Scientists Discover How Ego Death Works

“…complete transcendence − beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thoughts. There is only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom.” (Timothy Leary)

For those experienced psychonauts, ‘ego death’ is a common aspiration. Ego death refers to when your ego (or “sense of self”) dissolves completely during a psychedelic trip. We’ve explored the concept of ego death’s previously, from its parallels with enlightenment, to its role in early Freudian psychoanalysis, to its Hippie rebirth during the 60’s. 

Although the term ‘ego death’ smacks of deep spirituality, we still don’t really know much about its physical mechanism. What really goes on in the brain as it expands consciousness? 

Scientists Discover How Ego Death Works

A new study using LSD may have cracked the code as to how the brain works during ego death. Apparently, LSD can split your brain (in a good way) by allowing it to think beyond its physical limits. Sounds mind-bending… 

A Profoundly Altered State

Mr. Andrea Luppi, the study’s first author and a researcher at Cambridge Neuroscience, explains:

“The psychedelic compound LSD induces a profoundly altered state of consciousness. 

“Combining pharmaceutical [methods] with non-invasive brain imaging techniques such as functional MRI (fMRI) can provide insight into normal and abnormal brain function.”

(To clarify, “abnormal brain function” here means anything that strays outside of your brain’s default state. Like tripping to the point of an out-of-body experience.)

In the study, 20 healthy volunteers were split in two groups. The first 10 volunteers took a placebo (aka the “fake one”) before going inside an fMRI brain scanner. The second half of the group took the same scan — only this time with an active dose of LSD.

“From introspection, we know that the subjective stream of consciousness is a constant ebb and flow – so we explored the dynamic effects of LSD on human brain function, focusing on two key properties: integration and segregation of information in the brain.”

Disobey Your Usual Program

Now, before we really dig into the study’s more science-y results, let’s first imagine the brain as a carriage horse. The one with the leather “blinkers” on, which effectively covers the horse’s view from the side.

Think of those blinkers as the limits of how brain cells are positioned inside your brain. The brain works in a very specific pattern, called integration & segregation. 

After you take in separate streams of info via sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, you begin to form a complete thought (integration). At the same time, the brain separates these signals so they don’t get mixed up with the wrong “channels” (segregation)

But taking LSD — and dissolving your ego as a result — allows the brain to take off those blinkers. In a way, LSD allows you to disobey your usual programming. You think of colours as sounds, and vice versa. Maybe even meet a spirit guide from an alien dimension. Brain functions are no longer simple; they’ve gone deliciously complex. You’re one with the universe. 

Ego death on LSD cranks up brain segregation, splitting your usual thought process. Separate streams of info (i.e. sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) are no longer forced to “combine” into a unified whole. 

As the study puts it: 

“…the state of altered consciousness induced by LSD corresponds to an additional, abnormal increase in functional complexity of the brain…”

Not Just LSD

After comparing the brain scans, the researchers saw that LSD can quite literally free your mind by switching the “usual patterns”. Says Luppi:

“The well-known feeling of ‘ego dissolution’ induced by LSD correlates with reorganisation of brain networks during a state of high global integration.”

However, LSD is not the only drug that can trigger ego death. The same thing happens with psilocybin, the active ingredient in shrooms! Natural psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms and magic truffles, can dissolve the ego just as well…

When taken to the point of ‘ego death’, psilocybin also changes our brain’s rules of function. Luckily, brain imaging tech is on the rise. ‘Ego death’ can now be tracked as it happens, via shifting patterns in brain scans. It’s no longer a mere metaphor, my dude! 

Beyond the Dictates of Anatomy

The study links ‘ego death’ to the brain cranking up its segregation. This splits up the brain’s thought process, usually bound by rules and patterns. As the authors explained:

“Due to the effects of LSD, the brain is free to explore a variety of functional connectivity patterns that go beyond those dictated by anatomy – presumably resulting in the unusual beliefs and experiences reported during the psychedelic state.”

There’s a theory called “Dynamic Functional Connectivity”. It claims that the brain — in all its gooey goodness — can show physical changes in nerve connections to match our actual thoughts. It may seem impossible at first. Has the new study on LSD & ego death proven this bonkers theory for sure?

Where the Mind Meets the Brain

Major research on psychedelics has truly come far. Especially when it comes to potential therapeutic benefits for a host of conditions such as resistant depression and PTSD. There’s a lot we don’t yet understand about human physiology…and how psychedelics such as LSD, magic mushrooms & magic truffles can bend the rules of reality, if only for a moment. 

“These results reveal a more nuanced, temporally-specific picture of altered brain connectivity and complexity under psychedelics than has previously been reported.”

Indeed, a fog of mystery still lurks between consciousness and brain structure—where the mind meets the brain. Will psychedelics reveal the secrets of the human soul next? 

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