From encounters with autonomous entities to the sensation of ego-dissolution, various psychedelics offer experiences that can only be described as “mystical” and often, according to users, weirdly familiar. But despite the number of people who report such things, little research has paid particular attention to this sense of familiarity. Now researchers have addressed this gap and have used an unusual source for their study – Reddit.
In a new study, a team from the University of Toronto, Canada, and Imperial College, London, have attempted to explore the uncanny sense of familiarity that accompanies altered states of consciousness produced by DMT (dimethyltryptamine).
This substance is a naturally occurring psychedelic that can be found in many animals and plants. Its effects are quick and short-lived, but they can have profound impacts on people who consume it and can even lead to lasting changes in their beliefs about reality and ontology.
But the common sense of familiarity that accompanies such trips is particularly intriguing, especially as it seems paradoxical – how can something so alien and weird be familiar?
To investigate this, the team conducted a mixed-method qualitative analysis of DMT experiences reported on Reddit over a nearly 10-year period (2009 to 2018).
They manually screened the titles of posts to the r/DMT community and subsequent full post review, which resulted in 3,778 individual and unique experiences from around 3,300 posts. Within this sample, the team found 227 instances where users reported a sense of familiarity with whatever they encountered, 56 of which were by people who had never used DMT before. These first-time users were classified as “DMT- naïve”.
The 227 experiences of familiarity were then subjected to a grounded theory inductive qualitative analysis and given a meaningful unit (MU) to categorize them. In addition, the themes associated with the DMT experiences were documented using established questionnaires, such as the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ) and the Ego Dissolution Inventory (EDI).
Interestingly, the study found that 24.7 percent of reported experiences of familiarity came from the “DMT-naïve” group – first-time users. This challenges existing assumptions that this feeling of familiarity came from prior use.
“The familiarity attributed to the DMT-experience appears to be not referential to a previous DMT or psychededlic [sic] experience given," the authors wrote in their paper. “[Z]ero participants made explicit reference to previous DMT or psychedelic experiences” and “a small subset of participants that reported a sense of familiarity simultaneously denied any previous DMT use.”
“Moreover, familiarity was reported concurrently within experiences that also involved non-ordinary (i.e., unusual) states of consciousness, such as an experience of death, mysticism, transcendence of space and time, ineffability, and ego-dissolution.”
This, the team tested through a 19-item Sense of Familiarity Questionnaire (SOF-Q) designed to cover five thematic categories of experience – emotions, places, the act of going through the experience, transcendent features, and familiarity provided by entities encountered.
“Using the newly introduced Sense of Familiarity Questionnaire (SOF-Q), we were able to identify distinct participant groups based on their experiences, especially around entity encounters and emotions,” study author David Lawrence, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and medical director of the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, explained to Psypost.
“This unique sense of familiarity during DMT experiences presents an enigma that paves the way for future research into this captivating phenomenon.”
This study offers important insights into the experiences triggered by DMT use. Familiarity with otherworldly spaces or strange entities appears to be unique to DMT journeys and exists alongside alterations in consciousness.
Obviously, the study relies heavily on self-reported experiences from Reddit users, so the results should be taken with caution. It is still not clear what the mechanism for these experiences is, and so one should avoid inferring direct causal relationships. Nevertheless, the results are fascinating.
“I would encourage readers to delve into the source material and explore the quoted passages firsthand,” Lawrence added. “The veridicality of the sense of familiarity not-withstanding, the passion and conviction expressed by some individuals were truly remarkable.”
The study is published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.