Why People Forget Their DMT Experiences and How They Can Be Remembered

DMT experiences

Many people who use DMT report that it is the most earth-shattering, revelatory and mystical experience they could ever imagine taking place (or never imagine such an experience was possible in the first place). But perhaps the most frustrating part of the DMT experience is the amnesia – being unable to remember clearly what felt to be the most profound revelations. DMT enthusiast Terence McKenna noted the amnesiac property of the drug. He claimed that: “the way a dream melts away is the way a DMT trip melts away – at the same speed.” He also said:

There is a self-erasing mechanism in it. I have the feeling that you find out something there that is so contra-intuitive that you literally cannot think of it sitting here. So as you go from there to here, there comes a moment where it slips below the surface of rational apprehensibility.

So it appears that the DMT experience is easily forgotten, according to McKenna, because it is so far removed from waking consensus reality. McKenna also called the experience “un-Englishable”. Coming out of the experience, frankly astounded, people will desperately try to capture and bring back the revelations that flood one’s consciousness, but soon dissipate into the ungraspable.

Indeed, the uniquely ineffable nature of the experience could help to explain why it’s so hard to consolidate into memory.

The Ineffable Nature of the DMT Experience

Ineffability refers to something that is far too great to be described in words or is beyond words. The experience is inexpressible. It could also be that the experience is so alien that we lack a conceptual frame of reference to compartmentalise its content, which would explain why the experience is so difficult to describe. The psychologist William James, in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), posited that mystical experiences have four distinguishing characteristics:

  • Passivity – the feeling of being held and grasped by something much more powerful than you and which you have no control over.
  • Ineffability – there is no adequate way to use human language to describe the experience.
  • Noetic – universal truths are revealed in the experience that cannot be revealed anywhere else.
  • Transient – the experience is temporary.

The psychiatrist Walter Pahnke also attempted to delineate mystical experiences. Pahnke is most famous for his involvement in the Marsh Chapel Experiment. As a graduate student in theology at Harvard University, he designed this study under the supervision of Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project (a series of experiments involving psychedelics, conducted by Leary and Richard Alpert – or Ram Dass as he is now known). Graduate divinity students were given psilocybin in order to determine if the drug could induce profound mystical experiences. Nine out of 10 students reported such experiences. The students were religiously predisposed and the experiment took place in a religious setting, which bolsters the point of context playing a significant role in the nature of non-ordinary states. One of the participants, now Reverend Randall Laako, said on a BBC programme that the experience changed his life.

The science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon wrote a novel called Star Maker (1937) which tells the story of a single human narrator who is inexplicably transported out of his body. This nameless narrator then explores other planets and civilisations, stars and galaxies, eventually coming into contact with the creator of the universe – the ‘Star Maker’. It is described as the “supreme moment of the cosmos” with the narrator being “confronted with the source and goal of all finite things.” While the narrator is conveying the experience, they concede that words cannot do it justice: “Barren, barren and trivial are these words. But not barren the experience.”

In his paper titled Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness (1963), Pahnke describes nine elements of the mystical experience. The 7th is ‘Alleged Ineffability’ and he speculates that:

Perhaps the reason is an embarrassment with language because of the paradoxical nature of the essential phenomena.

Paradoxicality is the 6th element:

Accurate descriptions and even rational interpretations of the mystical experience tend to be logically contradictory when strictly analyzed. For example, in the experience of internal unity there is a loss of all empirical content in an empty unity which is at the same time full and complete. This loss includes the loss of the sense of self and the dissolution of individuality; yet something of the individual entity remains to experience the unity. The “I ” both exists and does not exist. Another example is the separateness from, and at the same time unity with, objects in the experience of external unity (essentially a paradoxical transcendence of space).

The paradoxical nature of the mystical experience means that you can simultaneously be nothing and everything. And this becomes impossible to truly comprehend when coming out of the experience. During the DMT experience, many people report witnessing ‘objects’ transforming in impossible ways, seemingly breaking the laws of physics and causality. It can appear that things are taking place outside the constraints of space and time.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that space and time are a priori intuitions, which simply means that they exist in our minds rather than out there in the world. But more accurately, a priori intuitions are the immediate ways we relate to objects that are independent of experience – they come before experience. In contrast, a posteriori knowledge comes after experience.

Space and time structure our experiences, but they don’t exist as substance or entities in themselves – and they aren’t learned by experience – according to Kant. If you take the view that space and time and constructed by our minds – at least to some extent – then perhaps when our minds are perturbed in a particular way, this ‘scaffolding’ by which we organise the world starts to dismantle. So we then have the feeling or conviction that events are taking place outside of space and time, in a different dimension or that the ‘rules’ of reality we have become so accustomed to no longer apply. As our conceptual framework or scaffolding gets put back into place, we are now viewing reality through that scaffolding, which makes it impossible to comprehend what anything looks like without it. And this could partly explain why the experience is so hard to hold onto and remember.

Remembering the DMT Experience

We may, however, still be able to retrieve memories of the DMT experience. You might just need to use DMT again. Here’s why.

