In Part 1 of this article, I discussed Rick Strassman’s research on DMT. In particular I focused on the phenomenon of DMT users frequently encountering non-human entities of various kinds. These experiences have a striking similarity to alien abduction. Even more strangely, many participants came away convinced that these entities are somehow real. Strassman (2001) has speculated that these entities could be inhabitants of a parallel universe. I will not attempt to explain what such entities might represent, as this is not at all understood. What I will focus on are the psychological factors that influence people’s judgments about what is real and how these might explain why people come to believe in the existence of such beings.
The sheer vividness of the DMT experience is probably a major factor. As noted in Part 1, colours became much more intense than in real life. One participant described the colours as “10 to 100 times more saturated.” The content of the visions was so bizarre and unexpected that volunteers found it difficult to believe they could imagine such things. Additionally, volunteers generally felt that their thinking was clear and unimpaired. Psychedelic drug experiences tend to be associated with a feeling that one is experiencing something extraordinarily profound and this may increase a person’s confidence that they are experiencing something deeply real.
However, there is considerable psychological research indicating that a person’s confidence in the reality of their experiences is actually a poor guide to the accuracy of what has actually occurred. For example, research on memory has found that even when people have complete confidence they have remembered an event accurately, their recall may be highly distorted. In one study, people who had been asked to describe their recollection of the space shuttle Challenger disaster a day after it happened had substantially inaccurate recall of the event three years later. Very few were correct about every single detail and fully a quarter were incorrect about every single detail. In spite of this, they had very high confidence in the accuracy of their recall and described their recollections as very vivid. The degree of emotion experienced at the time of the incident was unrelated to accuracy of recall. Even with highly salient and frightening events, confidence in memory is not a good guide to their accuracy. Some participants even protested that the original record of their recollections was not how they remembered it (Spanos, 1996).
Furthermore, people may become convinced of the reality of memories that cannot possibly be real. For example, studies have been done in which participants were hypnotically “regressed” to the time of their birth or even before birth (Spanos, 1996). Those who were told (falsely) that it actually is possible to accurately recall infantile events produced detailed accounts consistent with what they believed might have happened. For example, some people recalled with great emotion having a twin who was aborted and even specified the twin’s sex. However, due to infantile amnesia it is simply not possible for people to accurately recall anything that happened at or before birth. Furthermore, foetuses do not have the ability to know what sex a twin is or understand the concept of abortion. In contrast, control subjects asked to think back to the day after their birth invariably described their experiences as fantasies.
People who believe they have they have been abducted by aliens are quite certain that these events actually happened in the physical world. This is in spite of the fact that abductees often live in crowded cities yet thousands of independent witnesses somehow fail to notice the presence of alien spaceships. Research studies on abductees have concluded that these people are not psychotic or otherwise deluded. On the other hand they frequently have pre-existing beliefs about the existence of aliens who have visited our world and also tend to hold other esoteric beliefs (e.g. in reincarnation) more strongly than other people (Spanos, 1996). Alien abduction experiences more often than not occur while people are falling asleep, dreaming, or waking up (Newman & Baumeister, 1996). Researchers therefore theorise that these experiences are related to hallucinatory experiences that can occur during the transition between sleeping and waking, and may involve sleep paralysis, out-of-body sensations and images of frightening monsters or entities. Furthermore, abductees’ accounts of aliens frequently contain details found in science fiction books and films. DMT entity descriptions could conceivably have been influenced by images from popular culture although this has not been investigated.
Another area that has not been investigated is that of personality differences that might influence the experience of and belief in non-human entities. The volunteers in Strassman’s study were all experienced users of psychedelic drugs. The reason for this was that experienced users were considered to be less likely to panic during the DMT trials and more likely to be able to provide a detailed description of their experiences (Strassman, et al., 1994). Experienced users of psychedelic drugs obviously have tried to experience the world in new ways, and they are no doubt eager for new experiences. Therefore, they may be more open than most people to unconventional views of reality.
As noted in a previous article, research on psilocybin found that responsiveness to the psychedelic effects of this drug was strongly correlated with the personality trait absorption. Absorption refers to a readiness to experience deep attentional involvement in which a person experiences a heightened sense of the reality of the object of their attention (Roche & McConkey, 1990). Additionally, information may be processed in “unconventional and idiosyncratic ways.” Absorption tends to be associated with mystical and paranormal beliefs (Lange, Thalbourne, Houran, & Storm, 2000). People high in absorption who take DMT might therefore be expected to have a particularly strong psychedelic response in which they experience a heightened sense of the reality of the phenomena experienced. Due to their general openness to unconventional beliefs and ideas it would not seem surprising that they would be inclined to credit the existence of non-human entities.
It is unknown whether there were pre-existing differences in personality traits or mystical/paranormal beliefs between volunteers in Strassman's research who either did or did not experience entity contact. Future research could examine whether people who are high in absorption and related traits are more likely to experience contact with entities. Also, among those who do experience entity contact, absorption might be correlated with willingness to believe in their reality. Additionally, people who are inclined to believe that psychedelic drugs can reveal profound truths about the nature of reality might therefore be more inclined to believe they have experienced something real.
In conclusion, the fact that some people have visions of intelligent non-human entities under the influence of DMT is puzzling and the reasons why this occurs cannot yet be explained. However, from a scientific viewpoint it would be extremely premature to jump to conclusions involving far-fetched theories of alternative realities. Sam Harris has argued that the fact that people can have profound mystical experiences (with or without psychedelic drugs) does not justify making metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or consciousness. He states, and I agree, that the full spectrum of human conscious experience can be studied rationally without engaging in pseudoscience. The fact that DMT volunteers were convinced that the entities they contacted were real does not provide evidence of the objective independent nature of these beings. Sane intelligent people can also be fully convinced of the reality of things that are known not to have happened. Future research on DMT could profit from taking into account psychological factors influencing a person's judgments about reality.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
This article has previously appeared on my Psychology Today blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.
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Image source: Wikimedia Commons.