What is Ego Death? How it Affects a Psychedelic Experience
If you’re part of the psychedelic community, you’ve probably heard of the term ego death. Ego death has been interpreted from a psychoanalytic perspective as “a disruption of ego boundaries, which results in a blurring of the distinction between self-representation and object-representation, and precludes the synthesis of self-representations into a coherent whole” (Federn, 1952; Savage, 1955; Fischman, 1983). However, many people prefer the term ego dissolution as it sounds less intimidating.
The experience of ego death is often the goal of taking a full macrodose of psychedelics. This is where the breakdown of barriers occurs and where the healing experience can begin.
Before we dive into the topic of ego death, let’s first describe what the ego is and how it influences our cognitive functioning.
When you think about the term ego, your initial thoughts might automatically be drawn to the term egotistical. The description of a person who is self-absorbed and self-centred. While this is not the behaviour we are addressing, it gives us some insight into what the ego is.
The ego is the part of our consciousness where our sense of self is developed. It’s made up of several different factors: the view you hold of yourself (your self-image), the value that’s placed on yourself (your self-esteem), and the beliefs, ideologies, and affiliations you have (your self-identity).
While the ego begins to develop in early childhood, it isn’t static. Our ego is evolving and changing as we do.
Why is our ego important? When we think about ego, we often see it as a bad thing, but that isn’t the case. Our ego acts as a gatekeeper for our thoughts and how we relate to and interact with the world. Having a gatekeeper is necessary because we are bombarded with so much information daily our brains can’t process it all. It can also help protect our self-image from damage.
However, problems can arise with the ego. These problems tend to occur when the ego is built on false beliefs. Or when the ego is overly negative (or even excessively positive). For example, disregarding compliments or praise due to a negative self-view or ignoring constructive feedback as a result of an unrealistic positive view of ourselves.
Ego death is the breakdown of the barriers between the self and what isn’t the self. This can look like a shift from a traditionally self-centred view of the world (which is normal, particularly in Western cultures) to an unbiased view of the world.
Research is still uncovering the mechanisms behind this experience. Many researchers believe this experience results, at least in part, in a dampening of the default mode network in the brain – an interconnected group of brain structures that form a network.
A 2020 study found an even more specific area of the brain called the claustrum was less active while influenced by psilocybin. The claustrum is a thin sheet of neurons deep within the cortex, yet it reaches out to every other brain region. Francis Crick, one of the 20th century’s great scientific minds, believed the claustrum is responsible for awareness and our sense of self. More research is necessary to understand this experience fully.
Those in the psychedelic community who experience a ‘mystical experience‘ associated with psychedelics attribute it to ego death.
One of the reasons some people choose to microdose is because they’re afraid of experiencing ego death. Despite this initial fear, several benefits come with this experience.
The openness people experience associated with ego death is often described as oneness or connectedness with the world, rather than focusing on oneself. For some people this feels like zooming out on their life which allows their brains to make different connections and can enable them to see their problems differently. It can also foster positive relationships with nature and other people.
“You realize that you are extremely insignificant, and perhaps that sounds defeating. However, it can be very freeing to realize that you are just one human who exists for a tiny blip of time in the grand scheme of the universe.” — Dr. Matthew Brown
Ego death is also thought to be one of the reasons many people experience long-term benefits from psychedelics.
Know that when research is conducted on psychedelics, the participants are monitored by a mental health professional. In Canada, support for the use of psychedelics for therapeutic means is increasing which means that the number of people able to legally support patients with psilocybin-assisted therapy is slowly increasing.
If you plan to consume a psychedelic dose, it’s essential to prepare for the experience, particularly if you’re nervous about ego death. Although it’s okay to be anxious about an experience, it’s important to listen to yourself and how you’re feeling. There is also the option to take a smaller ‘medium dose’ (between a microdose and full psychedelic or macro dose) to familiarize yourself with the experience before taking a full psychedelic dose that may lead to the experience of ego death.
- Don’t use alone
Have a person you trust there to support you. Consider having a person present who isn’t partaking or someone who is experienced with psychedelics.
- Consider your set and setting
Think about the physical and emotional space you are in. While you may be nervous, you should go into the experience with a positive mindset and intentions. Make the physical space you are in safe and comfortable.
3. Don’t force it
Ego death might not happen the first time you try a macrodose of shrooms. How long the shrooms take to kick in will depend on your dosage, your body, mindset, setting and the way you consume the magic mushrooms.
4. Enjoy it
Don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It may be weird at first, and there may be some ups and downs, but allow yourself to give in to the experience and go with the flow of it.
Generally, people experience a gradual comedown with some afterglow effects following a psychedelic experience. It’s recommended to put aside an entire day for this experience. Since ego death can open us up to new experiences, it can also result in emotions we were unaware of or unprepared to deal with. For this reason, some people pair their psychedelic experiences with therapy or another personal integration process such as journaling.
Integration is the process that people undergo to bring this openness and change into their daily lives following the experience.
While ego death can be jarring and bring up some emotions you’re unprepared for, this can be an incredibly valuable part of the psychedelic experience. That being said, if you’re not ready for this experience yet, or it’s not part of your goals, that’s okay. There are still numerous benefits to microdosing.
To understand ego death, straight from the horse’s mouth, we’ve compiled 50 celebrity quotes on psychedelic experiences.