I’ve been sitting on this post for years. Part of me really didn’t want to write it. And as a non-drug user, I felt unqualified. But the story has been nagging at me, ever since a friend told me about his DMT experience.
Now, I don’t do drugs. Never have. I grew up in the 80’s, with the “Just Say No” campaign, and the message really hit home. Except I took it to the extreme. I avoid anything that might artificially affect my brain in any way. So I abstain from alcohol, and I mean, ZERO alcohol. Haven’t had a sip of Bud Lite in my life. Nothing. Zilch. (OK, maybe whatever’s in Nyquil). My brother spent most of my teenage life trying to convince me otherwise, that I’d never find friends who don’t drink, or end up with a wife who doesn’t drink. Well, jokes on him, because my closest friend doesn’t drink and neither do our wives! By extension, to think that I could ever be pressured into pot or crack cocaine was hilarious. I was beyond peer pressure. Then again, I never felt any real pressure to do drugs. Sure, a few people asked me, but I said “No thanks” and that was it. It got to the point where I often wondered how anyone could end up an addict. Weren’t they forced to watch the same anti-drug videos I did? Now I know better, that drug-use is more often a symptom of depression or trauma or anxiety. But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Working in a restaurant, you’re pretty much surrounded by users. If you’re in your mid-thirties and scrubbing dishes for minimum wage, chances are you made some bad decisions in life, or you just really, really like washing dishes. But here’s the odd thing: a lot of people over the years, including some crack heads, assumed I was an addict. One time, after taking a break outside, an employee asked me, “How was it?” I hadn’t had a hit. But, I am slowly starting to realize, I may have been doing drugs all my life without knowing it.
Truth be told, we can’t escape drugs no matter how hard we try. A “drug” is a general term for chemicals, and we’re pretty much made of chemicals. It’s in everything we eat and drink. If you enjoy chocolate, caffeine, or the high that comes from exercise and sex, you’re enjoying the drug-like endorphins produced in your brain. And this brings me to DMT. If you don’t know what that is, I suggest you read up on it. The stories are amazing. It’s a hallucinogenic, but far, far more powerful than LSD. One LSD user described his DMT experience as somewhat terrifying, and you would be too, if you’re action figures started talking to you and dancing on your desk. A close friend told me the same thing. To paraphrase, “You don’t realize you’re hallucinating. There’s zero difference between what you know is real and what you are experiencing. Sight, sound, smell … it’s all there, utterly convincing.” And it’s not just seeing some funny things bouncing into your living room. Far from it. When you take a DMT trip, you’re entering another universe. You meet sentient beings, commonly referred to as “machine elves,” and there’s a great sense of time dilation. So what takes only a few minutes in reality might feel like days or weeks by the DMT-clock. OK, Nick, you may be thinking, this guy was probably pulling your leg. So I did my homework, and everything I read confirmed my friend’s story. In his book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion, neuroscientist Sam Harris posits that many religious experiences, including visions of life-after death, can be attributed to hallucinogens. The “light at the end of the tunnel,” is just a symptom. Now, this might not make much sense, considering how little the drug is known. Where did Abraham or Moses or Buddha get a hit of this stuff? But here’s the thing: DMT is naturally produced in the brain. The chemical has been associated with dreaming and imagination. When we die, DMT is released from your brain in a torrent, offering powerful, convincing manifestations of the after-life. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and author of Proof of Heaven, converted to Christianity after being pronounced brain-dead for “a week.” His description of Heaven sounds a lot like an episode of My Little Pony, with lots of colors, flowers and enormous butterflies. But, as Sam Harris points out, Eben’s experience closely mirrors those of DMT users.
