This article by Dr. James Cooke was originally published on Reality Sandwich, and appears here with permission.
N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is one of the most powerful psychedelics on the planet. What’s more, it’s a very simple compound that is found throughout the natural world. Even our bodies produce it. What is it doing inside us? Does the human brain make DMT? And, if so, might this endogenous source of a powerful psychedelic be responsible for religious experiences throughout the ages?
THE PINEAL GLAND
One part of the brain has received much attention when it comes to mystical states of consciousness; the pineal gland. About the size of a pea, the pineal gland sits in the middle of the brain. Unlike most structures in the brain, which come in pairs, there is only one pineal gland. These features made it the basis of much speculation in esoteric systems that existed before the advent of the scientific method. From Ancient Egypt to Descartes, the pineal gland was considered to be something special, perhaps even the seat of the soul. For Descartes, in particular, the pineal gland was the place in the brain that the immaterial soul interacted with the physical body.
The Spirit Molecule
In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, psychiatrist and pioneering psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman revived these ideas regarding the pineal gland, and made the link to DMT. Before studying DMT, Strassman had studied the related compound and the main product of the pineal gland, melatonin. After observing the dramatic effects of DMT in his subjects, he became interested in the centrality of the pineal gland in esoteric traditions of the past. His DMT subjects had vivid experiences of being transported to another realm that was populated by entities and often felt oddly familiar. These experiences seemed to mirror experiences of a spirit world or afterlife that have occurred throughout time, especially in near-death experiences.
What if these experiences were the result of a spike in DMT produced by the brain? Could the pineal gland in particular be responsible? If so, might this explain the obsession with the pineal in the esoteric schools of thought? According to Strassman, “it would really tie a nice, neat, bow around a lot of esoteric physiological speculation over millennia. But still, it isn’t established yet.”
DMT IN THE PINEAL GLAND
In 2013, Professor Jimo Borjigin of the University of Michigan lab put this idea to the test. Lead researcher Steven Barker analyzed the chemicals present in the pineal gland of the rat. As is often done in medical science, rodent brains were used to investigate what occurs in the brains of mammals in general, rather than trying to work with human brains. In keeping with the DMT-pineal theory, they found that DMT was indeed present in the pineal gland. This seemed like a slam-dunk for the theory, but there was one problem; there wasn’t very much.
How Much DMT Is Needed to Trip?
In 2017, Professor David Nichols, a leader in the field of psychedelic psychopharmacology, gave a presentation on the evidence for the DMT-pineal hypothesis at the conference Breaking Convention. After a request from the audience, he later wrote up his critique as a paper. Nichols argues that there’s nowhere near enough DMT in the pineal gland to have any psychoactive effects, meaning that pineal DMT cannot be responsible for religious and near-death experiences. According to Nichols:
“The main function of the pineal gland is to produce melatonin. It produces micrograms of melatonin over 24 hours. If it can’t produce milligrams of melatonin, which is its main product, it certainly can’t produce milligrams of DMT. If you believe the stuff that Strassman and his collaborators have published based on his clinical studies, you would need to give a bolus of something like 25 milligrams to humans to get them into that so-called …