Quirks & Quarks

The psychedelic DMT modifies brain waves to produce 'waking-dreams'

DMT is so powerful it creates a ‘sense of entering other realities or dimensions that feel more real in this reality.’

DMT creates a ‘sense of entering other realities or dimensions that feel more real in this reality.'

In this photo, a woman raises her hands during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazonian jungles of Peru. The ayahuasca plant contains DMT that causes immersive psychedelic experiences. (Martin Mejia / The Associated Press)
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The active ingredient in the potent psychedelic brew ayahuasca — extracted from plants in the Amazon rainforest for use in shamanic ceremonies — can create, according to researcher Christopher Timmerman, a "sense of entering other realities or dimensions that feel more real in this reality." 

And he thinks he could know why. 

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Timmerman and his colleagues report how they investigated the effect that DMT — N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, the active ingredient in ayahuasca — had on brain wave patterns in 13 healthy volunteers. 

They observed an immediate drop of alpha waves, similar to what is observed when we open our eyes — except the participants' eyes were closed. 

These brainwave patterns indicated that people were engaging with this very vivid space that had these signatures that were quite similar to dreaming.- Christopher Timmermann, Imperial College London

"It was almost as if they were opening their eyes and engaging with an external world, only that world was this DMT space," said Timmermann, a PhD candidate from the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and lead author of the study, in conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

The researchers also saw the emergence of delta and theta waves, which are typically associated with dreaming. 

"These brainwave patterns indicated that people were engaging with this very vivid space that had these signatures that were quite similar to dreaming," he added.

Pictured is an illustration from one of study participants capturing some of the visions during their DMT experience. (Christopher Timmermann / Centre for Psychedelic Research / Imperial College London)

DMT enhances possibilities for brain states

The other significant finding from this study is what happened to the overall brain activity in those who took DMT. 

"We found that the signal become incredibly much more disordered, much more difficult to predict. The amount of states or repertoires that the brain could engage with was highly expanded compared to normal waking state of consciousness."

This is the opposite of what happens to someone in a coma or in a deep sleep with no conscious awareness, where brain activity becomes much more predictable and ordered. 

This means the sweet spot for our normal waking consciousness is somewhere between those two extremes of order and disorder of brain wave activity.

Timmermann said one implication of these findings might be for treatment of depression, in which brain wave activity is dampened. Potentially DMT might provide a way to stimulate normal levels of brain activity. 

The psychedelic brew ayahuasca, extracted from plants in the Amazon rainforest, is traditionally used in shamanic ceremonies. (Eitan Abramovich / AFP via Getty Images)

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