Are NDE’s just DMT trips?

Drive by Shooting

Updated: 10/25/12

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?

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14 responses to “Are NDE’s just DMT trips?

  1. Welcome back Aaron! I’ll be your first comment.

    Two aspects of the skeptical NDE argument quickly become apparent. First, none of the “popular” skeptics take NDEs with anymore seriousness than ghosts or UFO’s. They consider NDEs, a priori, to be just another observational fabrication or delusion. This means skeptics approach the NDE with tremendous bias, a bias which is little different to the incurious dogma and ideology of their opponents. Rather than the healthy inquiry of skepticism, they display the incurious dismissal of Scientism. And this means, secondly, that any explanation for any given part adequately dismisses the whole. So, even though anoxia fails to address a vast swathe of NDEs in which “the light” is observed, anoxia satisfies their predisposition to dismiss the whole of the experience. As others have observed, there is increasingly little difference between the willful ignorance of the fundamentalist and the same displayed by the pseudo-skeptic – which is really what I think one has to label these individuals. The skeptic’s role, above all, is to be informed (how else does one expect to fully understand and explain a phenomena like the NDE) and in this the pseudo-skeptics demonstrably and entirely fail. It’s a real pity.

  2. There’s tremendous politically motivated reasoning going on. Reading comments concerning this case from armchair skeptics really felt to me like listening to people critique the delivery of a joke from a stand-up comic before they even hear the puch-line. There’s no context. There’s no understanding at all among most of them how dead on arrival the majority of their canned theories are. And how can there be? As I say all the time, how do you know what you are trying to explain if you never listen to the people explain what they actually experienced?

  3. Amother interesting post, Survival Index. My guess is if there was a physical brain based explanation for NDE, it would have been found by now. I honestly don’t think that science has anywhere else to look in the brain anymore. The 3 pound lump of protoplasm can be disected and scanned but you can’t corner any piece and point to it….there>>>> that’s where it all happens ….the OBE, the trip down the tunnel into light, the dead relatives who always look wonderful, landscapes beyond description, feelings of ecstasy, personal conviction that it is more real than real etc etc.
    I also don’t see why evolution would develop a spot that could do all this for no reason it certainly doesn’t help one to survive a brush with death. Surely it would only encourage it.

  4. I also don’t see an evolutionary explanation. First of all, the kinds of physical trauma generally associated with NDEs were not (probably 99.9 percent of the time) survivable prior to the 20th century. What possible advantage would the NDE confer to a corpse? Secondly: if, as some skeptics like to say, the NDE is the byproduct of a brain overdosing on Endorphins (among other panicky chemicals), then why should the experiences be “spiritual”. Why shouldn’t men find themselves in an endorphined induced heaven filled with horny and pornographic virgins? – for example. One can imagine many “heavens” that, by most standards, would not be remotely “spiritual”. That explanation also falls flat. Drug induced highs, according to my reading, are not generally life- or spiritually affirming experiences involving complex narratives. It’s a facet of NDEs that skeptics routinely ignore.

    • “Why shouldn’t men find themselves in an endorphined induced heaven filled with horny and pornographic virgins? – ”

      Precisely. Great point 🙂 Why are there no reports of celestial tables stacked high with cheeseburgers and fries or bottomless barrels of beer with accompanying fat cuban cigars.
      Here is a french documentary of the Pam Reynolds case. Note how she describes her grandmother looking so young etc (this is a confabulated story according to the sceptics) and her curiousty at the sounds of waterfalls and birds which she wanted to investigate but was not allowed to. Also at 5.53 she states that when they …’thought’….she heard it . etc etc. To catch any of this you will have to turn the sound right up and try to ‘neuro filter out’ (A la Woerlee, 🙂 the french commentary, but you will get the idea.

      Of particular note is her description of her return to the body…”It looked like a trainwreck,,,and I didn’t want to get in it.”

      Why would she confabulate that ? It’s absurd.

    • Yes, how is it that nature had provided for me my own personal hallucinagenic nursemaid to help me get through the trauma of death as if dead unthinking chemicals should give a rip how I feel? Then again, if consciousness is fundamental, maybe chemicals and cells do give a rip but that would support the idea of incorporeal consciousness and the NDE.

