Currently, most people regard reality as the only real thing. There isn’t anything else. We can experience visions now and then; some of us take drugs that produce temporary hallucinations and nearly all of us often dream when we sleep, but these are fleeting experiences that are not real. They are simply phantasms or fantasies. Only reality is real. This may be a delusion. As I've explained in Reality is Light, reality may not be 'physical' at all, but simply an electromagnetic energy pattern whose nodes have been mistaken for 'physical' particles. Also, if the Influence Idea is correct, our minds do not emerge from the physical world, but observe and influence it from a source outside physical reality.

Even if both the above theories are false, we still have the simple problem that the only way we can conclude that reality is real is by trusting our senses. Most of us, nearly all the time, aren’t worried about this and are happy to take it on faith. That doesn’t stop many of us enjoying the question as part of a science-fiction story. For example, in the film ‘Dark Star’, the crew of a starship desperately try to stop an intelligent bomb exploding itself and killing everyone by persuading it that it can’t be sure it’s orbitting the target planet because it can’t be sure of the information coming from its senses. More recently, in the film ‘The Matrix’, the story’s hero - Neo - develops the feeling that the reality he’s experiencing isn’t really true Reality but a facsimile, an artificial construction.

Sci-fi stories aside, we generally regard physical reality as the only reality, but we’re not actually in this reality all the time. We have to regularly go to sleep and dream. If we don’t (apart from a few, very rare cases), we lapse into a coma and die, which is a very odd physiological problem and makes little sense from an evolutionary perspective. When we sleep, we enter a different brain state. We are no longer conscious and in physical reality. Instead, we are usually dreaming. When we dream, we experience a different world. This realm isn’t the same as physical reality; it seems to be more like a hallucination brought on by a drug. Dreams are also often regarded as without real substance, not important. Most people’s memories of their dreams are hazy and disjointed; their dreams often don’t make much sense to them when they wake up. Because of this and other evidence, academics usually conclude that dreams are little more than random firings in the brain or consolidation activities of specific regions of the brain.

This idea, that dreams are just pointless and fragmentary hallucinations, could possibly be a mistake. For example, people’s haziness about their dream might not be because the dream was actually hazy, but only because their memory of it is hazy, This is an important difference. I’m keen to make this point because I recently experienced a lucid dream. I was asleep and found myself in the rear courtyard of my house; the place was rich in colour, as though everything glowed with its own life. I met my parents - a younger version of my mother and my recently departed father - and a younger version of myself. What was critically important about that dream was that I was aware that I was dreaming. I thought to myself, ‘this is great, I’m in a dream!’ I was enjoying it so much, I made a real effort not to withdraw from it. I talked to the others present in the courtyard there and felt joy at seeing my dad again. After the conversation, I walked backed into the house. I can’t say I decided to do this; it was more that it was inevitable but not enforced. I entered the house, still pleased that I was still experiencing the dream. Unfortunately, at that point a figure appeared and I reacted badly. I ‘reversed’ out of the dream and woke up in bed.

What’s interesting to me about that dream is that, looking back, I can’t say it was any less of an experience than an event I’d had in conscious, waking, physical reality. It had just as much substance and was as clear and meaningful as if I’d visited the courtyard while awake. This led me to a question; if physical reality and a lucid dream are equally substantial to the person experiencing them, should we re-think the relationship between physical reality, dream reality and possibly other realities?
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Our brains

When we’re awake, we experience the physical world. Later on, we’re asleep and we experience a difference world. What has changed? We clearly have very different physical symptoms - being awake and asleep - but what’s actually changed in our brains to make us awake or asleep?

Our brains function through the transmission of electrical signals between their billions of neuron cells. These electrical signals don’t travelling seamlessly from one neuron to another. When they reach the end of one neuron, they have to pass their signal across a synapse, a gap to the next neuron. This is not done with another electrical signal but by the movement of specific chemicals across the gap. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. What’s interesting is that these neurotransmitters aren’t just simple signal transmission molecules. Their structure, concentration, activity duration and type vary and this strongly affects a person’s state of mind. There is an entire class of drugs, such as Ritalin, that are designed to affect the levels of these neurotransmitter chemicals and their activity. By doing this, these drugs can hugely affect a person’s mood, emotions and perceptions.

For example, a while back, I wrote an article describing the effects that diet can have on a person's brain if they are low in an enzyme that breaks down amines. If they are low in this enzyme, known as MAO, the amines in preserved meats (such as histamine and cadaverine) reach their blood systems, giving them itching symptoms. A worse problem is that the amines then reach their brains and interfere with neurotransmitter activity, giving them mood problems. This problem is partly because serotonin and melatonin are amines; more specifically, tryptamines.

The presence of these tryptamine neurotransmitters has a profound effect on our mental state. One key difference between the awake brain and the asleep brain seems to be what neurotransmitters are dominant. Melatonin, a tryptamine neurotransmitter molecule, is strongly connected being sleepy and the onset of sleep. In comparison, Serotonin, another tryptamine neurotransmitter molecule, is associated with wakefulness.

