Brain Scans Reveal the Origin of Ego Death

Since its inception psychedelics challenged the core models of mental health and psychiatry. How could minute amounts of LSD be the solution to such a variety of illnesses? In the 1960s/70s therapists used psychedelic compounds to treat patients with depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety. Even more puzzling and equally wondrous was how a bunch of little brown mushrooms manifest deeply meaningful and spiritually significant experiences. In the quest to harness the full potential of psychedelics, scientists explored “applied mysticism” to explain the logic behind patients’ experiences of the beginning of the universe, visions of God, and unity with nature. 

“Freedom from the limitations of your personal self,” “experience of unity with ultimate reality,” and “being in a realm with no space boundaries,” are a few statements measured in clinical trials with psilocybin. While scientists arrive at their conclusions based on visible, measurable outcomes. A psychedelic experience is a rather abstract concept to measure. There are a number of variables that influence the outcome of a psychedelic experience. If a therapist says you might encounter scenes of horror, chances are, your psychedelic experience could be traumatic. On the other hand if a therapist says you’ll encounter beautiful sights in nature, chances are you’ll have a pleasant experience. Anything you’ve heard or read about psychedelics prior to your first experience influences your expectations and sways the outcome. Even the environment in which you imbibe. So while it is difficult to control all the variables there are a few observable outcomes. That is, activity in the brain during an experience.

A series of brain scans taken before and after psilocybin show that it quiets the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain that houses your sense of self. It is the primary orchestrator responsible for self-reflection, theory-of-mind, and mental-time travel. To put it simply, the DMN contains your ego. Patterns of thought develop around your ego, built over time with past and present experiences. With your ego defenses lowered, other parts of your brain that usually wouldn’t interact, form new connections. We begin to recontextualize our past and present experiences, assigning significant meaning (or sacredness) to them. Or in other words, we transcend space and time.

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This discovery also reveals that a variety of mental health conditions have an underlying cause in common, the ego. Anxiety, depression, addiction, are all mental illnesses that stem from rigid patterns of thought in that are difficult to break. Now while current methods, like antidepressants, treat symptoms of mental illness, psychedelics present the ability to treat illness at its root cause.

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