State-dependent memory means that the individual’s state of mind affects the encoding of the memory, such that, to retrieve the memory efficiently requires the individual to be in that (or a similar) state of mind. Some people report that when they use DMT again, it’s as if they can remember everything that happened during the previous experience. So this could suggest that, although there is the feeling of forgetting the experience, it can still be retrieved. You just have to be under the influence of DMT again. It could explain why, when going into hyperspace again, there’s this feeling of Ah yes, how could I forget! Memory retrieval could also take place simply when one’s state of consciousness is altered. For example, it could be possible to retrieve memories of the DMT experience when under the influence of another psychedelic or psychoactive compound, or perhaps during meditation.

Context-dependent memory refers to the ability to recall specific episodes of information when the context present at memory formation and retrieval are the same. So, if you were listening to a song during the experience, and then listen to it again, this external cue can help you to recall the experience. Context-dependent memory refers to the external conditions at the time of encoding, while state-dependent memory refers to internal conditions. In the latter, the individual’s psychological state is the context. But both could factor into how the DMT experience is recalled. Retrieval cues can also be internal and can be used to remember an experience without being in the same state of mind as you were when it took place. For example, perhaps you had a particular thought or feeling during the DMT experience. Using this as a cue, it could help you to recall other thoughts or feelings, or perhaps tactile, visual or auditory phenomena. Another internal cue could simply be a concept that became more meaningful to you since the experience – such as love – so that the concept reminds you of the experience.

Lessons From Lucid Dreaming

In the practice of lucid dreaming, certain techniques are used to facilitate the remembering of dreams, and in turn, aid the experience of becoming aware that one is dreaming. Psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge describes these techniques in his classic Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990). And they could prove to be useful in remembering the DMT experience. LaBerge says that an “important prerequisite to recalling dreams is motivation”. So it can be enough to go to bed, or into the DMT experience, with the intention that you will remember the experience. Furthermore, telling yourself that you will have interesting or meaningful dreams could help with recall.

LaBerge offers some other tips for dream recall. For example, he says that you should get into the habit of asking yourself this question when you wake from your dream: “What was I dreaming?” He emphasises that if you don’t do this, you’ll forget some or all of your dream, due to other thoughts taking precedence. Relating this to the DMT experience, when you sober up, all you want to do is express amazement and bewilderment. This is natural. But perhaps it’s worth asking yourself: “What was I experiencing?” In this way, you will come up with an answer that forces you to take note of what just happened. LaBerge also advises against moving from the position you’re when you wake up, as any body movement will make the dream harder to recall. And if you can’t remember any of the dream (or the DMT experience), it’s recommended to keep trying for several minutes, without moving or thinking of anything else. LaBerge points out that by doing so, usually “pieces and fragments of the dream will come to you.”

He urges readers to cling to “any clues of what you might have been experiencing, and try to rebuild a story from them.” Likewise, with the DMT experience, try to hold onto those first impressions you have when coming down – it could be visual (I saw this entity and it looked like X), auditory (There was this kind of music and it sounded like X) or based on thoughts (At this point I was thinking X) or feelings (I felt this overwhelming sense of X). LaBerge says that when “you recall a scene, ask yourself what happened before that, and before that, reliving the dream in reverse.” With dreams, events might not have a clear, coherent succession (i.e. this happened which led to this happening). Dreams often don’t follow our usual, waking experience of causality. This is also the case with DMT. But perhaps even more so, so that trying to discern what happened before an event might not even make sense if causality and time ceased to exist. However, still try, since as LaBerge notes, you can gain “a detailed replay of an entire dream simply by focusing your attention on a fragment of memory.”

While memories of the DMT experience seem to dissipate like a dream, this doesn’t mean that sobering up (or waking up) is your only window of opportunity to record what happened. LaBerge writes:

Even if you don’t remember anything in bed, events or scenes of the day may remind you of something you dreamed the night before. Be ready to notice this when it happens, and record whatever you remember.

Fragments the DMT experience can also emerge later on, even after the felt forgetting of everything. But it’s important to be ready to record these snippets when they occur, to ensure they don’t get lost. Central to remembering dreams, and perhaps DMT experiences as well, is recording what happened. This is why LaBerge recommends keeping a dream journal, and why keeping a DMT journal may also be necessary for improved recall of the experience. He says to record your dreams as soon as you wake up, and you should do the same after DMT, since like a dream, the memory of the experience runs through your hands like liquid gold. And you have to be quick to catch a glimpse of the substance and note what it’s like. But don’t worry about how much you write down, it’s just important that something is recorded. “You can either write out the entire dream upon awakening from it or take down brief notes to expand later.”

Taking notes isn’t the only way to record a DMT experience. You could record yourself speaking when you come out of the experience, or tell a friend if they are with you. You can also try and draw some aspect of the experience, perhaps along with some notes, to add some more clarity to what happened. LaBerge underscores that we “seem to have built-in dream erasers in our minds which make dream experiences more difficult to recall than waking ones.” It also appears that we have innate DMT erasers in our minds, so recording what happened is like a race against the speed of the self-erasing mechanism, trying to grab at the ineffable before it retreats into the secret, ungraspable realm.

