One of the most hopeless yet admirable reactions to the utter weirdness of psychedelic experience is the desire to write about it. Whether in the form of trip tales, philosophical rants, or revisionist histories, writing promises to ground the experience, “bringing some of it back” even while underscoring the pale inadequacy of language in the face of extreme altered states. At the same time, this inadequacy provides one of the secret pleasures of psychedelic literature, which stimulates desire for ineffable experience as it brings the tension between ordinary discourse and the otherworlds of drugs so sharply into play.
Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the increasingly neuro-pharmacological language surrounding popular discussions of psychedelics. Researchers and heads find themselves suspended between monkey studies and parallel worlds, serotonin receptors and the void. Unable to contain the psychedelic experience within current biological models, researchers inevitably drift toward the science fictional fringe.
Such, in any case, is what happens to doctors Rick Strassman and Karl Jansen in their important new books. The first major overviews devoted to DMT and ketamine address two of the most fascinating molecules your nervous system may ever meet. An anesthetic found in every emergency room, ketamine is the more often consumed of the two, though we usually hear more about the low-dose snuffage that jacks up club kids than the hour’s worth of deep-space scuba diving that comes with shooting a heftier load into, say, your butt. DMT—an intensely freaky, smokable goo that blasts users past the far peaks of magic mushrooms and back in about 20 minutes—remains the more esoteric substance, despite the fact that the molecule is found throughout our bodies and in much of the living world.
As the first researcher in decades authorized to give humans psychedelics, Strassman has an interesting story to tell, and he tells it like the sober Buddhist shrink he is. After jumping through countless regulatory hoops, Strassman started squirting high doses of DMT into the veins of seasoned New Mexican tripsters. Technically, he was studying the drug’s physical effects, but what really drove him was his hunch that DMT was “the spirit molecule”: the biological basis for near-death experiences (NDEs) and mystical states of consciousness. Strassman speculates that, during times of high stress (like dying), the pineal gland may churn out enough DMT to overwhelm the body’s protection mechanisms and make us trip from within.
Strassman’s psychonauts regularly found themselves hurtled into alien laboratories, high-tech nurseries, and Day-Glo hieroglyphic hypercubes. Odder by far were the consistent reports of encounters with otherworldly beings often characterized as clowns, imps, or jesters (the late Terence McKenna dubbed them the “machine elves of hyperspace”). Strassman was not prepared for these entities, which popped up far more consistently than the similarities to NDEs and mystical experiences he expected to find. He was disappointed as well when follow-up interviews found little evidence for the sort of long-term positive psychological changes that he thought the spirit molecule would leave in its wake. He also worried about DMT’s risks, which not only include nightmare trips (one fellow was treated to a round of anal rape by a crew of alien crocodiles), but dangerous fluctuations in blood pressure. In the end, Strassman comes to the conclusion that “DMT [is] not inherently therapeutic.”
If anything, ketamine is an even kookier substance than DMT. Significantly different from tryptamine-based drugs like DMT and LSD, K unfolds users into a disembodied otherzone more likely to be compared to The Matrix than the organic honeycombs of psilocybin. Though capable of stirring up godlike emotions, K also has a rep for a certain Spock-like chill, which Jansen links to the fact that the drug stimulates the neocortex while dampening the emotional centers of the brain. Still, though Jansen’s book is chock-full of copious interviews with K fans, the drug’s bizarre majesty does not come through with the force of Strassman’s DMT reports, perhaps because K’s elusive experiences are frequently difficult to recall.
K can also exact a high, if unusual, price: addiction. As Jansen wryly notes, this may come as a surprise “for those left in a state of psychic shock after their first experience, darkly muttering ‘never again.’ ” Jansen devotes considerable attention to K addiction and its possible cures, and includes fascinating first-person accounts from literate brainiacs who undermine the typical image of the needle freak.
An ambitious fellow, Jansen is clearly trying to establish himself as Dr. K, and to that end he fills his sometimes poorly organized book with facts and anecdotes. Jansen offers a convincing neurological explanation for the similarity of K trips and NDEs, and includes an in-depth—though predictably inconclusive— discussion of K’s long-term effects on brain tissue. But unlike Strassman, who openly confesses his doubts, confusions, and desires surrounding DMT, Jansen hides his feelings behind the mask of the lab coat. That’s the standard scientific tack, of course, but his personal caginess about a substance that so compels him leaves one with a vague unease.
Both Jansen and Strassman have done their homework, so when they turn to wilder speculations, they earn our attention, though not necessarily our belief. For his part, Strassman abandoned his shrinkish tendency to psychologize the alien encounters he kept hearing about, and came to accept the possibility that the drug opened up “freestanding, independent levels of existence about which we are at most only dimly aware.” Jansen, who also notes the profound sense of reality communicated by ketamine, suggests that K may act as a “mental modem” that plugs us into other dimensions.
You may be fascinated by the weird physics they trot out (parallel universes, dark matter, biological quantum computers), but I was far more intrigued by a comment made by one of Strassman’s psychonauts, who said that DMT felt more like a new technology than a drug. In other words, while psychedelics provide pretty shifty models of reality, it does seem fair to view them as machines of perception—in other words, media. As we know from the Ecstasy debates, scientific heads like Strassman and Jansen are often trying to legitimate psychedelics on therapeutic grounds—grounds that Strassman here bravely calls into question. But the real “scientific” justification for psychedelics may lie with nothing more or less than humanity’s curious eye, which can hardly be expected to turn away from one of the most kaleidoscopic lenses chemistry has yet tossed our way.