The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says 42 is the answer. But what is the question?

For Dr Chris Timmermann, it is: Can psychedelic compounds help us better understand the human mind?

The past few years have seen increased interest in using psychedelic drugs to treat conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression. But if these drugs are to be effective, says Dr Chris Timmermann (PhD Brain Sciences 2020), we must first answer fundamental questions about how they work.

Timmermann’s DMT Research Group examines the effects of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – a hallucinogenic drug that induces highly vivid, visual worlds in which people feel they are in an alternative universe, dimension or reality. “We found that DMT disrupts the systems and networks in our brains related to the way we interpret the world,” says Timmermann. “By finding out how to deconstruct these networks, we can potentially work out how to build new ones.”

Researchers no longer see the brain as a passive receiver of the external world, he points out. “In fact, our brains construct narratives – for example, our sense of self and identity, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We can think of depression, for example, as harmful narrative that has become crystallised over the years. Psychedelics are capable of radically altering those narratives. So when we learn about these things, we also understand better how we can develop further tools with psychedelics to help people with depression, anxiety or PTSD, or potentially increase wellbeing in already healthy individuals.”

Timmermann will investigate a similar compound, 5-MeO-DMT, found in the venom of Bufo alvarius, the Colorado River toad: the drug is reported to ‘dissolve’ the self. “It can disturb the system so that people just have an experience of being alive and nothing else,” he says. “So it could allow us to understand: what are the minimal requirements in the brain for us to have an experience at all?” 

Dr Chris Timmermann is a Research Associate at the Centre for Psychedelic Research.