Imagine forgetting everything: your name, your dreams and desires, fears and failures, political leanings. Who would you be without these measures of identity—what would remain?
As much as a healthy sense of self-identity as an individual can feel empowering, an overly rigid sense of self can also be crippling, limiting life experiences. Unhealthy thoughts and behavior patterns, addictions, and mental illnesses, such as depression and PTSD, have been linked to overactivity in regions of the brain connected to the ego.
The idea of losing one’s sense of self can, understandably, feel terrifying. But there’s research to suggest that part of the therapeutic promise of psychedelics may lie in their ability to dissolve the ego temporarily, allowing the consumer to experience the world through fresh eyes and get a new perspective on life.
What is the ego?
In Latin, “ego” means “I.” In the simplest terms, our ego comprises what we know, what we have experienced, and who we believe ourselves to be. The word “ego” is often associated with the work of Sigmund Freud, who founded modern psychiatry over a century ago.
“Freud described that the ego is part of the organized personality structure of the individual,” said Dr. Rakesh Jetly, Chief Medical Officer at Mydecine Innovations, a life sciences company that works with mushroom medicine. “The ego is more than our sense of self, but rather, includes functions like control, planning, intellectual functioning, awareness, reality testing, judgment, and the like.”
The ego is strongly involved in processes or reactions focusing on “I,” “me,” or “mine.” “As such, it makes sense that the traditional psychedelics that cause perceptual changes will alter the ego, and one’s sense of self and space,” said Jetly.
What is the concept of ego death, and how does it feel?
Part of the power of psychedelics is their ability to affect the mind and body in ways that few other substances or experiences can. However, the sheer depth of a psychedelic experience often leaves consumers struggling to describe it and coming up short. Terms that are often used, such as “ego death,” can sound obscure to those who haven’t had the experience, so it’s useful to unpack what they really mean.
Ego death, also called ego loss, ego dissolution, or ego disintegration, is a common experience in a psychedelic journey. Ego death can be thought of by imagining the ego as a pool of water enclosed in a container; psychedelics can temporarily dissolve the container, blurring the self—the water inside the container—with what is outside. When the boundaries of the ego are disrupted, consumers describe the experience as a dissolution of self, or sometimes death.
Jetly pointed out that concepts from Eastern religions can be helpful in making sense of ego loss. “Traditional teachings of Buddhism, and to some extent, Hinduism, speak of reality being ‘the illusion of self,’” said Jetly. “When one rids themselves of self, then one dissolves into the universe and finds nirvana.”
Meditation and yoga are practices often used to detach from and diminish the self and enhance well-being. Psychedelics are another tool for achieving ego dissolution and feeling more connected to others and the surrounding world.
Experiences of ego death
For some, the temporary loss of ego can lead to a feeling of expansion and boundlessness. Many feel a sense of unity with others or the wider planet, or experience a profound connection to nature and the cosmos.
On the other hand, ego death can also evoke panic and anxiety. Some even liken the experience to going insane or dying.
The way an individual reacts to the loss of ego depends on their mindset and setting, which influence whether ego dissolution is experienced as positive and embraced, or feared and resisted.