  5. Thanks for the comments guys. What is amazing about NDEs is that they are *not* like hallucinogenic drug trips. I don’t think anyone prior to modern resuscitation techniques would have honestly predicted the proliferation of NDEs and the clear and enhanced awareness present during wide varieties of severe brain duress- cardiac arrest, electrocution, overdoses of anesthesia, coma etc… It makes no real sense that the experiences would be remembered at all, let alone as clearly as they are. DMT memories fade like dreams. In fact, in Rick Strassman’s DMT research, those who received the highest doses were unable to remember their experiences at all. This is opposite NDE memories, which are usually crystal clear (however, it could be that many more people have profound NDEs but remember none of it). We must remember that most neuroscientists assume that the brain is like a vast network of switches that magically “computes” conscious awareness into existence. It seems to me that this is just the only thing they can imagine, and thus the only option for study and theorizing, and that it is far more likely that there are missing pieces of the puzzle we just don’t have yet. It shows the limitation of science that what seems far more likely is ignored out of the discussion, simply because it does not lend itself to the scientific method. I think there is something else going on.

  6. great post! lots of good points you bring up here, but this one drives home the point through the materialist “skeptics” who think that medical science and neuroscience have already solved the mystery of NDE.

    “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.”

    ~C

  7. I continue to Google Eben Alexander just to see what the Internet punditry are writing — all of them abrahamic atheists. It’s fascinating how, to a snarky person, they indulge in the worst sort of fallacy — the Ad Hominem attack — belittling, deprecatory and contemptuous. It’s the kind of thing you hear when believers attack the apostate. Since they can’t really debate Alexander’s credentials, they belittle him as an individual. Their reviews are, to a person, little more than Ad Hominem attacks. It’s disgusting. They make fun of his writing, try to portray him as a closet Christian, make fun of his terminology and the NDE itself, and question his publications. It really shows what kind of people we’re dealing with. They’re just as petty and intellectually bankrupt as the people they criticize. It’s been a real eye-opener.

  8. Yes, they don’t like it one little bit. They’re an aggresive bunch by and large and they operate in packs outdoing themselves with their vile ivective all over the net.

    Jeff Long was called a douchbag as I remember amongst other disgusting comments when he published his book. Alexander is a strong character though and he wants to get this out.

  9. Much of what drives this hysterical reaction is that these people don’t know anything about the NDE literature, the experiential quality of near-death experiences, or any other spiritual experiences, such as satori. After reading many comments and listening to certain podcasts it is abundantly clear that when these people hear about near-death experiences, they believe that the quality of the experience is entirely dream-like, and they can’t imagine how any reasonable person can listen to these stories and think they are anything but feverish hallucinations. For example- in the message boards of his article on near-death experiences, Ben Radford made it evident that he was not aware that NDErs repeatedly say that normal waking awareness is dreamlike in comparison to the heightened awareness of the NDE. To me, this is probably the most important aspect of the entire phenomenon. It troubles me that people can criticize near-death experiences without even knowing the most important element of the experience- the one which might be considered to challenge conventional neuroscience the most. Like I said, it’s like a critic making fun of a comedian before hearing the punchline of the joke.

    edited 11/03/12

  10. ” It troubles me that people can criticize near-death experiences without even knowing the most important element of the experience. ”

    That bugs me too, Survivalindex. I have spoken to quite a few NDErs and I’ve really pushed them to tell me everything. “Are you absolutely certain that you saw your physical body below ? YES. Why are you certain, couldn’t you have imagined this or constructed it ? NO it was as real as I am looking at you now …..yes but the sceptics would just say that you are mistaken ? LOOK, I know I saw my body below that is why the experience has convinced and changed me..etc etc

    So personally I have no doubt at all that NDE’s are not in the brain. Whatever this entity is that leaves, watches, thinks and travels… to who knows where… is going to be beyond the scientific method to capture and measure it but we don’t need to.
    We just need to wait until the pile of veridical evidence is so huge not even the hardest sceptics can ignore it.

  11. Guilty Bystander

    Re. Dr. Eben Alexander’s account of [his] NDE during a coma. Forgive me if

    I’ve completely missed the confirmation and/or validation of NDE’s as being real

    phenomena. Not that I in any way repudiate NDE’s. (I am not qualified to do

    so.) Niether can I give them creedence. I’m not being intentionally mean, I

    just don’t think the question is anywhere near settled. Unfortunately, his

    account, or more properly, his point of view seems to suggest that NDE’s are a

    matter of fact. Well, Perhaps I have a few questions:

    Most NDE’s use the generic term “God”. God who? The God of Abraham? Is it

    Marduk? Shamash? Enki? Isis? Osiris? Ra? Zeus? Apollo? Titan? Pan?

    Hermes? One of the demi-gods? Or perhaps Lucifer? Jesus Christ is mentioned by

    name. How about Shiva? Or Rama? Krishna?

    O.k. See my point? To name “God” would be to open up the mother of all cans

    of worms, and the inevitable strife and contention. To declare one of the gods

    to be God would be to negate all of the other gods. And I sense that things are

    even more complicated than that. Let’s not go there…

    Dr. Alexander states “real NDEs almost never include a pointless disjointed

    narrative.”, suggesting that DMT trips and other experiences do. I’d be willing

    to bet that Dr. Alexander has never, even once used DMT, or shrooms, or peyote,

    etc. And yet he easily and authoritatively dismisses such experiences as

    invalid, meaningless hallucinations. Has he closed the book on shamanic or

    psychedelic experiences, relegating it all to the waste bin? Does it prove that

    his experience was the real deal?

