Christopher Timmermann, Ph.D.(c)

Christopher Timmermann, Ph.D.(c)

Christopher Timmermann obtained a BSc in Psychology in Santiago, Chile and a MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Bologna in Italy. He is currently completing a PhD in Imperial College London, leading a project focusing on the effects of DMT in the brain and human consciousness.
Christopher Timmermann, Ph.D.(c)

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The incredible states of consciousness that emerge when people consume the psychedelic molecule DMT are characterized by a multiplicity of features. DMT is able to provide a rich plethora of experiences in a very short amount of time. Since it was first administered in research contexts, its effects have been characterized by participants as resembling a rollercoaster. The contents of these experiences may range from perceiving geometrical shapes to the feeling of accessing new realities, with reports often mentioning sensing presences or “entities”.1 2 3 As such, the use of DMT in human neuroimaging contexts provides a fascinating opportunity to understand what is happening in the brain while these events unfold. By granting this opportunity, it holds significant potential to contribute in the field of neuroscientific research of consciousness. Let me address why I believe DMT is such a fascinating tool for neuroscience and the science of consciousness in a broader sense.

The Value of Psychedelics in Consciousness Research

The neuroscientific study of consciousness has seen a resurgence in the last few decades. Numerous approaches, theories and experimental paradigms have been used to attempt to uncover what the neural correlates are that constitute normal waking experience.4 One approach that is often taken is to compare brain activity of a participant under general anesthesia and when the participant is awake.5 6 Another approach involves studying what happens to the brain when participants are engaged in dreamless sleep (a state without conscious processing).7 8 In this sense, the use of psychedelic compounds offers a valuable opportunity to look at brain activity when participants are undergoing potentially radical shifts in conscious experience because these shifts do not necessarily involve loss of or reduced levels of awareness.

In recent years, studies using psychedelic compounds have contributed to the field of consciousness research by using these as tools to alter some of the building blocks that make up normal waking experiences. The ability of psychedelics to elicit the dissolution of the sense of “self,” or ego, is a good example, as the sense of self is often labeled as a key feature of normal waking consciousness,9 and recent studies using LSD and psilocybin have identified some of the brain dynamics which possibly mediate the sense of ego-dissolution.10 11 12 13 Similarly, psychedelics are able to alter basic features of perception and the ability to form meaning out of experiences. Therefore, in the field of psychedelic research, we have at our disposition interesting tools to understand some of the basic elements that make up our experience of being in the world.

The Richness of the DMT Experience

The administration of pure DMT, with its wide-ranging effects, has been relatively unexplored in modern neuroscience contexts involving human participants. DMT experiences are rich in terms of the contents associated with it: the subjective feeling of sensing presences, vivid visual imagery, and the feeling of accessing other realities that are felt as having an enhanced sense of “realness,” are commonly-reported features.14 15 16 These fascinating experiences occur in a relatively reliable and safe manner under appropriate conditions17 that allow us to study them in detail in research environments.

The DMT experience may also provide insights into an area that is still relatively unexplored in psychedelic research  concerning how the experiences induced by psychedelics develop over time. The DMT state is usually characterized by having a strong sense of dynamics: experiences unfold in a rapid and sequential manner. Usually one aspect of the experience predominates, and is quickly replaced by another, and so on (hence the rollercoaster analogy). This is interesting because the effects of DMT are usually felt immediately following ingestion and the more noticeable aspects of the experience do not tend to extend past 30 minutes, making it feasible to map these extraordinary experiences and their dynamics in the human brain.

The Dynamic Transitions of Consciousness

In our current research at Imperial College, London, we aim to understand what some of the mechanisms are that make up these experiences, both at in terms of brain activity and in subjective experiences. We have been looking at the effects of DMT in human participants by administering different doses, and have assessed the nature of its effects. To do this, we have been working with collaborators in the use of both offline and online methods to measure subjective experiences. The first concerns the reporting of the experience after it has taken place using questionnaires and advanced interviewing techniques, and online methods look to capture aspects of the subjective dynamics of the experience as it is unfolding in real time. Our hope is that these methods will allow us to characterize the DMT experience in a fashion that is able to closely capture how it was actually felt by participants.

