#30 Neurophenomenology of DMT and phenomenology of psilocybin in an fMRI

The two papers I recently read were Timmermann et al (2019) and Turton et al (2014). Both are groundbreaking original studies in that each completed firsts within the field of psychedelic research. A short streamed summation of each is in order before I stream from my own mind my interpretation of their findings and how it might apply to my own research, or, we’ll just see where my mind wanders. 

First, Timmermann et al (2019) conducted the first neurophenomenological study on the effects of intravenous (IV) DMT paired with EEG results and gained some useful information for future research into the neural correlates of psychedelic consciousness. I’m not a scientist, so the technical science jargon went over my head, although I got the gist of what they were saying. Note: whenever I read these science-y articles I read the body of the article as a primer before I attentively read the Discussion section of the paper, which is what I’m mostly interested in, that is to say, when you cut out the science and technical jargon, what did you the researchers find. What they found was that nondrug and DMT brain states produce different brain wave oscillations, as one might expect, but what is really interesting and a trend I’m seeing in the academic literature on psychedelic science is that psychedelics tend to induce similar brain waves as occur in sleep. I won’t go into this finding in depth here because I’m more interested in their subjective experience reporting and methods for this stream (yet, I do find the dream-psychedelic connection fascinating and I’ll discuss at a later time). 

I’ll just drop a quote here that nicely describes what they did: “Time-referenced and neurophenomenological analyses revealed close relationships between changes in various aspects of subjective experience and changes in brain activity” (Timmermann et al, 2019, p. 1). They used three types of subjective reporting throughout the study. (1) They asked participants during the DMT experience to rate the experience’s intensity every minute for the duration of the experience. (2) Roughly 30 minutes after subjects’ experiences, they used a visual analogue scale to ask subjects what the experience was like (see page 2 for a list of the results). (3) They conducted micro-phenomenological interviews and distilled participants’ experiences into three main dimensions: visual, bodily, and emotional/metacognitive. What I’m not sure about is whether the visual analogue scale ratings were a separate interview or included in the micro-phenomenological interviews. Then the researchers cross-referenced the time-referenced minute-to-minute ratings with the other subjective reporting. I applaud this labor-intensive methodology because it allows us to compare subjective experiences against the time of experiencing the DMT.  

Second, Turton et al’s (2014) study, which I found out about through Schenberg et al’s (2017) study on the phenomenology of ibogaine, gave subjects IV psilocybin in an fMRI. The purpose this study, the first of its kind, was to test the phenomenological experience of subjects taking psychedelics in a laboratory/testing equipment environment. It adds to psychedelic discourse because it gives future researchers and future study participants insight into how people experience psychedelics in these kinds of settings, which further prepares researchers to look after the needs of participants during altered states of consciousness in clinical settings and how to tailor future experiments perhaps. They used Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (see Jonathan Smith’s work on this) to analyze their visual analogue scale (conducted while participants were tripping in the scanner) and interviews and found nine phenomenological themes and clusters within each theme. We must keep in mind that these findings are not indicative of psilocybin-only experiences, although related; instead, they are related to psilocybin-in-an-fMRI experience. They mentioned at the end of their paper that 15 study participants seemed a bit large for a phenomenological study. I suppose this is because of the vast amounts of interview transcriptions that had to be analyzed and phenomenologically themed and clustered. They recommend smaller groups for subsequent phenomenological studies related to theirs. 

Now that you have an idea of these studies, we can see the different usage of phenomenological methods used. Rather than going through each micro moment of the experience and coaxing qualitative data out of subjects as is done in micro-phenomenological interviewing, one can conduct semi-structured interviews and do an interpretive phenomenological analysis of those transcriptions. Also interesting to note: why did Timmermann et al decide to group the phenomenology of the DMT experience into only three themes, while Turton et al identified nine themes regarding psilocybin-in-an-fMRI, and Schenberg et al (2017) identified seven themes regarding the phenomenology of ibogaine? Surely, there is more to the DMT experience, and many of the other themes found in Turton et al’s and Schenberg et al’s studies can be found in people’s reporting of these experiences. Of course, each psychedelic substance will have different phenomenological characteristics, different themes, and categories, but it’s just something to think about. 

How many ways can we experience a kitchen table? Odd question, noted, but let’s go with it. There are infinite ways, likely no one will be able to report on all of the “what is it like” experiences of a kitchen table. Hence, the varying number of themes, the types of themes, and the types categories of each psychedelic will be different. Additionally, two research teams studying the same substance would probably come up with different themes and categories. The reason for this may be due to: research questions; the academic interests of each research team member; the phenomenological method used; how the qualitative data was asked and gathered; the backgrounds, moods, and personality types of the participants; etc. There are so many variables at play. Is there a solution to finding a standard, predictable, and repeatable set of phenomenological themes and categories across research studies going forward? Yes, I’m glad you asked.  

The solution I propose is to conduct the same exact experiment over and over again, with different researchers and participants, but ideally with the same researchers and participants multiple times. The benefit of different people involved in the experiment is that we can test participants’ experiences with participants from other countries, cultures, ages, etc.; the benefit of using the same team and participants is that we should get stable common denominators of the experience in question, leading to a standard phenomenology of what to expect for that particular cohort ingesting a particular substance. I’m grateful that such (albeit, limited in number) studies are finally allowed to be done because at least academia has something to chew on, something to compare or contrast for future studies. However, I would like to see more repeated experiments in order to distill the phenomenological experience of specific psychedelics. Once we know what a psychedelic does at particular doses, for particular cultural backgrounds and ages, can we then conduct experiments that further push scientific knowledge. We must first know what these substances do to the body and mind before more elaborate and, dare I say, riskier experiments can be conducted. What those riskier experiments are I do not know, but likely they would be risky for researchers today because they do not have the data yet for the currently unknown research questions I speak of; they wouldn’t be as risky in the future because those researchers will likely have more data available to them than researchers do today. 

Schenberg, E. E., de Castro Comis, M. A., Alexandre, J. F. M., Tófoli, L. F., Chaves, B. D. R., & da Silveira, D. X. (2017). A phenomenological analysis of the subjective experience elicited by ibogaine in the context of a drug dependence treatment. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 1(2), 74-83.

Timmermann, C., Roseman, L., Schartner, M., Milliere, R., Williams, L. T., Erritzoe, D., Muthukumaraswamy, S., Ashton, M., Bendrioua, A., Kaur, O., Turton, S., Nour, M. M., Day, C. M., Leech, R., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2019). Neural correlates of the DMT experience assessed with multivariate EEG. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 1-13.

Turton, S., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2014). A Qualitative Report on the Subjective Experience of Intravenous Psilocybin Administered in an fMRI Environment. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 7(2), 117-127. 

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