soul:
"Although the soul is joined with the entire body, there is one part of the body [the pineal] in which it exercises its function more than elsewhere. . . . [The pineal] is so suspended between the passages containing the animal spirits [guiding reason and carrying sensation and movement] that it can be moved by them . . . ; and it carries this motion on to the soul. . . . Then conversely, the bodily machine is so constituted that whenever the gland is moved in one way or another by the soul, or for that matter by any other cause, it pushes the animal spirits which surround it to the pores of the brain."

Descartes thus proposed that the pineal gland somehow was the "seat of the soul," the intermediary between the spiritual and physical. The body and the spirit met there, each affecting the other, and the repercussions extended in both directions. How close to the truth was Descartes? What do we know now about the biology of the pineal gland? Can we relate this biology to the nature of spirit?

The pineal gland of evolutionarily older animals, such as lizards and amphibians, is also called the "third" eye. Just like the two seeing eyes, the third eye possesses a lens, cornea, and retina. It is light-sensitive and helps regulate body temperature and skin coloration—two basic survival functions intimately related to environmental light. Melatonin, the primary pineal hormone, is present in primitive pineal glands.

As animals climbed the evolutionary ladder, the pineal moved inward, deeper into the brain, more hidden and removed from outside influences. While the bird pineal no longer sits on top of the skull, it remains sensitive to outside light because of the paper-thin surrounding bones. The mammalian, including human, pineal is buried even deeper in the brain's recesses and is not directly sensitive to light, at least in adults. It is interesting to speculate that as the pineal assumes a more "spiritual" role, it needs the greater protection from the environment afforded by such deep placement in the skull.

The human pineal gland becomes visible in the developing fetus at seven weeks, or forty-nine days, after conception. Of great interest to me was finding out that this is nearly exactly the moment in which one can clearly see the first indication of male or female gender. Before this time, the sex of the fetus is indeterminate, or unknown. Thus, the pineal gland and the most important differentiation of humanity, male and female gender, appear at the same time. The human pineal gland is not actually part of the brain. Rather, it develops from specialized tissues in the roof of the fetal mouth. From there it migrates to the center of the brain, where it seems to have the best seat in the house.

We have already noted the pineal's proximity to cerebrospinal fluid channels, which allows its secretions easy access to the brain's deepest recesses. Additionally, it sits in strategic closeness to the crucial emotional and sensory brain centers. These sensory or perceptual hubs are called the visual and auditory colliculi, little mounds of specialized brain tissue. They are relay stations for the transmission of sense data to brain sites involved in their registration and interpretation. That is, electrical and chemical impulses that begin in the eyes and ears must pass through the colliculi before we experience them in our minds as sights and sounds. The pineal gland hangs directly over these colliculi, separated by only a narrow channel of cerebrospinal fluid. Anything secreted by the pineal into that fluid would settle onto the colliculi in a moment.

In addition, the limbic, or "emotional," brain surrounds the tiny pineal. The limbic "system" is a collection of brain structures intimately involved in the experience of feelings, such as joy, rage, fear, anxiety, and pleasure. Therefore, the pineal also has direct access to the brain's emotional centers.

For many years physiologists considered the mammalian pineal gland the equivalent of the "brain's appendix." It was a residual, vestigial organ, a throwback to our early reptilian days, with no known role. That changed when American dermatologist Aaron Lerner discovered melatonin in 1958. This and related findings began what might be called the era of the "melatonin hypothesis of pineal function." Lerner was interested in vitiligo, a skin disorder in which there are depigmented, or lightened, patches of skin throughout the body. A 1917 study observed that cow pineal gland extract lightened frog skin. Lerner thought that a pineal factor therefore was involved in vitiligo. He ground
up over twelve thousand cow pineals and finally found the skin-lightening compound. He named it melatonin because it lightened skin by contracting the black pigment in special cells: melas, black; and tonin, contract or squeeze. (Despite all of Lerner's work, there is little evidence today that melatonin plays a role in vitiligo.)

At the same time, scientists were manipulating light and dark cycles in order to better understand the effect of light on reproduction, no small issue when one considers the economic value of well-timed animal breeding for the livestock industry. They found that constant darkness blocked reproductive function and shrank the sexual organs; it also stimulated pineal growth and the production of melatonin. On the other hand, constant light shrank the pineal, reduced melatonin levels, and turned on sexual function. Using these experimental results, scientists concluded that melatonin was the crucial pineal factor in whose presence reproductive function flagged, and in whose absence reproductive function flourished. Put simply, melatonin possessed powerful anti-reproductive effects.

