Psychedelics are definitely having a moment. As a new wave of research around the substances continues to be funded globally, many have deemed recent years to be the “psychedelics renaissance.” The once largely underground network of guides and Ayahuasca ceremonies has bled into the surface, permeating the consciousness of mainstream America and beyond. More than ever before, psychedelics are being used in professional contexts rather than just for recreational purposes. Tech professionals in Silicon Valley have been microdosing with psychedelic gurus to improve their work performance, MDMA has been used in therapeutic trials for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of mind-altering substances have gradually taken hold of the zeitgeist.
The 1960s were the last time psychedelics flourished in the Western world. This is why people tend to relate the substances with popular movements from the time, particularly those that took place in the US. Given their connection in many of our minds to hippies and the feeling of openness that comes as a result of these drugs, a majority of people view psychedelics in relation to wide-scale, complex issues. Social anthropologist David Dupius has previously affirmed this claim, stating that “surveys of the general population suggest that experiences with psychedelic drugs might change people’s political views and their attitudes towards nature.”
Some see psychedelics as potential antidotes to problems such as war, political disagreements and climate change as they inspire humans to embrace perspectives that are bigger than themselves. Few researchers have even advocated for the use of Ayahuasca—a powerful traditional substance naturally found in South America—to remedy the Palestine-Israel conflict. Psychedelics have also been lauded as a be-all and end-all solution for a plethora of individual and worldwide issues, especially as they continue to be addressed in the mainstream, such as on Netflix documentaries or even nationwide talk shows.
While psychedelics do have properties that encourage the dissolution of the self or the ‘I’, researchers have found that taking these substances may not have the world-salvation effect that many imagine them to harbour. For instance, Dupuis wrote that “psychedelics might just reflect or amplify the dominant values of the individuals that use them” rather than inspire them to seek out alternative perspectives. Much like the filter bubbles we all experience when interacting with social spaces online, Brian Pace, a plant pathologist at Ohio State University, observed that psychedelic research has demonstrated “an amplification of what’s laying around—which in this case would be sort of neoliberal individualist narratives.”
Pace’s statement can perhaps be best illustrated by the adoption of psychedelics and microdosing throughout Silicon Valley. The term became popularised by the subreddit dedicated to the topic over recent years, on which people document their experiences with the practice. Those involved in the tech world have praised the effects of taking small amounts of psychedelics, stating that it increases their productivity and creativity. Diane, the founder of a startup based in San Francisco, for instance, discussed with The Financial Times how regularly microdosing LSD has helped her succeed professionally. She noted that, when networking, the small dosage she takes “enhances connections and heightens empathy”—allowing her to form better connections.
Though microdosing psychedelics can be beneficial and enlightening for some, it’s important to recognise that the substances are often being taken in fast-paced corporate environments, rather than their traditional, often non-Western, settings. Diane explained this, saying that LSD “amplifies whatever is happening in your brain… We [tech professionals in Silicon Valley] are all productivity-obsessed, so that’s our usage of it.”
With this in mind, Pace further observed that, rather than prompting solutions to increase global interconnectivity, many in Western contexts seem to be coming out of trips with business-oriented ideas. In other words, Pace said, Silicon Valley micro-dosers have psychedelic-induced revelations such as: “How can I make an app to monetise this experience?” This example displays how hallucinogenic drugs can also reinforce existent, dominant modes of capitalism and other systemic structures, instead of inspiring people to think outside of this realm.
Despite the flurry of positive social change many often attribute to psychedelic usage, it’s important to keep in mind that the “psychedelics renaissance is still taking place in a market economy,” as Dupius pointed out. The researcher noted that “rather than being powerful tools for social transformation, psychedelics thus appear as non-specific—and relatively neutral—amplifiers of existing cultural factors.” What’s more, he stated, is that “the psychedelic experience remains strongly shaped by the norms and values of the social groups of those who use them.” With this in mind, individual psychedelic usage can be viewed more as an enhancement of one’s own perspectives and politics rather than a sure-fire tool for social change.