LaBerge also suggests adding a title to the journal entry. Something short and catchy that captures the subject or mood of the dream, such as ‘Finding Treasure in the Forest’. So do this as well with DMT. On drug-related online forums, such as DMT-Nexus, many trip reports have such titles. They really can help to capture something essential, unique and substantial about the experience. ‘Showered With Love by the Dancing Goddess’, ‘Tickled by the Cheeky Jester’, ‘Flying Through the Alien Circus’ are examples of some good, descriptive titles.

Some More Tips on Remembering

If you want to remember as much of your DMT experience as possible, there are some other factors to take into consideration. For example, be wary about the use of alcohol after the experience and benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium and Xanax) both before and after. Numerous studies demonstrate that ‘benzos’ produce anterograde amnesia, which is a loss of memory of events occurring after the benzo is taken. Short-term memory is not impaired, but long-term memory is. So if you take a benzo prior to a DMT experience, then you may remember the experience as you come out of it, but not the following day. Of course, this doesn’t mean that taking a benzo before DMT will cause a complete loss of retrieval of the experience in the long-term, but it does increase the likelihood of details being lost that could otherwise be retained. This is because benzos are known as ‘acquisition-impairing’ molecules, in that they mainly affect the acquisition of information, as opposed to its consolidation (stabilisation after acquisition) and retrieval. Thus, taking a benzo before learning a list of words makes it more difficult to recall that list later on.

Memory can be defined in many ways: duration (short-term and long-term); content (explicit memory, which requires conscious thought, such as recalling the name of someone, and implicit memory, which is acquired and used unconsciously); and stages (acquisition, consolidation and retrieval). The kind of memory which is affected – and to what extent – can vary depending on the benzo in question. For instance, studies [pdf] have underscored that the degree to which implicit memory is affected by benzos depends on the specific compound and its duration.

It is less clear whether benzos cause retrograde amnesia, which refers to the inability to recount experiences that occurred before the event producing the amnesia (i.e. taking the benzo). Less research has been done on the link between benzos and retrograde amnesia compared to anterograde amnesia. However, a mini-review [pdf] did look at the main studies in order to shed light on this connection. Most authors concur that benzos do not produce retrograde amnesia. On the other hand, there are some studies that suggest the opposite. As a case in point, one study demonstrated that the administration of Valium led participants to forget previously acquired spatial information. And based on a few studies, trouble with remembering events before administration is more likely to occur in subjects receiving a dose that has an effective emotional impact (i.e. anxiolytic or anxiety-reducing effects) at the time of recall, as well as – possibly – the difficulty of the task in question (or perhaps, in relation to DMT, the unfathomable nature of the experience).

The consumption of alcohol or benzos after a DMT experience – which is difficult enough to remember as it is – can also muddy one’s memory of the experience through their effects on sleep. A review of all known research on the impact of alcohol on sleep underscores that drinking moderately or heavily (but not lightly) reduces the total amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is when the brain is more active during sleep and it’s where most dreaming occurs. Some findings show that REM sleep benefits the consolidation of emotional information. So, drinking moderately or heavily and sleeping following a deeply profound DMT experience may make it harder to encode and store the emotional aspects of that experience. However, drinking any amount of alcohol (except a lethal dose, of course) does not decrease slow-wave sleep (often referred to as ‘deep sleep’ and consisting of non-rapid eye movement or NREM), which is critical for episodic memory consolidation. In fact, alcohol increases deep sleep, so drinking may not actually affect the storage of the event and its sequential nature, although some of the emotional charge to the event may be lost.

Benzos have different effects on sleep compared to alcohol since many different types (although not all benzos) are known to reduce stages 3-4 of sleep (deep sleep). These stages of sleep are the most restorative and, as already noted, are crucial to the processing, packaging and storage of episodic memories. The consolidation of perceptual memory also takes place during these restorative stages of sleep. Perceptual memories are memories of visual, auditory and other sensory information, including the memory of people’s faces and voices, the appearance of buildings; so forth and so on. So taking a benzo before sleep, following a DMT experience, may impair one’s memory of details, such as what hyperspace and the entities look like.

Moreover, if you want to retain as much of the experience as possible, then ensuring a proper, restful is crucial. As a case in point, a study conducted by the Universities of Groningen and Pennsylvania demonstrated that sleep deprivation leads to a loss of connectivity between neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain which is critical for some types of memory, including episodic memories. Authors found that this loss of connectivity – seen in mice who were deprived of five hours of sleep – is associated with the adverse effects on memory consolidation. Other research shows that taking a nap also helps to solidify memories. When a memory is ‘recorded’ in the hippocampus, it’s fragile and can be easily forgotten. But it appears that napping directs memories to the neocortex, where memories in the brain are stored permanently.

The amnesia following the DMT experience can be frustrating, but there are certainly ways to retain many of the important details. And, if not, the experience can teach you the valuable lesson of being able to appreciate a unique and precious moment, in that moment only, and then let it go – never to be experienced or known again.

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