DMT for the Soul
by Janak Tull
Who are we? We know we have physical existence; our bodies follow the basic laws that govern all material existence, whether it is a rock, a tree, or a bicycle. But, are we anything other than physical existence? Is there anything beyond our physical body; something that perhaps allows us to “experience” beyond the physical world of our five senses? It seems that every culture has some concept of this “inner being”—call it “soul”; “spirit”; “self.” Philosophers have conceptualized this as the element that underlies our consciousness or that which drives our physical awareness. In my time at Pitzer, I have taken courses in Hinduism and in Qi Gong. In both classes, I have seen that this notion of a vital energy is a fundamental concept. While the two traditions do not see this inner being or soul on the same terms, there is a great deal of commonality. The most important of these commonalities is the notion that the soul is what enlivens us; as Professor Shimkhada, who taught my Hinduism class here, used to say, “It’s what makes us kick and tick.” But where exactly is the soul? How do we locate it; is there any way of determining a scientific basis for it? If it is not physical, how can it exist? In this essay, I will explore the notion of the soul’s existence by looking at some ideas presented by a physician and researcher, Rick Strassman, in his study titled DMT: The Spirit Molecule. DMT is a molecule that occurs naturally in the human body and has been linked to psychedelic experience. In this paper, I will explore whether DMT might be the cause of how humans think about themselves as having a “soul.” Before turning to Strassman’s work, however, I will first give some background on the notion of the soul, in particular as it is understood in China and India, as well as what a modern scientific investigation of the soul might entail.
The Idea of the Soul
E. B. Tylor, the father of modern anthropology, has noted that the sense of the soul, of an animating force, stands as a common notion among man, even for humans living in the simplest state of culture. Tylor conjectures that even “primitive” people must have asked, “What is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death.” Tylor suggests that the breath, present during life, but absent in death, must have been seen as the primary element of the human soul. And, as Tylor points out, in a great number of ancient cultures, the earliest terminology for the soul is a term that means “breath”; as can be seen in the Indian words, prana and atman, the Hebrew word nephesh, the Greek pneuma, and even in the English term ghost (from the German geist) may be rooted in the idea of breath. Breath also has the properties of being subtle—for ancient man, without scientific tools, it must have been impossible to measure the breath. It thus seems reasonable that people would have conceived of the breath as “soul” as something that has no physical substance.
Chinese philosophy views the soul in terms of yin and yang; that is, two parts of a whole. The soul is split up; the hun (yang) which is the meta-physical soul and the po (yin) which is the physical soul. The hun is associated with yang for many reasons, one of these reasons being that it is believed after death the hun returns to heaven which is regarded as the highest yang. The po is associated with yin for many reasons as well, one of which is that the po returns to the physical Earth (yin relative to heaven). Over time, Chinese philosophy developed complex ideas about the body channels that hun and po flowed through, and enumerated a number of these elements:
Five viscera and six receptacles, seven directors and nine palaces,
skin and veins,
muscles, bone, marrow, and brains,
nine openings to watch and protect,
twelve abodes for the gods,
on the left three hun,
on the right the seven p’o,
three levels of the body,
with eight effulgences each,
making up twenty-four gods,
one thousand two hundred projections,
twelve thousand vibrations,
three hundred sixty articulations,
and eighty-four thousand pores.
The idea that the physical body contains a subtle soul element is also clearly represented in ancient Indian thought. According to the Indian thinkers, the physical body enveloped progressively more subtle elements, and this could be seen in the progression from the “outer” senses such as touch to the “inner” senses such as mind and memory. This highly subtle soul, according to Hinduism, could transmigrate after the physical death of the body into a new birth:
As a person abandoning worn-out garments
Acquires other new ones,
So the embodied, abandoning worn-out bodies
Enters other new ones
Can the Existence of the Soul be Detected?