Now that the pineal gland had lost some of its mystery, how did melatonin relate to the alleged spiritual properties of the gland? I firmly believed that there was a spirit molecule somewhere in the brain, initiating or supporting mystical and other naturally occurring altered states of consciousness. My first best guess was that pineal melatonin was this "spirit molecule," the chemical interpreter through which the body and spirit met and communicated. If melatonin had profound psychedelic properties, my search for the vehicle by which the pineal affected our spiritual lives was over.

Melatonin's full name is N-acetyl-5-methoxy-tryptamine. We can tell by its name and structure that, like DMT and 5-methoxy-DMT, melatonin is a tryptamine.

We have a good understanding of how the body regulates melatonin production. It is the "hormone of darkness." Light turns off melatonin production, both during daylight hours and in the presence of artificial light during nighttime hours. The longer the nighttime dark hours, the more melatonin. The greater the daylight hours, the less melatonin. Besides indicating whether it is day or night, the patterns of melatonin production also inform the animal about the time of year. These longerterm melatonin effects help prepare for the appropriate seasonal responses—pregnancy in spring or fall, hibernation during the winter, or fat loss in summer.

Noradrenaline and adrenaline (or norepinephrine and epinephrine) are the two neurotransmitters that turn on melatonin synthesis in the pineal. They are released directly onto the pineal gland by nerve cells that almost touch it. The neurotransmitters attach to specialized receptors, which then begin the chemical process of melatonin formation.

The adrenal glands also make adrenaline and noradrenaline, releasing them into the bloodstream in response to stress. They are crucial factors in the body's reaction to danger: the "fight-or-flight" response. However, only adrenaline and noradrenaline released by nearby pineal nerve endings, not by the adrenal glands, have any effect on pineal function.

This is not what we would expect. Since the pineal gland does not originate from brain tissue, it exists outside the blood-brain barrier and ought to be responsive to blood-borne chemicals and drugs. Nevertheless, the body protects the pineal gland with a fierce tenacity. The stress-related surges of adrenal-gland adrenaline and noradrenaline secreted into the blood never get to the pineal. The pineal security system, made up of "vacuuming" nerve cells, simply cleans up the blood-borne adrenaline and noradrenaline in an incredibly efficient manner. Not surprisingly, this barrier makes it nearly impossible to stimulate the pineal gland to produce melatonin during the day.

Tiny blood vessels surround the pineal, so once it makes melatonin, the hormone quickly enters the bloodstream and spreads throughout the body. The pineal also secretes melatonin directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, where it can affect the brain even more quickly.

The function of melatonin in humans is uncertain, despite major advances in our understanding of its effects in other animals. There is great interest in determining whether melatonin has the same effects on reproductive function in humans as it does in other mammals. Melatonin levels fall dramatically at human puberty. Some investigators think this may allow the sexual apparatus to free itself from pineal restraint and thus begin functioning in an adult manner. Conclusive evidence remains elusive. Neither is it scientifically established that melatonin plays a role in jet lag, winter depression, sleep, cancer, or aging.

For any chemical to qualify as a spirit molecule, it must at least possess psychedelic effects. Does melatonin's striking chemical similarity to DMT and 5-methoxy-DMT mean that it also is profoundly psychoactive? Some early studies suggested that melatonin has mind-altering properties. For example, administering high doses before bedtime seemed to induce vivid dreams. However, it is difficult to interpret those older studies. They were not looking for, nor did they measure, psychedelic effects of melatonin. There was only one way for me to find out if melatonin was psychedelic, and that was to administer it to my own human volunteers.

There is a daily rhythm in many biological functions in humans. One of the most robust is body temperature, in which there is a sharp dip at 3 A.M. This also is when melatonin levels are highest. I studied nineteen male volunteers who stayed awake all night in light that was bright enough to prevent any melatonin formation. The drop in body temperature was not nearly as deep as normal in these melatonindeprived men, and we wondered if the lack of melatonin was responsible. Administering melatonin back to the volunteers caused body temperature to fall in a typical manner. From these results, we proposed that melatonin plays a major role in the early morning temperature drop found in all of us.

