Not everyone who is close to death—or thinks they are, at least—has a “near-death experience.” But those who do often hallucinate that they leave their bodies, meet otherworldly beings, see bright flashes and tunnels of light, and more. Those who take the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine, or DMT— a compound found in the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca—experience many of the same things.
New research suggests that DMT really can simulate what it feels like to have one of these near-death experiences. Though the way DMT and near-death experiences cause hallucinations biologically is still unknown, future research on the two may open doors to treating things like anxiety and depression, the researchers said.
“[The new research] is very exciting,” Steven Barker, a neuroscientist at Louisiana State University who was not involved with the study, told Gizmodo. “The idea that hallucinogens could produce phenomena that correlate with that of the near-death experience has been out there for quite some time, but the data has now been published. It makes it easier for everyone to accept the concept and pursue further research.”
DMT is found naturally in some plants and animals, including humans. Though it is a main ingredient in ayahuasca, pure DMT is typically a crystal, and is illegal in most countries, including the United States. And while DMT’s effects and chemical makeup have been broadly quantified in previous studies, this is the first time researchers have measured the drug’s effects in the context of near-death experiences.
The research team administered both a predetermined dose of DMT and a placebo to a group of 13 volunteers on separate occasions, 1 week apart. The participants were unaware of which substance they were given at the time of study, but both times they were under observation by a physician in a dimly lit room where they reclined and relaxed.
After enough time passed for the participants to stop feeling DMT’s effects, the researchers had them take a standardized questionnaire related to near-death experiences. It asked them things like, ‘Did scenes from your past come back to you?’ and ‘Did you see, or feel surrounded by, a brilliant light?’, as noted in the study published Tuesday in Frontiers in Psychology.
Their responses were compared to those of 67 other people who had taken the same questionnaire after having genuine near-death experiences. The answers were remarkably similar—all 13 volunteers scored above the minimum for determining that someone had gone through a near-death experience.
While both the DMT group and the near-death experience group agreed on questions related to out-of-body experiences and seeing a bright light, there were clear divides elsewhere. The feeling of being at a point of no return and of reviewing one’s life were clearly tied to near-death experiences, while feelings of entering an “unearthly-realm” were far more associated with DMT.
Perhaps one day, DMT will be useful for treating mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, as has been explored with other hallucinogens like LSD or MDMA. CNN reported that some people who take ayahuasca can find relief from depression, though it’s not clear exactly how. The researchers are quick to advise against self-medicating with ayahuasca.
The study has some flaws, however. For one, not every dose of DMT was the same from person to person. Second, this study relied on self-reported questionnaire data, which could be subject to bias.
Still, Barker told Gizmodo it’s an important step forward in understanding the experience of death, and how we explain phenomena associated with near-death experiences. The next step, he said, is to begin identifying what’s going on biochemically with DMT molecules and the brain.
“We hope to conduct further studies to measure the changes in brain activity that occur when people have taken the compound,” study author Christopher Timmermann, a PhD student in neurology at Imperial College London, said in a press release. “This, together with other work, will help us to explore not only the effects on the brain, but whether they might possibly be of medicinal benefit in future.”