The DMT Hypothesis

A hypothesis on DMT’s role in near-death experiences and death.

Having an interest in how psychedelics work and a fascination—and also fear—of the process of dying, I came about an interesting revelation that could change the way we think about death. We live in a society in which death is moved offstage and psychedelics misjudged as forbidden drugs. However, maybe it’s in these two neglected subjects that arise important truths about life.

What is DMT?

In a brief introduction to the substance, DMT or dimethyltryptamine is a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in many plants and animals including humans. It happens to be one of the most intense psychedelics that exist. DMT is a main constituent of ayahuasca, an entheogenic brew used ritually by many Amazonian tribes and also used as a recreational drug. The effects can be briefly summarized as extremely intense with high visual hallucination and a sense of bodily dissociation— known as ego death. Users often describe feelings of euphoria, calmness, or fear and anxiety.

What makes DMT especially significant is that it has been detected in multiple parts of the human body, and also in the pineal gland of rats. It is very difficult to measure DMT in the human brain, but many hypothesize that it is also produced there. This raises a dilemma because DMT is categorized as a class I drug. 

DMT trips can vary greatly, but in general they have a basic structure as well as similar elements. In breakthrough amounts, DMT causes ego-death and high amounts of geometric patterns. Right after exhaling the smoke, the user is blasted through a highly geometric space to enter what is commonly described as the DMT hyperspace, a place where random events happen. Occasionally, the user meets entities or beings in this hyperspace. After a few minutes, the user returns back to reality.

Here is a description of a typical DMT trip described by a reddit user.

“And as I finally exhaled I felt my body slowly rise and shoot straight forward at the speed of light. While colors of indescribable neon brightness shot past, complex geometric shapes began to form and I felt my body slowing in space but still moving forward. A landscape began to form, much like our own but with every color in the spectrum intensified, shapes were more jagged like mountains in the distance, and yet everything was connected by a fractal pattern. As I look up I can see a figure towering behind the mountains. It was a calming presence made of circles and sharp lines. I also saw a bright circle in the sky that began to warp everything around it until the sharp geometric lines turned into more organic blobby goop while maintaining it’s neon color and brightness. I felt my consciousness being pulled in. As I moved through the goop, two separate visions of my two nieces appear. One on the left one on the right. The images seemed to move by fast, but I was able to feel each memory individually as if I were reliving them. After that the most I remember is feeling like reality slowly came back to view. Except the fractal pattern from before remained, connecting everything in my view. The experience left me with an overwhelming feeling of connectivity to my family and the world.”

What is a Near-Death Experience (NDE)?

On the other hand, a near-death experience is an occurrence in which someone comes very close to dying, or dies and is brought back to life. The experience is variable but is often associated with an out-of-body feeling, a tunnel, a feeling of acceptance, a life review, spiritual beings or the presence of a bright light.

Here are two examples of near-death experiences taken from reddit. The experience can vary from these two descriptions.

“I was pretty dead after a car accident ( back when you could ride in the back of pickup trucks we were T-boned in an intersection) and I went into the tunnel of light. Chose to come back because I was given a choice. I missed my family, friends and my cats so I came back. I remember the tunnel being a white gold color, very warm friendly and inviting. When I woke up in the street I was bloody, cold and in shock but I knew what had happened a moment before.”

“I remember passing out and having the sensation like I was leaving a dark room and moving outside into the sun. I stopped panicking and this feeling of pure contentment settled over me. I was floating over a garden where all of the plants were giving off light, and I could see a huge amorphous shape above me that was made up of every colour in existence including colours I have never seen before and couldn’t possibly describe. The shape seemed familiar like I was a part of it, and it was beckoning to me and filling me with pure ecstasy and understanding as I looked at it. Then a man who looked an awful lot like Dream from the Sandman comics (which I was obsessed with at the time) walked over to me through the garden and told me that I couldn’t go home yet, that it wasn’t time. I started weeping but I was filled with a feeling of understanding, like I knew that I had to go back despite not wanting to, the man had tears streaming down his face and he took my hand and led me back to my body which was in an ambulance”

Near-death experiences are variable, but there seems to be recurring elements as I mentioned above. A common phenomenon is an out-of-body experience in which the individual leaves his or her body and enters a place of peace often associated with a bright light.

A Comparison

Comparing the two, we see some unmistakable similarities. Both commonly include an out-of-body experience or ego-death, and involve traveling through a space in order to reach a destination. Occasionally, there is an interaction with beings, spiritual or mystical. The long-term effects are also similar. Many participants in DMT trips and people who have experienced an NDE describe greater appreciation and positive outlooks on life. This is a unique experience exclusive to this psychedelic that also happens to be shared with many NDEs. 

The Hypothesis

It is a common belief that DMT may have something to do with near-death experiences. Some believe it is a death hormone. And even a life substance that is released when we’re born and when we die. However, that relationship between DMT and NDEs is still unclear. My hypothesis is that DMT is a compound that is naturally released along with other neurotransmitters during near-death experiences in order to protect the mind during moments of extreme stress. Its purpose is to enable the surviving individual’s mind to function without the painful memory associated with the traumatic event. For humans, the release of DMT in a near-death experience would decrease the amount of trauma or PTSD experienced later on by the survivor. And for many animals, prey animals in particular, this protects their ability to function at their optimal level, given that they face imminent danger and death more frequently.

The out-of-body experience of an NDE functions as a pain separator, so the individual does not directly endure the pain and psychological trauma associated with bodily injury or harm. If it is indeed true that DMT is involved in the NDE, it would help explain why ego-death is so prevalent in DMT trips. 

When you take DMT, it is inducing the same state that an NDE would produce. Except smoked DMT is released in high amounts chaotically through the blood-brain barrier to the entire brain, whereas endogenous DMT is released possibly by the pineal gland in smaller amounts to specific areas of the brain. This might explain the difference between smoked DMT trips and NDEs.

The Significance

Death is beautiful. DMT is a substance shared by many living beings: plants, animals and even humans. DMT likely eases the psyche during moments of trauma or even death. When the mind knows it might not survive, it releases this substance so that we may enter a state of peace. It is not a death hormone, but it happens to be an important element of the dying experience. It is a beautiful thing that even in those crucial moments in which we may not survive, there is life that cares and protects.