Could a psychedelic ego death bring you back to life?
Tripping on mushrooms can make you feel at one with everything. Could that help heal mental illness?
While Kia Turner was tripping on shrooms in early September, she experienced something profound. Until then, she’d felt self-conscious about her appearance. Her eyes, which she’d considered too large, now looked beautiful as she gazed at them in the mirror in her dad's living room. “Why am I having insecurities about my eyes?” she wondered. “They’re my eyes.” She no longer saw the point of wanting to look like anyone but herself.
For the first time, she saw her true self — and came to terms with her mortality. “This is who I am. This is how I was born. This is my skin, my fingers, my hands,” says Turner, a 24-year-old in New Jersey who works in patient services and freelances for media outlets. “At some point, this shuts down, but that doesn’t mean that I’m no longer me. I am a spirit. This is a shell, but my spirit is in this shell.” The experience left Turner feeling a sense of unity with everything, which she attributes to what’s known as “ego death.”
Although described in many different ways, generally speaking, ego death is a phenomenon that can occur while tripping, in which the distinction between you and everything else temporarily dissolves, explains Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine. He suspects that constructs in psychedelics research such as “sense of unity” and “oceanic boundlessness” point to a similar, if not the same, thing. Whatever you call it, it’s a powerful part of the mystical experience psychedelics can trigger and could be important to psychological healing.
Psychedelics like magic mushrooms, LSD, and ayahuasca have generated buzz in the past several years for their potential to treat a host of mental health conditions. The mystical experience more often seen at higher doses — which can include, but isn’t limited to, ego death, as well as a sense of transcending time and space, revealed truth, and/or ineffability — may be largely responsible. There’s evidence from Johnson’s research group and others that it’s correlated with reduced depression and anxiety in cancer patients, lowered depression severity in people with treatment-resistant depression, increased likelihood of quitting smoking, and increased openness to experience.
That said, Johnson believes the field of psychedelics research needs to do more work on teasing apart the aspects of the mystical experience that are involved in these benefits. “It could be that the sense of unity is kind of more important than some of the other aspects of the mystical experience,” he says. “I would guess that’s true, but we don’t know for sure yet.”
Although not yet borne out in controlled studies, ego death seems to be the most profound aspect of the mystical experience based on Johnson’s clinical observations, and therefore where its therapeutic promise lies. While a sense of timelessness — say, a few hours feeling like a split second — is interesting, it still pales in comparison to the realization that you’re one with everything.
“It seems to be the core construct that you’re a separate entity, and the rest of the world is not you,” Johnson says. “When that kind of goes, it seems to be getting closer to working at the foundations of the psyche.”
He sees many psychiatric problems as “casualt[ies] to the sense of self.” People who live with depression, for instance, are often mired in self-persecutory thoughts. They might see themselves as screw-ups or become preoccupied with whether people like them. “That’s a problem with the sense of self,” Johnson says.
A damaged sense of self could also lie at the root of addiction, he adds, in which people might see the self as a failure that just can't seem to quit. Meanwhile, those with anxiety disorders might deem the self ill equipped to handle certain situations. In generalized anxiety disorder, there’s a fear that harm to the self could lurk around every corner. “It’s all about that interface between me and the rest of the world,” Johnson says.
He notes that ego death could help explain the therapeutic effects he and his colleagues saw in cancer patients treated with psilocybin. The fear of dying is all about the sense of self — in this case, what happens to it after the body stops functioning.
A damaged sense of self could also lie at the root of addiction.
The ego death Turner experienced while taking shrooms helped her weeks after her trip to make sense of, and accept, the loss of a friend she who she believes died of suicide. She extended the understanding of her body as a shell that housed her spirit to her friend. “Sometimes being in that shell for that spirit can be too overwhelming,” she tells me.
Indeed, Johnson says that he’s observed psychedelics leave something of an afterglow, as they did with Turner — lingering, albeit less intense, effects, although it’s unclear how long they last. In general, people who experience it feel reset and have a greater sense of agency.
Because ego death can allow people to “reset” their sense of self in this way, it makes intuitive sense to Johnson that it could be a central facet of the mystical experience thought to underlie the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. Ego death can help you realize you’re more than how you normally define yourself, that you can see your problems from a different perspective, and that you have control over your sense of self, he says — and that’s powerful.
Again, though, it's important to stress that this is based on Johnson's clinical observations. Scientists have yet to conduct controlled studies that show direct evidence of the mental health benefits of ego death from psychedelic use.
While the science on ego death is still relatively nascent, Johnson says some experts have traced it to a collection of brain regions known as the default mode network. These areas work in sync with each other when you’re not actively thinking about anything — when you’re showering or daydreaming, for example. According to some studies, they fall out of sync when under the influence of psychedelics. But Johnson says there’s also evidence that alcohol and amphetamines have the same effect, suggesting this decoupling may just be a signature of not feeling like yourself, which tends to happen with drugs in general.
Although your odds of a mystical experience — and the ego death that can come up with it — increases with higher doses of psychedelics, Johnson says it can totally happen without psychedelics, or any drugs at all. He tells me you can experience it through fasting, prayer, meditation, near-death experiences, or simply out of the blue.
But while a mystical experience in these contexts is usually a once or twice in a lifetime thing, with psychedelics, “you can schedule something for next Thursday,” he says. “In our data, with the right context, there’s about a two thirds chance you’ll have this type of experience.”
Chasing ego death through psychedelics isn’t without risk, though. Psychedelics can lead to something akin to a mid-life crisis, Johnson points out, or just a bad trip that could cause you to do something harmful out of panic. Crucially, they can destabilize you if you’re vulnerable to psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia.
If you do want to experience ego death while tripping, you ideally want to be in a safe environment where you can process any material that surfaces, Johnson says. You can do this with a trained psychedelic therapist, if you have the means. Alternately, the Ancestor Project hosts online integration circles for BIPOC, while Fireside Project’s Psychedelic Peer Support Line offers confidential support for people during and after a trip, as I previously reported for Mic, both of which are free.
As for Turner, she's still awash in the afterglow of her trip. Now, she can see all the ways in which her ego held her back — emotionally, mentally, and even physically. “I finally feel like I’m living in my spirit, and not in a shell,” she tells me.