Psychedelic trips are like salsas: They come in mild, medium and hot. At low doses, colors seem brighter and objects leave trails behind them. In moderate amounts, the backs of your eyelids morph into kaleidoscopes of geometric patterns. And if you take enough, you may encounter an inexplicable phenomenon called ego death, a temporary loss of your entire personality.
But what is ego death? How does it happen? And more importantly, where exactly does your identity go in those weird-ass ethereal moments?
Let’s begin by explaining what the ego actually is: In short, it’s the culmination of self-image, self-esteem and self-identity. It’s how you see yourself, how you value yourself and how you relate to your basic beliefs and ideologies. It’s everything that makes you, well, you.
All these traits begin developing around age five, when your brain’s so-called default mode network separates itself from other areas of the mind. This area helps you develop your social capabilities, your perception of time, your separation from others and your ability to simulate the future by pulling from memories of your past. Because your default mode network helps you categorize and respond to external stimuli based on everything you’ve learned about yourself and life up until then, it’s believed to be critical for helping you navigate the constant flood of incoming sensory data (aka, the whole damn world) without being utterly overwhelmed. Not to mention, it helps you distinguish yourself from everything else around you — that way, you can tell the difference between yourself, a bird and that thorny bush over there.
This is both helpful and unhelpful, sometimes simultaneously, depending on how your ego develops. On the one hand, it can help you move through life methodically without lingering on every potential outcome for every possible situation. On the other, it can result in cognitive bias and simplistic, binary thinking — e.g., pigeonholing everything into good or bad and right or wrong, regardless of the gray areas in between (for example, when someone refuses to believe that a washed-up maniac lost an election, because their overactive ego tells them not to entertain anything outside of their subjective reality). In turn, this can leave you feeling disconnected from the rest of the world.
All those built-up beliefs are temporarily washed away when you experience ego death, which is believed to be caused by psychedelics momentarily disrupting your brain’s default mode network, says researcher and philosopher Chris Letheby, author of Philosophy of Psychedelics (he cites several brain imaging studies that point to these changes in people who’ve taken shrooms). That means your fundamental beliefs about yourself, space, time and almost everything else go out the window, so you’re able to see the world afresh, in a more objective manner, unclouded by your ego.
It’s important to note, however, that ego death isn’t a confined, easily predictable experience — according to Letheby, it’s actually quite complex, and we’re not entirely certain how it works. In the midst of ego death, some may feel as though their arms don’t belong to them. Others may start to believe that their thoughts are coming from someone or somewhere else. And if you’ve taken enough psychedelics, Letheby says, they may momentarily wipe out your whole ego, leaving you to face “consciousness without self-consciousness.” That means you end up in a space where “you” are no longer, which explains why many people report feelings of “dying” during ego death.
For some, this experience can be transformative. As your neural pathways open up to new thoughts, unhindered by your ego, you can dispose of unhelpful cycles, like anxious, depressive tendencies. For instance, one Redditor shares how shrooms gave him the kickstart he needed to kick his depression (veterans also swear by shrooms for treating PTSD):
“I felt connected to the world and nature, and it was pure bliss. When I came down from the trip, those feelings persisted. I now go out with my family more often. I take care of myself. I’ve become generally more aware of myself and a more likable person, and I don’t think I could have done it without psychedelics. My trip changed my life and put into perspective how my actions were hurting me and the people I cared about. I won’t say it completely fixed my depression, but it taught me that life is worth living and gave me the necessary insight to make positive changes in my life that I so desperately needed.”
Though, for others, ego death can be just plain terrifying, and it should be respected — after all, every time you pull your ego apart, you have to put it back together again, ideally with the help of a trip sitter.
All of which is to say, kill your ego at your own risk.