Throughout human history, shamans have used psychoactive compounds in order to enter spiritual domains and commune with supernatural entities, ancestral beings and deities. Yet the rise of what we Westerners call rational thought has closed the doors to these transcendental realms, explaining away all such encounters as chemically frazzled sensory processing.
For all its technological triumphs, though, this disenchanted worldview fails to explain many of the mysteries that permeate consciousness and psychedelic experiences. Among these is the remarkably consistent occurrence of “entities” that are reported to appear during DMT trips, and which tend to resemble each other with astonishing homogeneity.
Both online forums and the annals of academic literature are filled with reports of mechanical elves, praying mantis brain surgeons and extra-terrestrial life forms appearing before DMT users. The regularity of these apparitions has even given rise to the theory that alien abduction experiences may be the result of an overproduction of DMT in the brain.
This weekend, the world’s top psychedelic researchers will assemble in London for Breaking Convention, Europe’s largest psychedelic science conference. An entire morning will be dedicated to the latest findings on DMT, providing new insights on the three most prominent hypotheses regarding the origins of these mysterious entities.
The first of these is that DMT entities are simply hallucinations caused by the compound’s interference with visual processing. While this explanation adheres to the rules of Western reality, its challengers point out that it fails to clarify why the same types of entities are experienced by so many different people.
An alternative theory states that the beings encountered during the DMT experience are manifestations of the parts of our own selves that we are unable to recognise because we are so disconnected from them. According to this line of thinking, taking DMT activates the more ancient regions of our subconscious and spiritual essence from which we have become estranged as a result of our blinkered outlook on reality.
Going a step beyond this are those who re-invoke shamanic interpretations of psychedelic visions, claiming that they are in fact external entities with which we are able to make contact when we are transported to spiritual realms as a result of ingesting certain substances.
Though it’s impossible to rule out any of these explanations until we have more conclusive evidence, cutting-edge research is beginning to unravel the mechanisms by which DMT affects brain function. We have identified a wide range of brain receptors to which the compound binds, producing a multiplicity of effects on consciousness and cognition. For example, a recent Beckley/Sant Pau study found that DMT binds to serotonin receptors in the visual cortex, resulting in a reduction in alpha brainwaves.
This reduction correlated with the strength of psychedelic visions reported by participants, and when these serotonin receptors were blocked by a chemical antagonist, the magnitude of both the alteration in brainwaves and visual hallucinations was reduced.
Such discoveries are laying the foundations for the future exploration of psychedelic phenomena, yet the solutions to many of the mysteries of consciousness remain tantalisingly out of reach. At Breaking Convention, those at the forefront of DMT research will reveal how new methodologies and research paradigms are bringing us ever closer to understanding the origins and meaning of these strangely convincing entities.
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