DMT: Nature’s Trippiest Molecule

N,N dimethyltryptamine, more commonly abbreviated as DMT, is a powerful endogenous hallucinogen that occurs in plants and animals, including humans. Though its biological purpose is an ongoing subject of scientific contention, it has been empirically suggested that the human body produces DMT during birth, death, instances of extreme pain, and in states of deep meditation. There are multitudes of myths and speculations about the origins and functions of DMT, from deeming it a biological coincidence to declaring it a chemical vessel of supernatural communication with spirits and extraterrestrials. The mystery of DMT’s presence in all living creatures, along with its psychedelic properties, have fascinated scientists, mystics, and thrill-seekers for decades.

Out of all known hallucinogens, DMT is the most powerful. It was first synthesized by a British chemist, Richard Manske, in the 1930s, but its psychotropic properties weren’t discovered until 1956, when the Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist Stephen Szara extracted DMT from the plant mimosa hostilis [3] and injected the substance into his own body [4]. Szara proceeded to experience intense hallucinations that were much more intense than those of other hallucinogens, as well as shorter-lasting. This psychedelic discovery triggered a wave of both scientific research and popular intrigue about DMT. This somewhat dangerous fad ended abruptly when hallucinogens were outlawed in the United States in the 1970s, because it became extremely difficult to conduct legitimate research on DMT. Because of the limited empirical research available on DMT, it remains an enigma with many incomplete theories and superstitious speculations. The uncertainty surrounding DMT, however, only seems to captivate us even more.

Endogenous DMT, or DMT that is naturally produced inside of our bodies, is manufactured in our lungs and red blood cells. It has been repeatedly hypothesized that DMT is also synthesized in the pineal gland of the brain because all of its chemical building blocks occur naturally in this gland. However, there has been no empirical evidence of this phenomenon. From the research available to date, it logically seems like the pineal gland is the most plausible origin of endogenous DMT because of its biochemical composition and known neural functions: the pineal gland produces several important hormones in addition to translating nerve signals into hormonal signals.

Richard Strassman, a psychiatrist from the University of New Mexico who has conducted influential research on DMT, views the pineal gland as a “potential biological locus for spiritual experiences” [1]. In this sense, Strassman is comparable to a modern-day René Descartes, as Descartes believed that the pineal gland housed the human soul, and even dubbed it the “spirit gland.” Strassman believes that DMT is the link between the physical and spiritual experiences of the universe. This belief stems from his involvement in Buddhism, as well as his extensive research on DMT. He administered hundreds of doses of DMT to 60 subjects from 1990 to 1995, and observed and analyzed their hallucinations and physiological reactions to the chemical compound. Through his research, he observed that a significant number of subjects experienced states of spiritual connection and human transcendence, as well as communication with (and abduction by) terrifying alien creatures. Strassman actually stopped his research because of the large number of adverse reactions to the drug and the public’s negative opinion of hallucinogens in general. Strassman’s ideas and legacies live on, however, as he compiled his findings into a book called “The Spirit Molecule,” which was made into a documentary by the same name in 2011.

I suspect that most of you scientific materialists are highly skeptical of the spiritual associations that have been made with DMT. Of course, that is only one hypothesis, and other hypotheses postulate that the universal presence of DMT and its hallucinogenic effects are merely biological coincidences. To summarize the insight of Dennis McKenna, Ph.D., DMT is a tryptamine, or a derivative of tryptophan, just like the common neurotransmitter serotonin. DMT is biosynthetically two trivial enzymatic steps from tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid and all living creatures naturally produce it. All organisms have tryptophan, and all organisms have the two key enzymes to synthesize DMT. These enzymes are evolutionarily ancient and are involved in basic metabolic processes [2]. It is possible that all living organisms produce this chemical compound because of a biological coincidence: since DMT is so molecularly similar to tryptophan, there’s a chance that many organisms’ ancient ancestors could have undergone random mutations to naturally generate DMT.

In many different cultures, DMT has been associated with spiritual and transcendent experiences. Numerous indigenous groups of people in South America have incorporated the ingestion of DMT into their tribal customs for thousands of years. A particularly prominent sacred medicine among these groups is the DMT-fused herbal tea, ayahuasca. The DMT in ayahuasca is derived from a variety of Amazonian plants, including the acacia tree. Its hallucinogenic effects are facilitated by the heat of the tea and other combined herbs that contain chemicals that activate the DMT. In several of these indigenous cultures, ayahuasca is viewed as a gateway to enlightenment, as well as a way to connect with religious figures, nature, and even the universe. Ayahuasca inculcates these peoples with a higher sense of purpose in their lives, and is perceived to be a source of wisdom. Despite the negative connotations that hallucinogens carry, the ingestion of ayahuasca and therefore DMT is a rich, cultural experience among these tribes. However, ayahuasca almost always makes you vomit [6].

Ayahuasca being prepared for a shamanic ceremony

It’s important to mention that, even though DMT is an enthralling molecule to read about, ingesting it as a recreational drug can have serious psychological and physiological consequences, including severe bouts of anxiety and life-threatening cardiovascular acceleration. The Airspace does not intend to promote drug usage in any way, shape, or form. Rather, we wish to ignite a scientific curiosity in our readers. Nature is full of conundrums like dimethyltryptamine, and it’s up to us and future generations to contemplate and attempt to solve such conundrums.


[1] Richard Strassman Biography
[2] Resources, The Spirit Molecule
[3] DMT Site, Information and History
[4] DMT is in your head, Scientific American
[5] DMT: The Spirit Molecule, The American Journal of Psychiatry
[6] Ayahuasca, Wikipedia

Images via
Wakeup World
Rosemary Boehme
Medicine Hunter

  • stalkingaustin

    Wow, that is very interesting, I am surprised I have not heard more on this yet. I will be doing some more research, any more articles you have on it would be greatly appreciate. 
    Austin Walker
    <a href=””>Spiritual Life</a> Counselor

  • Justin Melvin

    Nice article Melissa, I have already know about the the sacred plant Ayahuasca, which is used to prepare the Yage medicine by the Amazon tradition. Thank you for your post and I learn some new things from this!!!

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