We are also interested in mapping these lived experiences in the brain. For this we are using neuroimaging methods with optimal spatial and temporal resolution (spatial resolution refers to having precision regarding where things are happening in the brain, while temporal resolution relates to being able to capture when things are occurring in time). By using advanced neuroimaging techniques, we are not only attempting to capture how the contents map into brain dynamics, but also how does the transition from one phase of the DMT experience is followed by the next one. As such, one example of what we are attempting to do aims to understand what goes in the brain when the experience of breaking through into a new dimension is unfolding.

The investigation of bridging qualitative aspects of human experience with brain activity has been an enormous challenge in the field of neuroscience, and valuable methods to resolve this issue have been developed.18 19 20 Research with psychedelic compounds, and more specifically with DMT, grants us the unique opportunity to induce rich and complex experiences in a controlled manner.

References

  1. Sai-Halász, A., Brunecker, G., & Szára, S. (1958). Dimethyl-tryptamin : ein neues Psychoticum (Dimethyl-tryptamin: a new Psychoticum) Psychiatria et Neurologia, 135, 258–301.
  2. Strassman, R. (2001). DMT: The spirit molecule. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
  3. Strassman, R. J. (1995). Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Behavioural Brain Research, 73(1–2), 121–124.
  4. Boly, M., Seth, A. K., Wilke, M., Ingmundson, P., Baars, B., Laureys, S., … Tsuchiya, N. (2013). Consciousness in humans and non-human animals: Recent advances and future directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 625.
  5. Alkire, M. T., & Miller, J. (2005). General anesthesia and the neural correlates of consciousness. Progress in Brain Research, 150, 229–244.
  6. Boly, M., Moran, R., Murphy, M., Boveroux, P., Bruno, M.-A., Noirhomme, Q., Friston, K. (2012). Connectivity changes underlying spectral EEG changes during Ppopofol-induced loss of consciousness. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(20), 7082–7090.
  7. Horovitz, S. G., Braun, A. R., Carr, W. S., Picchioni, D., Balkin, T. J., Fukunaga, M., & Duyn, J. H. (2009). Decoupling of the brain’s default mode network during deep sleep. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(27), 11376–11381.
  8. Siclari, F., Baird, B., Perogamvros, L., Bernardi, G., LaRocque, J. J., Riedner, B., Tononi, G. (2016). The neural correlates of dreaming. BioRxiv, (November 2016), 1–52.
  9. Damasio,  A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body, emotion and the making of consciousness. New York City, NY: Harcourt Brace
  10. Carhart-Harris, R. L., Muthukumaraswamy, S., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Droog, W., … Nutt, D. J. (2016). Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(17), 4853–4858.
  11. Lebedev, A. V., Lovden, M., Rosenthal, G., Feilding, A., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2015). Finding the self by losing the self: Neural correlates of ego-dissolution under psilocybin. Human Brain Mapping, 36(8), 3137–3153.
  12. Muthukumaraswamy, S. D., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Moran, R. J., Brookes, M. J., Williams, T. M., Errtizoe, D., … Nutt, D. J. (2013). Broadband cortical desynchronization underlies the human psychedelic state. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(38), 15171–15183.
  13. Tagliazucchi, E., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Orban, C., Muthukumaraswamy, S. D., Murphy, K., Carhart-Harris, R. (2016). Increased global functional connectivity correlates with LSD-induced ego dissolution. Current Biology, 26(8), 1043–1050.
  14. Luke, D. (2011). Discarnate entities and dimethyltryptamine (DMT): Psychopharmacology, phenomenology and ontology. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 75(902), 26–42.
  15. Sai-Halász, A., Brunecker, G., & Szára, S. (1958). Dimethyl-tryptamin : ein neues Psychoticum (Dimethyl-tryptamin: a new Psychoticum). Psychiatria et Neurologia, 135, 258–301.
  16. Strassman, R. J. (1995). Human psychopharmacology of N,N-dimethyltryptamine. Behavioural Brain Research, 73(1–2), 121–124.
  17. Strassman, R. (2001). DMT: The spirit molecule. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
  18. Lutz, A. & Thompson, E. (2003). Neurophenomenology integrating subjective experience and brain dynamics in the neuroscience of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10(9–10), 31–52.
  19. Petitmengin, C., & Lachaux, J. P. (2013). Microcognitive science: Bridging experiential and neuronal microdynamics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 617.
  20. Varela, F. J. (1996). Neurophenomenology: A methodological remedy for the hard problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3(4), 330–349.