Some people may think the world revolves around them, but you don’t have to be a diva to have an ego. Scientifically speaking, the term basically refers to a “sense of self”: the ability to experience one's presence in the world as a “bounded individual,” unique and separate from all other things. However, to what extent is this all just a construct of the human mind, and how do we know that we really have a self?
People who take psychedelic drugs like LSD, for instance, often report a sense of “ego death,” whereby their ability to see themselves as individuals disappears and they experience a feeling of oneness with the universe. As part of a new study into how LSD affects the brain, a team of researchers from Imperial College London has identified some of the processes underlying this phenomenon, and in doing so may have narrowed down the neurobiological basis of the ego.
Study co-author Enzo Tagliazucchi told ILFScience that the team sought to observe the overall neurological effects of LSD, with a particular focus on visual hallucinations. However, they were “surprised to find that the most salient feature of the LSD state wasn't associated with visual distortion, but with ego-dissolution.”
To achieve this, they used three separate neuroimaging techniques to study the brain activity of 20 volunteers after taking LSD, publishing their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They subsequently asked participants to describe their subjective experiences in order to try and pair these effects with neurological processes.
Results indicated that the most prominent characteristic of the LSD experience was ego-dissolution, whereby “you essentially lose the ability to recognise yourself as a separate individual being; you have a loss of self-identity.” This, it turns out, is strongly correlated with a reduction in connectivity between certain brain regions within the so-called default mode network (DMN).
According to Tagliazucchi, “the DMN is the brain's 'introspection network'. It becomes activated when you reflect upon yourself.” It is made up of a number of different brain regions that regulate the various aspects of one's overall sense of self, such as autobiographical memory.
Functional connectivity in the brain is considerably more integrated under the effects of LSD than a placebo. Imperial/Beckley Foundation
In particular, results showed a marked drop-off in connectivity between the parahippocampus and retrosplenial cortex, two components of the DMN that normally maintain strong communication with one another. The study authors therefore propose that the connection between these two brain regions “may be important for the maintenance of one’s sense of self or ego.”
They also note that, while LSD “reduce[s] the stability and integrity of well-established brain networks,” it simultaneously boosts the connectivity between many other regions that are usually separate from one another.
Tagliazucchi says this leads to “a mix-up of information between the DMN and other networks of the brain that are related to consciousness of the external world.” This, in turn, causes “consciousness to become transferred to the external universe, [leading to] a feeling of being part of something larger and more transcendental [than one's self].”
Clearly this is pretty deep stuff, and the researchers believe that tapping into ego-dissolution using psychedelic substances could have huge psychotherapeutic potential. For instance, previous studies have shown that psilocybin – the psychoactive component of magic mushrooms – can alleviate anxiety in people with terminal illnesses, by enabling them to shed their egos and experience themselves as part of a universal whole rather than bounded individuals.
Supported by the Beckley Foundation using funds secured through crowdfunding platform Walacea, this latest study is part of a new wave of psychedelic research that is asking – and answering – some pretty fundamental questions about the way we experience reality.