Brain wave study explains why a DMT trip is like entering an alternate reality

Scientists can finally explain the "breakthrough" experience.


DMT, short for N,N-dimethyltryptamine, has such a powerful effect on the human brain that it’s called the “God molecule”. It’s famous for inducing a transcendent psychological experience and some liken their DMT trips to a near-death experience, complete with encounters with mystical beings or entry into an all-encompassing “new realm”.

Now, scientists might finally know why the chemical substance can push people into seemingly new cognitive dimensions. According to research published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, that experience likely stems from DMT’s ability to create very specific patterns of brain waves.

"People are engaged in these alternate dimensions.”

These changes in our brain activity may help us create an extremely realistic new reality that exists entirely inside the mind, explains Christopher Timmermann, a Ph.D. student at Imperial College London and the study’s first author.

“We found neural signatures related to states of consciousness in which people feel completely immersed in simulated alternate realities,” he tells Inverse

“People are engaged in these alternate dimensions, which feel incredibly real and meaningful, they feel they engage with beings and entities that communicate with them, [and] they have strong emotional reactions and effects in their bodies.”

How DMT creates “new realms”

This study is based on a small sample of 13 adults who were given a DMT dose that resulted in about a 20-minute trip. When the experience peaked about two to three minutes in, the subjects reported feeling as if they entered a “different reality or dimension.”

In turn, they saw geometric patterns, felt reported “unusual bodily sensations.” They drew pictures that look like this:

A drawing made by a study participant while they were on DMT. 

Imperial College London, Chris Timmermann

While they were experiencing that, scientists took EEG readings of their brain activity. Ultimately, the team was able to boil down the DMT experience into interactions between four different types of brain waves that are usually seen during states of consciousness, like sleeping or waking. They include:

  1. Delta waves: the lowest frequency wave, common during deep sleep
  2. Theta waves: found during earlier sleep stages
  3. Alpha waves: found during relaxed states like meditation
  4. Beta waves, common during typical wakefulness

Timmermann explains that generally speaking, the team saw large decreases in higher frequency alpha waves and big increases in the low-frequency delta and theta waves while their participants were on DMT. These effects were strongly related to the visual imagery, or hallucinations, induced by the compound.

"These effects are similar to what we see when people are dreaming.”

That’s particularly intriguing to Timmermann because “these effects are similar to what we see when people are dreaming.”

Changes in brain wave activity during a 20 minute DMT experience. 

Timmerman, Imperial College London 

Interstingly, they also found that specific combinations of waves during the trip could explain the different emotional and physical sensations of the DMT experience. The visual effects seemed most closely tied to the increases in theta waves, and decrease in alpha waves. The bodily effects were associated with decreases in beta waves, and the emotional effects were associated with increase in “signal diversity” — basically chaotic or unpredictable patterns of brainwaves.

These physical and emotional components are all part of the traditional DMT experience. But Timmermann’s data also points to what happens at the exact moment when people feel that they’re “breaking through” and are on the verge of a far more intense experience.

What happens during the “breakthrough experience?”

The breakthrough experience is usually described as truly falling into another realm. Artists who try to depict it (often unsuccessfully, some note) draw scenes like this:

Timmermann’s data suggests that the transition to breakthrough experience could be defined by a “collapse” of the alpha and beta waves and the beginning of a new type of rhythm that’s dominated by theta and delta waves.

Once that happens, the experience is underpinned by changes in three major types of brain activity that define the social, emotional and bodily components of the DMT experience: A decrease in alpha waves, an increase in theta waves, and a spike in “signal diversity.” Each of these changes help explain why it feels so all-encompassing.

In part, it’s because of a “massive” drop off in alpha waves. When people aren’t on DMT, this sort of drop-off happens when one opens their eyes and engages with the external world. Strangely enough, the DMT subjects had their eyes closed the whole time — but their brains acted like their eyes were open.

The increase in theta waves is actually similar to what happens during the vivid dreams that occur during REM sleep, while the increase in “signal diversity” possibly accounts for the “rich and unusual experiences people have.”

This is only a small study on 13 people, and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions about the DMT experience. But ultimately, Timmermann hopes that this kind of research could be a better way to understand consciousness in general.

“Understanding how we are able to construct such elaborate experiences while being detached from normal waking consciousness is absolutely necessary if we want to have a comprehensive view of what human consciousness is,” he argues.

From that standpoint, DMT could be one way to illuminate just how our consciousness works. For now, this work points to how a hallucinating brain can construct a vibrant world entirely inside the mind.

Studying transitions in and out of the altered state of consciousness caused by intravenous (IV) N,N- Dimethyltryptamine (DMT - a fast-acting tryptamine psychedelic) offers a safe and powerful means of advancing knowledge on the neurobiology of conscious states. Here we sought to investigate the effects of IV DMT on the power spectrum and signal diversity of human brain activity (6 female, 7 male) recorded via multivariate EEG, and plot relationships between subjective experience, brain activity and drug plasma concentrations across time. Compared with placebo, DMT markedly reduced oscillatory power in the alpha and beta bands and robustly increased spontaneous signal diversity. Time-referenced and neurophenomenological analyses revealed close relationships between changes in various aspects of subjective experience and changes in brain activity. Importantly, the emergence of oscillatory activity within the delta and theta frequency bands was found to correlate with the peak of the experience - particularly its eyes-closed visual component. These findings highlight marked changes in oscillatory activity and signal diversity with DMT that parallel broad and specific components of the subjective experience, thus advancing our understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of immersive states of consciousness.

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