An Interview with
Dr. Rick Strassman
By David Jay Brown
Rick Strassman, M.D. is a medical researcher who conducted the first
U.S.-government-approved-and-funded clinical research with psychedelic
drugs in over twenty years. These studies, which took place between 1990
and 1995, investigated the effects of DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a
powerful naturally-occurring hallucinogen. During the project’s five
years, Dr. Strassman administered approximately four hundred doses of
DMT to 60 human volunteers. This research took place at the University
of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque, where he was tenured
Associate Professor of Psychiatry.
Dr. Strassman holds degrees from Stanford University, where he received
Department Honors in Biology and Albert Einstein College of Medicine of
Yeshiva University, where he was a member of the Davidoff Honor Society.
He took his internship and general psychiatry residency at the
University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento, and
received the Sandoz Award for outstanding graduating resident in 1981.
He spent ten years as a tenured professor at the University of New
Mexico, performing clinical research investigating the function of the
pineal hormone melatonin, in which his research group documented the
first known role of melatonin in humans.
Dr. Strassman has published thirty peer-reviewed scientific papers and
serves as a reviewer for several medical and psychiatric research
journals. He has been a consultant to the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Veterans’
Administration Hospitals, Social Security Administration, and other
state and local agencies.
In 1984 Dr. Strassman received lay ordination in a Western Buddhist
order. He co-founded, and for several years administered, a lay Buddhist
meditation group associated with the same order. Dr. Strassman currently
practices psychiatry in Gallup, New Mexico and is Clinical Associate
Professor of Psychiatry in the University of New Mexico School of
Dr. Strassman is also the author of the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule,
which is a compelling and fascinating account of his research with
psychedelics. In the book he discusses how DMT may be involved in
near-death experiences, alien abduction encounters, and mystical
experiences. As the book unfolds, what begins as a study to explore the
pharmacology and phenomenology of DMT, becomes a science fiction-like
journey into an hyper-dimensional reality inhabited by intelligent alien
creatures. To find out more about Dr. Strassman’s work visit his Web
I interviewed Dr. Strassman on September 28, 2004. We discussed how
Buddhism helped to guide his medical research, the potential therapeutic
value of psychedelic drugs, and models for understanding the DMT
David: How did you become interested in medicine, and what lead you to
Rick: In college, I actually didn't quite know what I wanted to do. I
began as a chemistry major, because of my keen interest in fireworks,
which I indulged more or less safely in high school. I had hoped to
start my own fireworks business. Funny, in retrospect, how I switched
from an interest in "outside world" fireworks, to ones more internal.
Nobody I knew really was that encouraging about the fireworks idea, so I
switched to a zoology/biology major, but didn't think much about medical
school at the time. During the summer between my 3rd and 4th year of
college at Stanford, I read much of the material for the upcoming year's
classes: Early Buddhism, Sleep and Dreams, The Psychology of
Consciousness, Physiological Psychology. I had an epiphany of sorts that
summer, deciding I'd like to combine my interest in psychedelics with
Eastern religions, psychoanalytic theory and practice--all in a sort of
unified theory of consciousness, that related to integrating what I saw
as a biological basis for spiritual experience (the pineal, endogenous
DMT, etc), with what I believed was the most comprehensive system of
psychological defenses (psychoanalysis), with what I thought was the
most sophisticated view of human mental "mechanics" (Buddhism).
This was a little ambitious for my medical school applications, and I
had a hard time toning it down enough to fit into the format required
for those applications. And, my mentor at Stanford thought I had lost my
mind, telling me to keep my mouth shut. Most medical school interviews
ended badly when they asked why I wanted to go to medical school. The
only ones I got into were those where the interviews were short, and I
didn't have a chance to launch into my reasons. Right before starting
medical school, I was offered a research position in an outstanding
physiological psychology laboratory at Stanford with Karl Pribram; and
arranged to delay entrance into medical school for a year. However, when
it turned out there was no funding for the research position, I decided
to start medical school on schedule.