    As further proof he points out that under some hallucinogenics one is more or

    less incapacitated or at least somewhat attenuated. Far be it from me to float

    the idea of sleep paralysis, which keeps the vast majority of us from acting out

    things happening in our dreams, or in ventures to slightly different dimensional

    locations. (Ever since Heisenburg, no one has been quite certain.)

    As for Mr. Dale Hamman’s account of an NDE that took place while driving his

    Jeep (at speed) down the interstate, I’m inclined to question whether he was

    actually driving while this took place. Or did it all happen while he was

    stopped on the side? Dr. Alexander calls the information resulting from a DMT

    trip “pointless” and “disjointed”. Briefly, Mr. Hamman states that he was

    launched (through the right side of his forehead) into “the tunnel”, and arrived

    at a great ball of light/love. He recieved some subjective, languageless

    reasurance to a question about his location. When he wanted to know if his body

    was safe, he was catapaulted back to his earthly location to see that he was on

    the road, at speed, and steering properly, then catapaulted back to “heaven”,

    where he got reasurance that even though he felt he was less than “good”, that he

    was none the less loved and accepted.

    I’m not saying that this entire episode was pointless (much less disjointed),

    but I would like the option of requesting more relevant data. It seems to me

    that much fuss was made in order to convey very little. Not to seem ungrateful,

    but I think it’s too soon to speak of NDE’s as settled science. I experiment

    with DMT but I can’t draw any conclusions yet. I sense that our “objective”

    reality is a subset of the “macro-reality” and it feels right but I can’t prove a

    thing. So I’m not better off than those who put their eggs in the “NDE” basket,

    save that I’m not asserting a “truth” which precludes ANY other. What I

    experience on a DMT trip, while not of necessity inexplicable, is beyond my

    intellectual capacity. I get a sense of symbolic imagery because I lack the

    vocabulary for an adequate understanding of what I’m perceiving.

    More of what I’m receiving is “felt” rather than appreheneded. It’s as though

    I can barely come to grips with three dimensions (with effort, four, maybe) so

    even more dimensions are not easily going to be assimilated. Yet I’m invariably

    drawn to it. Something tells me I’m meant to experience and know things which

    can’t easily be articulated in the current state in which we find ourselves. To

    be fair to the good doctor, I agree with much that he says. “…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.”

    Apparently, I and most of us are not ready to absorb reality in all it’s

    uber-complicated splendor and must make do with limited sensory data. (Remember,

    up to ninety percent of our brain is not currently in use.) What other surprises

    does the universe have for us? Who will find out? The oddballs (like me)? The

    Shamans? The theologians? The scientists (not like Dr. Alexander)? The

    philosophers? The artists? The ‘Fred Flintstones’? The metaphysicians(more

    like Dr. Alexander)? The occultists? I can’t speak for anyone else. All I can

    say is I may not ever come to full realization of everything, but I feel must

    try. Like agent K. said in Men in Black, ‘Imagine what you’ll “know” tomorrow.’

    To give up is akin to consigning yourself to intellectual darkness.

    Even though at first glance it seems that the various psychedelic experiences

    and NDEs differ only in the ratio of which neurotransmitters are put into play,

    and how. Every account has something one can point to and say ‘that’s familiar

    territory!’ Perhaps it’s that the mind currently only has a limited number of

    ways of understanding a given concept, and may have a dickens of a time

    expressing it. Will it always be so? It most certainly will if we stick our

    heads in the ground every time we get apprehensive when experiencing something

    unfamiliar. To deal only with the everyday concepts and reject or even fear the

    unknown ones is to travel in circles never going beyond your little turf. If

    that is your wish then you should not be forced to go beyond.

    Whether NDE or DMT these experiences tend to choose us, and not the other way

    around. (Is that a joke?) By default those not chosen will view those of us

    that are chosen as crackpots. Same old human race. But I digress: Are NDEs

    caused by a surge in pineal gland secretions? Unless you can prove that at the

    moment of death DMT levels are elevated, then no, I would look for some other

    explanation. And I’ve yet to see any [credible] claim to elevated DMT at death.

    If, however, it is the Supreme Being, what limits would you put on how God

    accomplishes things? Would you only acknolwledge an act of God if it conformed

    to what YOU think you know to be true? What chutzpah! I can only advise

    caution.

    You take the high road, I’ll take the low road, let’s keep in touch, let’s

    compare notes…

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