I have spent the last 6 years of my free time from my normal job researching the similarities between dreams and psychedelic hallucinations. Many people from the psychedelic community would disagree, claiming that their experiences are unique.
Not surprisingly, the lucid dreaming community or even normal sleeper may claim either that their dreams are unique or that “I don’t do drugs!”
This might be true, but the research shows that everyone does psychedelics if they would want to or not. Our brains produce them endogenously (naturally) and our lungs also produce them in even higher amounts.
The Structure of Psychedelic Experience
Humans have long been interested in the alteration of their consciousness. They have done so through a variety of means, including external chemicals, physical stressors and mental disciplines. Humans have also taken great care to pay attention to their dreams’ actions which regularly provides an altered state in which the experience inadvertently interacts with their so-called subconscious.
No matter what path individuals take to reach these altered states, the states themselves bear striking similarities to one another. By understanding the connections between the disassociation (change in normal consciousness) of individuals in both dreams and in the use of drugs, one may be able to understand waking consciousness better as well as conscious altered-type disorders.
Chemically, it’s a strong possibility that hallucinogens are more like dreaming than dreaming is like hallucinating.
Sleep Modulation and Circadian Rhythms
You may understand the stages, what REM is, and that even we get paralyzed during the REM stage of sleep. But the real magic of sleep lies within the circadian rhythm and histamines.
The circadian rhythm is a brainstem-controlled mechanism for keeping time, heartbeat, heat control, and many other automatic functions. The one aspect of circadian rhythm that deals mainly with sleep is the temperature control. Temperature control during the 24 hours cycle of the circadian rhythm allows our core temperature to change from cold to hot or hot to cold depending on the phase in the 24 hour cycle (Barrett & McNamara, 2007).
During sleep onset, our circadian rhythm automatically lowers the body’s core temperature using the body as a radiator. Melatonin (the dream mechanism) helps increase this temperature change, and it also helps to produce drowsiness. The key point here is that though melatonin may help induce change in temperature, it also has another function while we are asleep.
In short, melatonin may be the raw material to our private psychedelic experience.
Dream Transitions in the Pineal Gland
Our brain is like an on off switch. When we are awake our brain is perceived as on, or specific chemical process are taking place in specific areas of our brain that run off of neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin. When we are sleep our brain is considered off, or once again specific chemical process are taking place with different areas of our brains activated again using neurotransmitters, specifically acetylcholine and histamines which continue to push our brains toward the REM phase of sleep until its ready to wake up.
During this night time process, our brains also use the hormone melatonin in producing compounds into serotonin which is further processed into tryptamine and pinoline (a known MAOI). When combining these nightly produced compounds, which is produced in the largest quantities during REM sleep, you have the possibility of creating one of the most potent psychedelics available in the world today, DMT.
In layman’s terms, dreaming may naturally release the most powerful hallucinogen known to humankind.
Here is a quote from Callaway (1988) who explains the process in more technical terms:
The pineal gland is a chemical production factory, either producing melatonin or serotonin depending on the presence of absence of light. In this process, light source information is relayed from the eyes via the optic nerves and results in the activation of synthesizers that either produces melatonin in the absence of light or serotonin in the presence of light, becoming the brains largest producer of serotonin. Also in the absence of light, other process are continued as melatonin is then processed into tryptamine and pinoline. Pinoline is a beta-carbolin called 6-Methoxytetrahydro-beta-carboline and acts as a monoamine oxidase-A inhibitor (MAOI) which in turn allows for the increases concentrations of serotonin (Callaway, 1988).
In other words, the buildup of these two known types of hallucinogens in the form of pinoline and tryptamines could easily explain the visual mentations experienced during specific pineal gland stimulation. Callaway also thinks this could explain schizophrenia.
The Link with DMT, LSD-25, and Other Psychedelics
With the abundance of serotonin, the methyltransferases which covert serotonin into psychedelics, and the amplification ability of beta-carbolines, the pineal gland is one of the most logical places for indigenous DMT synthesis (Strassman, 2001).
Also chemically similar to melatonin is LSD-25, which relates specifically to the activity on the raphe nucleus (a control center for serotonin release) (Hobson, 2002). Few studies into the relationship of the formation of DMT or LSD-25 in the pineal gland have been conducted; however, indigenous DMT has been found in the lungs and brain of humans.
Though DMT, LSD-25, and other psychedelic drugs are similar in structure, the effects of these drugs are sometimes dramatically different. These differences are based on the individual as well as the environment of the individual taking the drug. A few instances have occurred where the same psychedelic trip has been described by different people taking the same drug. The amount of drug administered is also another key factor in how the effects of the drugs will be experienced.
So are We Hallucinating our Dreams?
