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What is DMT?: Effects, History & Research of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine

By Sam Woolfe

DMT has become an increasingly popular psychedelic. The use of it has been rising in the past 15 years and it has been the focus of some popular books, documentaries, and mainstream news articles. 

Many people consider DMT to be one of the most – if not, the most – powerful psychedelic. It also has some unique effects that separate it from other psychedelics. 

In this article, we explore what DMT is exactly, its history and effects, and what research is revealing about it. 

As we shall see, DMT may offer people more than just an intense and strange experience. It may help people to find more spirituality in their life, as well as deal with certain psychological issues. 

What is DMT?

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is one of the classic psychedelics, along with LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline. It is a tryptamine psychedelic, meaning that it is made up of a core molecule of tryptamine, which is similar in structure to the brain chemical serotonin. Other tryptamine psychedelics include:

  • Psilocybin
  • Psilocin
  • Bufotenin
  • Ibogaine
  • 5-MeO-DMT. 

When people refer to ‘DMT’, they often mean N,N-DMT, rather than 5-MeO-DMT, which is another powerful and short-acting psychedelic. One of the main differences between N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT is that the former is much more of a visual experience[*].

The Usage of DMT

What is DMT like in its appearance? 

DMT usually comes in freebase form, as a white or yellowish powder. People will use different methods for taking the substance. You can use a small freebase pipe or a bong. 

dmt what is dmt

When using a bong, many people will sandwich the powder in between some non-psychoactive herbs (such as oregano or mullein) or in between cannabis. Using cannabis, however, may change the nature of the experience since it’s psychoactive. This ‘sandwich method’ is to prevent you from burning the DMT. The aim is to vaporize the substance by applying heat to it but not a direct flame. 

Another way of using DMT is to combine the compound with smokable herbs, usually including an MAOI-containing plant, such as Banisteriopsis caapi (also known as the ayahuasca plant). Other common herbs that people use include mullein, damiana, blue lotus, passionflower, and peppermint. 

These DMT-infused smoking blends are known as ‘changa’ or ‘smokable ayahuasca’ (due to the presence of the MAOI, which can both extend the length of the experience and slow it down). 

The History of DMT

The use of DMT potentially goes back thousands of years. 

This is because it is the active ingredient in ayahuasca, the psychedelic brew that has a long tradition of use among indigenous populations in the Amazon basin. Ayahuasca use is at least 1,000 years old[*].

The history of DMT as an isolated compound, on the other hand, is much more recent. Here’s a brief rundown of DMT’s history, including psychedelic research:

  • In 1931, Richard Manske, a Canadian chemist, was the first to synthesize DMT, which he called ‘nigerine’[*].
  • In 1956, the chemist Stephen Szára injected himself with DMT and was the first person to describe its psychedelic effects[*].
  • In 1966, the public use and sale of DMT were prohibited in the US[*].
  • In 1970, DMT became a Schedule I drug under the United States Controlled Substances Act[*], meaning the law recognized it as having no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
  • Between 1990 and 1995, the psychiatrist Rick Strassman, working out of the University of New Mexico, administered DMT to nearly 60 volunteers and recorded the subjective effects[*]. He described the results in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2000). 
  • In 2019, the journal Scientific Reports published the results of the world’s first-ever brain scan of people under the influence of DMT[*].

The history of DMT, like many other psychedelic compounds, is still unfolding as more research is being done on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.

The Effects of DMT 

The perceptual, emotional, and spiritual effects of DMT can be similar to those of other psychedelics. DMT differs from the other classic psychedelics in that it is short-lasting. Its effects usually last between 5-20 minutes, depending on the dosage (normally 10-50mg). You will then return to baseline after about an hour. 

Perceptual Effects of DMT

  • Objects appearing larger or smaller than normal
  • Color enhancement
  • The environment or objects changing color
  • Objects appear to be breathing, morphing, melting, and flowing
  • Depth perception distortions (how near or far away objects appear)
  • Auditory distortions
  • Time distortion (time passing either quickly or slowly)
  • Seeing geometric patterns with eyes open or closed
  • Hallucinations (visual hallucinations like landscapes, settings, scenarios, and plots, or auditory hallucinations like hearing music that isn’t playing)

Emotional Effects of DMT

  • More intense emotions
  • Rapid swings between emotions
  • Euphoria
  • Joy
  • Awe
  • Happiness
  • Contentment
  • Gratitude
  • Peacefulness
  • Paranoia
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Terror

Spiritual Effects of DMT

  • The experience of timelessness or eternity
  • A feeling of being outside space or existing in infinite space (sometimes called ‘the void’)
  • Ego loss, the loss of your sense of identity
  • The experience of being ‘pure awareness’
  • A feeling of unity or interconnectedness
  • A feeling of the holy, sacred, or divine
  • The experience of ‘ultimate reality’
  • Paradoxical experiences (e.g. the sensation of being everything and nothing)
  • Ineffable (indescribable) experiences

But DMT is also known to produce some unique effects, such as the manifestation of entities and otherworldly realms.

