Psilocybin and the End of the Ego

An ego is defined as “the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world.” Related to that term are concepts like self-esteem and self-conceit, thought exercises that the self creates around itself like a comforting blanket and simultaneous defense shield. An egotistical person is said to have an “exaggerated sense of self-importance,” a character trait that works against the currents of the community.

Interestingly, with the rise of social media, a twin monolith of egotism has spawned. [1] A once-convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family has become an addiction to some people [2], often in attempts to perpetually ego-boost from instant and likely validating feedback from “followers” who may have never met live and in-person.

Ultimately, like any drug, obsessively collecting followers and soliciting and monitoring this feedback can affect one’s job performance [3] and one’s mental status, as anxiety [4], depression [4], and suicide-related thoughts [5] have been linked to the web of the consequences of seemingly innocuous daily choices.

Concurrent to all this, humanity is looking towards once shunned botanicals like cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms as two life rafts in a techno-induced maelstrom. How these plants will correlate with current behaviors is for scientific investigation to tell, but our interest in doing so couldn’t be timelier and more relevant.

As an example, a recent study evaluated the effects of psilocybin on ego dissolution, or ego death. [6] This process recounts the psychedelic experience as illuminating the world around us such that we see ourselves as part of the whole, instead of a whole unto ourselves.

There are two pathways of ego death that differ in the mental states they invoke. A negatively experienced ego death, as per the study, involves anxiety ego dissolution (AED), defined as “the dimension encompassing the loss of autonomy and self-control of thought processes, intentionality, decision making, and spontaneous movements.” [6] AED-associated mood changes include paranoia, heightened awareness and attention to one’s surroundings, and acute (not long-term) anxiety.

Positively experienced ego dissolution is thought to arise from the breakdown of one’s self-image via a temporary loss of access to autobiographical details.

These researchers wanted to better sort out the chemical mechanism for why this happens.

It turns out that there’s a serotonin receptor linked to hallucinatory experiences; serotonin is that “feel good” chemical, or neurotransmitter, that plays an important role in mood. Other psychedelics like psilocybin (from “magic mushrooms”), lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and dimethyltryptamine (DMT; often used with ayahuasca) also interact with these receptors.

But serotonin does not work alone to produce these effects. Another neurotransmitter called glutamate also regulates this activity. Glutamate is “excitatory,” meaning that it will cause a series of actions to occur in a neuron or brain cell. These actions at the chemical and cellular level influence important processes in the brain like creating connections that support learning and memory. So researchers sought to better understand how both serotonin and glutamate affect the overall psychedelic experience, with a focus on the ego.

The researchers investigated psilocybin’s acute effects on glutamate levels and the subsequent psychedelic-induced changes in brain function and behavior. They used an advanced technique called multimodal brain imaging to look at the specific regions of the brain that psilocybin “lights up” or activates. They found that participants in the psilocybin group given 0.17 mg/kg (versus the placebo group) had elevated glutamate levels in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region important for decision making, and lower glutamate levels in the hippocampus, a region important for memory.

Interestingly, increased levels of glutamate in the mPFC best correlated with negatively experienced ego dissolution. Lower levels of glutamate in the hippocampus best correlated with positively experienced ego dissolution.

The study showed for the first time in humans that increases in glutamate via serotonin activation in the mPFC generates clearly distinct effects compared to the hippocampus. Increased mPFC glutamate provided the strongest predictor of AED. A secondary contributor to negatively experienced ego dissolution was “oceanic boundlessness,” a concept originating in conversations between Sigmund Freud and a mystic named Romain Rolland describing a sense of eternity and being one with the universe [7].

Interestingly, oceanic boundlessness provided a secondary contributor for positively experienced ego dissolution, too. [6]

Regardless of which path results in drug-induced ego demise, ego dissolution has been found to result in lasting clinical results for conditions like anxiety [8], depression [9], and addiction [10], as well as increases in well-being [11].


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Image Credit: “Psilocybe cubensis” by Carlos De Soto Molinari is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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