Every September in Ancient Greece, an occult ritual known as the Eleusinian Mysteries took place at a sanctuary near Athens, where the secrets of death itself are said to have been revealed to those who ingested a strange substance called kykeon. While the nature of this secretive potion remains unknown, Albert Hofmann – the chemist who first synthesized LSD – has speculated that it may have contained a type of psychoactive fungus called ergot, which produces effects that are akin to dropping acid.
Hofmann’s view is shared by Robert Gordon Wasson, a former Vice President of J.P Morgan who inspired the psychedelic movement of the 1960s by introducing the world to Mexican magic mushrooms. Both agree that psychedelics enable users to “see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life,” and researchers are now beginning to investigate whether these reality-bending drugs can help us die more peacefully.
Do Psychedelic Experiences Mirror Death?
While Wasson may have laid the groundwork for the 60s counterculture, it was Harvard professor Timothy Leary who became its high priest, co-writing the famous book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A re-working of a Buddhist text about navigating the various stages of dying, the book argues that LSD and other similar drugs can be used to bring about the death and subsequent rebirth of the ego.
More recently, studies have suggested that the therapeutic effects of psychedelics may hinge upon their ability to reduce or eliminate death anxiety, and that the experience of “ego death” while under the influence of these drugs can help people to confront and overcome their fear of dying.
Among those investigating the connection between psychedelics and death is Dr Christopher Timmermann from Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, who recently authored a study on the effects of DMT. “Themes of death and dying are very common in the DMT experience,” he tells IFLScience, adding that many of his study participants claimed to “encounter their own death” while tripping on the drug.
When examining the similarities between the DMT state and near-death experiences (NDEs), Timmermann and his colleagues found that all participants “scored above the standard threshold for an NDE” after smoking DMT. Of the 16 characteristics associated with NDEs, 15 “were rated significantly higher under DMT compared to placebo, with ten of these reaching statistical significance.” Among the components that DMT trips share with NDEs are such facets as “separation from the body”, “encountering a mystical being or entity”, and seeing a “bright light.”
After interviewing participants about their DMT trips and comparing these to reports from people who have undergone an NDE, the authors concluded that “complete ego-dissolution” appears to underlie both phenomena and “may be the common factor that can bridge between these different states.”
It’s also worth noting that while the volunteers in this study all smoked pure DMT, the compound is also famously found in the Amazonian plant-based brew ayahuasca, which literally translates to “the vine of the dead.” As Timmermann points out, “ayahuasca in many indigenous cultures is seen as a way to access the world of the dead, so there’s that overlap which has an interesting cross-cultural aspect to it.”
Indeed, psychoactive plants have been used to commune with the spirits for thousands of years, so clearly it’s not just westerners who tend to interpret their psychedelic experiences as a crossing of the great divide.
Do Our Brains Release A Psychedelic Substance When We Die?
Dr Rick Strassman famously labeled DMT “the spirit molecule” after observing its effects on study participants in the mid-90s. Noticing the striking similarities between DMT trips and NDEs, Strassman proposed that this overlap may be more than coincidental and that the things people experience when they pop their clogs could in fact be caused by the brain releasing DMT at the moment of death.
Little evidence has been found to support this claim, although we do know that the compound exists in trace amounts in the human body. While the function of this endogenous DMT remains poorly understood, the fact that it appears to help oxygen-deprived neurons survive in a petri dish lends some credibility to the idea that it may be secreted as a last-ditch attempt to protect dying brain cells.
In spite of this, Strassman’s hypothesis has been challenged by several of his contemporaries, including Dr Karl Jansen, who concluded that the trips produced by ketamine are in fact more similar to NDEs than those generated by DMT. As with DMT, ketamine-like compounds are also known to have neuroprotective effects, leading Jansen to speculate that the brain may release a substance that resembles Special K when we expire.
Yet while Strassman and Jansen have debated which compound is most likely to shape our terminal experience, others are unconvinced that either could ever be responsible for our final mortal moments. Timmermann, for example, says he’s “agnostic and skeptical” of the theory that our brains release a psychedelic substance as we die. “I think the evidence is not sufficient for us to claim that,” he says.
One problem with this theory is that a wide range of different drugs have been found to trigger NDEs, suggesting that there may be multiple mechanisms underlying this phenomenon. “For example, when you give people high doses of ketamine or LSD, you can reach similar types of mystical experiences even though you’re activating completely different molecular receptors in the brain,” says Timmermann.
“So it seems that the mechanisms that are relevant are those located at the network level in the brain, rather than in the molecular aspects of brain activity. After you ignite a set of initial conditions then these networks are configured and reconfigured in a certain way, and that seems to be the relevant aspect.”
Exactly what these initial conditions entail is hard to say, but Timmermann speculates that “perhaps it’s simply that when you introduce enough chaos in the brain then it thinks it’s collapsing and tries to make sense of that experience, and maybe that is the near-death experience. That is something that can happen in psychedelic states, in death states and so on.”
Can We Benefit From Dying On Psychedelics?
Modern medicine has very little to offer those suffering from terminal illnesses, both in terms of healing their physical disease and easing the existential terror that comes with facing up to one’s mortality. Yet several recent studies have indicated that psychedelics may assist the process of dying by alleviating this emotional distress.
In one trial, up to 80 percent of terminal cancer patients who received a single dose of psilocybin reported significant reductions in death anxiety that lasted for a full six months. Amazingly, this decrease in fear over one’s impermanence was sustained in the majority of participants who remained alive 4.5 years after their psychedelic trip. When interviewed about the experience, almost all rated it as among the most meaningful and enlightening of their lives.
“What the research has shown is that a lot of these reductions in death anxiety are related to certain forms of insights [gained during psychedelic experiences]”, says Timmermann. More specifically, these psychological improvements tend to hinge on “the awareness that there’s a larger connection between the individual and the wider world” than our “fragmented minds” would have us believe.
Such a realization typically arises from the experience of ego dissolution, which often leads to an understanding that our existence is not limited to our physical form and that our consciousness transcends death. By helping people to transform their relationship with death in such a way, psychedelics may well open the door to a less traumatic end-of-life experience.
“Some authors suggest that death is our primary fear and that every other difficulty or challenge that we have in our lives is somehow derived from this initial fear of dying,” explains Timmermann. “I think some of the most beautiful work being done with psychedelics right now is this idea that we can bring death into our awareness as a life process, and that a psychedelic trip would enable people to have a more peaceful transition into dying.”
We might never know what ingredients the Ancient Greeks used to prepare kykeon, but thanks to psychedelic substances such as DMT, psilocybin, and others, we may yet have a chance of recreating the Eleusinian Mysteries and easing the process of death.
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