An Interview with Dr. Rick Strassman
By David Jay Brown
Rick Strassman, M.D. is a medical researcher who conducted the first U.S.-government-approved-and-funded clinical research with psychedelic drugs in over twenty years. These studies, which took place between 1990 and 1995, investigated the effects of DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a powerful naturally-occurring hallucinogen. During the project’s five years, Dr. Strassman administered approximately four hundred doses of DMT to 60 human volunteers. This research took place at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque, where he was tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry.
Dr. Strassman holds degrees from Stanford University, where he received Department Honors in Biology and Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, where he was a member of the Davidoff Honor Society. He took his internship and general psychiatry residency at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in Sacramento, and received the Sandoz Award for outstanding graduating resident in 1981. He spent ten years as a tenured professor at the University of New Mexico, performing clinical research investigating the function of the pineal hormone melatonin, in which his research group documented the first known role of melatonin in humans.
Dr. Strassman has published thirty peer-reviewed scientific papers and serves as a reviewer for several medical and psychiatric research journals. He has been a consultant to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Veterans’ Administration Hospitals, Social Security Administration, and other state and local agencies.
In 1984 Dr. Strassman received lay ordination in a Western Buddhist order. He co-founded, and for several years administered, a lay Buddhist meditation group associated with the same order. Dr. Strassman currently practices psychiatry in Gallup, New Mexico and is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
Dr. Strassman is also the author of the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which is a compelling and fascinating account of his research with psychedelics. In the book he discusses how DMT may be involved in near-death experiences, alien abduction encounters, and mystical experiences. As the book unfolds, what begins as a study to explore the pharmacology and phenomenology of DMT, becomes a science fiction-like journey into an hyper-dimensional reality inhabited by intelligent alien creatures. To find out more about Dr. Strassman’s work visit his Web site: www.rickstrassman.com
I interviewed Dr. Strassman on September 28, 2004. We discussed how Buddhism helped to guide his medical research, the potential therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs, and models for understanding the DMT experience.
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David: How did you become interested in medicine, and what lead you to study psychiatry?
Rick: In college, I actually didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I began as a chemistry major, because of my keen interest in fireworks, which I indulged more or less safely in high school. I had hoped to start my own fireworks business. Funny, in retrospect, how I switched from an interest in “outside world” fireworks, to ones more internal.
Nobody I knew really was that encouraging about the fireworks idea, so I switched to a zoology/biology major, but didn’t think much about medical school at the time. During the summer between my 3rd and 4th year of college at Stanford, I read much of the material for the upcoming year’s classes: Early Buddhism, Sleep and Dreams, The Psychology of Consciousness, Physiological Psychology. I had an epiphany of sorts that summer, deciding I’d like to combine my interest in psychedelics with Eastern religions, psychoanalytic theory and practice–all in a sort of unified theory of consciousness, that related to integrating what I saw as a biological basis for spiritual experience (the pineal, endogenous DMT, etc), with what I believed was the most comprehensive system of psychological defenses (psychoanalysis), with what I thought was the most sophisticated view of human mental “mechanics” (Buddhism).
This was a little ambitious for my medical school applications, and I had a hard time toning it down enough to fit into the format required for those applications. And, my mentor at Stanford thought I had lost my mind, telling me to keep my mouth shut. Most medical school interviews ended badly when they asked why I wanted to go to medical school. The only ones I got into were those where the interviews were short, and I didn’t have a chance to launch into my reasons. Right before starting medical school, I was offered a research position in an outstanding physiological psychology laboratory at Stanford with Karl Pribram; and arranged to delay entrance into medical school for a year. However, when it turned out there was no funding for the research position, I decided to start medical school on schedule.
I maintained this idealistic (somewhat manic) view during my first year of medical school, and was sorely disappointed. I got depressed, dropped out, ended up at the Zen monastery with which I was ultimately to have a 20+ year relationship. There, at the monastery, I learned to get back to basics, and returned to medical school, got into my own psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and put the whole psychedelic research idea on the back burner.
When it came time to decide what specialty to pursue, I chose psychiatry for several reasons: the hours were good, I liked the patients, I liked the reading material, I liked other psychiatrists, I admired my psychiatrist who had helped me a lot. Last but not least, I thought if ever I were to do psychedelic research, psychiatry would be the field in which to do it.
David: What inspired your interest in altered states of consciousness in general, and what lead you to study the effects of DMT and psilocybin?
Rick: I was very curious about how similar were states of consciousness brought on by psychedelics, and those described by mystics and seasoned meditators throughout the ages, across all cultures, as well as descriptions by those having the recently “discovered” near-death experiences. Later, I saw some of the overlap between psychedelic consciousness and psychosis. And, against my better judgment, I began seeing some overlap between the “abduction” experience and the psychedelic one, at least with respect to those of our DMT volunteers.
Once I was finally positioned to begin psychedelic research, almost 20 years after the original epiphany, DMT was a natural choice to begin such research anew. It had been used in humans in previously published research, was endogenous (that is, naturally produced) which made it a great candidate for eliciting “spontaneous psychedelic experience,” it was short-acting (which I knew would be helpful on an aversive research unit), and was relatively obscure (thus less likely to draw the sort of attention that an LSD study might).
Psilocybin is chemically very similar to DMT, but is orally active, and longer-acting. I thought it might produce a more easily studied and managed state, both for phenomenological research, as well as for therapeutic work, than did DMT, which was so mind-shatteringly short-acting.
David: How has your interest in Buddhism helped to guide your medical research?
Rick: I was first drawn to Buddhism because of its unabashed manner of describing rather exotic and lofty states of consciousness in a relatively objective manner. The techniques and concepts of the mind, as defined and affected by meditation, appealed to me-it seemed that even the most outrageous states of consciousness could be held, described, even “objectified.” Particularly, the Buddhist Abhidharma (the canon of psychology in Buddhism) approach to mind as a composite of a small number of mental functions, appealed to me as a facile means of developing a rating scale, a tool, for measuring the states of consciousness I anticipated finding in our psychedelic research.
This rating scale has been a legacy of the DMT research, and has been translated into several languages, used to measure effects of several different drugs, and has held up well in comparison to some of the other more traditional ways of measuring drug effects.
Later on, when I actually started practicing Zen meditation, I found it very grounding and powerful, and the state of active passivity, so to speak, or alert quietness, was useful as a means of holding the DMT sessions themselves, on my end. I also saw that some of the principles I had learned about meditation, and from teaching it, were useful in coaching the volunteers on how to deal with the things they encountered, or might encounter, during their sessions.
David: One of the most fascinating things about DMT is that it is found naturally in the brain. What function do you think endogenous DMT plays in the human brain?
Rick: I think it plays several roles. It may help mediate some of the more profound mental experiences people undergo: near-death, mystical states, psychosis. This was one of my hypotheses beginning the research: that endogenous DMT mediated these states of consciousness. Thus, if by giving exogenous DMT, we saw features found in those states, that would support our theory that elevated levels of endogenous DMT were involved.
Also, the brain brings endogenous DMT into its confines, across the blood brain barrier, using energy; something that it does for very few compounds, such as glucose, certain amino acids. Thus, it seems as if endogenous