Strassman’s Psychedelic Neo-Cartesianism

Strassman’s Psychedelic Neo-Cartesianism

Richard Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule—A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near Death and Mystical Experiences is best understood as a Neo-Cartesian project. Ostensibly, it recounts the details of his clinical research into the effects of DMT, but its overall argument is thoroughly Cartesian. The problem of mind-body interaction has long plagued Cartesian dualism in the philosophy of mind. If mind and body are two separate substances, as the dualist claims, how can they causally interact with one another? How can a man’s decision to take a sip of coffee result in the raising of his arm? And, if he spills his hot coffee on his leg, how can the resulting physical damage cause him to feel the mental state of pain? Descartes’ solution to this problem was to posit that the interaction between mind and body occurs at the pineal gland of the brain. The soul jiggles the pineal gland, which is surrounded by animal spirits, and these animal spirits then mechanistically transfer this motion to the rest of the body (and vice versa). Descartes’ quaint response has largely been taken to be inadequate in light of both later discoveries in physiology and a lack of genuine explanatory power. The philosophical problem with the Cartesian response is that it doesn’t actually solve the problem of interaction; it merely moves it back a step. For, one might ask, how does the soul (an immaterial substance) interact with the pineal gland (a material substance)?

            In regards to the philosophical problem, Strassman’s book has little (if anything) to offer, but it does make some interesting observations about the physiological component of the Cartesian position. Strassman speculates that the pineal gland might produce di-methly-tryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic substance, and release this to the surrounding areas of the brain. He notes that the pineal gland is shaped like a pine cone, and is evolutionarily very old. It is literally a third eye, possessing a “lense, cornea, and retina”.[1] In mammals, “the pineal moved inward, deeper into the brain, more hidden and removed from outside influences.”[2] In humans, the pineal does not actually originate as part of the brain, but develops at the roof of the fetal mouth and migrates upward from there. It becomes visible at forty-nine days, the same time that sexual differentiation occurs.

The pineal gland is located so as to easily connect with other regions of the brain. It sits near “cerebrospinal fluid channels, which allows its secretions easy access to the brains deepest recesses.”[3] It is also located above “the visual and auditory colliculi”, “relay stations for the transmission of sense data to brain sites involved in their registration and interpretation.”[4] Finally, the pineal is surrounded by the limbic brain which governs emotional response. “Therefore, the pineal also has access to the brain’s emotional centers.”[5] The pineal would thus be ideally located to dump its DMT into the rest of the brain which “hungers for it”.[6] Given its location and the possibility that it might generate DMT, Strassman speculates that

“the pineal gland produces psychedelic amounts of DMT at extraordinary times in our lives. Pineal DMT production is the physical representation of non-material, or energetic processes. It provides us with the vehicle to consciously experience the movement of our life-force in its most extreme manifestations.”[7]

Here we thus have the Cartesian claim that the pineal is, in a sense, the seat of the soul, since, according to Strassman, DMT is “the spirit molecule.”[8]

            Strassman’s account of the phenomenology of DMT experience is also profoundly Cartesian in that it conjures Descartes’ famous dream argument. Descartes famously doubted the veracity of his waking experience at the outset of the Meditations, because he lacked a criterion by which to distinguish dreams from waking experiences. Indeed, this philosophical puzzle antedates Descartes, being recognized by the Daoist sage Zhuangzi:

“Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction! This is called the transformation of things.”[9]

Similar epistemic considerations arise in Strassman’s study. He was expecting his subjects to report mystical or near death experiences when given DMT. These occurred as expected. But something unexpected also occurred: the subjects reported traveling to different worlds. They reported being in a place filled with DNA and other biological material,[10] seeing geometrical symbols resembling a hieroglyphic alphabet,[11] numbers that convey a language,[12] and even carnivalesque settings, or playrooms or nurseries prepared for them.[13] The concreteness and certainty with which these surroundings appeared to the subjects fuel the Cartesian question about the reality of these environments and whether or not such experiences are epistemically justified. Many of the subjects had taken other psychedelic drugs in the past and remarked that what they saw appeared different than their prior psychedelic hallucinations. The DMT worlds were clearer and the subjects were certain that they had really visited them. Furthermore, when Strassman suggested that these experiences were mere dreams, his subjects resisted him. He recounts:

“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 and unshakable certainty that they actually were there. Opening their eyes at any time superimposed this reality with their now-manifest but previously invisible one. Nether 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.’”[14]

            Even more startling was the fact that the subjects not only experienced these worlds, but also interacted with the intelligent beings inhabiting them. Strassman’s subjects reported seeing elves, dwarfs, insect-like and reptilian aliens, imps, clowns, cartoonish creatures and even something resembling Gumby![15] These beings display an awareness of the person who has entered their realm, have a complete control of the situation, and tend to communicate telepathically. Sometimes they appear benevolent, at other times malevolent. The following reports are representative:

“There were a lot of elves. They were prankish, ornery…. They commanded the scene, it was their terrain! They were about my height. They held up placards, showing me these incredibly beautiful, complex, swirling geometrical scenes in them. One of them made it impossible for me to move. There was no issue of control; they were totally in control. They wanted me to look! I heard a giggling sound—the elves laughing or talking at high-speed volume, chattering, twittering.”[16]

“There is a sinister backdrop, an alien-type, insectoid, not-quite-pleasant side of this, isn’t there? Its not a ‘we’re-going-to-get-you-motherfucker.’ It’s more like being possessed. During the experience there is a sense of someone, or something else, there taking control. It’s like you have to defend yourself against them, whoever they are, but they certainly are there. I’m aware of them and they’re aware of me. It’s like they have an agenda. It’s like walking into a different neighborhood. You’re really not quite sure what the culture is. It’s got such a distinct flavor, the reptilian being or beings that are present.”[17]

