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The McKenna Brothers: DMT and the Future of Psychedelic Medicine

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Table of Contents
The brothers - early life and first experiences with DMT
N, N-dimethyltryptamine, DMT. What is it?
Traditional uses of DMT - Ayahuasca, its origins and uses
Terrance McKenna and the DMT experience

It’s an experience, and I maintain it’s the most intense experience you can have this side of the yawning grave, without doubt. I mean, people say ‘is it dangerous?’. Well, the answer is ‘only if you fear death by astonishment! [1]’ – Terence McKenna
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

The brothers - early life and first experiences with DMT

If you’re searching online, you’ll find DMT described in wildly different ways; from spiritual panacea to forty-five-minute psychosis. If you are seeking to gain a deeper understanding of this substance, its place in the West, and the rest of the world, you will doubtless stumble across the McKenna brothers.

It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Terence and Dennis McKenna on the study of psychedelics and their increasing acceptance into mainstream culture. One a folk icon, the other a dedicated scientist, both have had an impact in their own unique way. The legacy of their work continues to bring the extraordinary healing and transformational powers of psychedelics into the public consciousness.

The brothers had a perfectly normal early life. They grew up in Paonia, a small town in Delta County, Colorado in the early 1950s to a mother of Welsh descent and a father of Irish ancestry. They shared many interests; they were geeks, more interested in science and science fiction than sports or socialising with other children. They were butterfly collectors, fossil hunters, and amateur rocketeers. Their parents encouraged and supported their endless curiosity about the world. Little did they know where it would lead them. Then came the sixties and psychedelics.

Here is Dennis explaining their instant attraction to these substances:

The idea that psychedelics could actually give access to real experiences of other dimensions, alien entities…seemed to Terence and me to be far more interesting than…the hippy, countercultural ‘revolution’…The hippies were largely anti-intellectual, and we thought of ourselves as intellectuals…psychedelics…were ‘recreational’ and fun. We took them more seriously than most people, or so we liked to think. Then along came DMT.” [2] 

Terence first tried DMT in 1967, while he was a student at the University of California, Berkley. After his first experience, he proclaimed: ‘This isn’t a drug, this is magic!’[3] He quickly became an advocate and icon, a Timothy Leary-like figure of DMT. In books such as The Archaic Revival (1990) and in countless, passionate, endlessly wordy lectures, he preached its transformative powers. But while Terence was on a stage waxing poetic, Dennis was studying for a doctorate at the University of British Columbia and investigating the physiological effects and potential benefits of DMT-containing plants.

N, N-dimethyltryptamine, DMT. What is it?

Net of Being – Artwork by Alex Grey

N, N-dimethyltryptamine, in scientific speak, is a hallucinogenic tryptamine. Tryptamines are naturally occurring alkaloids found in a variety of plants and animals around the world. DMT itself occurs in at least sixty-five plants. Some research has even suggested that it occurs naturally in the human brain, leading to the theory it may be the cause of reports of alien abductions, supernatural, and near-death experiences. It may even be a major factor in the maintenance of our experience of waking reality.

Traditional uses of DMT - Ayahuasca, its origins and uses

The earliest known form of human interaction with DMT is Ayahuasca –  a preparation of two psychoactive plants originating in the Amazon basin. The use of ayahuasca in the shamanistic traditions of South America goes back for many thousands of years [4]. The earliest archaeological evidence for the consumption of ayahuasca was found in 2010 by José Capriles, an anthropologist at Penn State University. ‘Radiocarbon dating of the leather bag containing the plant mixture indicated it was used sometime between around 900 to 1170 A.D.’ 

The name, ayahuasca, is a composite word in the Quechua language, where “aya” means soul and “huasca” means vine or rope, which translates to ‘vine of the soul’. The brew is traditionally prepared as part of a ritual, or religious ceremony. It has been used for divination or for contacting the spirit world. Here is Dennis describing the concoction:

“Traditionally ayahuasca has been used in Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and Brazil…The decoction is prepared by simultaneously boiling two…plants, the Banisteriopsis caapi and…Psychotria viridis (which contains DMT)” [5].

DMT is not orally active, so the unique combination of the bark of the caapi vine and leaves of psychotria viridis work together to facilitate its digestion. It seems unlikely this happened accidentally, yet at some point in prehistory, this powerful combination was discovered. Shamans in Peru will, to this day, tell you that this knowledge comes directly from the ‘plant teachers’ [6] communicating their message in dreams and visions. Over the last twenty-five years, ayahuasca has gone global, with thousands of people seeking it out as a means to open their minds or heal their traumas.

