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In his latest interview collection, David Jay Brown has once again gathered some of the most interesting minds of today to consider the future of the human race, the mystery of consciousness, the evolution of technology, psychic phenomena, and more. The book includes conversations with celebrated visionaries and inspirational figures such as Ram Dass, Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, and George Carlin. Part scientific exploration, part philosophical speculation, and part intellectual rollercoaster, the free-form discussions are original and captivating, and offer surprising revelations. Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalpyse is a new look into the minds of some of our groundbreaking leaders and is the perfect gift for science fiction and philosophy fans alike.

 
 

 

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 Medicine.

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 site: www.rickstrassman.com

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 experience.
 

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David: How did you become interested in medicine, and what lead you to study psychiatry?

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 burner.

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 short-acting.

David: How has your interest in Buddhism helped to guide your medical research?

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 psychedelics?

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 talking about.

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.