Recent neuroscientific findings have lent new credence to a fundamental Freudian psychoanalytic concept and to the therapeutic use of psychedelics in dealing with it
By Natasha Young / 05.09.2016
Only recently has “ego death” escaped the shopworn tropes of an appropriated Eastern spirituality. The ego’s association with LSD dates to 1964 (if not before) with publication of The Psychedelic Experience, the indispensable acid-trip guidebook penned by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert). With the recent renaissance in vetted studies on psychedelics, which has come after a decades-long dark age of Schedule 1 classification, “ego death” has gained new meaning altogether.
Having only ever taken psilocybin mushrooms once, I set about attempting to understand ego death by consulting Hamilton Morris, psychedelics expert and resident pharmacopoeia correspondent for Vice. He described ego death as “a very complex and strange thing that involves, at least, loss of consciousness, like washing away into a black ocean of unconsciousness, then coming back and not really knowing where you were or what happened. You could just as easily call it being reborn, but you don’t need to call it anything. There is no word to describe it — who knows what it is? It’s a pharmacological fact and no language will ever describe what it is accurately. It’s a neurochemical change.”
In the moments leading up to the dissociative experience, a user approaching ego death is hit with waves of regret and anxiety. “It’s not like pleasantly drifting into a Zen ego-death realm,” said Morris. “It’s a very painful feeling. You lose control, go into this place where you’ve lost control. Then you come back, and you come out of it feeling better on some level.”
As a name for such a deeply transformative psychological experience, “ego death” is contentious. “The ego is just a construct,” Morris continued. “It’s not real in the same way the occipital lobe is real.” Yet he went on to say that whatever it is that dies leaves empirical traces of its passing, and they can be observed and measured.
One 2014 study did exactly that. Lead investigator Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist at the Imperial College’s Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology in London, injected healthy volunteers with psilocybin — the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms — as they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and other recordings of brain activity. Carhart-Harris hypothesized that the default mode network1 — a group of brain regions that interact when an individual is focused on internal thought, or when the brain is at wakeful rest — may be the Freudian ego’s neuroanatomical analogue. He discovered that what may be said to be disintegration of the ego is necessary to access primary — that is, primitive — states of consciousness, of which the psychedelic state is considered exemplary.2
Much to Carhart-Harris and colleagues’ surprise, psilocybin and LSD decreased activity in particular regions of the brain: important hub structures that receive a lot of blood flow and consume a lot of energy. These regions orchestrate and regulate global function, acting to constrain the rest of the organ. Subsequent neuroimaging studies carried out by Carhart-Harris and colleagues have sought to measure ego death — or “ego-dissolution,” as they call it — for the purpose of determining its authenticity. This they did by asking subjects to report drug experiences, which they then analyzed. They discovered that a psychedelic experience, one had on LSD particularly, can clear the way to profound self-reflection. What’s more, a subsequent study showed that the combined brain dynamics and subjective experience of ego-dissolution on LSD can bring about enduring changes in personality.
On February 24, 2016, while preparing for another massive trip of a more familiar kind (a direct flight from Los Angeles to London) an email with an attachment titled “Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI)”3 arrived in my inbox. It was marked top secret. The inventory therein belonged to a program for soliciting data from some 700 participants of Carhart-Harris’s study with the goal of confirming the specificity of ego dissolution occasioned by psychedelics versus the ego inflation brought on by other drugs (cocaine, alcohol). From the completed inventories Dr. Carhart-Harris created a scale for guiding neuroimaging of the brain of a subject as she experiences drug-induced ego death. The first neuroimaging study of the brain on LSD was released shortly thereafter, and the findings contained in it appear to support Dr. Carhart-Harris’s earlier hypothesis that the default-mode network of the brain is a neuroanatomical analogue of the ego.
Can a picture of the brain on a high dose of LSD really tell us what ego death is? Though we now know what parts of the brain respond to the substance, we’ve still yet to account for the subjective experience. A slew of new studies has demonstrated that psychedelics can be amazingly effective for chronic sufferers of anxiety and even severe PTSD. Carhart-Harris has told me one of his next studies will focus specifically on LSD and its ego-dissolving effects on individuals suffering from depression.