I will admit, for a few days after hearing this story, I entertained the idea that maybe—just maybe—DMT acted as a gateway into another world. I truly wanted to believe. Who wouldn’t? Then again, the notion of other dimensions lurking beside our own can get pretty freaky. So I asked my buddy, “Is it real?” No, he didn’t think so. As a philosophy major, logic prevailed. Sadly, all evidence points to the fact that we only have one life to live. Unless you’re a fundamentalist, you know this is it. And it’s precisely because of this realization, I believe, people are drawn to imaginative endeavors. It’s our only escape from this mundane, everyday existence. Even if you’re the Dos Equis man, you’re going to want to step into someone else’s shoes, live someone else’s life. Why else do we spend so much time and money on movies, TV shows, books and video games? While there may not be an after-life, we can choose multiple lives within this one, and DMT, or some chemical like it, makes it all possible. After talking to my drug-venturing friend, we both came to the conclusion that the brain is far more powerful than either of us could imagine.
I am not a scientist, and even if I were, I think a lot more research needs to go into creativity and imagination and into how the firing of neurons activates those functions in our brains, but I know from experience how real the mind can make things seem. As a child, I managed to convince myself of some pretty impossible things. I could, at times, see and hear things I knew I’d just made up. It got me to worrying, for some years, whether I was on the verge of schizophrenia. My dreams have always been particularly vivid. I sometimes wake, feeling like I just watched a movie’s worth of content, enough to write a novel. Users of DMT report similar experiences, living lifetimes in the span of minutes, but the information quickly vanishes from memory, just as my dreams fade before I can get to pen and paper.
This brings me back to books and the imagination. For much of my life, I have understood the technological drive to make things look and feel real. CGI effects, in movies and in video games, work to push reality away, to give the player the sense of really “being there.” I love what Lucas did with Star Wars, and what Jackson did with Lord of the Rings, and Skyrim just looks amazing on PS3. And still, we keep pushing the boundaries, desperate to throw more pixels on the screen to hide the fact that they are just pixels. By the end of this year, we will have affordable VR headsets to further the illusion. And yet, given the opportunity, I’d go with a tabletop game, like D&D, every time. Some people only see the pen and the paper. It never becomes real for them, and in their case, who’d want to sit around a table for eight straight hours rolling dice? But for me, D&D feels more real because my brain makes it real. The brain is, after all, a vastly more powerful computer system. The trick is learning how to activate it, how to bring it to its full potential. Am I suggesting taking a hit of DMT before a game? Hell no. That would be terrifying. But I do think we can learn to exercise that part of our brains—the part that makes the magic—through meditation, as Sam Harris suggests, or by simply turning off our screens and the endless everyday distractions tugging at our senses.
In the Netflix original, Stranger Things, a girl with psychic powers is put into a sensory deprivation tank to focus her abilities. I believe this illustrates something we can all do, to hone the untapped resources of our own minds. Interestingly enough, the show references D&D and a monster called Demogorgon. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure Demogorgon was lurking in my bedroom. That never happened to me playing Diablo or Resident Evil. That’s the power of imagination. Nothing can match it. It’s why I play, why I read, and why I write.
Great article, Nick. Like you I’ve never done drugs or drank, and while I’ve never played D&D, my best friend throughout childhood and I played with action figures until after we could get our learner’s permits, so I totally know the value of imaginative play. Come to think of it, with one exception, all of my closest friends have that quality, which I think says a great deal about it’s importance.
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Playing pretend is a whole other avenue I neglected to mention, but just as important. Even as a kid, I preferred my action figures over my Nintendo. Not that I didn’t love video games. In the old days, graphics were so bad you kind of had to use your imagination as a supplement. Atari on Pitfall really strained the imagination. I also used to visualize the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda game. Now, games like the “Witcher” on PS4 look like you’re watching a big-budget movie. No imagination needed. D&D, on the other hand, is more like pretend. It’s basically playing pretend + math.
Excellent read. Unlike you, I’ve taken lots of drugs and played very little D&D. But it just goes to show man’s propensity towards escapism. Even without any mind-altering substances, you still managed to escape the shackles of ‘reality’ and enter a mystical universe.
Politely, and optimistically, disagree with you on the ‘this is all there is’ thing. My own dmt experiences have shown me a glimpse at the truth
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Regarding that last part, I sincerely hope you are right, and that I am wrong.