The modern scientific world has a great deal of difficulty with the concept of a soul. Modern science is based on the gathering of empirical evidence—that is, evidence that can be observed and reported on, generally under strictly controlled conditions (e.g., in a laboratory setting) which can then be repeated by other scientists. A quick internet search shows that the idea of “scientific” proof for the existence of the soul is almost a joke. The “logic” of this sort of experiment is that the soul must have some substance, even if the substance is only infinitesimal, since in our world there is no way to account for the existence of something immaterial; that is, it would break the basic laws of physics, if a thing had no substantial existence. One frequently cited “experiment” suggests this very dilemma. In 1907, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Massachusetts, made the following conjecture:
It is unthinkable that personality and consciousness continuing personality should exist, and have being, and yet not occupy space. It is impossible to represent in thought that which is not space occupying, as having personality, for that would be equivalent to thinking that nothing had become or was something, that emptiness had personality, that space itself was more than space, all of which are contradictions and absurd. Since therefore it is necessary to the continuance of conscious life and personal identity after death, that they must have for a basis that which is space occupying or substance, the question arises, has this substance weight; is it ponderable? The essential thing is that there must be a substance as the basis of continuing personal identity and consciousness, for without space occupying substance, personality or a continuing conscious ego after bodily death is unthinkable.
In a series of morbid “scientific” experiments, Dr. MacDougall weighed people as they died. In nearly every case (five out of six subjects), MacDougall found a loss of approximately one ounce of weight immediately following death. MacDougall accounted for the possible loss of fecal matter, urine, respiratory moisture, and then noted: “In this case we certainly have an inexplicable loss of weight of three-fourths of an ounce. Is it the soul substance? How other shall we explain it?” After weighing six people at the moment of death, Macdougall then measured fifteen dogs, as they died. He found that there was no weight loss, thus further “proving” that the human weight loss at death was the soul, since (as everyone apparently knows) dogs do not have souls. MacDougall’s conclusions are widely ridiculed; as the website snopes.com points out, MacDougall’s sample size was too small, and a similar experiment at the time seemed to show that people actually gained weight when they died. Nonetheless, MacDougall’s experiment seems to be the basis for the common idea that the soul weighs “21 grams” (about three fourths of an ounce—the weight of the “soul” of the subject MacDougall’s first experiment).
Is it possible that humans (and possibly all living beings) have a substance that exists in their brains that give them the sense that they have a soul? I came upon this idea through reading the work of Rick Strassman, a physician who has studied extensively the naturally occurring molecule DMT, or N-dimethyltryptamine. Although Strassman does not talk specifically about the soul, he does elaborate on the concept of a spirit and spiritual experiences in his investigation into DMT.
DMT is in the family of tryptamine psychedelics, and of these it is the simplest. Although DMT occurs naturally in humans, when it is introduced artificially, DMT gives rise to “psychedelic experiences.” Strassman concludes that DMT and the production of DMT have intimate connections with the concept of a spirit, referring to DMT as “the spirit molecule”:
A spirit molecule needs to elicit with reasonable reliability, certain psychological states we consider ‘spiritual’. These are feelings of extraordinary joy, timelessness, and a certainty that what we are experiencing is ‘more real than real.’
DMT occurs naturally in the human body, as well as in all living organisms. The source of production for DMT is still unknown; however, this has not stopped speculation as to where the molecule is made. Strassman and others hypothesize that the pineal gland is the source of DMT, noting that “the pineal gland contains the necessary building blocks to make DMT.” This contention has not been verified, however, and DMT’s presence in other locations in the human body suggests possible other sources:
“The enzymes and precursors in the pineal gland are not unique to it, but the high concentrations of these compounds and the gland’s remarkably convenient location, make it an ideal source of the spirit molecule. Lung, liver, blood, eye, and brain all possess the appropriate raw materials for DMT production.”
Other researchers have found DMT in human urine and the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the brain. DMT is dispersed throughout our bodies at all times.
Although DMT is found all over the body, the amounts in which it is found is nowhere near the amounts needed to induce a psychedelic experience. Moreover, once the body produces or takes in DMT, there is an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) that quickly dispels the DMT molecules. MAO is widespread in the body (with high concentrations in the blood, liver, stomach, brain, and intestines, and hence DMT cannot last long in the body. However, this process makes it extremely difficult to isolate DMT in the body—to understand where it comes from and to what its production is related, as one researcher writes, "DMT itself is so fleeting, that it seems one might have to take 'heroic' measures such as obtaining fresh brain tissue from a patient on MAO inhibitors or freezing brain tissue immediately upon collection to prevent the disappearance of any DMT.”
