What Is DMT? From Its Purpose To Understanding Its Side Effects

What Is DMT? From Its Purpose To Understanding Its Side Effects

N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a powerful, fast-acting, and short-lasting psychedelic compound. The use of it has also been rising in popularity in recent years. Many people consider the drug to be one of the most potent — if not the most potent — psychedelic. (Some argue 5-MeO-DMT, found in certain toads, is even more powerful, however.)

In this article, we will explore what DMT is (as a chemical compound), as well as its usage, history, and effects, and start the conversation about how long DMT lasts. Based on the research of this substance, you will see that it offers people more than just an intense and strange experience. It may also help people to find more spirituality in life and overcome certain psychological problems.

What Is DMT?

DMT is one of the classic psychedelics, along with psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD. It also belongs to the tryptamine family of psychedelics. This means it is made up of a core molecule of tryptamine. Tryptamines are naturally occurring alkaloids found in many different plants and life forms around the world. It has a similar chemical structure to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Other tryptamine psychedelics include the following:

When people use the term “DMT”, they often mean N,N-DMT, not 5-MeO-DMT. The latter is another short-acting psychedelic and it is found in the venom of Bufo alvarius (or the Sonoran Desert toad). One of the main differences between the two is that N,N-DMT offers a much more visual experience.

How People Use It

When people use DMT, they will typically vaporize or smoke the substance. The exception is in clinical trials involving the drug, where it is administered via intravenous (IV) injection.

You can vaporize DMT in different ways. One method involves using a bong and sandwiching the drug’s powder in between layers of a non-psychoactive herb (e.g. oregano or mullein) or cannabis. The point of this “sandwich method” is to prevent you from burning the DMT with the flame. You are meant to apply heat to the DMT but not the direct flame. Other people use a special vaporizer called the Vapor Genie.

Another way to use the drug is to smoke it in the form of “changa”. This is a mixture of DMT and smokable herbs, typically including an MAOI-containing plant like Banisteriopsis caapi. Other common herbs that people use in their changa mix include damiana, mullein, blue lotus, peppermint, and passionflower.

Changa is also known as ‘smokable ayahuasca’ due to the presence of MAOI (ayahuasca is a brew consisting of both a DMT-containing plant and an MAOI-containing plant). The MAOI in changa can both extend the length of the DMT experience and slow it down.

The History Of DMT

The use of DMT in the form of ayahuasca potentially dates back at least 1,000 years. The history of DMT as an isolated compound, in contrast, has a much more recent history.

The Canadian chemist Richard Manske first synthesized DMT in 1931. He named the substance “nigerine”. However, the psychoactive effects of DMT weren’t discovered until 1956, which is when Hungarian chemist Stephen Szára extracted DMT from the plant Mimosa hostilis and injected himself with the substance.

Since the discovery of its powerful hallucinogenic effects, notable people then experimented with DMT, including Oscar Janiger, Alan Watts, William Burroughs, and Timothy Leary.

In 1966, the public use and sale of DMT became outlawed in the U.S. Then in 1970, along with many other classic psychedelics, DMT became a Schedule I drug under the United States Controlled Substances Act. It remains in this category of prohibited drugs to this day. This means that, according to the law, the drug has no recognized medical value and a high potential for abuse.

Between 1990 and 1995, the psychiatrist Rick Strassman legally administered DMT to nearly 60 volunteers and recorded the subjective effects. He then described this research in more detail in the popular book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2000).

Since Strassman’s research, more fascinating studies have looked at the effects of DMT, which will be covered later on in this post.

DMT’s Effects

DMT is known to produce a range of perceptual, emotional, and spiritual effects. These effects can be similar to those induced by other psychedelics. Many people, however, find that tryptamines like DMT have distinct effects (such as visual qualities) that make the experience different compared to, say, mescaline (which is a phenethylamine psychedelic).

Yet, even amongst tryptamine psychedelics, users find the drug to be unique. One distinct aspect of the DMT experience is that it is relatively short. It will generally last 5-20 minutes, depending on the dosage (normally 10-50mg). You will return to baseline sobriety around an hour after the onset of the experience. This contrasts with the psilocybin experience, for example, which can last up to six hours.

Perceptual Effects

The psychedelic drug can change both your visual and auditory perceptions, including the following effects.