Most important to me were results from several rating scales that measured the psychological properties of melatonin. My reading led me to hope for some profound mind-altering effects of this pineal product. However, I found that melatonin produced little more than sedation and relaxation. I was disappointed by the lack of significant mind-altering effects of melatonin. This more than any other, convinced me that melatonin was not psychedelic. However, my reading continued to persuade me that the pineal gland was the prime site in which to search for a spirit molecule. Let's turn to that information, and the ideas that developed while pondering it. In doing so, we'll begin to consider a DMT-forming function for the pineal gland.

Unseen Worlds

This terrain is not so easy to recognize or understand because the experiences are less clearly related to the thoughts, feelings, and bodies of our volunteers. Rather, they suggest freestanding, independent levels of existence about which we are at most only dimly aware. These reports challenge our world view, and they raise the emotional intensity of debate: "Is it a dream? A hallucination? Or is it real?" "Where are these places? Inside or out?" These are the some of the questions we'll begin pondering as we review the following reports.

Certainly the spaces in which volunteers found themselves were highly unusual. However, more important was the meaning or the feeling, the information, associated with where they were. Of course, once other "life-forms" began to appear in these spaces, it was difficult not to be completely swept up in their existence. At the most basic biological level was the perception of DNA and other biological components. Karl was our first dose-response study volunteer: DMT-1. He began speaking within 2 minutes of getting his first non-blind low dose: "There were spirals of what looked like DNA, red and green".

Philip, about whose harrowing 0.6 mg/kg experience also recognized the familiar double-helix pattern, this time on his doubleblind 0.4 mg/kg dose: "The visuals were dropping back into tubes, like protozoa, like the inside of a cell, seeing the DNA twirling and spiraling. They looked gelatinlike, like tubes, inside which were cellular activities. It was like a microscopic view of them".

Cleo, whose had enlightenment experience also met up with visions of DNA: "There was a spiral DNA-type thing made out of incredibly bright cubes. I "felt" the boxes at the same time that my consciousness shifted".

However, the most interesting was Sara's experience, reference to DNA: "I felt the DMT release my soul's energy and push it through the DNA. It's what happened when I lost my body. There were spirals that reminded me of things I've seen at Chaco Canyon. Maybe that was DNA. Maybe the ancients knew that. The DNA is backed into the universe like space travel. One needs to travel without one's body. It's ridiculous to think about space travel in little ships".

Some subjects experienced a less obviously biological representation of information than DNA. Vladan, a forty-two-year-old Eastern European filmmaker, was one of our busiest research subjects; he volunteered for many of the pilot studies in which we worked out doses and combinations of medications to use with DMT. He also received more psilocybin in our preliminary dosefinding work than anyone else. On a relatively low dose of DMT, 0.1 mg/kg, during the pindolol study, he encountered symbols that were rich with meaning: "There were visuals at the peak, soft and geometric. They were 3-D circles and cones with shading. They moved a lot. It was almost like looking at an alphabet, but it wasn't English. It was like a fantasy alphabet, a cross between runes and Russian or Arabic writing. It felt like there was some information in it, like it was data. It wasn't just random".

Later, while participating in a pilot cyproheptadine session, Vladan received 0.2 mg/kg DMT and again saw alphabet-like figures. "Like seeing panels with a cut-out shape, rounded edges, hieroglyphics of some sort. They weren't painted on but more cut out, through which I saw the colors".

Another striking example of the visual transformation of language and numbers comes from Heather. At twenty-seven years of age, she was one of our most experienced volunteers. Heather had taken psychedelics close to two hundred times, had over a dozen experiences with smoked DMT, and was quite familiar with marijuana, stimulants, and MDMA. In addition, she had drunk the DMT containing tea ayahuasca ten times. Emerging from her first non-blind high dose of DMT, she began: "There was a woman speaking Spanish all the time throughout the trip. She had quite a unique accent. Maybe it wasn't Spanish, but it sounded like it. At one point she said, "Regular." She threw a white blanket over the scene and then pulled it back repeatedly. It was really weird. There were numbers. It was like numerology and language. There were all these colors and then there were all these numbers, Roman numerals. The numbers became words. Where do words come from? The woman would cover them with her blanket—the words and the numbers. It started out typically as DMT but then I went past it, beyond where I've been on DMT. There is that ringing sound as you're getting up there, and then I went to the language or number thing. It was totally inexplicable. Maybe it was trying to teach me something. The first number I saw was a 2 and I looked around and there were numbers all around. They were separate in their little boxes, and then the boxes would melt and the numbers would all merge together to make long numbers".

