Much of the unfolding debate surrounding Eben Alexander involves speculation of the drug DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) being implicated in creating the near death experience. After reading this interesting blogpost by C4Chaos, I started to write a reply, then decided to make it into an abbreviated blogpost. Although I would like to elaborate much more on DMT as it relates to NDEs (as time permits), I wanted to get a few observations out there while the discussion is hot.
I am confident that I can tell the difference between a highly transcendent NDE account and a typical DMT account the great majority of the time. Once in a while a DMT trip account has distinct elements which sound very similar to an NDE. But real NDEs almost never include a pointless disjointed narrative. DMT trips almost always do- interesting random geometric patterns, “machine elves”, and unrelated elements that skip around pointlessly. Browsing through DMT forums, I’ve seen posters who have taken DMT over a hundred times who openly admit they have never experienced anything like what classic NDErs describe.
It can be argued that the content depends on the dose, environment, and whether it is smoked or injected. But the most obvious problem with the idea that the NDE is merely a dump of DMT, is the length of the recovery period after the peak. Powerful DMT trips take time to come down from as the chemical is broken down in the brain. The user is still seeing visuals while virtually helpless inside their own heads, laying down or sitting, for several minutes. NDE’s which do not involve severe trauma can be completely different. Powerful NDE’s can be very short in real-time (though they often feel much longer) and end abruptly with no continuation of any sort of visual hallucinations at all. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever that a brain flooded with DMT could be the cause of this kind of NDE.
You can watch many videos of people doing DMT on YouTube and see for yourself how thoroughly incapacitated they are for several minutes, and how slowly it wanes. The trip is not like a light switch going on and off.
None of this is to say that some similar neural activity couldn’t be happening that ties the two experiences together. One does not necessarily need a flood of a specific neurotransmitter to replicate a very similar pattern of naturally occurring brain activity. But equating NDEs to the DMT trip is perfectly negligent of how NDErs actually describe their experiences. Although it is important to notice various similarities between psychedelics and NDEs as we try to get to the bottom of this mystery, it makes no sense when someone says, “Oh, that was just DMT”. Worse, there is a certain street lore about how the pineal gland releases DMT at the point of death, creating the classic NDE experience. This idea was always just total speculation. Somehow the hypothesis has been repeated so often that it’s now almost impossible to peruse a message board about NDEs without someone declaring that “science” has already proven the pineal gland releases DMT at death, and everyone else on the message board is an idiot who just hasn’t done their “research” (which usually means sifting through a few random blogs while stoned).
Where it concerns Eben Alexander, his cortex was not functional enough to react to DMT even if it *was* released during the coma. And for those who insist that the NDE happened only as he was coming out of the coma and thus recovering from the trauma of almost dying (which is the most common hypothesis by most skeptics), you must realize that the supposed DMT dump could not have occured as the brain was spiraling towards death (as the hypothesis predicts), but as it recuperated. This doesn’t fit the DMT hypothesis either.
The following account of an NDE-like experience completely debunks any sort of simplistic DMT theory of NDEs.
This man was driving his car and suddenly had an experience that was, for all practical purposes, identical to a classic transcendent NDE. When the experience ended, he was still driving. He pulled the car over right when he returned to his body. The experience was probably fairly short (he doesn’t say and probably has no way of knowing how long), and he was not seeing any beautiful geometric shapes or wild random colors immediately upon coming back and finding that he was still driving his car. He was not incapacitated, nor was he half-way in and out of his bodily awareness, struggling to see in front of him. In other words, the experience (whether real or hallucinatory) began abruptly and ended abruptly like flicking a light switch on and off. Despite having many of the same standard elements of so many other NDEs, He was simply not hallucinating the way someone on DMT hallucinates. Period. Furthermore, he was not near death (and not even in fear of death before the experience started), and there is no reason to suspect that his pineal gland was releasing DMT.
If this were a DMT trip, we would expect him to gradually come to his bodily senses, probably with a ruptured spleen, a fractured pelvis, and some broken arms, laying amidst twisted metal in a ditch on the side of the road. I hope nobody tests whether they can drive a vehicle two seconds after the peak of a powerful enough DMT trip to make you think you are talking to God. I think it’s pretty obvious what the outcome would be.
Sam Harris was recently criticized for refusing to debate with Eben Alexander. Although I would like to see a debate between Sam Harris and Eben Alexander on the nature of consciousness, I think debating the neuroscience of NDEs would be like arguing how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin. Despite the propaganda, we simply don’t know what is happening in the brain during NDEs (specifically the type of NDE where a highly transcendent experience accompanies a truly near-death physical state).
The annihilationist crowd has been adept at pretending (while effortlessly convincing their base) that NDE’s are scientifically “explained” because it is possible to come up with some 20 or more untestable and often contradictory neural correlates and conjectured causes that can be chosen ala carte to fit any given account. As someone who has read thousands of these NDE accounts myself, I can say confidently that most of these “explanations” are embarrassingly naive. But don’t take my word for it- the people who come up with these pseudo-explanations don’t believe in other competing pseudo-explanations. The explanations ignore what NDErs actually describe.
Even if any specific mechanism proposed were actually true, it would only explain a subset of NDEs for which it was suited, and still require multiple completely different explanations to explain why some other subset of NDErs had the same experience under very different physiological circumstances. The fact that very similar experiences with identical insights happen under a wide range of physiological states doesn’t convince skeptics that those insights are describing an actual reality. For instance, even though modern physics has demonstrated conclusively that time is a relative illusion of sorts, NDErs are given very little credit for harping on and on about how they learned that time is an illusion.
According to the official grab-bag of explanations, there are many reasons NDErs often see a loving globe of light. Sometimes it’s the overhead lights of the operating room, sometimes it’s the dying retina, sometimes it’s the occipital lobe going haywire, sometimes it’s endorphins leading to rapture, sometimes it’s REM intrusion, sometimes it’s a false memory constructed by the brain after trauma, sometimes it’s the temporal lobe seizing, sometimes it’s just a psychological reaction, and today apparently, all of those theories which have been touted to have given us an official scientific explanation for over twenty years, have been debunked. Now we finally know, it’s all because of DMT.
Hell, it’s just about anything anyone wants to say it is. The idea that this cocktail of hypotheses can pass for an “explanation” is insulting to those of us knowledgable about NDEs. The whole oily scheme of pretending NDEs are explained is about as convincing as the title of Daniel Dennett’s book, “Consciousness Explained”, where everything *but* consciousness is explained.
To use the DMT theory to explain NDEs as a whole doesn’t work on its face. Even if some subset of NDEs are caused by DMT release, you still have all your work ahead of you to explain other NDEs which clearly aren’t. And then the hard part- why do NDEs sound so similar, with a common message, no matter what the cause? And why do DMT, LSD, psilocybin, peyote and ayahuasca trips sound so variable from one to the next if they are supposed to be related?
To Eben Alexander the answer is apparently clear- there really is an environment outside of space-time which is the more natural locale for which consciousness is suited. To him, the physical universe is like some sort of biological virtual reality, where consciousness is funneled down and limited in scope (“dumbed down” as he calls it) in order to perceive through the biological sense organs. In this other more expansive realm, it would appear that thought, emotion, and imagination are themselves solid realities, and communication is in the form of non-verbal concepts which are transmitted wholly formed, and not through the clumsy and fallible medium of language.
Of course, if there is such a thing as a “non-physical” realm, how could it be any other way?