An ego death occurs when the distinction between self-representation and object-representation is blurred. Photo credit: Twenty20photos.
Psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca, and LSD have been associated with producing a phenomenon known as an ego death. While under the influence of these psychoactive substances, users report enduring a compromised sense of “self” or the ego, which many consider a quintessential feature of the psychedelic experience.
What is an ego Death?
Our ego is what we know and who we believe ourselves to be. This exists as a result of the influence of all the external contexts we experience, not actually ourselves. As DoubleBlind magazine reported, this sense of ourselves begins developing at approximately age five. This is when activity in the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) becomes distinct from other networks.
The DMN, a brain network, is important in the development of social functionality; the perception of time; remembering the past and simulating the future; and the separation of “self” and “other,” the Nature journal explained.
When individuals consume psychedelics, experts believe it affects the DMN, and therefore, the ego.
Ego death — aka ego-loss, ego-disintegration or ego-dissolution — occurs when psychedelics disrupt ego-boundaries. This phenomenon can blur the distinction between self-representation and object-representation, as described in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal.
Many believe that the ego relinquishes constraints on our normal consciousness during ego death. This therefore causes a mental shift from a state of self-centeredness to one that is unbiased.
Researchers suggest this phenomenon is the result of dampened activity in the DMN. This temporary quieting can act as a “reset” or “rewiring” of the network. Consequently, this can rewire thought patterns, which the ego otherwise constrains, according to DoubleBlind.
Shelby Hartman, co-founder of DoubleBlind told Emerald that ego dissolution can be “a therapeutic experience that allows us to step outside ourselves and our problems and receive new found perspectives on who we are and our place in the world.”
Therefore, this psychedelic experience may be a tool through which to view our thoughts and actions from an objective perspective. If we recognize egos develop in response to our environments, we can release its control over our thoughts and emotions.
Benefits of ego Dissolution
New scientific research has concluded that ego death experiences can have a powerful and positive effect on mental health.
In a recent study on ego dissolution, researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands observed people before and after they consumed ayahuasca in a ceremonial setting. The researchers discovered that positive emotion, satisfaction with life, and mindfulness abilities had a significant relationship on the level of ego dissolution each person experienced during the ceremony.
Overall, they found that people who encountered a higher level of ego dissolution were more likely to have a positive outlook on their lives after the experience.
In conclusion, the results “highlight the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in the treatment of mental health disorders,” the researchers wrote.
In another pioneering study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin was able to produce mystical-type experiences for participants, such as an ego death. Participants considered their mystical experiences to be deeply meaningful. Additionally, they sustained positive changes in their attitude and behavior.
Hartman noted that researchers found correlation between the profundity of someone’s mystical experience (which can include an ego death) and the extent to which they receive healing from the psychedelic trip. For instance, if one sets an intention to quit smoking prior to a trip and they have a more profound mystical experience, they are more likely to quit after the experience.
The ego Death Experience
The Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal explains that ego death is closely related to blissful mystical experiences. Such experiences are characterized by a feeling of unity with one’s surroundings.
While under the influence of psychedelic substances, individuals can go through numerous experiences that might make them question the fabric of reality. This in turn can cultivate the mystical experience. Sensory changes are abundant, allowing users to experience senses more intensely.
When this happens, the field of view expands, according to Revitalizing Infusion Therapies, a Florida-based treatment center that specializes in ketamine therapy. Sensitivity to light and color increases. Additionally, sounds and music are felt with the body and seen as twirling colorful lights and shapes. Additionally, smells are more intense and deep; touch can cause tingling sensations; and someone may feel like their body is melting into the ground.
Brooke Burgstahler, a cannabis and alternative plant medicine advocate and founder of the health and wellness platform Budding Mind, explained that she primarily experienced ego death with the use of ayahuasca.
She said she immediately felt as though her thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, and sensations were all happening at one time. But, at the same time, she was detached from herself from the onset of these sensory experiences.
“Immediately I was like, ‘I am all of the things, I am all of the sensations. I am not Brooke, there was no Brooke. I am all of these feelings all at once and I couldn’t find myself in it,’” Burgstahler said.
She further explained her ayahuasca experience as introspective. “I left the experience feeling lucky that even though sometimes my thoughts are negative, my thoughts are my thoughts,” she added. “I am learning my lessons throughout this life despite being part of the greater macrocosm.”
Preparing for Ego Death
Mental and physical preparation is key before enduring a psychedelic-induced ego death (or any psychedelic experience).
Burgstahler described that setting intentions beforehand through a prayer, communion, or a matra that connects her to the plant she consumed was important for her to have a profound experience.
She also emphasized that “moving slow, filling your mind and body with good imagery, good music, good words, and good wisdom,” was helpful.
Doing research on the normal effects of a psychedelic drug is necessary, according to Hartman, founder of DoubleBlind. One must know the right dosage to take and how long the trip will last. Additionally the setting that someone is in can impact whether or not an ego death experience occurs.
Therefore, having an environment where one can feel like they can draw inward and focus on the experience, or have a friend or trip sitter — a sober person that ensures the safety of one on psychedelics — is important. For this reason, DoubleBlind offers a course on how to use psychedelics to help prepare for a more optimal experience. For example, the course covers everything from, “how to choose the right psychedelic for you, where to access safe, legal psychedelics, how to integrate the lessons of your trip once it’s over, and more,” the website explained.
Additionally, when one tries to attain ego death on psychedelics, implementing the practice of surrendering can help, Hartman added. This involves breathing and observing during a trip, rather than trying to control what is happening.
Importantly, entering a psychedelic experience with no prior expectations can also be beneficial. It’s possible to still experience healing, regardless of having an ego death or not.
“You might not get what you asked for or wanted, but the psychedelic will give you what you need,” Hartman said.