Eli was a thirty-eight-year-old architect and one of our most fearless research subjects. He previously had "regressed under LSD through childhood to a point where I was sitting above the room, watching myself." During a 0.4 mg/kg dose that he received during the cyproheptadine study, he noted, "What's interesting is that I began experiencing sets of hallucinations, and then I said to myself, "Ah, this is the Logos." There's the blue-yellow core of meaning and semantics, basically". I laughed at his use of the word "basically": "That's easy for you to say." / know! It's like threads of words or DNA or something. They're all around there, they're everywhere. After the blue amoebic shapes, there were several pulsating places. I thought, "There are lots of these." It's a good feeling. Then it breaks into a ruffled reality. When I looked around, it seemed like the meaning or symbols were there. Some kind of core of reality where all meaning is stored. I burst into its main chamber".

Trying to keep up with Eli, I wondered, "It seems like some kind of membrane you break through, into a feeling of meaning and certainty." - "It is! I don't know if it's because of my interest in computers or not, but it seems like it's the raw bits of reality. It's a lot more than only ones and zeros. It's a higher level, very potent bits".

Eli went on to describe the "room" into which he burst. With this report, the view DMT provides now starts enlarging. / "was in a white room, experiencing certain emotions and feelings that gave me an intense feeling of being a co-reality. Like a dream I had of bumping into some Hispanic kids with my car, into their car. They were really mad at me. I said to them "If you hate me, you hate yourself. Our cultures are merged, so there's no defending against that." Their culture, our culture, they were co-real, existing simultaneously. The white room consisted mostly of light and space. There were cubes stacked with icons on the surfaces, like a Logos of consciousness. It was light but there was a lot of other information coming in".

Other volunteers found themselves in rooms that seemed like "playrooms," or "nurseries," some sort of holding space, made especially for them, full of meaning and depth. Gabe, a thirty-three-year-old physician, lived and worked in a remote rural community. He was one of the few volunteers who previously had smoked DMT. After receiving 0.4 mg/kg DMT in combination with cyproheptadine, he reported the following: "There were some scenes or forms like in a nursery. No babies, but there were cribs and different animals, vibrant. I went to a childhood scene, or feeling. It was like I was in a stroller, kid images. It was sort of scary. Iean't describe it. I could draw it maybe. It was like being in a room, as a child, with a stroller. There were cartoonlike people in the room, but they weren't what I wanted to see".

Aaron was at the cutting edge of consciousness enhancement using legal technologies: electronics devices such as brain-wave-driving machines, supplements and vitamins, and Eastern spiritual disciplines. He was fortysix years old when he started working with us. Aaron was one of the few Jewish volunteers in our study, and I felt a certain kinship with him at that level. He was hopeful but skeptical, looking forward to the experience, but praying he would survive intact. During his DMT-plus-pindolol session, he beheld two elements of unseen worlds: the informational language aspect, and the nursery/playroom theme. "There are no doors, there's nothing to go through. It's either over here— its dark; or over there—there are images. You just can't do anything with them. It was Mayan hieroglyphics. It was interesting. The hieroglyphics turned into a room, like I was a child. There were toys there, like I was a kid. It was like that. It was cute".

On a slightly larger scale, the spirit molecule led another volunteer to an "apartment" of sorts. Tyrone was thirty-seven years old when he participated in the dose-response study. He was a former student of mine, a junior psychiatrist I had supervised for a year. As he emerged from his double-blind 0.2 mg/kg dose of DMT, he reported: "It was a scene of apartments from the future!" He laughed at how unexpected it was. "Like living quarters, they were gorgeous. Pink, orange, those kinds of colors, yellow, real bright". I asked, "How did you know they were of the future?" "The places to sit, do things, the counters, they were molded out of the walls. I've never seen anything like it. It was really modern looking. The almost organic nature of the apartment was beautiful. It wasn't just functional. There was life in the furniture, like it was molded out of something alive, an animal, a living being. I felt in awe of the apartments. An artistic appreciation, like looking at a beautiful painting and getting lost in it, lost in the happiness. At the end I went past, beyond the apartments. I entered into a space, a crack in the earth. It wasn't horizontal, it was vertical. A crack in space"

Aaron also participated in the EEG study. Several days after the session in which he received the 0.4 mg/kg DMT dose, he sent us handwritten notes that capture, better than mine, a description of where he went that day. Here we see some glimmerings of the inhabited nature of these strange spaces. "There was no turning back. After a moment or two I became aware of something happening to my left. I saw a psychedelic, Day-Glo—colored space that approximated a room whose walls and floor had no clear separations or edges. It was throbbing and pulsing electrically. Rising in front of "me" was a podium-like table. It seemed that some presence was dealing/serving something to me. I wanted to know where I was and "sensed" the reply that I had no business there. The presence was not hostile, just somewhat annoyed and brusque".

