When the going gets weird, the weird plug into a psychedelic reality beyond their own mind. They melt into the world around them, connect to it and, often, lose touch with their sense of self.
It’s an experience referred to as “ego-dissolution”, the sensation of being meshed into and interfused with other people, other things and even places. The boundary between you and everything else, dissolves like sugar paper.
Until recently, this phenomenon was recognized by many but yet remained largely immeasurable. How can you quantify someone’s sense of self? How can you illustrate what a drug like LSD does to the ego?
With futuristic functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of people trippin’ nuts, of course.
It was something that had never been done before this experiment: give subjects LSD, stuff them into an fMRI machine and watch how the drug changed their brain function. And what they observed offers some very important insights into what’s going on inside our heads when we start to feel our sense of self evaporating into the psychedelic ether.
Let’s talk about “ego”, though, before all that. Because conceptualizing what exactly this intangible thing inside of us is, is not easy to do. It’s an illusion, and illusions are notoriously difficult to clamp a definition onto – but, generally, the ego is your perception of being a “separate individual”.
It is the flimsy little raft we all float around life on, which isolates us from the ocean of everything beneath and around us. “I am here,” your ego tells you. “Everyone and everything else is over there.” But, it’s lying, that sheisty little figment.
In fact, that raft is nothing more than a mental construction – a paper thin barrier you’ve made up in your head. There is no raft. We are the ocean. All of us. Which, is exactly what LSD will tell you when you’re balls deep in a psychedelic trip. When you glance up at the stars and realize that they are all connected with sacred shapes, and that every single atom in the universe is part of something larger, like drops of water in the sea – a cosmic jigsaw puzzle, we are only pieces within; pieces that wouldn’t matter at all on their own without the rest of the puzzle.
“There is ‘objective reality’ and then there is ‘our reality,’” says Enzo Tagliazucchi of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam in a press release.
Tagliazucchi is the lead author of this study on LSD, published in Current Biology in 2016. “Psychedelic drugs can distort our reality and result in perceptual illusions. But the reality we experience during ordinary wakefulness is also, to a large extent, an illusion.”
Tagliazucchi used sight as an example of this, “We know that the brain fills in visual information when suddenly missing, that veins in front of the retina are filtered out and not perceived, and that the brain stabilizes our visual perception in spite of constant eye movements. So when we take psychedelics we are, it could be said, replacing one illusion by another illusion. This might be difficult to grasp, but our study shows that the sense of self or 'ego' could also be part of this illusion.”
For the study, they tested fifteen individuals, using an fMRI machine to scan and image their brains after giving them doses of LSD. The images they got back were astounding – they showed increased global connectivity in higher-regions of the brain and increased communication between regions of the brain that are normally distinct, and isolated from interacting with one another.
In particular, Tagliazucchi notes, they saw increased connectivity in the fronto-parietal cortex, which results in stronger sharing of information between regions therein. Which would likely strengthen the link between a person’s sense of self and their sense of environment.
Beyond ego dissolution the scientists also observed changes in the part of the brain that has been linked to, “out of body experiences” – which, in a sense, is the penultimate form of ego-dissolution – actually removing yourself, from yourself. This study is important to our understanding of LSD and its effects on the brain for a lot of reasons.
Since its full discovery on “Bicycle Day” in 1943, LSD has remained largely un-researched – thanks to Tricky Dick Nixon and his infamous, endless War on Drugs. This study is the first of its kind to actually monitor brain function and changes of brain function using modern medical techniques and tools. Hopefully, more are soon to come. There is a lot to learn from psychedelics, a lot they can teach us about ourselves and the nature of our reality – the nature of our illusion.