I maintained this idealistic (somewhat manic) view during my first year
of medical school, and was sorely disappointed. I got depressed, dropped
out, ended up at the Zen monastery with which I was ultimately to have a
20+ year relationship. There, at the monastery, I learned to get back to
basics, and returned to medical school, got into my own psychoanalytic
psychotherapy, and put the whole psychedelic research idea on the back
When it came time to decide what specialty to pursue, I chose psychiatry
for several reasons: the hours were good, I liked the patients, I liked
the reading material, I liked other psychiatrists, I admired my
psychiatrist who had helped me a lot. Last but not least, I thought if
ever I were to do psychedelic research, psychiatry would be the field in
which to do it.
David: What inspired your interest in altered states of consciousness in
general, and what lead you to study the effects of DMT and psilocybin?
Rick: I was very curious about how similar were states of consciousness
brought on by psychedelics, and those described by mystics and seasoned
meditators throughout the ages, across all cultures, as well as
descriptions by those having the recently "discovered" near-death
experiences. Later, I saw some of the overlap between psychedelic
consciousness and psychosis. And, against my better judgment, I began
seeing some overlap between the "abduction" experience and the
psychedelic one, at least with respect to those of our DMT volunteers.
Once I was finally positioned to begin psychedelic research, almost 20
years after the original epiphany, DMT was a natural choice to begin
such research anew. It had been used in humans in previously published
research, was endogenous (that is, naturally produced) which made it a
great candidate for eliciting "spontaneous psychedelic experience," it
was short-acting (which I knew would be helpful on an aversive research
unit), and was relatively obscure (thus less likely to draw the sort of
attention that an LSD study might).
Psilocybin is chemically very similar to DMT, but is orally active, and
longer-acting. I thought it might produce a more easily studied and
managed state, both for phenomenological research, as well as for
therapeutic work, than did DMT, which was so mind-shatteringly
David: How has your interest in Buddhism helped to guide your medical
Rick: I was first drawn to Buddhism because of its unabashed manner of
describing rather exotic and lofty states of consciousness in a
relatively objective manner. The techniques and concepts of the mind, as
defined and affected by meditation, appealed to me-it seemed that even
the most outrageous states of consciousness could be held, described,
even "objectified." Particularly, the Buddhist Abhidharma (the canon of
psychology in Buddhism) approach to mind as a composite of a small
number of mental functions, appealed to me as a facile means of
developing a rating scale, a tool, for measuring the states of
consciousness I anticipated finding in our psychedelic research.
This rating scale has been a legacy of the DMT research, and has been
translated into several languages, used to measure effects of several
different drugs, and has held up well in comparison to some of the other
more traditional ways of measuring drug effects.
Later on, when I actually started practicing Zen meditation, I found it
very grounding and powerful, and the state of active passivity, so to
speak, or alert quietness, was useful as a means of holding the DMT
sessions themselves, on my end. I also saw that some of the principles I
had learned about meditation, and from teaching it, were useful in
coaching the volunteers on how to deal with the things they encountered,
or might encounter, during their sessions.
David: One of the most fascinating things about DMT is that it is found
naturally in the brain. What function do you think endogenous DMT plays
in the human brain?
Rick: I think it plays several roles. It may help mediate some of the
more profound mental experiences people undergo: near-death, mystical
states, psychosis. This was one of my hypotheses beginning the research:
that endogenous DMT mediated these states of consciousness. Thus, if by
giving exogenous DMT, we saw features found in those states, that would
support our theory that elevated levels of endogenous DMT were involved.
Also, the brain brings endogenous DMT into its confines, across the
blood brain barrier, using energy; something that it does for very few
compounds, such as glucose, certain amino acids. Thus, it seems as if
endogenous DMT is necessary for normal brain (read perceptual) function.
Something like the internally generated "Matrix."
David: Do you think that DMT experiences can have therapeutic value?
What about other psychedelics?
