Imagine that you’ve just taken several grams of psilocybin mushrooms, perhaps in a nice tea, and settled in for a night of self-exploration. You lay back, close your eyes, put on your favorite psychedelic playlist, and strap in for the evening’s ride. The next thing you know, you’ve begun transitioning out of, and away from, your body. You lose your connection to yourself, your name, your identity, and you see the world for what feels like the first time. Maybe you even feel as if you’re observing reality from some higher plane of existence.
You’ve just experienced a phenomenon known as “ego death.”(1)
But what does ego death mean? What are the processes involved, and what, if any, benefits are there to experiencing the temporary death of your sense of self?
What is Ego?
Ego, originally coined by Sigmund Freud, is one of the three components of the self. According to Freudian psychology, this includes:
- The “ego” – your sense of who you are.
- The “Id” – your more primitive drives like instinct, fight or flight, and sexuality.
- The “superego” – your sense of morality.(2)
“Emotion and embodied selfhood are grounded in active inference of those signals most likely to be ‘me’ across interoceptive and exteroceptive domains. In humans, self-related predictive coding simultaneously engages multiple levels of self-representation, including physiological homeostasis, physical bodily integrity, morphology and position, and—more speculatively—the metacognitive and narrative ‘I.’”Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution.(3)
All of these aspects combine to form your psyche. When you experience ego death, this is what is being dissolved.(2, 3)
What is the Mechanism Behind Ego Death?
The resurgence of psychedelic medicine and research has brought some interesting new topics back into our larger cultural discourse. Ego death (or ego dissolution) is the one of the most discussed and interesting psychological phenomena associated with psychedelic medicine. But what exactly is going on?
Unfortunately, there is no one proven hypothesis. It is theorized that ego death occurs partially due to unusual activity in the hippocampus. This can happen with medical conditions, such as autobiographical amnesia. Here, we’re looking at ego death associated with the use of psychedelics such as psilocybin (aka magic mushrooms), DMT, LSD, or Ketamine. In these cases, there seems to be a temporary disconnect between areas of the brain including the hippocampus.(4)
The hippocampus is part of our brain that has an important role in how we handle and recall memories, specifically facts and events. It is also aids in our understanding of space and spatial relationships.(5)
Some theories as to why psychedelics cause ego dissolution revolve primarily around the alteration of how certain regions of the brain interact. One study involving LSD looked at brain scans of individuals who were given intravenous LSD compared to those given a placebo. The brain scans showed that the individuals given LSD had increased interconnectivity in all regions of the brain. This correlates with participants subjective reports of ego dissolution.(3)
Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Figure 3.
Another possible mechanism responsible for the ego-death phenomena could be a disconnection or decoupling of the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when you’re not focused on the outside world or an active task. It’s most often associated with self-reflection, daydreaming, and thinking about the past or future.
One of the primary components of the DMN is the medical prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region that’s involved in things like decision making and social interaction. Another critical part is the medial temporal lobe (MTL), particularly the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory.
Me, myself, bye: regional alterations in glutamate and the experience of ego dissolution with psilocybin. Fig. 3.
One theory regarding ego death is that under normal conditions these areas of the brain communicate with each other to create a cohesive sense of self. But when you consume or are given a psychedelic (in this case psilocybin), this communication is disrupted. That disruption may lead to the mPFc and MTL not working together as they normally do. Thus causing a disruption in your sense of self, which could lead to ego death or dissolution.(4)
What Does Ego Death Feel Like?
“Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the world, before you is the ocean, to your left and right are other vast and unknowable seas.”
The sensation of ego death can best be described as the feeling of losing all sense of yourself. Anecdotally, individuals who frequently use high doses of psychedelics liken it to letting go of everything that makes you, you. You temporarily release your name, where you’re from, and even what you are. In return many people have reported feeling as if they’ve transcended individuality and have become one with the greater universe. Researchers describe this as a state of “oceanic boundlessness,” a term originally coined by Sigmund Freud. One of the best ways to understand how the concept feels is to picture it.
Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the world, before you is the ocean, to your left and right are other vast and unknowable seas. As you look about you begin to realize that you are not a single individual any longer, instead you are those seas. You’ve shed the things that make up your identity and have instead become one with something greater. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the ocean, it could be the universe, the earth, or even the human species. Afterall, everyone experiences ego death differently.
What is the Medical Value of Ego Dissolution?
