Neurothanatodelia: The ‘Phenomeneurology’ of DMT as an NDE-MIMETIC

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Pascal Michael 
University of Greenwich
, London, UK 

Introduction: Classical near-death experiences (NDEs) are altered states of consciousness within the context of actual proximity to death, which typically have profoundly transformative effects. Several studies indicate uncanny phenomenological similarities primarily with experiences elicited by the monoaminergic psychedelics, particularly the serotonergic tryptamine DMT. When such psychedelically-occasioned NDEs are psychometrically compared to authentic NDEs, they are shown to be insignificantly different. While providing helpful models for the NDE, these psychedelic NDE-like experiences may also gesture at the neurochemical substrates undergirding it. No study has yet been dedicated to a systematic qualitative analysis of the details of content of both a psychedelic and near-death experience, nor within individuals having experienced both such states, to clarify the fidelity of their modelling of the NDE, and thus crystalise the likelihood of any predominant endogenous role. 

Methods: In this paper, we report on the thematic and content analysis of the DMT experience from the first concieved naturalistic field study of DMT use, focusing on the transpersonal (previously reported) and personal dimensions to the experience, and those pertaining to death and dying and the mystical experience. This is then directly compared and contrasted with the raw data from a previously published thematic analysis of the NDE, both qualitatively and in terms of content frequency. A comparison of scores of the near-death experience scale from the DMT participants of the field study, against those published already comparing prior laboratory DMT and actual near-death experiences, also supplement as a quantitative measure. Additionally, thematic analyses were performed on a near-death experience reported in a popularly published book, as well as, uniquely, on a novel interview focusing on the experient’s subsequent 5MeO-DMT experience. This latter case study includes, importantly, the personal perceptions as to similarities and differences held by the experient. 

Results: Preliminary analyses reveal that there are indeed exigent convergences between the DMT and near-death experience. However, these are most marked in the more basic phenomenological structure, that is, the underlying ‘template’ which is more invariant and thus correlatable with neural substrates, including (but not limited to) sense of dying, disembodiment, journeying to another spatial environment and encountering seemingly non-self agencies. Whereas, on the more nuanced level of content, or ‘texture‘, the specifics of which being variable between individuals and groups, the experiences are unavoidably distinct. The NDE appearing arguably more circumscribed (and possibly individually/culturally specific) in the content and aesthetics reported, while DMT is definitively unique in its content-prodigious, psychedelically-characteristic (and individually/culturally non-specific) experience. There is also no immediately recognisable linear progression of themes in the DMT experience (as suggested by some studies, but not all, to occur with NDEs). This being so, there are a very small cluster of themes, and only in some cases, which even in content were identified as virtually equivalent. Additionally, there were at least two participants in the field study whose experiences intimately resembled the near-death experience in terms of a reliable sequence of NDE-related themes – though whose content, again, was more classic of DMT. Regarding the NDE-5MeO-DMT experiencer, there was found to be exceptionally high comparability between the original NDE and psychedelic experiences in general (such as entering other worlds, meeting menacing or benevolent entities, synaesthesia, perinatal regression, and lucid dream-like properties). Much comparability was also identified with the 5MeO experience, in particular the major mystical experiential domains, such as ego dissolution, but especially transcendence of time and space. 

Discussion: Taken together, when considering the two states prima facie, it is tempting (as the popular psyche has done) to refer to them short-hand as practically the same, while upon much more intimate inspection they emerge as manifestly different. DMT, as such, possibly more accurately represents an ‘NDE-mimetic’, and only occasional ‘NDE-ogen’. In this way, particular attention will be paid in the discussion to the possible neural correlates of the NDE, informed by the psychedelic neurosciences and the neurology of the dying process, which may best account for the major structural and minor content convergence, as well as significant content divergence between the two states. In light of the above findings, possible clinical applications of DMT, and the ontological implications of the comparison in the context of anomalous phenomena, shall be discussed. If findings from the NDE-5MeO case study do not directly argue for the release of this or analogous neurochemicals, finally discussed is the possiblity of the very unique aetiology of the NDE aitiology (neocortical bacterial meningioencephalitis) in effect simulating similar down-stream neural activity as that initiated by pyramidal neuronal activation by psychedelic agents. 

Cassol, H., Pétré, B., Degrange, S., Martial, C., Charland-Verville, V., Lallier, F., Bragard, I., Guillaume, M., & Laureys, S. (2018). Qualitative thematic analysis of the phenomenology of near-death experiences. PLoS ONE, 13(2), 1–14.  

Dean, J. G., Liu, T., Huff, S., Sheler, B., Barker, S. A., Strassman, R. J., Wang, M. M., & Borjigin, J. (2019). Biosynthesis and extracellular concentrations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in mammalian brain. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1–11. 

Martial, C., Cassol, H., Charland-Verville, V., Pallavicini, C., Sanz, C., Zamberlan, F., Vivot, R. M., Erowid, F., Erowid, E., Laureys, S., Greyson, B., & Tagliazucchi, E. (2019). Neurochemical models of near-death experiences: A large-scale study based on the semantic similarity of written reports. Consciousness and Cognition, 69, 52–69. 

Michael, P., Luke, D., & Robinson, O. (2021). An Encounter with the other: A thematic and content analysis of DMT rxperiences from a naturalistic field study. Frontiers in Psychology, 12(December). 

Timmermann, C., Roseman, L., Williams, L., Erritzoe, D., Martial, C., Cassol, H., Laureys, S., Nutt, D., & Carhart-Harris, R. (2018). DMT models the near-death experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(August), 1–12. 

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Pascal Michael
Pascal Michael Author

Pascal, BSc, MSc is a PhD candidate at the University of Greenwich, comparing the psychedelic (namely DMT) experience, based on the first conceived field study of DMT use, and the near-death experience – with a view to establishing the near-death experience as a neurally-generated psychedelic episode, and such psychedelics as ‘NDE-mimetics’. He’s published in Frontiers, is a coordinator for ALEF Trust’s certificate in Psychedelics, and is a recipient of the Schmeidler Outstanding Student Award.

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