I’m just finishing up The Spirit Molecule by Dr. Rick Strassman, a book about his results and experiences administering DMT in a clinical setting during the mid-1990s.
First let me say this: the book is crazy. I question Dr. Strassman’s methodologies from experimental design all the way through to footnoting the book. If you do read it, make sure to follow the footnotes — there’s an effect whereby something footnoted looks more legit, but the notes in this thing trade on that power without backing it. Footnotes like, “I couldn’t find anything to support this.”
Strassman’s theories begin with the scientific and verifiable and end well within the realm of the spiritual and untestable. Part of this is by design, and part of it is because of the nature of the material studied. Strassman believes that a proper study of psychedelics is very nuanced. The first section, for example, begins with a lengthly discussion of the language used to frame psychedelic drug research and how that has the potential to affect the outcomes of that research.
From there Strassman discusses the chemical structures of various psychedelics (it turns out that DMT has a simple, perhaps minimal, psychedelic structure) and the biological processes through which DMT acts on the body and brain.
This leads into Rick’s quest to obtain regulatory approval to produce pure DMT, to get permission to test it on human subjects, and to design the experimental protocols in use through the rest of the book. The dose response study, for example, involved a double-blind series of doses determined relative to body weight, not absolute drug mass.
Then things get weird. Patients start reporting fairly consistent drug experiences, which allows Strassman to guide them with some success. Until, that is, they start meeting entities (machine elves, clowns, and saguaro-beings — the last of which I once encountered). At this point Rick begins discussing them with patients as though the beings are manifestations of internal mental processes. This is never met well by the patients (though my saguaro-demon was a manifestation of my own fear), leading to a loss of rapport with Strassman.
Leary’s set and setting theory governs Strassman’s experimental design — the circumstances of ingestion being as key to the total experience as the actual drug — so a loss of rapport between the experimenter and the subject is a large problem. From then on Strassman decides to take entity contact reports at face value. It is here the book moves from the Pop Sci section of the bookstore to New Age.
So The Spirit Molecule, as indicated by the name, ends up with a lot of pseudoreligion and spiritualistic speculation (some of which I quite like). Strassman’s experiment design was also filtered through his buddhist practice (babysitting a tripper being an exercise in calm mindfulness) and he chronicles his essential excommunication from the community once his research gets close enough to their concerns. For example, can psychedelics offer a shortcut, albeit temporary, to an enlightenment experience — and will we strive not harder for the peak, having once glimpsed the vista?
The final part of the book is on future directions for experimental and clinical uses of psychedelics. These ruminations are very interesting. They indicate that the psychological, psychiatric, spiritual, religious, personal, and social aspects of psychedelics, while worth studying individually, are inextricably tangled. Psychedelics have fewer negative and more positive effects than opponents traditionally assume and also fewer positives and more negatives than proponents typically believe.