In the early 2000’s I was desperately trying to stop using drugs. I had, somewhat counter-intuitively, resolved to partake of a hallucinogenic experience in order to bring about this transformation. The hippy before me prepared the communion. It was a powder derived from a species of psychoactive toad, with admixture of ‘vine of the dead’. He assured me I would have visions, and that these visions would be instructive.
As I sucked the heatless vapour from the machine, I disappeared immediately into a phosphene tunnel. I was flat-lining, but also dimly aware that I was human and that this was exactly what it was like to be dead. The feeling was one of indescribable terror. Two heads without bodies were staring at me. Both heads were blank discs. One was black, and one was white. They exuded a penetrating intellect of omniscient power and menace.
Conversations I’ve had with experienced psychonauts since that time have confirmed that the drug was probably a combination of two powerful synthesized psychedelics — DMT and 5-MEO-DMT.
In its natural form, DMT is found in a wide array of life forms, including us. Molecules of DMT are to be found within our own bodies, as well as in numerous other plant and animal species. The most well-known form of DMT is to be found in the brew ayahuasca, a sacred Amazonian communion which has now become popular in the west (though it was relatively unheard of in 2001 when I took it).
Ayahuasca is concocted by boiling the leaves of the Chacruna plant (which contains the DMT) with a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, which helps release it into the human brain. DMT can also be synthesized into rocks or crystals which are then smoked or vaporized. Like ayahuasca, this concoction produces intense visual hallucinations such as geometric patterns, and at higher doses, frequently delivers users into the presence of non-human life forms. These ‘life forms’ have been described (most famously by the veteran psychonaut Terence McKenna) as ‘machine elves’ — although I definitely perceived them as aliens — faceless aliens to be precise.
5-MEO-DMT produces an even more powerful, but somewhat less visual hallucinatory experience than DMT. In its natural form it is to be found in the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad. 5-MEO-DMT is, if anything, even more terrifying than DMT. It is also instructive, at least, after you have survived the initial, blank, near death experience.
Humans have been using hallucinogens like these for a very long time. Since the stone age in fact. Since antiquity we have been eating mushrooms, licking toads and otherwise imbibing the psychoactive ingredients of numerous seeds, flowers, fruits, nuts, fungi, bark, moulds, sap and animal excretions. All in the name of perceiving the world differently, or perhaps, more meaningfully. Collectively, we refer to these drugs as entheogens.
Entropic States & The Default Mode Network
The word entheogen literally means ‘generating god within’. Recent research into the effects of entheogenic substances suggests that they exert their effects by actually decreasing brain activity, and specifically in areas which are responsible for producing an organized sense of self. These findings are somewhat counter-intuitive, as the prevailing expectation has always been that the effects of hallucinogens must surely be produced by some kind of increased activity in one brain area or another. But this is now considered unlikely.
New research seems to suggest that hallucinatory states are ‘entropic’ (i.e. disordered in relation to normal waking consciousness). The entropic state involves a slowing down or dysregulation of key brain areas that usually preserve the psychic status quo. This phenomena is known as de-synchronization.
De-synchronization has been extensively researched by Professor David Nutt, a psycho-pharmacologist and former drugs tsar for the Blair government. Professor Nutt postulates that hallucinogenic drugs cause neurons in deep cortical layers to act as though they were a crowd clapping out of sync. If we think of clapping, we can see that it is usually done in synchrony, meaning that we have the tendency to clap in rhythm with one other. This is similar to the way that bundles of neurons regulating our sense of self should be working under normal conditions. But should we begin to tickle one or two of those clappers however, and we might find that they begin to clap out of sync with everyone else, and this is the type of disruptive effect that strong hallucinogens have on the human brain. De-synchronization disrupts the rhythm of neurons that should be working in concert to produce an organized sense of self— and it is into this more ‘open’ or disorganized space, that the otherworldly, expansive and immersive effects of hallucinogens can be felt.
