Mystery School In Hyperspace: Exploring DMT with Dr Graham St John

DMT: a topic that we’ve explored several times on the show, and one that continues to captivate us. An extremely powerful hallucinogen, it’s structurally the simplest of all naturally-occurring psychedelics, and it’s fascinatingly endogenous. That is to say, DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) occurs naturally in the human body, as well as in all other animals, and can even be found in many species throughout the plant kingdom. Often classed as an entheogen, it has brought many a user towards spiritual enlightenment (at least according to their own reports); though “bad” trips on DMT certainly can and do occur, the number of people reporting positive life-changing experiences is significant and cannot be dismissed. A huge mystery also lies in the fact that a large proportion of DMT users describe similar scenarios and experiences, and often remarkably similar (or even identical) entities - usually some form of humanoid, insectoid or reptoid creature. Despite the reported positive effects on spirituality, and despite no known negative effects on the body (as far as we know, it’s not possible to overdose on DMT, since the body breaks it down so rapidly) it remains illegal in most countries, usually ranked alongside heroin and ecstasy.

This past week, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Graham St. John, cultural anthropologist and entheogen researcher. His recently-published, Mystery School In Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT, is the first of its kind, venturing down a path that had, until now, remained quite untrodden. Numerous books, articles and papers have been published over the years about this incredible molecule, with Dr. Rick Strassman’s, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, topping the charts of popularity (even leading to a documentary of the same name in 2010); yet, few have ever truly delved into the cultural influences of DMT.

 Dr. Graham St. John at Burning Man 2015. Photo courtesy of

Dr. Graham St. John at Burning Man 2015. Photo courtesy of

People often explore the whats and whys when it comes to DMT: what exactly is it? What does it do in our bodies? Why is it even in our bodies, or in anything at all? Why do so many people experience almost identical scenarios? However, far less explored terrain is found in the hows: how does it affect people’s creative outputs? Their outlook on life? Their belief systems? Their relationships? And that’s exactly where Dr. St John makes his mark. St John doesn’t outright ignore the scientific knowledge behind DMT, of course – a sensible and succinct amount is devoted to the basic scientific facts concerning DMT in the first chapter of Mystery School (alongside a brief and thorough explanation found in the foreword by Dennis McKenna). From there on, however, it is clear that the main focus is people and how they are affected, how they are changed. Like many, we were admittedly somewhat guilty of focusing heavily on the whats and whys (it’s almost difficult not to, given it’s such a fascinating molecule), but we were glad to have Dr. St John highlight a whole new aspect to this topic for us.

[O]ne of the most interesting aspects of this research is to document how tryptamines, and especially DMT, have had this impact across music and literature and other art-forms.
— Dr. Graham St. John, interview extract
 DMT's molecular structure.

DMT's molecular structure.

I remember attending a talk on psychedelic mushrooms a few years back (it incidentally took place at a Burner event in Europe), and the speaker, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, made a brilliant point that really got me thinking: psychedelics push you into a child-like state, a frame-of-mind where you view the world with wide-eyed wonder, and analyse shapes and interpret sensations on a very foundational level. For instance, when an average human adult looks at a book, they see an object with stories, something with thousands of words and the potential to educate, entertain and enlighten (or perhaps bore); on the other hand, an infant sees a cuboidal object, something you can open and close, a thing with lots of sheets of paper that have funny black marks all over them (or something that might be fun to pull apart). They do not see complete objects and concepts, but rather their constituents. The beauty of entheogens is that they often seem to revert the user to this child-like state, at least in part, allowing a type of exploration and understanding that human adults have, quite simply, lost over time. Such experiences have the potential to bring us closer to our own humanity, to appreciate the human characteristics of wonder and curiosity.

I digress - in any case, the point is that psychedelics, in particular DMT, clearly have a huge impact on the user, and that this impact translates into corresponding social and creative outputs. DMT changes people, and that itself is a fascinating area of research. We have Dr. St. John to thank for getting the ball rolling on this, and hope that this is not the last of it. As Christopher Partridge (professor at Lancaster University, UK) said, “In years to come, anyone with a serious interest in the socio-cultural significance of the induced altered states will have read this book.”

Dr. St. John’s TOP 6 Recommended DMT Reading/Viewing

1. Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT, Dr. Graham St. John.

2. True Hallucinations, Terence McKenna.

3. DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Rick Strassman.

4. DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Documentary), 2010, Mitch Schultz

5. Banshee Chapter (Film), 2013, Blair Erickson

6. Enter the Void/Soudain la vide (film), Gaspar Noé

Anyway, it’s probably time for the actual interview now, so click and enjoy!

Related StoryDMT: Exploring "The Spirit Molecule" With Rick Strassman

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Posted on March 2, 2016 and filed under SUM2.