You feel as if you are shot out of your body, down a tunnel and into another realm. You’re greeted by loving DMT entities who welcome you home. This place feels realer than real; you know that this is where you came from and where you will go after you die. After a time, you must return to your body, this beautiful realm recedes and, a short time later, you’re experiencing the “real” world again. Differentiating DMT and near-death experiences can help explain the experience an individual undergoes when using DMT.
NDE vs. DMT
This account could be a classic DMT experience or a classic near-death experience (NDE). The similarities of these core themes have caused many to suggest that a release of DMT under great stress could account for the NDE. In this account the NDE would be a DMT trip. This provides a neat, neurobiological explanation for NDEs, since we know the mammalian brain produces DMT. This idea hinges on showing that the DMT and near-death experience really are one and the same.
Inducing NDEs with DMT
In 2018, Chris Timmermann, a researcher in the lab of Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, tackled this question head-on. The researchers gave thirteen subjects either DMT or a placebo, then assessed their experiences using a widely-used NDEs questionnaire. The researchers found that every participant met the criteria for having had a near-death-type experience. One of the experiment’s subjects also had an ostensibly near-death-type experience when given a placebo, suggesting that the conventional bar for qualifying may be quite low.
Scientifically Comparing the DMT and Near-Death Experiences
The NDE questionnaire assesses 16 different aspects of the NDE. The researchers found that compared to the placebo, DMT produced higher ratings on ten of these aspects. Ranked from strongest to weakest sensations, subjects experienced an unearthly environment, a feeling of peace or pleasantness, heightened senses, a sense of harmony or unity, altered perception of time, separation from the body, encounters with a mystical being or presence, feelings of joy, a bright light, and speeding of thoughts. The effects were less pronounced for the remaining six aspects: encountering deceased or religious spirits, understanding everything, visions of the future, a border or point of no return, extrasensory perception, and life review. The life review in particular didn’t appear to be an aspect of the DMT experience.
Changes in Perception
In both DMT and near-death experiences, one’s perception is altered. Time may appear to speed up or slow down; one’s thoughts may speed up and one’s senses feel sharpened. There is also an emotional effect. While bad trips can happen, these experiences tend to be characterized by positive feelings of harmony, peace, and joy. Then there’s the “otherworldly” aspect: leaving one’s body, a bright light, and meeting disembodied entities.
The feeling of leaving one’s body and traveling down a tunnel is typical of both NDEs and DMT trips. Astronomer Carl Sagan and transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof have each suggested that this may be a memory of the birth process. Yet others have suggested that it is a psychedelic visual or hallucination. They attribute it to patterns of spontaneous electrical activity in the visual regions of the cerebral cortex. The patterns radiate outward, giving the impression of a cylindrical tunnel extending into space. Both of these explanations are in keeping with the tunnel experience as an innate capacity we possess. The concept is that either the ingestion of DMT or the stress of the near-death state can trigger it.
Themes of Death
Those who have undergone the NDE experience often take it as evidence of an afterlife. One of the major books on the subject is even called Proof of Heaven. However, a subjective experience can never be the same thing as “proof.” If I were to say, “Prove it” and “Just trust me,” you wouldn’t consider that proof of anything. Experientially, however, there is a feeling of certainty that this is where one goes after death. The DMT experience often has the same flavour. People report knowing this is where they came from before being born, and where they will return once they die. The DMT-containing brew ayahuasca means “vine of the dead,” only deepening this connection with death and the afterlife.
Both DMT experiences and NDEs are reported as taking place in a realm that feels “realer than real.” This intense familiarity may be what makes it feel as if this is where one came from before experiencing life on earth. Plato equated truth with goodness. If this connection reflects an intrinsic aspect of human psychology, the intense positive emotional tone of the DMT experience might also produce this feeling of the experience being intensely true or real. Without invoking DMT as an explanation, it is hard to say why the near-death state would produce a similar effect. Perhaps the release of endogenous painkillers such as endorphins could produce similar subjective feelings of goodness and truth.
There is clearly significant overlap between the DMT and NDE experiences. This strengthens the case for DMT activity as the cause of NDEs in the brain. However, there are differences between these experiences that may make us reconsider the DMT theory of NDEs.
People who undergo NDEs often experience what they feel to be precognition, visions of future events. They also experience modes of extrasensory perception, such as telepathy. DMT subjects did experience these in the Imperial College study. However, they didn’t meet the strict scientific criteria that consider these experiences significantly stronger than when under the placebo.
Aliens & Elves vs. Ghosts of Loved Ones
While entity encounters are very common in both DMT and near-death experiences, the types of entities differ. In near-death experiences, people typically report meeting deceased relatives and loved ones. In the DMT experience, people meet many types of entities, but rarely if ever are these people they know. Research at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, performed by Alan Davis in the lab of Roland Griffiths, sought to examine what kinds of entities people encounter during the DMT experience. The most common labels given to the entities were Being, Guide, Spirit, Alien, Helper, Angel, and Elf. Anecdotally, people often report insectoid or reptilian creatures as well. While spirits and angels may occur in both experiences, aliens and elves seem to be consistently absent from NDEs.
A famous aspect of NDEs is the life review: experiencing your life flashing before your eyes. This is typically not part of the DMT experience. Along with the phenomenon of meeting with people from your life, one of the key differences between DMT and near-death experiences appears to be the presence of autobiographical material in the latter. Memory is being incorporated into the experience in a way that typically doesn’t happen during the DMT experience. A “breakthrough” into DMT space usually involves the complete loss of any connection with everyday reality, often to the point of forgetting that it exists. Generally, people do not explore DMT to have life reviews and talk with deceased loved ones.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of the interest in differentiating DMT experiences from NDEs comes from people of religious faith who believe in an afterlife. From this perspective, NDEs are taken at face value and represent “eyewitness testimony” regarding the existence of heaven. People who believe in an afterlife may perceive neurobiological explanations as explaining away the experience as mere hallucination. This is not always the case, however. Psychiatrist Rick Strassman and neurobiologist Andrew Gallimore have both proposed alternative models of the DMT experience. They maintain that DMT opens us to another reality that genuinely exists. Thus, DMT’s recreation of the NDE doesn’t necessarily mean that the afterlife exists outside of one’s own mind.
Connecting DMT and NDEs
Research in the lab of Jimo Borjigin found that there is a spike in levels of DMT in the brain of a rat at the moment of its death. If this DMT activity is involved in producing NDEs, it can’t be the only relevant variable. While there are striking similarities between the two experiences, there are also consistent differences. The extreme stress of coming near to death also produces profound changes in physiology, as does the loss of oxygen to the brain, which is typical of such experiences.
Borjigin’s lab also found that there is a riot of brain activity during cardiac arrest. If this activity spreads to the hippocampus, where autobiographical memories are stored, it may account for the presence of such material in NDEs. While ayahuasca contains DMT, the presence of other psychoactive chemicals profoundly alters the experience, when compared with the pure DMT experience. A similar situation may occur during the near-death state. The profound stress and loss of oxygen may result in your body brewing a unique psychoactive cocktail, possibly with DMT as a key ingredient.