Phillip's double-blind 0.4 mg/kg dose was definitely easier to negotiate than his 0.6 mg/kg overdose, and he remembered it well. In this session, the venue expands to include even larger-scale observations. "The relentless scratchy, crackling visuals didn't last long. Then I was above a strange landscape, like Earth, but very unearthly. Mountains of some sort. It was very friendly and inviting. It was so real I had to open my eyes. When I did the scene was overlaid on top of the room. I closed my eyes, and that removed the interference with what I had been seeing. It was like a super-bright Day-Glo poster, but much more complex. I was hovering miles above it. I had the very distinct sense of doing this, not just the visual perception. There were some telescopes, or microwave dishes, or water tower things with antennae on them. I wish I could take you by the hand and show you. A vast expanse of horizon. The sun was different, different colors and hues than our sun".

Let's close this chapter with Sean's description of a DMT world that seemed much like our own. However, that world had nothing to do with Room 531, and there were people other than Laura and me inhabiting it. I like this example because it combines the material from this chapter with the one that follows. In other words, it is "somewhere else" with "someone there" and "something happening," but so familiar as to deceive us about its "otherness." We'll read about Sean's enlightenment experience in greater detail later. However, for our purposes, what's interesting to note is what he told us after his third 0.3 mg/kg DMT session during the tolerance study. Almost as an afterthought, before we began his fourth and final dose, he said, "Oh yeah, there were people and guides. I was with a Mexican family, on a porch of a house in the desert. There was a garden scene outside. There were kids and stuff. I was playing with the kids. I was part of the family. I had a sense of an old man standing behind me or around me someplace. I wanted to talk with him, but he let me know somehow that it was more important to visit with the young girl. It was pretty laid-back, benign. It seemed so natural and complete as it was happening. It wasn't a dream at all. I thought, "It seems like a pretty common day," and then I stopped and thought, "No, I'm tripping." There were some black people, too, sort of pulling at me. There was a curious feeling of being extracted. It was a jarring feeling. I was being called away". Trying to keep his train of thought going, I suggested, "It sounds like something out of Carlos Castaneda's books." - "It does, doesn't it? No, I hadn't thought of that".

Perhaps you think these perceptions are not so strange after all. We all dream of unusual places and things. However, our volunteers not only saw these things, but felt an unshakeable certainty that they actually were there. Opening their eyes at any time superimposed this reality with their now-manifest but previously invisible one. Neither were they asleep. They were hyperaware and awake, able to tell themselves to do things in this new space. It's amazing how often I heard them say, "I looked around and saw".

Listening to these experiences also began stretching my limits as a clinical psychiatrist and researcher. I made few comments regarding people's reports of these unseen realms. It was hard to keep up, and I didn't know what to say. It was at this point that I began having to fight a tendency to regard these stories as dreams, or figments of their DMTamplified imaginations. On the other hand, I also began doubting my own model for what exactly happens on DMT. Were people really somewhere else? What exactly were they witnessing?

These are not trivial questions. As we saw earlier the sensitive, empathic, and encouraging responses are crucial in working with people under the influence of DMT. An offhanded, doubting, or skeptical remark could make someone feel badly and disregarded, which could rapidly lead to a negative or frightening outcome. We get an intimation of this in Sean's flat rejection of my suggestion that his Mexican family scene was based upon a memory of Carlos Castaneda books. He was with them; it wasn't something else. In addition to the need for close tracking and empathic responses to volunteers' experiences, I also needed to help them understand what had happened to them. When it came to the invisible landscape, we all faced more difficult challenges in making sense of what was going on. As we'll see in the next two chapters, this became an even more pressing issue when contact with beings predominated people's sessions.

End of part 2 (last)
It was selected fragments from book:

"DMT - The spirit molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research
into the Biology of Near-Death
and Mystical Experiences"

by Rick Strassman, М.D.

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