Scientists have looked at the brain waves of people tripping on DMT, the so-called spirit molecule found in the psychedelic stew ayahuasca, and found it looks remarkably similar to “dreaming but with your eyes open.”
Reported in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, the researchers say their insights into the brain’s activity under the influence of DMT could help to uncover how ayahuasca induces such profound psychedelic experiences and intense visual imagery.
Ayahuasca’s chief psychoactive ingredient is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychoactive chemical that can induce an intense, yet relatively short-lived hallucinogenic trip. The experience has been utilized for centuries by indigenous people in the Amazon for shamanic rituals and spiritual rites. In recent decades, it’s also caught the attention of scientists and psychonauts looking to reveal its purported effects on emotional well-being and mental health.
“It’s hard to capture and communicate what it is like for people experiencing DMT but likening it to dreaming while awake or a near-death experience is useful,” explained Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research, in a statement.
“Our sense it that research with DMT may yield important insights into the relationship between brain activity and consciousness, and this small study is a first step along that road," he added.
For the study, scientists from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London hooked up 13 people (6 female, 7 male) to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record their brain activity after receiving a dose of DMT, while another group was given a placebo.
What they found was fairly surprising. Brain waves associated with dreaming, such as theta waves, were found to increase while the trip was in full swing. They also noticed a slump in alpha waves, the electrical signals associated with being awake.
However, the activity was also remarkably predictable and less chaotic than you’d expect to see in states of reduced consciousness or someone who had taken psychedelic drugs.
“The changes in brain activity that accompany DMT are slightly different from what we see with other psychedelics, such as psilocybin or LSD, where we see mainly only reductions in brainwaves,” added lead author Christopher Timmermann.
"From the altered brainwaves and participants’ reports, it’s clear these people are completely immersed in their experience – it’s like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive, it’s like dreaming but with your eyes open.”
The team says they hope future studies will use more sophisticated measurements of brain activity, such as fMRI, to dig deeper into the mystery of the brain networks affected by DMT. Considering the hallucinogenic nature of a DMT trip, they expect the visual cortex to play a major role.