When you smoke a powerful psychedelic drug, you generally expect to see some pretty offbeat stuff, yet one substance in particular has gained a reputation as a gateway to a strange realm populated by mysterious "entities". Known as DMT, this mind-altering molecule regularly provokes realistic encounters with otherworldly beings, including those famously described by ethnobotanist Terrence Mckenna as “self-transforming machine elves”.
Given the strikingly similar DMT entities reported by unconnected people from around the world, scientists are now attempting to understand more about the nature of these psychedelic characters and what causes this weirdly common experience. Among those leading the investigation is Dr David Luke, associate professor of psychology at Greenwich University and author of a new book on DMT entity encounters.
“Encounters are really common,” he tells IFLScience, adding that “you get them more often than not with a high dose of DMT.” Regarding the nature of these entities, Luke explains that “there is a wide degree of diversity but there are also some recurrent themes that tend to pop up more than would seem purely random. Among the most common are 'little people', be they elves, dwarves or pixies.”
That’s not to say that everyone gets to meet these diminutive creatures when they smoke the drug. Also included in the cast of characters summoned by DMT are “giant praying mantises” that are typically experienced “leaning over you and doing some weird operation on your brain”.
“The praying mantises are nearly always devoid of any emotion, and sometimes people feel like they’re being farmed for their emotions by them,” says Luke.
While this might sound like a nightmare scenario, a recent study co-authored by Luke found that people most commonly describe these entities as “benevolent”, with only eight percent perceiving them as “malicious”. A larger study conducted at Johns Hopkins University produced similar findings, revealing that 78 percent encountered “benevolent” entities while 70 percent described these beings as “sacred.”
Of the 2,561 DMT users surveyed by the Johns Hopkins team, 65 percent said their encounter filled them with “joy”, while 63 percent experienced a sense of “trust”, and 59 percent went as far as to describe their experience as “love”. Negative emotions like sadness, disgust, and anger, meanwhile, were reported by a small minority of respondents.
Many claimed to have received messages from these entities about the nature of reality, while others gained more banal insights – including one person who received instruction on the rules of the NFL. “On the whole people generally have meaningful encounters,” says Luke. “Even if there’s not a specific message there’s a sense of profundity.”
“DMT experiences can translate quite strongly into metaphysical and theological shifts,” he continues. Indeed, more than half of respondents to the Johns Hopkins study who identified as atheist before their encounter no longer claimed to be so afterward. As unbelievable as all this may sound, 81 percent of respondents said their encounter felt “more real” than anything they had ever experienced previously, with two-thirds continuing to believe in the existence of these entities even after the effects of the drug had worn off.
So, what’s going on here? Could DMT really be some sort of hotline to a cabaret of entities from another dimension, or are these experiences merely the product of aberrant brain activity?
“One explanation is that DMT stimulates regions of the brain which give rise to both the visual aspect of a being and also the experience of sensed presence,” explains Luke. “However, in my research I’ve come across people who have aphantasia, which means they have no visual mental imagery. When they have DMT experiences they don’t see anything, and yet they have entity encounters, so the visual aspect isn’t even necessary for having these encounter experiences.”
While it goes without saying that these drug-induced encounters are underpinned by neurobiology, Luke says that it’s very difficult to account for certain highly typical experiences such as having one’s emotions harvested by a giant praying mantis. “Is there a specific region of the brain that for some reason is hardwired to produce those types of experiences?” he asks. “I don’t think so. It’s too specific to fit this generic brain activation model.”
A host of alternative explanations have been put forward, ranging from the psychological to the mystical. Ultimately, though, Luke says that “none of these explanations are satisfactory for a variety of reasons,” and that it’s best to “keep an open mind” as to the nature and origin of DMT entities.
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