Although the role of low levels of DMT in the body is not well understood, the effects of large amounts, introduced through artificial means, clearly has the effect of an intense psychedelic. As Strassman observes, “In our volunteers, a full dose of IV DMT almost instantly elicited intense psychedelic visions, a feeling that the mind had separated from the body, and overpowering emotions. These effects completely replaced whatever had occupied their minds just before drug administration.” Strassman also reports that subjects experienced “the sense of powerful energy pulsing through them at a very rapid and high frequency,” reporting that vibrations and colors pulsated so intensely that the subjects commented that they thought they might “pop.” Along with this intense psychedelic response to DMT, Strassman also found that high doses of DMT pushed the consciousness of the subjects into “into non-corporeal, free-standing, independent realms of existence inhabited by beings of light who oftentimes were expecting the volunteers, and with whom the volunteers interacted.” Strasusman’s work in these areas has been supported by the work of other scientists, such as J. C. Callaway, who looked at the role of DMT in dreams.
Strassman and Callaway both look to the possible role of the pineal gland in the production of DMT. The pineal gland is a gland in the brain located at the top of the spinal chord. The pineal gland is responsible for the production of endorphins, the chemicals produced by the brain that induce emotional response and feeling. The pineal gland has long been the subject of speculation regarding human consciousness. The famous 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes believed that, “this gland is the principal seat of the soul, and the place in which all our thoughts are formed.” Descartes believed that the body was just a mechanical mass, and that a human consisted of two elements, the body and the soul. For Descartes, the soul was the seat of memory, sensation, imagination, and the other non-corporeal functions. Descartes’ speculation regarding the pineal gland has a long history in ideas about the “third eye.” Qi Gong philosophy talks about the “third eye” that is thought to be the sensor by which we can best understand the information, or qi, of the universe. The third eye is regarded as the sixth sense also referred to as intuition. In ancient Indian philosophy, the third eye, or pineal gland is associated with the sixth chakra, known as the Ajnya Chakra, said to be the mind’s eye, and the element that allows direct mind-to-mind communication. Additionally, the soul itself is said to emerge from this point:
At the time of passing on, with undisturbed mind,
Absorbed in Yoga, by offering one’s love, and by the very power of yoga;
Inherently focusing the vital breath between the eyebrows
One reaches that supreme Person. (Bhagavad-gita 8.10)
According to Strassman, the pineal gland manifests itself at seven weeks in the developing fetus, the point at which the sex of the fetus first becomes known. Strassman suggests that “the pineal gland as the most important differentiation of humanity.” An interesting connection between modern science and ancient philosophy can be bridged here. According to the Tibetan Buddhist Book of the Dead, the soul of the recently deceased remains in an in-between state for forty-nine days (i.e., seven weeks), in a place called the bardo, after which it returns to this world in a new incarnation. Here, it is interesting to note that Strassman has also speculated that “a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death or near death was the cause of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon.”
All in all, Strassman’s speculation about the production of DMT and the psychedelic response it creates in humans may represent one of the first forays of science into the nature of the soul. Although throughout human history humans have asserted that man has a soul, the definitions are not precise; there has been no scientific means of understanding something that is incorporeal. For modern science, the idea of the soul presents a particular problem: it exceeds physical boundaries, thus, science would have to deny its existence. Strassman’s ideas about a molecule that is so subtle and so hard to trace may be one way in which we bridge science and belief. It may very well be that the psychic response of the human mind to its own DMT is what generates a sense of soul in the human brain. The feeling of incorporeality and being “outside oneself” associated with DMT’s psychedelic effects may very well underlie our own sense of the “soul.” But, does this mean that the soul does not actually exist, and is only a figment of our imagination? I believe this sort of thinking is inadequate because it does not take seriously the thousands of years of human thinking about the soul that preceded the scientific world. Modern science is just in its infancy—barely 150 years old. As tools for measuring the brain’s chemistry advance, and as we develop a finer understanding of the brain’s impulses, we may learn that what we envision as the “soul”--that is, our very own consciousness--can be understood in quantifiable terms. It is perhaps just a matter of time before science can detect and begin to understand the meta-physical existence in which the human entity manifests itself. Until then we can only make speculations based on the information we acquire from the most sophisticated equipment of the time. And as of this time, on a personal level of what I have learned from my research about DMT, I would like to present the hypothesis that DMT somehow underlies the manifestation of the soul.
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