  • Objects changing in size
  • The enhancement of colors
  • Objects changing color
  • Objects appear to breathe, morph, melt, and flow
  • Auditory distortions
  • Time distortions (with time passing quickly or slowly)
  • The perception of geometric, kaleidoscopic, or fractal patterns with eyes open or closed
  • Hallucinations (either visual hallucinations like seeing landscapes or scenarios, or auditory hallucinations such as hearing strange music)

Emotional Effects

DMT can cause an intense emotional experience, inducing the following states of mind.

  • Rapid swings in emotions
  • Joy
  • Euphoria
  • Awe
  • Contentment
  • Gratitude
  • Peacefulness
  • Anxiety
  • Dread
  • Panic
  • Terror
  • Confusion

Spiritual Effects

As with other psychedelics, DMT can induce genuinely mystical experiences, which often include the following features.

  • A sense of timelessness or eternity
  • The feeling of being outside space or existing in infinite space (users might refer to this as “the void”)
  • The loss of ego or personal identity (often referred to as “ego death“)
  • A feeling of “oneness” (where you become united with everything)
  • A sense of the holy, sacred, or divine
  • The feeling that you’re experiencing “ultimate reality” (users often describe the experience as “more real than real”)
  • Paradoxical experiences, such as having the sensation of being nothing and everything at the same time
  • Ineffability (being unable to adequately describe the experience)

Its Unique Effects

As previously mentioned, DMT is known to produce some quite distinct effects. These include the perception of strange entities or beings, or “DMT elves“. Strassman noted that this was a common occurrence in his research. Common types of DMT entities include the below.

  • Jesters
  • Clowns
  • Elves
  • Insects (e.g. praying mantises)
  • Circus performers
  • Machine-type beings
  • Aliens
  • Deities that belong to different religions (e.g. Hindu, Egyptian, Maya)

During positive experiences, users find that these entities are joyful, loving, and caring. They tend to be keen to greet you and show you bizarre objects, as well as the dimension they inhabit. If the DMT experience is more negative and challenging, on the other hand, the entities may appear to be sinister, threatening, and unwelcoming. It is common for users to perceive the entities as being aware, intelligent, and communicative.

Another interesting aspect of the DMT experience is visiting strange worlds. These environments may feel alien, familiar, or both. DMT realms may resemble any of the following.

  • Room
  • Domed building, like a mosque
  • City
  • Carnival
  • Circus
  • Casino
  • Palace
  • Different planet

Another unique quality of this psychedelic worth highlighting is that the memories of the experience can quickly fade. As you start to return to come out of the experience, the details of what happened can slip away, much like when you wake from a dream. In fact, the ethnobotanist Terence McKenna said that “the way a dream melts away is the way a DMT trip melts away — at the same speed.”

What The Research Says

Research has looked at DMT from various angles, such as the subjective effects, long-term effects, and changes at the level of the brain. Let’s outline some of the most important studies on DMT.

  • Strassman’s study in the 90s illustrated the subjective effects of DMT, including contact with strange entities and mystical-type experiences
  • 2018 research from Chris Timmermann and other researchers at Imperial College London showed that the DMT experience closely resembles the near-death experience (NDE)
  • 2019 research from Imperial College London utilized EEG to measure the electrical activity of the brain under the influence of DMT. The researchers discovered that DMT reduces the type of brain waves associated with waking consciousness while increasing the type seen with dreaming. They concluded, therefore, that DMT induces a kind of waking dream state
  • 2020 research from Alan K. Davis and other researchers at Johns Hopkins University revealed that 58 percent of survey participants reported a belief in ultimate reality, a higher power, God, or universal divinity after they had an encounter with a DMT entity. Results also showed that over half of those who thought of themselves as an atheist before this experience no longer identified as an atheist after it
  • In 2021, Imperial College London, in conjunction with Small Pharma, conducted the world’s first clinical trial for the treatment of depression using DMT

There is a lack of research on the therapeutic effects of DMT (excluding ayahuasca). This contrasts with psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA, with multiple studies reporting improvements in conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction.

Nevertheless, many users find DMT to be therapeutic as well, and studies will soon reveal if this substance can offer therapeutic effects in the way that longer-lasting psychedelics like psilocybin can.

Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

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