Among psychedelics — a subclass of hallucinogenic drugs that can send people on a "trip" of an often utterly bizarre nature — a few have been studied extensively.
A number of studies have looked at what happens to people who take LSD, for instance, or mescaline or psilocybin (found in peyote and mushrooms, respectively). But one psychedelic, N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, produces effects that have baffled scientists for years.
Users Report Seeing 'DMT Entities' or 'Machine Elves'
Though all those drugs produce hallucinations, DMT users tend to report seeing otherworldly beings or "DMT elves," often also called "machine elves."
What's especially interesting — and downright weird — is that unrelated users taking DMT in completely different surroundings all report similar experiences with the DMT entities, and scientists don't know why. Are these DMT elves real, little beings possessing actual bodies, or are DMT elves just trippy hallucinations brought on by smoking high doses of the drug?
What Is DMT?
DMT, sometimes called the "spirit molecule," is a chemical that occurs naturally in some plants and animals.
"It is typically smoked or vaporized, but it can be consumed orally if done so in combination with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI)," explains Dr. Steve Thayer, a clinical psychologist and host of the podcast "Psychedelic Therapy Frontiers," in an email interview. "This combination prevents the gut from breaking down the DMT before it has a chance to be absorbed. When inhaled, the psychedelic experience comes on quickly and typically lasts between 5 and 20 minutes. When ingested, the experience can last for 8 hours or more."
Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and Terence McKenna
DMT is one of the drugs that well-known psychedelic activist Timothy Leary and writer William Burroughs were doing in the 1960s, but it wasn't widely popular until the 1990s.
That's when the late ethnobotanist, author and philosopher Terence McKenna began writing about the substance and the bizarre, otherworldly DMT experiences he had in altered states while smoking it dozens of times.
McKenna was one of the most vocal supporters of psychedelics in the 20th century, having graduated from U.C. Berkeley with degrees in ecology, shamanism and conservation.
McKenna's books, including "Food of the Gods," "True Hallucinations" and "The Invisible Landscape," offered a scientific, academic approach to the study of hallucinogenic drugs alongside personal accounts of McKenna's experiences in the DMT realm.
'Friendly Fractal Entities'
As an undergrad at Berkeley in 1965, Terence McKenna had his first experiences with DMT elves, which he called "machine elves," "clockwork elves" and "self transforming machine elves." He described the first time he saw them during a DMT trip in his 1989 book "True Hallucinations":
During my own experiences smoking synthesized DMT in Berkeley, I had had the impression of bursting into a space inhabited by merry elfin, self-transforming, machine creatures. Dozens of these friendly fractal entities, looking like self-dribbling Faberge eggs on the rebound, had surrounded me and tried to teach me the lost language of true poetry…
In a 1994 lecture, McKenna called DMT "the most powerful hallucinogen known to man and science."
DMT Is a Schedule I Drug in the U.S.
In the United States, DMT has been considered a Schedule I drug since the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1971.
It's "used ceremonially by indigenous cultures, recreationally by psychonauts, and is being studied in clinical trials as a potential treatment for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety," says Thayer.
"One of the most well-known uses of DMT is in the ceremonial Amazonian tea, ayahuasca, which combines a DMT-containing leaf with a MAOI-containing vine. This practice is likely thousands of years old and is used for spiritual, medicinal and cultural purposes," he says.
What Are the Elves Seen During DMT Trips?
Science still has not provided an answer to that question. In a typical DMT experience, a user may experience lots of rapidly fluctuating emotions, Thayer said, including love, fear, joy, anxiety and euphoria. There can be a "dissolving of the sense of self," and, of course, hallucinations involving self-transforming machine elves.
"The hallucinations vary widely, but usually involve geometric patterns, vivid colors and contact with 'entities,'" Thayer says. "People describe these entities as distinct, autonomous beings that typically present with some kind of message."
There's no clear-cut description for what the DMT entities actually look like, but they're called "machine elves" or "clockwork elves" because McKenna described them that way. He called them 'self-transforming elf machines,' which is where the now-famous term 'DMT machine elves' comes from.
By using the term "machine elves," Terence McKenna's tales created terminology that has been widely adopted by those who have tripped in his footsteps and described these visuals in the same way that he did.
"These entities take on many forms," says Thayer, "including animals, insects, angels, demons, family members, jesters, aliens, lights, spirits, fairies and amorphous beings."
It may seem like it would be scary or one might not be emotionally prepared to encounter these entities on a DMT trip, and Thayer says it's not uncommon for human beings to experience fear, but "the most common emotions people experience are joy, love and trust."
What's especially unusual about the DMT machine elves is the fact that lots of people report seeing the same kinds of incidents and visions in which these beings occurred.
"There is no clear scientific explanation for it," says Thayer, but one theory is that this is simply what the conscious mind experiences in the presence of DMT.
Spiritualists posit that DMT opens the mind to new dimensions of reality, granting us access to the beings that exist there. Encounters with DMT entities are very similar to those reported by people who have had near-death and alien abduction experiences.
Research Subjects Report Alternate Realities
In 2021, researchers at the University of Greenwich and Imperial College London performed the first field study of DMT use. They conducted interviews with three dozen non-clinical users who inhaled between 40 and 75 mg of DMT.
"Invariably, profound and highly intense experiences occurred," the researchers wrote. An overwhelming majority reported having seen some kind of entity, whether machine elves or not; 94 percent said they'd encountered "other beings." The users' descriptions of those beings were all similar.
The DMT elves, or machine elves, reported by DMT users are a phenomenon of the human brain that neuroscience research continues to struggle to explain, and one that is as mysterious as the entities themselves.
Now That's Interesting
In South America, indigenous people have used the powerful psychedelic drug ayahuasca as a hallucinogenic tea to alter brain activity for thousands of years. Use of substances like ayahuasca date as far back as 900 B.C.E., as seen in artwork and paraphernalia from the Chavin people of Peru. Whether their DMT experiences conjured machine elves or similar beings is unknown.
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