DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) is a simple chemical compound, yet it can produce some of the strongest psychedelic effects of any substance on the planet. What’s more, it is found throughout nature–it’s even in your body right now. What is it doing there? Is this abundance of DMT significant, or is it just a meaningless coincidence?
DMT in Plants
DMT can be found in the leaves of the chacruna plant, and this is the source of the DMT found in the brew ayahuasca. It is also found in the acacia tree, the wood used to house the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible. This observation led psychologist Benny Shanon to speculate that the ancient Israelites may have used DMT sacramentally. It is also found in the bark of Mimosa hostilis, a plant commonly used in DMT extraction. It has even been found in the leaves of citrus plants. We do not currently know how many plants contain DMT but it seems that it is found in every ecosystem on earth.
DMT in Animals
DMT isn’t only confined to the plant kingdom, however. After speculation that DMT produced in the brain might be responsible for near-death experiences, researchers found that rodents’ brains do indeed contain DMT. What’s more, the evidence points to the same conclusion in humans, despite being difficult to directly measure DMT levels in a living human brain.
Why is DMT Everywhere?
If one hasn’t experienced the effects of DMT, a strictly biological explanation might be expected. However, the DMT experience can produce what is known as “ontological shock,” a sense of discovering that reality isn’t structured in the way one previously thought. DMT produces astounding visions that feel convincingly like one has visited other dimensions or planes of reality. If one takes these realms at face value and assumes they are real, the logical conclusion is that the presence of DMT in nature isn’t a mundane feature of biology. Instead, it is the key to accessing spiritually profound levels of existence.
The Spirit World
Indigenous peoples have used DMT in the Amazon in the form of ayahuasca for centuries. There is an astounding number of different plants in the Amazon. Ayahuasca relies on the brewing of two specific plants, which have a profound synergy that allows DMT to reach the brain. Many practitioners in these traditions tell the same origin story of the brew–the spirits of the plants told them which plants to use. This perspective suggests a picture of reality in which the inhabitants of an autonomous, intelligent, immaterial spirit world uses the molecules of nature to help people communicate with them. Needless to say, this perspective stands in stark contrast to the lines of thinking pursued by mainstream science.
However, certain scientists are willing to propose pictures of reality with DMT at the center, visions of reality that are equally dramatic departures from received scientific wisdom about the nature of existence. Andrew Gallimore, a neuroscientist based in Japan, has proposed that we live in a digital simulation constructed by aliens and that DMT is the key to our escape. In this picture, the presence of DMT in nature is explained by its being engineered into our world. The role it plays becomes absolutely central. In this picture, DMT is the meaning of life as far as this level of reality is concerned.
Rick Strassman, the psychiatrist who instigated modern scientific research on DMT and authored DMT: The Spirit Molecule, proposed his own version of reality in which DMT is central. As a practicing zen Buddhist, he was shocked by his participants’ experience under the influence of DMT. He turned to the Judaism of his childhood to find a model that might account for the effects of DMT. He argued that the God of Abraham created humans with the ability to communicate with the divine realm of angels and that the human brain was engineered with the capacity to create DMT, which acts as a key to this mode of communication.
Alien Origins of Life
In his book Supernatural, Graham Hancock suggests a different explanation for the place of DMT in nature, one that accounts for the science fiction character of the visions. He explores the possibility that life on earth actually originated off-planet and was intentionally sent here from an alien world. This hypothesis is known as ‘directed panspermia’ and was actually suggested by no less an authority on life than Francis Crick, who won the Nobel prize for his discovery of the structure of DNA. Hancock reflects that life on Earth could be a biotechnological experiment, encoded with the ability to communicate with our alien world of origin when DMT is ingested.
DMT as an Engineered Artifact
In the filming for the documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule, pioneering ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna reflects on a similar idea.
“If you really think about…communication with extraterrestrial intelligence and all the efforts to detect radio signals from an advanced civilization…there’s lots of ways it may come. And I’ve actually read speculations where people have said you could build a message into DNA which would not be detected until the civilization had reached the point where they could do molecular biology, they could sequence these things and they could see that there’s actually a meaningful message there. Well how about making DMT. Turn the N-methyltransferase on and make a compound which, when you take it, shows you machines and starships and aliens and weird cities and all this stuff. I mean what could be less ambiguous there’s no mystery that is the message.”
The DMT Pathway
DMT is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Two enzymes, aromatic-L-amino acid decarboxylase (AADC) and indolethylamine-N-methyltransferase (INMT), turn tryptophan into DMT. DMT itself couldn’t simply be engineered into life on Earth. The whole pathway from tryptophan would have to have been designed. Dennis McKenna speculates that this could technically be possible.
“DNA codes for 64 triplets that code for amino acids but there are only 20 amino acids. So for every amino acid there’s generally more than one codon, so it’s a redundant thing, sometimes the different codons will code ultimately in transcription and protein synthesis for the same amino acids. The one exception to this is tryptophan. There’s only one codon that codes for tryptophan out of all 64. So what does that mean? Probably nothing but you could speculate and say, well, it’s an artifact, it was put here, it was built into the way this whole thing works.”
DMT inspires wild speculation about its role in our world. Coming back down to the more grounded biological perspective, could the abundance of this chemical in nature be of no real significance for us? David Nichols, a hugely influential psychedelic pharmacologist, argues that DMT only exists in nature and us because of the abundance of tryptophan and the abundance of the two enzymes necessary to make DMT. In this picture, DMT arises as an inevitable but meaningless step in the natural world’s biochemical operation–it’s just biological noise.
The Language of Nature
In this picture, DMT is understood to be a secondary compound. It doesn’t have any direct or primary function in the operation of the organism. Secondary compounds, however, can function as communication signals between different organisms. A simple example of this would be a toxin in a psychoactive mushroom that warns animals not to eat it. It is not out of the question that DMT acts as a mode of communication throughout nature. If this way of thinking is to account for the context of DMT visions, however, there’s a long way to go. We currently have no real idea how the natural world could communicate such rich content via such a simple molecule.
Evolving in a DMT-Drenched World
There is nothing magical about any compound. The DMT experience is something that is unlocked within us, rather than something residing in the molecule itself. DMT was around long before we were. As we evolved, we may have used DMT to perform certain physiological functions, although what these would have been remains a mystery. In this perspective, DMT unlocks deep evolutionary programming within us. It is found throughout nature because it is a simple biochemical pathway that different organisms can repurpose to perform many functions. We may have used it for certain brain functions, which results in strange visions when our DMT levels are elevated high enough. As with all other explanations, however, no one has come up with a reason for why this might be the case.
Why is DMT Everywhere?
Is DMT a clue that will unlock a paradigm shift in our conception of the nature of reality? Or is it a simple chemical with many roles in nature and some as-yet-undiscovered function in our brains? Until convincing evidence arises for the former, science will focus on the latter. In the meantime, it’s certainly fun to speculate as, at this point, no one really knows what the deal is with DMT.
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