The DMT Gland : The Pineal, The Spirit Molecule, and Popular Culture, Graham St John, 2016

The DMT Gland : The Pineal, The Spirit Molecule, and Popular Culture

Graham St John

International Journal for the Study of New Religions, 7.2 , 2016, 153–174

ISSN 2041-9511 (print) ISSN 2041-952X (online)


With clinical psychiatrist Rick Strassman’s DMT: The Spirit Molecule as a vehicle, the pineal gland has become a popularly enigmatic organ that quite literally excretes mystery. Strassman’s top selling book documented groundbreaking clinical trials with the powerful mind altering compound DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine) conducted at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. Inflected with Buddhist metaphysics, the book proposed that DMT secreted from the pineal gland enables transit of the life-force into this life, and from this life to the next. Since that study, the hunt has been on to verify the organ’s status as the “lightening rod of the soul” and that DMT is the “brain’s own psychedelic.” While the burden of proof hangs over speculations that humans produce endogenous DMT in psychedelic quantities, knowledge claims have left the clinic to forge a career of their own. Exploring this development, the article addresses how speculation on the DMT producing “spirit gland”—the “intermediary between the physical and the spiritual”—are animate in film, literature, music and other popular cultural artifacts. Navigating the legacy of the DMT gland (and DMT) itself in diverse esoteric currents, it illustrates how Strassman’s “spirit molecule” propositions have been adopted by populists of polar positions on the human condition: i.e. the cosmic re-evolutionism consistent with Modern Theosophy and the gothic hopelessness of H. P. Lovecraft. This exploration of the extraordinary career of the “spirit molecule” enhances awareness of the influence of drugs, and specifically “entheogens,” in diverse “popular occultural” narratives, a development that remains under-researched in a field that otherwise recognizes that oc/cult fandom—science fiction, fantasy and horror—is a vehicle
for religious ideas and mystical practices.

Keywords : occulture, DMT, entheogenic esotericism, Rick Strassman, popular culture


Even Dr Gonzo wouldn’t touch “extract of pineal.” It was the limit. “One whiff of that shit would turn you into something out of a goddamn medical encyclopedia! Man, your head would swell up like a watermelon, you’d probably gain about a hundred pounds in two hours…claws, bleeding warts, then you’d notice about six huge hairy tits swelling up on your back.” He shook his head emphatically, “Man, I’ll try just about anything; but I’d never in hell touch a pineal gland” (Thompson 1971, 46).

While Raoul Duke’s Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas respectfully avoided the pineal, others have made this enigmatic gland, and its status as a possible brain site for the production of DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a cause célèbre. Remote from the misshapen grotesqueries conjured by Hunter S. Thompson—who made no allusions to DMT—for clinical psychiatrist Rick Strassman, the “blinding light of pineal DMT” (Strassman 2001, 83) enables transit of the life-force from this life to the next. Such was the contention in Strassman’s best selling DMT: The Spirit Molecule, based on federally approved research at the University of New Mexico Hospital Clinical Research Centre, Albuquerque, between 1990–1995. Administering over four hundred IV doses of DMT to sixty healthy volunteers, it was the first sanctioned study on the clinical application of psychedelics in the US for a generation. Observing the phenomenological effects reported by his volunteers, Strassman documented their “mystical” experiences, notably contact events with “entities” reported by over half of his participants, ontological events compelling Strassman to revise existing hermeneutics on DMT. Parsing the character and role of endogenous DMT through Buddhist-influenced metaphysics, the idea of the “spirit molecule” was born, with the role of naturally produced DMT in mystical experience, prophecy and consciousness
elaborated upon in later work (Strassman et al. 2008; Strassman 2014).

As explored in this article, speculative science on the DMT gland has inspired writers of fiction, screen-writers and musicians who’ve appropriated the pineal-DMT meme as a device to advance narratives vested in diverse metaphysical perspectives on the human condition. That is, it demonstrates how popular cultural artifacts have, in their adumbrations of the DMT “spirit gland” mythos, furthered, at one extreme, the spiritual re-evolution of humanity implicit to the Theosophists and those subsequently seeking techniques to access higher consciousness, and at the other, the gothic horror propagated by H. P. Lovecraft. These idealistic and nihilistic polarities find animation in encounters with DMT “entities” or “beings”—e.g. in the form of clowns, elves, angels, demons, aliens, robots and insectoids reported by DMT users—possessing converse intentions (on a loose spectrum from benevolent to malevolent). In doing so, the article contributes to the study of “popular occulturation” initiated by Christopher Partridge, who recognized that psychoactive drugs have had an important role in the “re-enchantment of the West,” a development apparent in literature, film, TV, music and other cultural media that have themselves become integral to “the construction of new sacralized plausibility structures and worldviews” (Partridge 2004, 141). This investigation of “psychedelic spirituality” heralded a new phase in the study of religion. Not only did Partridge’s work have an early bearing on the study of popular culture through its application, for instance, of Troeltsch’s “mystical religion,” and Colin Campbell’s “cultic milieu,” attention to “psychedelic occulture” (Partridge 2006, 117), and the charting of the revolutionary phases in “religio-psychedelic transformation” into the contemporary period (Partridge 2003, 2006, 98) has significance, not least because the non-pathological role of drugs has been typically acknowledged in academia at safe distances only: i.e. spatially, in studies of non-Western drug-using cultural contexts, as in ayahuasca shamanism, and temporally, at the safe margins of history.

From the turn of the 1970s, the War on Drugs rendered research on the then newly prohibited psychedelic drugs taboo within the academic study of religion. A virtual research moratorium was established in which there was, for example, little support or encouragement to study the shaping role and impact of molecules like LSD, DMT, and MDMA, or plants like psilocybin containing mushrooms, or for that matter, mescaline or marijuana, on religious movements, spiritual practices and cultural artifacts. Given this situation, much important research has been typically conducted in the cultural underground or published at the margins of academia—where the conceptualization of the entheogen arose.