Strange Entities and Alien Worlds

One of the most common aspects of the DMT experience is the appearance of entities or beings. These beings seem to have an intelligence of their own and can be aware of your presence and interact with you during the experience. DMT entities can take many forms, as reported by volunteers in Strassman’s DMT study. Common types of entities include:

  • Elves
  • Jokers
  • Jesters
  • Clowns
  • Circus performers
  • Aliens
  • Machines
  • Insects
  • Deities (e.g. Egyptian, Hindu, Mayan)

You may find the entities to be joyful, zany, loving, caring, and energetic, as well as eager to greet you and show you around the strange dimension they inhabit. This tends to characterize a positive DMT experience. During a more challenging experience, the entities can appear threatening, unwelcoming, or take on a more unpleasant appearance.

People also report visiting strange worlds during their DMT experience, which can seem both alien and familiar. When using DMT, you may find yourself in an environment resembling a:

  • Room
  • Palace
  • Mosque or domed building
  • Circus
  • City
  • Casino
  • Carnival

You might find it difficult to remember a lot of the details of the experience when you come out of it. This is a common occurrence. 

The ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who often spoke about the DMT experience in his lectures, said that “the way a dream melts away is the way a DMT trip melts away”[*]. 

For this reason, you may find it helpful to take notes about your experience – or record yourself talking about it – when you come out of it. 

Research Into DMT

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers did not intensively study DMT as they did with LSD[*]. It was an uncommon psychedelic both among researchers and the public who were experimenting with psychedelics. 

In the psychedelic renaissance that we find ourselves in now, psychedelic research has tended to focus more on psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA than DMT[*]. 

Having said that, there are many important studies on DMT that are worth highlighting.

Strassman’s DMT Study

Strassman’s study in the 90s on DMT revealed the unique subjective effects of DMT, including reports of contact with entities and visitations to otherworldly places. Strassman administered approximately 400 doses of DMT to nearly five dozen men and women. Many of his participants reported mystical-like experiences. 

For this reason, he dubbed DMT the ‘spirit molecule’.

The DMT Experience is Similar to the Near-Death Experience

2018 research from Chris Timmerman, a researcher at Imperial College London, showed that the DMT experience strongly resembles the near-death experience (NDE)[*]. NDEs are experiences that occur when people are close to death or when they’re in life-threatening situations. Similarities between the subjective effects of DMT and those of NDEs include:

  • Being in an unearthly environment
  • Feeling a sense of peace
  • The feeling of one’s senses being heightened
  • Feeling a sense of unity or harmony
  • Altered time perception
  • The feeling of transcending one’s body
  • Encountering a mystical being or presence
  • Feelings of joy
  • Bright light

The Brain on DMT

In 2019, Chris Timmerman and other researchers from Imperial College London published results of the world’s first-ever brain imaging study on DMT. 

Researchers used EEG to measure the electrical activity of the brain. They found that DMT reduces brain waves associated with waking consciousness while increasing brain waves seen with dreaming. DMT, therefore, induced a kind of waking dream state. 

DMT’s Effects on Users’ Beliefs

Alan K. Davis and other researchers from Johns Hopkins published a survey showing that 58% of respondents reported a belief in ultimate reality, a higher power, God, or universal divinity after an encounter with a DMT entity[*]. Only 1 in 10 reported that the experience made them atheist. More than half of those who identified as atheist before the entity encounter no longer identified as such after the experience. 

More fascinating research on DMT is also underway. Small Pharma is collaborating with Imperial College London in the first clinical trial of the use of DMT in the treatment of depression[*]. Researchers will provide the DMT experience alongside psychotherapy, as they’ve done with studies on the use of psilocybin for depression. Timmerman suggested in his 2019 study that DMT could act as an antidepressant due to the way it alters brain waves[*].

DMT - A Potentially Transformational Experience in the Right Setting

As we can see, DMT can offer you some quite powerful and transformative experiences. While the experience may be brief and hard to remember, you should not underestimate its effects. 

If you plan to use this substance, it’s always best to have a sitter with you. He or she can ensure that you are safe when you are having the experience. It can also be helpful to have a sitter so you have someone to discuss the experience with when it’s over.

Tags: Psychedelics

Posted by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer with a particular interest in psychedelics, psychology, mental health, and drug policy. Since 2013, he has been writing about psychedelics on his blog, as well as anything else that happens to pique his interest. When he's not writing, Sam spends his time hiking, travelling, practising meditation, and playing the cajon.

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