Recent research has uncovered a specific brain area which might be the centre of self itself— the Default Mode Network (or DFN for short). This is the brain region that is most disrupted by entheogens.The DFN is a centre of ego identification which is located in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex (the deeper layers of the cortex) and it appears to facilitate self-reflection and self-awareness, and to generally prop up the boundaries of what we think of as ‘us’ (as distinct from ‘others’). The mystical experiences reported by users of hallucinogens occur because they decrease oscillatory activity in this part of the brain. Anything which reduces activity in this part of the brain is apt to give us a corresponding increase in feelings of being ‘immersed in the whole’ — of being connected ‘with everything’. In short, entheogens succeed in disrupting the continuous feeling of being a distinct ‘I’ which constitutes our normal default mode.
Research into Iboga & Psilocybin
One might think that such a process of disorientation would be a disaster for someone with significant psychological or mental health issues, or someone with addictions (like my younger self). But increasingly, it seems that their ubiquitous property of reducing selfhood gives them great potential in treating both psychological and psychiatric disorders.
For example, in the field of addiction treatment, the bark of an African shrub, iboga, is now being seriously considered as a potential treatment for rapid opiate detox. Part of the appeal, or indeed the alleged efficacy of this drug, is the intense ‘spiritual experience’ it delivers. Critics point out that such benevolent effects fade quite quickly leaving the individual with the same problems he or she always had. Defenders argue that it is only this kind of powerful springboard (an intense spiritual experience) that can make a dent on the inevitable downward trajectory of a recidivist, inveterate addict.
Mental health professionals and researchers are now busy exploring the therapeutic effects of these plants. One study found that depressive symptoms brought on by a diagnosis of terminal illness could be radically affected by Psilocybin (the active psychedelic ingredient in numerous mushroom species).
Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, found that after taking Psilocybin, research subjects experienced a significant increase in their sense of meaning and purpose, as well as their sense of forgiveness, and also experienced a much reduced fear of their impending death. He referred to these changes as ‘quantum changes’. In his own words these experiences were, “sudden, distinctive, benevolent, and often profoundly meaningful,” resulting in “personal transformations that affect a broad range of personal emotions, cognitions and behaviors.”
None of this mirrors my experience exactly. For me, DMT was not the tonic that Griffiths and his colleagues described. There was no quantum change. Only insights that would take time to unravel. Also worth noting, is the fact that I found the effects of DMT to be considerably more ‘ordered’ and ‘rational’ than Nutt’s description of disorderly chaos.In order to explain this, I will have to return to my seminal psychonaut experience.
What DMT Taught Me
After the tunnel and its sentinels subsided I emerged into a cornfield. The field was burning. This was an extremely vivid and lifelike hallucination. I knew this cornfield well because I had in fact burnt it down when I was eight years old, destroying some twenty acres of prime farmland in the process. It was an event that was full of shame for me at the time, as it became widely known in the community that I was the culprit. The problem was, I just happened to like fires, and couldn’t stop lighting them.
Now, through the portal of DMT, I was here again. The non-human life forms seemed to want me to understand something. Why had they brought me here I ‘thought’ briefly? Suddenly, a trickster God appeared. Only his torso, head and multiple arms were visible above the tall corn. I couldn’t work out if he was Hindu or Norse. He was dancing — shimmering — in the flames. I ‘knew’ what he was telling me. My destructive elements were integral. They could not be expunged. They would never be expunged.
It would take me several more years before I could fully integrate this learning, which was this. That my own innate darkness — my self destructive bent — must find outlet. I could do this consciously, or unconsciously. I could put it to use, or be consumed by it.
I still find it amazing that the dancing deity told me something sensible — or indeed — relevant. This was not so much a loss of self, wrought by a chaotic loosening of brain functions. It was a profound revelation. One that would take me years of enduring trials to understand, and even longer to embody.
As to whether such substances have psycho-therapeutic potential the answer is as obvious as it has always been. It depends. It depends on who you are. It depends on what you are prepared to do with the insights you’ve gained. Either way we should be mindful of Carl Jung’s exhortation to be “wary of unearned wisdom”.