Or are we dreaming our hallucinations? With the great possibilities that one of the most potent psychedelic compounds known to man is formed in the pineal gland that is most active at night, we can see why it’s so common that individuals dream of radical unexplainable experiences and places. It is all so possible that the secretion of this chemical compound into our brain could induce a lengthy “trip” or what we call dream. The length of the dream would vary (and does) based on the amount of sleep a person obtained allowing for the formulation of this psychedelic compound and allow for a longer psychedelic experience.
Someone might say, “Well, why do psychedelic hallucinations seem to vary from dreams?” As described before, set and setting has a lot to do with the type of experience a person has while on a psychedelic. The setting of most psychedelic trips is during the day time, with friends, while awake and aware. The settings of most dreams are while at night, with another partner if anyone, and unaware or asleep. The amount of the drug would also very as during a self induced external psychedelic experience someone may take a large quantity of the drug, whereas at night while the brain is super sensitive to internal stimuli, the brain could excrete a small amount of the same drug and produce a powerful alteration.
Over all, I think that this field of study is an important aspect in understanding why we sleep and most importantly why we dream. There is still a lot of research to be conducted on this topic, but over the last few years it has grown in popularity and has been provided some scientific credibility that is well deserved.
About the Author:
Lee Adams is a a writer and researcher interested in dreams, psychedelics and good science. He maintains the website LucidConsciousness.com.
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That’s very interesting and would describe why some psychedelic visual images can linger for years (they may be normal functions but now we associate them with a drug).
I understand the connection you describe here but I’m wondering then why dreaming so seldom provides the “one with the cosmos” or the omnipotence of the psychedelic experience.
Besides my “I can fly” dreams earlier in my life, I’ve had no feelings of omnipotence or absolute perfection while dreaming, especially at my age now.
Is it because psychedelics act on the limbic system? And is dissociation in dreams what Freud refers to when he says that we are everyone in our dreams? All the players?
Dissociation with psychedelics is more obvious afterward.
lucid dream girl says
That’s a really interesting article. Now here’s a question for you — do you think that the regular use of psychedelics would increase or lessen the vividness of the “hallucinations” you experience while dreaming?
Lee Adams says
Thanks for your comment and you ask some very good questions.
Large amounts of the psychedelic DMT are produced in the lungs practically at all times in our lives, and especially during heaving breathing, but I am also sure that many of us don’t have the same psychedelic type experienced while smoking DMT or during an Ayahuasca session. A lot of the explanation might be set and setting or even how the compounds are produced in the brain but the ultimate truth is we just don’t know.
From my own personal experience I have had very psychedelic like dreams where I have experienced everything one would experience during a drug induced experience. The only true difference would be that it was natural so my mind didn’t have the fears one has when they take a drug, and I wasn’t as fully lucid as I would be if I took the drug while being awake.
It would be interesting if I could find some more information of people have taken psychedelics and then have gone to sleep right away and how much different their dreams would be. I know of only one individual that done that and he said that his dreams were normal. Again great question.
Ryan Hurd says
I also want to highlight an article by Charles Tart in his classic Altered States of Consciousness titled “the High Dream: A new state of consciousness”, where he defines dreams that approximate psychedelic experience. He reports that they can follow a LSD-25 session or happen spontaneously.
Lee Adams says
I would never suggest using psychedelics in order to dream more often as they are not only illegal but also have little known studies done with them in reference to sleep due to their restricted control. I know that people who have used them have explained that their dreams have changed since they started using in that they are more psychedelic like and have more interesting characters.
Ryan Hurd says
i second that. that would be an interesting hermeneutic study, tho. my guess is that those who use psychedelics are in a subset of the population who value their creative insights, so they probably already have cool dreams. but taking the pill won’t make you chill.
DMT in the lungs. Intriguing. Breathing is connected to the emotional quality of experiences. Might breathing be affected in dream states by the presence of DMT? Could the presence of DMT be caused by the emotional content of the dream, or influence the emotional content?
I consider how breathing techniques themselves are used to affect the emotional experience – meditation, singing/acting, getting pumped. Might DMT be playing a role in altering the conscious state?
Lee Adams says
Karen great point and yes many people have suggested that the large amount of breathing work that people do during spiritual traditions is in support of this. Our brains are also very complicated and its very possible that dreams themselves are due to the brains release of a substance like DMT.
You said that you don’t have the fears someone would get from taking psychedelic drugs because your brain naturally produced the chemicals, but I have had horrific(and very odd)lucid nightmares and have just started experimenting again after a few years off. I am very apprehensive and am sure this is affecting my ability to stay conscious now, do you have any ideas on nightmare prevention as the thought of disembowelment or having my arm chopped off by a samarai warrior is quite a deterrent?