Traditional ayahuasca preparation requires two ingredients – Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis

In ‘Ayahuasca and Human Destiny’ Dennis articulates his belief that renewed interest in this medicine ‘is changing global environmental consciousness.’ [7] In an extract from the book in the Guardian he emphasises this potential:

“(Ayahuasca is) the conduit to a body of profoundly ancient genetic and evolutionary wisdom…the human role is not to be the master of nature, but its stewards…This is the lesson that we can learn from ayahuasca, if only we pay attention” [8].

Science is only just beginning to get to grips with ayahuasca. Decades of prohibition have made studying the substance unnecessarily difficult – but now, with the stigma lifting, more funding is becoming available, and in the coming years we can expect to learn more about its therapeutic potential.

Long-term use of ayahuasca has been shown to produce measurable changes in the brain…ayahuasca users (>10 years) have shown reduced ratings of hopelessness (Santos et al., 2007). Long-term ayahuasca use has also produced marked improvement in depressive symptoms (Osório et al., 2015). These data suggest evidence for a potential antidepressant effect for DMT [9].

Ayahuasca is, however, only one of the profound aspects of the DMT molecule. The chemical was first synthesized from plants in 1931 by the German chemist Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske. This synthesis allows one to consume the substance in a novel way to the traditional ceremonies of the past. When smoked, the DMT experience is intensified and condensed into a very short duration. It reaches its full potency at around two minutes, and will all but have dissipated by twenty minutes or so. Ayahuasca can take up to an hour to have any noticeable effect, and will then last for several hours.

Terrance McKenna and the DMT experience

In his talk ‘The Transcendental Object at the End of Time,’ Terence describes his experience of smoked DMT:

“Colours brighten, edges sharpen, there is a sense as though all the air in the room has been sucked out. You close your eyes and colours begin racing together, and it forms this mandalic, floral, slowly rotating thing… the chrysanthemum…Then you break through. The chrysanthemum parts. There’s a sound of a plastic bread wrapper or the crackling of flame and an impression of transition. Then you’re there” [10].

Terrance Mckenna – American ethnobotanist and mystic


While this might all sound a little hair-brained and woo-woo, for Terence, DMT uncovered the programming language of the universe – the fractal, mathematical laws that govern the world at an informational level.

DMT is still classified as a Schedule I drug under the United Nations 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Most of the world classifies DMT as a scheduled drug. But with its myriad potential benefits, why is this? First, here is Terence reflecting on the subject:

“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong” [11].

Dennis echoes this sentiment in his recent book ‘The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss’:

“Historically, those in power have always sought to suppress free thought, whether bluntly or subtly, because it poses an inherent challenge to their rule. That’s no less true today, in an age when corporate, political, and religious interests form a global bloc whose interests threaten all earthly life” [12].

While this repression of the ability of psychedelics to dissolve boundaries may not amount to a conscious and active denial of ‘free thought’, it is likely fear and a lack of understanding of the capabilities of these substances which maintain their illegality. A fear predicated on the assumption that the way we are running our societies is the ‘right’ way to do so.

The effects of this illegality on society and individuals are myriad. The use of antidepressants has become more and more common. Is this, as is postulated in a Guardian article from 2014, ‘to paper over the cracks of a fractured society?’ [13] Antidepressants are pushed as part of an incredibly profitable global industry and have a multitude of potential side effects such as weight gain, loss of sex drive, and suicide.

Could DMT potentially offer a safer, more holistic, and effective alternative?

DMT has been shown to exert anti-anxiety/anti-psychotic properties, and others have suggested that the possible positive symptoms observed in schizophrenia may be mediated by the effects of endogenous DMT [14] (Cakic et al., 2010; Grammenos and Barker, 2015).

Frecska et al. (2013) have suggested that DMT may be involved in significant adaptive mechanisms that can also serve as a promising tool in the development of future medical therapies and there have been proposals that DMT might be useful to treat substance abuse, inflammation, or even cancer [15].

‘There is no doubt that psychedelic research has been a ‘forbidden fruit long ripening on the tree of knowledge. [16] and while undoubtedly beneficial to a huge number of people, ‘antidepressants are not always the answer. [17]’

For too long the potential of psychedelic research has been ignored. This is especially true of DMT, endogenous to our own brains. Using modern technology – genetics, chemistry, molecular biology, we have the possibility to acquire both new knowledge and the means to ask deeper questions about ourselves and the society in which we live. DMT is still a mystery, and while there are some fascinating theories about how it functions, we still don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Mckenna advocated for the responsible use of psychedelic substances throughout his life.

Sadly, Terence McKenna passed away in the year 2000 but his advocacy of consciousness expansion and psychedelic medicine lives on in his written materials and many speeches and interviews. Dennis persists with his research and public promotion of ayahuasca and DMT and their potential to change medicine, bring us closer to nature, and alter the global consciousness of humankind.

David Blackbourn | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

David is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to Matt via email at matt@chemical-collective.com

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