Most human beings believe that there is an unchanging self riding along within the body. According to psychoanalytic theory, “the feeling of having a personal identity is known as the ego. It’s the boundary-maker and gatekeeper, drawing lines and dividing me from you.”
Some refer to this “self” as the “soul”. Intuitively it seems to be true that there is an unchanging self experiencing reality, because our subjective experience supports such a claim and just about every religion on earth have cemented it into our collective consciousness.
The idea of a self also colors the psychedelic experience in a significant way. The hallucinations proffered by the mind, the distortion of time and the profound sense of empathy may cause you to believe that you were transported to a another world and communicated with an ancient spirit with wisdom beyond this realm.
But I refer to the idea of an “unchanging self” as a hypotheses, because that’s what it is — it’s just an idea. It can only mature to a theory and be regarded as fact once empirical studies have validated it. Until then it only appears to be true, but it might be completely wrong. E.g. the geocentric idea that the Earth is at the center of the universe held sway into the early modern age (1500s). For millennia we humans allowed our intuitive experience of what we see when we look at the sun and the moon to deceive us to believing that we are at the center of the solar system and consequently at the center of the universe.
After Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo presented the superseding theory of Heliocentrism in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun, it took the Catholic church 350 years to acknowledge that they were wrong for persecuting Galileo for providing evidence of this new theory.
What made it so difficult for the Catholic church to let go of its beliefs? Surely they did not believe that their intuitive observations were more valid than multiple scientific measurements?
200 years after Galileo, the church was presented with another mind-shattering theory, the theory of evolution through natural selection. I will grant them their skepticism when the theory was first presented, but today, even when numerous lines of evidence have validated this theory as a common fact, large percentages of believers still hold on to the idea of a divine creator.
Each time science knocks us off our biological perch, we respond by persecuting those who challenge our beliefs and build walls to prevent them from contaminating our minds and our children. No, our resistance is not due to confidence in our subjective, intuitive observations, thinking that we can refute multiple scientific observations with a mere thought, but due to the fact that our identity is locked up with our beliefs. If we are to accept the new theory, we have to lose our identity. We have to die to the idea of who, and what we are.
We have to let go of the story we told ourselves.
Galileo showed that humans are not at the center of the solar system. Herschel and Bessel went on to show that the humans are not even at the center of the universe. Darwin showed that we share a common ancestor with apes and the canon of evolutionary science and cosmology showed that the universe cares less about us than we do about ants.
But wait! Bill Nye and Amy Schumer present evidence that the universe is “essentially a force sending cosmic guidance to white women in their twenties”…
This brings us to the final frontier.
The illusion of the self.
Scientific evidence is mounting that suggests that the self, or the ego, is a mere projection in the brain. Virtually every fMRI scan ever conducted shows that when we are focused on task or are “lost” in our work, a specific network of registers in the brain go “offline.” This network is called the Default Mode Network (or Default Mode or DMN), which is a network of processes that “correlates positively with things like self-representation and other forms of cognition and memory that plausibly anchor our sense of self.”
In plain language, this means that when you are lost in your work, you undermine your sense of self, and may even lose your sense of self completely while your DMN is offline. When your colleagues interrupt you, calling you out to lunch and you step away from your desk, your Default Mode Network kicks in again and you take stock of your life, recall the stories and narratives you tell yourself about who you are and how you live your life.
What about psychedelics?
fMRI scans of people on psychedelics show remarkably similar results: While the compound is active the Default Mode Network goes offline. and consequently allows you to look at the world in a fundamentally selfless way.
According to psychoanalytic theory, “the feeling of having a personal identity is known as the ego. It’s the boundary-maker and gatekeeper, drawing lines and dividing me from you.”
This means, that if the ego is an illusion, “we don’t have to take [psychedelics] to get rid of it. It actually doesn’t exist.”
Does it make sense now why psychedelic researchers speak of the “dissolution of self” or an “ego death”?
Will I be conscious?
Consciousness is independent of the ‘self’ or the ego. I.e. it is independent of the Default Mode Network. The fact that the DMN goes offline doesn’t mean that consciousness goes offline.
Consciousness represents your awareness of your environment as experienced through your senses, as well as your awareness of a “self.”
It is likely that in the beginning of your journey you may be overwhelmed by resplendent hallucinations made possible by free-running information along unrestricted neural pathways. But before long you will become conscious of your environment albeit through a different lens where boundaries are dissolved, time is distorted and the ego is offline.
Many people testify that during their psychedelic journey they travel outside of their bodies. But I believe a more plausible explanation is the fact that boundaries are dissolved as a result of an essentially “offline” DMN. You now perceive your environment not as something separate from you, but uniformly part of you. Think about it, you are cluster of atoms, the air outside of you is a cluster of atoms and the table in front of you is a cluster of atoms. It’s all essentially the same substance all the way through, just different anatomic arrangements.
Back to the real world.
Having sampled a way of life where the ego is not the protagonist of your narratives and you are unencumbered by regrets from the past or concerns for the future, you will carry with you a vivid memory of what it’s like to be fully present.
When I returned home the sight I saw in the mirror was one of the most beautiful I have ever beheld. I was able to behold the reflection of the human being in the mirror without any narratives of what he lacks or what he needs to achieve. I just saw a biological miracle of a human being staring back at me with bright eyes and an affectionate smile.
Meeting up with other human beings was equally blissful. I could readily access the ability to lockout the mind-wandering Default Mode and fully engage with the person in front of me, unencumbered by what they might think of me, the self.
About three weeks after the experience though, my ego was back on full patrol. But the memory of my experience remains easily accessible and it allowed me to cultivate it, especially in my daily meditation practice which improved significantly.
I want to encourage you with the knowledge that the narratives about who you are, is just that, a story you told yourself over and over. The story that society told you over and over. You do not have to be a slave to the specter of the ego. Seek out more constructive narratives. Arm yourself with skepticism and humbleness. “Treat your beliefs as hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.”
Use the tool of mindfulness to recognize and tame the mind-wandering Default Mode, and in so doing, you can learn to be more present by yourself, and with others.
Thank you for lending me your time and attention.
In-depth interview on psychedelics between neuroscientist Sam Harris and renowned journalist, Michael Pollan.
Still skeptical about safety? Find references to numerous clinical trials here.
Discover the value of mindfulness practice to tame the Default Mode through the lens of a medical doctor.