Rick: Intravenous DMT is so overwhelming that the most one can hope for
is to hold on and try to remember as much as one can, at least for a
single, isolated session. We found that people could work through things
much more, though, psychologically, spiritually, when given repeated
doses in the course of a morning, which we did in our attempt to develop
tolerance to closely-spaced, repeated DMT injections. This is probably
somewhat akin to what happens with ayahuasca, which is an orally active
preparation of DMT (two plants: one contains DMT, and one contains an
inhibitor of the enzyme that normally breaks DMT down in the gut), which
lasts about 4-6 hours, and is much more workable.
Other psychedelics may be therapeutic to the extent that they elicit
processes that are known to be useful in a therapeutic context:
transference reactions and working through them; enhanced symbolism and
imagery; increased suggestibility; increased contact between emotions
and ideations; controlled regression, etc.
This all depends, though, on set and setting. These same properties
could also be turned to very negative experiences, if the support and
expectation for a beneficial experience aren't there.
David: In your book you expressed some doubt as to whether DMT use might
have any spiritual value. What are your thoughts on this now? Do you
think that DMT has any entheogenic potential?
Rick: I still don't think psychedelics, including DMT, have
intrinsically good or bad values. It all depends upon how they're used
and taken. Sort of like the very trite and overused analogy of a hammer:
it can be used to break things apart or build things up.
David: Do you think that there is an objective reality to the worlds
visited by people when they're under the influence of DMT, and do you
think that the entities that so many people have encountered on DMT
actually have an independent existence?
Rick: I myself think so. My colleagues think I've gone woolly-brained
over this, but I think it's as good a working hypothesis as any other. I
tried all other hypotheses with our volunteers, and with myself. The
"this is your brain on drugs" model; the Freudian "this is your
unconscious playing out repressed wishes and fears;" the Jungian "these
are archetypal images symbolizing your unmet potential;" the "this is a
dream;" etc. Volunteers had powerful objections to all of these
explanatory models--and they were a very sophisticated group of
volunteers, with decades of psychotherapy, spiritual practice, and
previous psychedelic experiences.
I tried a thought-experiment, asking myself, "What if these were real
worlds, and real entities? Where would they reside, and why would they
care to interact with us?" This led me to some interesting speculations
about parallel universes, dark matter, etc. All because we can't prove
these ideas right now (lacking the proper technology) doesn't mean they
should be dismissed out of hand as incorrect.
David: How do you think the DMT experience is related to the near-death
experience and the alien abduction experience?
Rick: I hypothesize that DMT levels rise with the stress associated with
near-death experiences, and mediate some of the more "psychedelic"
features of this state.
I think that, based upon what many of our volunteers experienced viz
entity-contact, high levels of DMT could break down the
subjective/objective membrane separating us from other levels of
reality, in which perhaps some of these entities "reside." I've been
criticized by the abduction "community" because of the lack of
"objective" evidence of "encounters" in our volunteers. E.g., stigmata,
metal objects, etc. In response to these concerns, it might be worth
considering a "spectrum" of encounters--from the purely material (about
which I withhold all judgment), to the purely
consciousness-to-consciousness "contact" experience that may usefully
describe what our volunteers underwent.
David: Where there any times during your DMT research where you
witnessed something that you couldn't explain in terms of conventional
science, such as a form of psychic phenomena?
Rick: I didn't see much in the way of psychic phenomena. The reports
people came back with, though, were the things I had a difficult time
conceptualizing, such as the entity-contact thing.
David: Do you think that the study of psychedelics might provide us with
some insight into paranormal phenomena?
Rick: I'm not sure what you mean by paranormal. And, I'm not too
interested in say, psi, or clairvoyance, or telepathy. Those don't seem
necessarily a more enlightened way of viewing our lives and our society.
However, the concept of consciousness existing without a body, and the
implications this might have on our behavior, ethics, ecology,
interpersonal relationships—these hold more interest to me.
David: How has your study of DMT effected your understanding of the
nature of consciousness?
Rick: I think we're mighty small. But, I think what we're connected to
is mighty big, and through our connection, can affect "it.
David: What kind of an influence did Terence McKenna's explorations and
ideas have on your DMT research?
