21 December 2007

Makes for fascinating reading on multiple levels

DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences
Rick Strassman, MD
Park Street Press, 2000

What feature do mystical experience, near-death experience, and alien abduction share? According to this fascinating book, all of these disparate experiences may be accompanied by a release of dimethyltryptamine (DMT, a potent psychedelic compound related to serotonin, melatonin, and psilocybin) from the pineal gland. Interestingly, this substance is also found in scores of different New World plants and has been used in many indigenous South American cultures as a pharmaceutical adjunct to shamanic practices. Intrepid psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Rick Strassman navigated the byzantine bureaucracies of the FDA and the DEA in order to conduct the first psychedelic research on human beings in two decades and lived to tell the tale, much to the satisfaction of psychonauts like yours truly.

This book serves multiple functions: it provides an introduction to the chemical DMT and to the anatomy and physiology of the pineal gland, an overview of the literature on human psychedelic research and an outline for future instances of the same, a template for the process of human psychedelic research design, a database of first-person experiences of large doses of intravenous DMT, speculations on the nature of consciousness and reality, and caveats about future research with psychedelic substances. As noted in the title for this review, the book provides fascinating reading on all these levels. It is rare that I've read a nonfiction book that held my attention so easily; the fact that I devoured a book that covered so much intellectual ground in such a brief time speaks volumes as to the quality of Strassman's writing. He follows the tried and true method of writers past---summarize what you plan to say, say it, and summarize what you've said. For some reviewers his prose was too pedantic or workmanlike, but for me it was perfect. He managed to convey a sense of scientific detachment while at the same time exhibiting a profound sensitivity both to the needs of his subjects and also to the needs of his readers, even as he described the saline flush used to clean out the IV lines. Strassman does not approach the subject matter glibly and avoids coming to any easy conclusions; in fact, his own sense of discomfort with the direction the research takes (i.e., the repeat encounters of test subjects with "other beings" that don't seem hallucinatory in the least) cemented my respect for him as a researcher and an author.

Anyone interested in altered states of consciousness, whether natural or substance-induced, would do well to read this book. Dr. Strassman should be thanked for returning a sense of respectability to an area of scientific research that was effectively "lost" for a generation.

(This review was originally posted on December 6, 2007.)

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