The significance of these tryptamine neurotransmitters may also be much more fundamental than we think. Textbooks usually emphasize electron flow as the primary part of brain function, like signals in a computer, but there is another way of viewing brain activity; not primarily as electrons flowing but as neurotransmitters linked by electromagnetic fields.
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If this is true, then our mental activity is therefore not like a computer or a factory, where an on/off message is sent from one place to another, but as a free-standing cloud of electromagnetic energy tuned or influenced by a set of specific molecules. Our brains can therefore be seen not so much as computers, but a network of tryptamine chemicals ‘wired up’ in an electromagnetic cloud, and thereby supporting our perception. Our brains do have specific areas for specific functions but beneath that, it would be possible to view at least part of our brain as a working, electromagnetic tryptamine network. When we’re awake, our minds primarily rest on a cloud of the tryptamine molecule serotonin; the neurotransmitter dominant in our awake state. When we are asleep, our minds rest on a cloud of the tryptamine molecule melatonin, a neurotransmitter whose levels shoot up in advance of sleep.
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Interestingly, there are other tryptamines that are also naturally produced in our body. For example, di-methyl tryptamine is made by the pineal gland in the brain and is as natural to our body as serotonin and melatonin. It can be found in small amounts throughout our body. It's effectively in every cell. If the levels of DMT are increased in our brain through injection, or via smoking, or through specific, focussed mental techniques, our minds enter a different state. In this state, subjects report spiritual travel experiences, perceptions of other dimensions, encounters with other beings and a new awareness of the universe. For evidence and information on these DMT-induced experiences, I recommend the book by Dr Strassman, ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’. One crucial element of the experiences reported by the subjects in his book was that, as far as they were concerned, they weren’t creating mental hallucinations. Instead, they were perceiving a reality that was independent of them. Often, when these subjects had a later DMT session, they would return to that reality and its inhabitants would greet them as a returning friend. This information indicates that DMT-based experiences are not hallucinations, but simply a reality like our waking reality. The key difference is our waking reality is unlocked with serotonin, a different tryptamine.

If the views of Dr Strassman's subjects are correct, the DMT-created reality should logically be regarded as of comparable status to physical reality. Functionally, the two are the same. As far as the subjects could tell, the reality they perceived was meaningful, important, clear, logical and independent of themselves. If they left it and returned to it later, it showed all the signs that it had continued independently of them.

With these ideas in mind, let's move on to the next section and examine the structure of the tryptamine molecules.

The tryptamine blueprint

When I was reading about tryptamines, I noticed a strange pattern in their structure. To help explain its possible significance, here’s a list of five important tryptamines. I’ve discussed several of them already (serotonin, melatonin and DMT) but I’ve also added two more:
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Serotonin keeps us awake, maintains our positive attitude and gives us an appetite for food. It is the basic tryptamine molecule but with an oxygen atom added.
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Bufotenin is a tryptamine present in the venom of certain toads. It is different chemically from Serotonin as it has two carbon atoms on the nitrogen end. It produces the following reported effects: Physical sensations (pressure, prickling) and simple, colour-based hallucinations.
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5-MEO DMT, also present in toad venom, is Bufotenin but with a carbon atom on the end of the oxygen arm. This tryptamine, when it reaches the brain, causes the following reported effects: physical sensations similar to Bufotenin but also ‘spiritual’ changes, experiences of near-death, ‘soul transportation’ and a transformation of life viewpoint.
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DMT is 5-MEO but without the oxygen arm. This tryptamine, as described in detail in Robert Strassman’s book ‘DMT:The spirit molecule’, causes the following physical effects: ‘spiritual’ changes, experiences of near-death, ‘soul transportation’, transformation of life viewpoint. It does not though produce strong physical sensations, such as the prickling or pressing feelings found with Bufotenin.
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Melatonin is 5-MEO DMT except with an oxygen added to one of the carbons on the nitrogen arm. This isn’t a psychedelic drug (at least officially); it’s what helps us dream.

What seemed important was that the components of these different tryptamine molecules matched their effect on our perceptions. For example, the oxygen arm (on the left of the tryptamine molecules shown) is present in all the tryptamines that keep our awareness of physical sensations (Serotonin, Bufotenin). If a carbon is added to that oxygen arm, the anchor in physical reality isn’t so strong (as with 5-MEO DMT and Melatonin).
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At the other end of the molecule, adding carbon atoms on the nitrogen arm seemed to be the key that opens the doors to an alternative reality. All the tryptamines that enable the subject to ‘hallucinate’ (i.e. all of them apart from Serotonin) have these carbon atoms. If an oxygen atom is added on the end of one of the carbon atoms, it seems to act as an anchor in the alternate realm. In that situation, the subject can lose all awareness of physical reality for a period of time (as in melatonin enabled dreaming).

I’ll hold my hand up and say that this is mostly speculation. I have a sneaking feeling the pattern may fall apart if a larger group of tryptamines are analysed, but it is a fascinating idea regardless and I’m racking my brains for a science fiction short story I could write, using this theory.

If the theory is correct, then I think from a scientific viewpoint we should regard physical reality as one of several possible realities. Physical reality is just channel one on our television set. If we ‘turn the reality dial’ by altering the structure of the dominant tryptamine in our brain, we would perceive another reality, another channel that is just as meaningful, independent and as ‘real’ as physical reality.

What is even more interesting is that, if the theory is correct, we know how the channel tuner works. We could explore these other realities intelligently by creating tryptamines with specific structures suitable to the types of reality experience we’re seeking. If we want to explore other realities but stay aware of physical reality, we’d use a tryptamine equipped with the left oxygen arm. If we want to leave physical reality entirely, we’d use a tryptamine without that left oxygen arm. Expanding and developing this knowledge could enable us to intelligently explore reality space. The possibilities are truly exciting!