Rick: He introduced me to DMT. He and I had some long conversations
about how to formulate a research agenda that would both fly with the
traditional scientific community, and would address our deeper questions
about consciousness. He was a friend, too.
David: My friend Cliff Pickover, the popular science writer, told me
that he once corresponded with you about his hypothesis that DMT in the
pineal glands of Biblical prophets may have "given God to humanity, and
let ordinary humans perceive parallel universes." His idea is that if
our human ancestors produced more endogenous DMT than we do today, then
certain states of consciousness, or certain kinds of visions, would have
been more likely. He suggests that many of the ancient Bible stories
describe prophets who seem to have had DMT-like experiences. Cliff told
me that you said to him, "If indeed we made more DMT in the past, this
may have to do with the increase in artificial light that has come upon
us in the past 1000 years or so." Do you think this is a possibility?
Rick: Well, this relates to my theory about the pineal and DMT, which is
basically that the pineal is a source of endogenous DMT production. I
marshal a lot of circumstantial evidence for this, but there are no hard
data yet. Nevertheless, the "stress" model of increased DMT production
is established in humans and lower animals, as it is well established
that brain, lung and blood all make DMT, and that in lower animals and
humans, endogenous levels rise with stress.
With respect to the pineal, pineal activity increases in darkness (and
during winter), and decreases in increased light (and in summer). Even
relatively dim artificial light (indoors) has a suppressive effect on
pineal function, and it may be that if generic pineal activity were
related to DMT production, decreased activity through the aegis of
increased ambient light during hours which were previously dark may have
something to do with decreased normative DMT levels.
David: What kind of potential do you see for future research with
Rick: I don't think organized religion can handle them, because of the
threat to their turf. I also don't think science can handle them because
of the nature of what they reveal--at least mainstream science. Any
mainstream scientist doing research into the true, real, hardcore
psychedelic experience is so hamstrung by political correctness, that
they cannot discuss what they really have seen in their research, and
what they think and feel about it.
Thus, for the next foreseeable future, psychedelics will exist in some
sort of limbo, waiting for the proper discipline to be developed that
can approach the experience through the relatively objective tools of
the scientific method, and the context and wisdom of perennial religious
teachings. In some ways, this is unfortunate, because much of this work
is now going on underground, with no "peer-review" and general
above-board forum for discussion, quality control, and the like, which
occurs in the non-underground world.
David: What has your own personal experience with DMT been like, and how
have psychedelics effected you?
Rick: I don't answer anything about my use or non-use of psychedelics.
If I say I've used them, people accuse me of being a drug-addled zealot.
If I say I've never used them, people accuse me of not knowing what I'm
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Rick: I think it continues, but in some unknown form. I think a lot
depends upon the nature of our consciousness during our lives--how
attached to various levels of consensus reality it is. My late/former
Zen teacher used to use the analogy of a light bulb, with electric
current passing through it. The light bulb goes out, but the current
continues, "changed" in a way, for its experience in the bulb. He also
referred to "like gravitating toward like" in terms of the idea of the
need for certain aspects of consciousness to develop further, before it
can return to its source. That is, dog-like aspects of our consciousness
end up in a dog, human-like aspects get worked through in another human,
plant-like aspects into plants, and so on.
David: What is your perspective on the concept of God?
Rick: I'm working on it. Put simply, I think God is the creator and
sustainer of this whole scene. And, the creator and sustainer of
cause-and-effect, which for many Buddhists, is equivalent to God, but by
not “believing” in God, they get to sidestep the whole issue of a
beginning or an end—which I believe, is extraordinarily important.
David: What are you currently working on?
Rick: I spend much of my time studying Jewish scripture and commentary,
from as conservative and medieval approach as I can. I'm interested in
the Jewish conception of God (as that's my own biological/genetic/social
background), and also in the Jewish mystics'/sages' ideas about
non-corporeal existences. They draw from those ideas (God, and spiritual
realities) a very profound ethical-moral system. And such a system must
be incorporated into any truly psychedelic view of reality,
consciousness, and society.