Some of the most recent research into the medical promise of ego dissolution comes from studies exploring psilocybin. Researchers have found that some patients can benefit significantly from some of the mystical experiences brought on by the consumption of psilocybin, of which ego dissolution was one of the most beneficial.(5, 6)
Another article published in the website Psyche argues that one of the primary benefits of ego dissolution is its ability to change ego rigidity. It would appear that positive ego death experiences may allow people to think of things in less fixed perspectives. In essence, the dissolution of your sense of self may help you look at things in novel ways. This may also help individuals dealing with mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety, to address their conditions and underlying causes in new and helpful ways.(7, 8)
There also appears to be a link between ego death and an increased ability to deal with day-to-today stressors in a healthier way.(9)
Ego Death and Reducing Self-obsession and Obsessive Behavior
While there are very few studies that make a direct connection between ego death, and the reduction of social anxiety, self obsession or obsessive behavior, we can hypothesize some things. It would not be unreasonable to think that the dissolution of one’s sense of self could help you break free from anxious and obsessive patterns of thought and behavior.(7, 8, 9)
For example, we do know that ego dissolution can lead to a loss of self-identification and self-centered thinking. This, in part, is one of the sensations we associate with boundlessness. So it would not be out of the realm of possibility to imagine that the temporary loss of the “self” paired with a deeper sense of oneness could help you to disconnect from some of the things that may contribute to overly self-conscious or socially anxious behavior.(7, 8, 9)
“Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word “water” is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism.“―Alan Watts
This could be due to the fact that these conditions often stem from an excessive focus on oneself, one’s environment, or fears about how others perceive you. It may be possible that, through temporarily discarding your identity and connection to day-to-day stressors, you are then able to be less concerned with how others perceive you and your actions.(7, 8, 9)
However, this is all supposition, and there are few high quality studies available to support this idea. This serves to emphasize why we need more research that explores the phenomena of ego death, and the ways it may benefit the individual. That said, it is an interesting and wondrous part of the psychedelic journey. As more studies and clinical trials get off the ground, we will likely see significant evidence supporting the medical, personal and even spiritual value of ego death.(4)
- Ego death. Definition, Psychedelics, Religion, Psychoanalysis, & Facts. Britannica. (n.d.). Www.britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/science/ego-death
- Lunbeck, E., Musser, A., & McGowan, T. (2019, September 21). Sigmund Freud’s The Ego and the Id. JSTOR Daily. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/virtual-roundtable-on-the-ego-and-the-id /
- Tagliazucchi, E., Roseman, L., Kaelen, M., Orban, C., Muthukumaraswamy, Suresh D., Murphy, K., Laufs, H., Leech, R., McGonigle, J., Crossley, N., Bullmore, E., Williams, T., Bolstridge, M., Feilding, A., Nutt, David J., & Carhart-Harris, R. (2016). Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Current Biology, 26(8), 1043–1050. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.010
- Mason, N. L., Kuypers, K. P. C., Müller, F., Reckweg, J., Tse, D. H. Y., Toennes, S. W., Hutten, N. R. P. W., Jansen, J. F. A., Stiers, P., Feilding, A., & Ramaekers, J. G. (2020). Me, myself, bye: regional alterations in glutamate and the experience of ego dissolution with psilocybin. Neuropsychopharmacology, 45(12), 2003–2011. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-0718-8
- Nour, M. M., Evans, L., Nutt, D., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2016). Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10(269). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00269
- Dhikav, V., & Anand, K. S. (2012). Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 15(4), 239. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-2327.104323
- Rosenbaum, D., Boyle, A. B., Rosenblum, A. M., Ziai, S., & Chasen, M. R. (2019). Psychedelics for psychological and existential distress in palliative and cancer care. Current Oncology, 26(4). https://doi.org/10.3747/co.26.5009
- Mason, N., Demertiza, A., Ramaekers J, G. (2023) If you want psychedelic healing, your ego may need to die | Psyche Ideas. (n.d.). Psyche. Retrieved May 9, 2023, from https://psyche.co/ideas/if-you-want-psychedelic-healing-your-ego-may-need-to-die
- De Gregorio D, Aguilar-Valles A, Preller KH, Heifets BD, Hibicke M, Mitchell J, Gobbi G. Hallucinogens in Mental Health: Preclinical and Clinical Studies on LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, and Ketamine. J Neurosci. 2021 Feb 3;41(5):891-900. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1659-20.2020. Epub 2020 Nov 30. PMID: 33257322; PMCID: PMC7880300. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7880300/
- Stoliker, D., Egan, G. F., & Razi, A. (2022). Reduced Precision Underwrites Ego Dissolution and Therapeutic Outcomes Under Psychedelics. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 16. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2022.827400