Ryan Hurd says
Liam, check out my post on dealing with lucid nightmares. it’s the last post in a series discussing lucid dreams and nightmares with some practical advice towards the end of the article.
taking a melatonin supplement at night is an excellent meditation aid, very easy to enter into hypnagogic state
however when returning to waking consciousness the condition of the mind is so drowsy that it is hard to rouse oneself to activity
seems that by entering that altered state the melatonin supplement really kicks something into gear intensely
i am doing experiments with it, very hopeful for it too
using melatonin got me off other drugs as i began to see the correlation between melatonin and vivid dream states and trance states
i call it ‘sleepy buddha’ because after taking melatonin at night (in a dim environment, lights seem to put it ‘on hold’ for a while) one feels drowsy but content, detached and dreamy, but as soon as one begins meditation there is a heightened lucidity vividly present and one dissolves into no-mind states easily
fortunately it seems that melatonin can’t be abused as a recreational drug – i.e., anyone taking it looking to trip while they are awake will probably get nothing more than intense drowsiness, but if they fall asleep they will have vivid dreams. i believe the real secret to melatonin lies in the meditative trance states, they are subtle variations on the natural states of dream mind and deep sleep mind already, but meditation ‘activates’ them.
email me for more info if you like
Ryan Hurd says
thanks Elusiivvvva for your melatonin report. I agree with you that it seems like a substance that will never be a “party” drug. There is the possibility of overdose on melatonin, but you have to really overdo it.
Lee Adams says
Elusiivvva its interesting that you say that melatonin is helping you experience the meditative state. I know that melatonin helps support sleep and drowsy states, but if Callaway is correct in his theory of DMT being produced during sleep stages when melatonin levels are highest then DMT is being produced when you are meditating. I think the possibility of DMT being produced at this time could help you get the same effects as other recreational drugs that give you trance effects since most rely on the same base chemicals.
Lee, look into Mantak Chia’s writings on ‘dark retreat’ meditation practices. He goes into the process that occurs in dark retreat and the functioning of the pineal gland, melatonin, dmt, etc.
Dark retreat is basically just to sit in total darkness with open eyes for an extended period of time. Sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, and so on. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is held in very high esteem and there are many legends of the unusual experiences had by yogis in it.
I have experimented with this practice also and can confirm that in response to the total darkness (since even subtle lights seem to exert a powerful influence on the brain in what would otherwise be a totally dark space), the brain is flooded with melatonin, which causes the post-session drowsiness and mental calm etc. I have also witnessed the beginning stages of something which I can only describe tentatively as a “dying” process. I had been engaged in the practice for hours (staring into darkness, emptying the mind) and the body entered such a deeply relaxed state that the breath became very slow and labored, as if driven by a force beyond myself (possessed by some energy), the beginnings of ‘kundalini’ began around my lower back area, and my mind seemed to be disappearing entirely. The vacuity flooding my senses was possessing my being, I was disappearing as a mind totally. At the time, it terrified me and I struggled to stop the process, fearing that I had activated some sort of ‘death program’ in the body and it was shutting down for good!
I have a different perspective on it now of course and am planning on engaging in the practice again, this time taking the melatonin supplements as well to see what happens. It seemed to be the beginning of a true shamanic state, without the use of any drugs, and different from other meditative states of absorption in its intensity and all the physical symptoms.
If DMT is released during sleep or other trance states and that is the reason for very lucid visions and such then I can also confirm without a doubt that dark retreat also activates it fairly quickly (at least in this case). I’ve had several vivid visions, “OOBE’s” and such things in dark retreat due to the lack of any sort of visual stimulation. It is similar to John Lilly’s isolation tank experiences, even following the same stages he writes about, just without the water tank. The same discomfort arises after a while when no external stimulation arises, and the inner mind basically throws open its doors for you to enter in. With my meditation practice, though, I would consider engaging in those dream worlds to be fascinating but besides the point, not quite as deep/transformative as the death like samadhi states.
Also look into Osho’s “my awakening” story on realization.org. It is known that around age 21 he also practiced dark retreat nightly, and his ‘enlightenment’ experience recorded in that story seems like a DMT thing. He mentions that he fell into a deep samadhi-like sleep and when he awoke he felt immersed in blissful energy, the walls were melting – he was tripping, but without taking any drug externally. I believe that this was entirely due to his dark retreat meditations and the melatonin building up in his system (and converting to DMT).
John JugenSchild says
Interesting suppositions on dreaming and the pyschedelic connection…. the bit on DMT being found in lungs was surprising to me. I was given LSD-25 back in the time it was still legal in my country [a long, long time ago]. Found it very strong and quite scary, although some effects were fascinating and indescribable.