Users of the psychedelic drug DMT have told scientists what it’s like to encounter otherworldly beings during trips. The authors of a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology learned their experiences are comparable to those of people who claim they have been abducted by aliens.
In what is the largest study of its kind yet, researchers at Johns Hopkins University surveyed 2,561 anonymous people online who said they had encountered entities or beings which appeared to be separate to themselves after taking N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. The respondents had an average age of 32, 77 percent were male, and 85 percent were white. The team asked them to detail their most memorable perceived encounter with an entity.
They concluded that encounters with entities triggered by DMT “have many similarities to non-drug entity encounter experiences such as those described in religious, alien abduction, and near-death contexts.”
Parts of the experience and how users interpreted it “produced profound and enduring ontological changes in worldview,” the authors found.
DMT is a naturally occurring hallucinogen found in a range of animals and plants, such as several sea sponges. It is currently an illegal, Schedule 1 compound in the U.S.. When it is injected or inhaled, it quickly hits the user with effects ranging from vivid visualizations to a heightened emotional state. As the human body metabolizes DMT relatively fast, users reach the peak of their high around 5 minutes after taking it, and usually come down after 30 minutes, according to the researchers. However, as the drug can distort a person’s perception of time, this timescale may not match up with their internal experiences. When DMT is taken as an ayahuasca brew, the high can be delayed and last several hours.
As DMT is present in the brains of mammals, including humans, it is thought to play a part in “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” from common states like dreaming, to psychosis, spiritual experiences, and encounters with “non-human intelligence,” like aliens and UFOs, the authors said. But there’s not enough evidence that it’s present in high enough levels for this to be confirmed, they explained.
Past studies have shown that people who take DMT can have spiritual experiences or hallucinations. They may feel as thought they are entering other realities or coming into contact with God or one of his messengers, or God-like higher powers.
“Among the most vivid, intriguing, memorable, and sometimes disconcerting experiences that people report after taking a high dose of inhaled or intravenous DMT are those of encountering seemingly autonomous entities or beings,” the authors wrote. So they set out to discover more about these “apparently not infrequent” experiences.
To recruit their participants between February and December 2018, the authors posted notices on websites including Facebook, Reddit and recreational drug harm-reduction websites, and by sending out email announcements. Volunteers qualified for the study if they were over 18, and had had at least one “breakthrough” DMT experience with “very strong psychoactive effects,” during which they had encountered a seemingly autonomous being or entity. If they had more than one such experience, they were asked to recount the most memorable.
Just over a fifth (21 percent) of participants took DMT hoping to have such a encounter. For most (69 percent), the entity started the encounter. Most were visual, (92 percent), followed by extrasensory, such as telepathic (85 percent), involving sound (54 percent), and touch (34 percent). Less than 10 percent of the respondents said it involved taste or smell. The majority of participants communicated in some way with the entity, with 49 percent recalling only the entity communicating to them, with 40 percent having a two-way communication. A minority, at 2 percent, said only they communicated to the entity without a response.
When asked which words they would use to describe the entity, “being,” “guide,” “spirit,” “alien,” and “helper” were the most common. A smaller number used terms like “angel,” “elf,” “religious personage,” or “plant spirit,” and even fewer “gnome,” “monster,” or “deceased” person.
Almost every respondent had an emotional response (99 percent) to meeting the being. A total of 41 percent said they felt afraid when they met the entity. But the most prominent emotions felt by both the respondent and gleaned from the entity were “love,” “kindness,” and “joy.”
Of the total respondents, 60 percent said the experience caused a change in their conception of reality which they had hoped for, compared with 1 percent who said it caused an undesirable change.
Most participants also said the entity they encountered appeared to be conscious, intelligent, and benevolent. They also said it seemed to exist in a different dimension of reality, which they believed would still exist when the encounter was over.
The vast majority of respondents, at 69 percent, said the being gave them a message, while almost a fifth (19 percent) gained a prediction about the future.
The experiences also appeared to change the spiritual beliefs of the participants. More than half of those who said they were atheists before their trip were no longer after their meeting, at 28 percent versus 10 percent. Over half said the encounter was one of the top five or single most meaningful, spiritually significant, or psychologically insightful experiences of their lives.
Due to is perception-changing properties, DMT may be useful alongside professional therapy to help with conditions such as depression and addiction, the study’s authors argued. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have previously linked 5-MeO–DMT, a close relative of DMT, to an easing of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Those findings were published in the journal The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse last year. It is thought DMT, like other psychedelics, could help people with such mental illness because of how it interacts with the brain’s serotonin receptors, although more research is needed to lay bare the underlying mechanisms.
Interest in the potential of psychoactive substances to treat mental illness has exploded in the past few years, in what has been dubbed the psychedelic renaissance. Last month, David Nutt, professor and neuropharmacologist at Imperial College London and former U.K. government drug adviser, told Newsweek he believes we are “less than five years” away from such drugs being given to patients.
However, the authors of the new study also stressed it is important to acknowledge that 1 to 5 percent of respondents said the encounter was negative. And their study results may be biased as those who have distressing experiences may be less likely to take part in a survey or visit the website where the calls for participants were posted. Also, examples of harm may have been missed as the respondents were asked to recall their most memorable experience. In addition, while some may welcome a change in their perception of reality, others may not. The study was also limited because it relies on the honesty of the respondents, and predominantly featured young, adult, white men, so may miss out the experiences of others.
Roland Griffiths, professor of psychiatry, behavioral sciences and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, commented in a statement: “That we have the capacity and are biologically predisposed for these experiences with psychedelics suggests that this may be an evolutionarily conserved process in which we are wired to detect sentient others. Historically, such a predisposition would have a significant survival value in hostile environments.”
Griffiths, who is also director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Finding out why we have these experiences and how people interpret them may lead us to a better understanding of the human condition and how we perceive reality.”
Alan Davis, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University and lead author, said in a statement: “Although we need to do more research in order to understand how these entity encounters exert positive changes in people’s lives, it’s possible that the metaphysical shock from questioning one’s worldview occasioned by these vivid, unusual experiences may play an important role in the enduring positive life changes in attitudes, moods and behavior they inspire.”
But Griffiths cautioned: “We have to be cautious because we’re delving into experiences that appear on the psychotic end of the spectrum and there may be an unknown set of harms in certain susceptible people.”