“It was a nursery. A high-tech nursery with a single Gumby, three feet tall, attending me. I felt like an infant. Not a human infant, but an infant relative to the intelligences represented by the Gumby. It was aware of me, but not particularly concerned. Sort of a detached concern, like a parent would feel looking into a playpen at his one-year-old lying there. As I went into it, I heard a sound: hmmm. Then I heard two or three male voices talking. I heard one of them say, ‘he’s arrived.’ I felt evolution occurring. These intelligences are looking over us. There is hope beyond the mess we are making for ourselves. I couldn’t change the experience at all. I couldn’t have anticipated it or even imagined it. It was a total surprise! I tried to open to love but that was silly. All I could do was observe it.”[18]

“When I was first going under there were these insect creatures all around me. They were clearly trying to break through. I was fighting letting go of  who I am or was. The more I fought, the more demonic they became, probing into my psyche and being. I finally started letting go of parts of myself, as I could no longer keep so much of me together. As I did, I still clung to the idea that all was God, and that God was love, and I was giving myself up to God and God’s love, the insectoids began to feed on my heart, devouring the feelings of love and surrender.”[19]

“There were two crocodiles. On my chest. Crushing me, raping me anally. I didn’t know if I would survive. At first I thought I was dreaming, having a nightmare. Then I realized it was really happening….it was awful. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life. I wanted to ask to hold your hands, but I was pinned so firmly I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t speak.”[20]

“Suddenly, beings appeared. They were cloaked, like silhouettes. They were glad to see me. They indicated that they had contact with me as an individual before. They seemed pleased that we had discovered this technology. I felt like a spiritual seeker who had gotten too far off course and, instead of encountering the spirit world, overshot my destination and ended upon another planet. They wanted to learn about our physical bodies. They told me humans exist on many levels.”[21]

These accounts were unexpected, and were once more accompanied by an unusual phenomenology. The participants were certain they really had been somewhere else and had communicated with these beings. It did not feel like a psychedelic hallucination or a dream to them. They would even interact with these entities on multiple occasions as the experiments continued, suggesting the beings had a stable objective existence. Strassman describes the situation as follows:

“Volunteers were convinced that there were differences between what they experienced during DMT induced contact with beings and their typical dreams. Observing the same things with eyes opened or closed, in an alert, awake state of consciousness, also made it difficult for them to accept that it was ‘just a dream.’ Neither did it feel the same way listening to their stories of encounters as I do when one normally relates a dream to me in psychotherapy. Our volunteers’ reports were so clear, convincing, and ‘real’ that I repeatedly thought, ‘this sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard about in my therapy patients’ dream life. It is much more bizarre, well-remembered, and internally consistent.’ In addition, a biological explanation along the lines of a waking dream or a hallucination usually brought on a certain resistance within the volunteer. A subtle friction might develop between us that limited the depth of their sharing and disclosure that was so valuable in our work together. A research subject might say in so many words, ‘no, that wasn’t a dream, or a hallucination. It was real. I can tell the difference. And if that’s what you think it is, then I’ll keep the strangest aspects of the session to myself.”[22]

On account of such data, Strassman eventually decided that the best explanation was to assume that his participants were telling the truth.[23]

“At first, this involved simply listening, and asking for clarification. Later on, as more tales accumulated, I could refer to other people’s accounts in an empathetic manner that made it easier for volunteers to feel I understood and accepted what they had to say. That way they could share with me their most unusual and almost embarrassingly unexpected encounters. Therefore, let’s consider the proposal that when our volunteers journeyed to the further bounds of DMT’s reach, when they felt as if they were somewhere else, they were indeed perceiving different levels of reality. The alternative levels are as real as this one. It’s just that we cannot perceive them most of the time.”[24]

Strassman’s own speculations about these other realms are too materialistic and fanciful for my taste, since he suggests that people travel through the multiverse and interface with beings whose bodies are composed of dark matter. Nonetheless, his account does raise interesting epistemological questions. Descartes’ two proposed solutions to the dream argument were that i) waking life is more phenomenologically consistent and sequenced by memory than dreams are, and ii) God would not deceive him (i.e. create him in such a manner that the sense of waking certainty would not correspond with being awake). But note that on both counts the experiences recounted by the participants would likely also end up being veridical. First, they claim to be aware of a phenomenologically consistent world that has a clear temporal order. And second, these experiences are marked by a feeling of certainty. They feel at least as real as other waking states. What results is a very puzzling epistemic situation indeed. “What if you slept/ and what if/ in your sleep/ you dreamed/ and what if/ in your dream/ you went to heaven/ and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower/ and what if/ when you awoke/ you had that flower in your hand/ ah, what then?”[25]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2001), 60.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 61.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 52-53. Strassman also notes that DMT is one of the few compounds which undergoes active blood brain transport.

[7] Ibid, 68.

[8] Ibid, 53. The dualistic character of this project is evident. The absolute idealist or panpsychist, for example, would not seek to identify THE spirit molecule, since, for them, EVERYTHING is spirit.

[9] The Complete Works of Zhuangzi, trans. Watson, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 18.

[10] Strassman, DMT, 177.

[11] Ibid., 178.

[12] Ibid., 179.

[13] Ibid., 180.

[14] Ibid., 183.

[15] Ibid., 173, 188, 189, 191, 192, 193.

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Ibid., 189.

[18] Ibid., 193.

[19] Ibid., 206.

[20] Ibid., 252-253.

[21] Ibid., 214.

[22] Ibid., 313-314

[23] Ibid., 315.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Coleridge.

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