I believe my ego dissolved last winter. I first dropped acid with friends in California’s Joshua Tree National Park on the night of a full lunar eclipse. I dropped again six months later — a double dose. My first trip was what I think was your typical psychedelic experience: pleasant, exciting, gut-wrenching, yet consciousness-expanding. During my second trip, however, I went to a profoundly dark place. So apart from my body did I feel that I could hardly control my hands. Really I could do nothing except sit on the floor, benumbed and crying over my regrets. Fortunately, my friends stepped in and brought me back to myself.
We went for a steep uphill walk to catch a moonlit view of our corner of Los Angeles. It was then that I gained a profoundly clear yet not-at-all fear-inducing perception of my own mortality. I felt more concerned for the welfare and longevity of everybody else I knew. Life itself seemed endearing. Later waves of my trip seemed to elevate me from the fear and doubt with which I’d been struggling to a new stage of self-revelation. By morning, I was of the mind that a new me had hatched from the shell of the old. The level of dissociation and ineffable disembodied clarity gripping me buoyed my consciousness as if it were a floating, feeling eyeball. My mind’s state was so unlike the mad, whirling self-fascination of other psychoactive experiences I’d had. I understood why some compare ego death to a near-death experience. But I looked at it as more of a “hard reset,” my brain rebooted like a computer, all viruses and virtual clutter wiped clean, the same old hardware ready to run like new.
Ego death is like being let in on a joke after a lifetime of obliviousness. At first, you feel relief. Then you realize that it’s a joke nobody’s the butt of, so there’s nothing to be relieved about. Everything just is. You realize how little control over life you or anybody else has, and all your overblown notions of self-actualization seem laughable.
Acid is caustic to any egocentrism. It dissolves every layer of your identity until you have nothing left to be but the monad of conscious awareness that is the self. Regrettable patterns of behavior that had plagued me for years resolved into view with astounding, terrifying clarity. What I had internalized as faults to be hated were revealed simply to be games, which I could choose to play or not. I realized I could turn away from a mirror whenever bad thoughts arrive. I gained a healthy aversion to my smartphone. The inescapable immersion of the psychedelic experience also removed my urge to record it in writing: every moment I spent wondering how to capture it was time lost inhabiting it. The trip was the thing, not any souvenirs I might take back with me.
The trip had changed me. Admittedly, I’m not entirely free of old habits; ingrained mental patterns are stubborn. The change lies, rather, in the fact that that I’m more self-aware and therefore better able to check myself when those old habits kick in. Ego death is as much a learning experience as it is a psychedelic one, and I came away from it with new, unforeseen ways of coping.
We go to a great deal of trouble to live without fear. But to experience ego death is to confront your worst fears in a brief period of time. With its ability to clear a safe space for getting over yourself, an acid trip “substantially reduces fear of death, and probably reduces fear in general,” Morris said, “which I imagine is the case for many frightening things. I imagine skydiving has a similar effect, or bungee jumping — anything so conducive to extreme anxiety that you feel bolder for having survived it.” Indeed, only by dropping acid and confronting my fears and self-destructive patterns head-on could I have written this piece.
Because we now know that the ego has a physical analogue in our brains and therefore dropping acid truly neither kills nor dissolves it, a better term than “ego death” is needed. Though researchers have preferred to call it ego-dissolution, to my mind it resembles the “little death” (la petite mort) of orgasm, as mentioned in countless classic works of Western literature. From sexual climax follows a transcendent lightness, and with it a release from a condition of mind in which thinking about yourself precludes existence.
Escaping from that condition of mind in order to look at yourself as if from the perspective of another person can be a scary prospect — one which is made scarier still if it comes not during repose after sex but while peaking on psychedelics. It’s no wonder, then, that some people are completely opposed to the idea. In order to ascend and transcend through LSD, you must trust that an unpredictable series of neurochemical reactions will benefit you. And though it may bring you to a truly transcendent state, what matters in any therapeutic sense is your interpretation of that state, and how you decide to incorporate it into your everyday thoughts and behaviors.
1Dr. Buckner, Randy L. et al. “The Brain’s Default Network Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2008 March (1124): 1-38.
2Carhart-Harris, Robin et al. “The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014 (8): 20.
3Nour et al. “Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI).” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (in press).