Though psychedelic usage is often linked to those who identify as liberal, it’s remarkably easy to find examples of how the far-right have embraced the substances for their own agendas. As Pace put it, though “psychedelics are chemicals carrying a lot of cultural baggage […] there is nothing inherent or essential to their character.” In other words, the substances have the potential to enhance a wide spectrum of ideologies, for better and for worse
Similarly, the way in which psychedelics have become the new hot industry to invest in demonstrates how the emergence of the drugs into the mainstream may just strengthen the present cultural and economic systems. There’s a clear discrepancy between the idea that psychedelics can be used for large-scale, disruptive changes when venture capital funds are being utilised to bring the substances to market.
It’s salient to say that increased accessibility to psychedelics can help those dealing with traumatic experiences and other mental health issues tremendously. However, the repercussions of these drugs entering the market economy should be understood to be at odds with the ideas of alternative lifestyles often connected to the substances. While psychedelics can contribute to greater day-to-day euphoria, the reality emerging in the mainstream marketplace leaves little room for the wide-scale utopian ideals often expected from the drugs.
Your name. Your family. Your friends. Your go-to takeaway. Your favourite movie along with your least favourite movie. No, this isn’t the opening transcript of a cheesy bank or life insurance advert, although it could definitely pass as one. I’m talking about the concept of the self: the numerous external and internal factors our brains, floating around in our heads piloting our meat-bag bodies, make up to identify ourselves as ourselves.
But what if you could experience all of that being taken away—let’s say, from a mysterious mushroom that naturally grows in moderate climates and just so happens to contain a chemical that poisons your brain, inducing a psychedelic trip? Sounds pretty unpleasant, right? Well, some psychonauts argue otherwise. There are infinite facts and benefits of mushrooms that highlight why they are so important—take Australian therapists using medicinal ones to treat anxiety—but one benefit rings loudest and it comes from magic mushrooms. The term is called ego death and some report it can have a profoundly positive impact on the outlook of their lives.
Ego death is the term used to describe “a complete loss of subjective self-identity.” The term is used in many contexts, in philosophical and psychological theories—to the surprise of some, it’s not just synonymous with tripping absolute balls like the dangerous ‘robotripping’. In fact, the term first arose in Jungian psychology and is interchangeable with the term psychic death, which is used to refer to the fundamental transformation of the psyche. Some have even argued that such a transformation is what aided and influenced evolution in humans—that’s right, say hello to the stoned ape theory.
Okay, if this is all starting to sound too much like a freshman philosophy class or a conversation you’d overhear in a smokey tent in the depths of Boomtown Festival, I’ll frame it in more ‘sober’ terms. Essentially, ego death is momentarily forgetting who you are and what everything is—with some suggesting the alien experience has significantly altered their perception of life for the better. Tripping is about to big business according to MindMed.
Scientists suggest that this loss of awareness while remaining fully conscious is due to a part of the brain called the claustrum—a thin sheet of neurons deep within the cortex assumed to be somewhat responsible for our awareness and sense of self. Studies have found that when individuals take psychedelics, the claustrum is less active, which could be a reason why people experience ego death.
Describing the experience of ego death is no easy feat. Try and describe the colour yellow to a blind person. You can’t—it’s a concept that surpasses the limitations of human language. The same can be applied to describe the experience of heavy psychedelic use. Sure, if you take a batch of magic mushrooms and see a flying cow, you can describe that flying cow. The same goes for geometric patterns and shapes. But describing the strong internal feelings associated with a heavy dose of psychedelics, like ego death, is a different ball game altogether. That being said, as of yet, we humans haven’t evolved to have telepathic communication—so I guess words on a screen will have to do.
Martin, 24, from Germany, first experienced ego death when taking DMT in a forest with a friend. He said, “Everything that made me ‘me’ disappeared. I would describe it as feeling empty but also completely full at the same time. It’s almost like I was seeing everything from a child’s perspective: politics, religion and social constructs were completely irrelevant to the experience.”
“I wouldn’t describe it as a life-changing experience but it was definitely eye-opening, especially as the thoughts and memories started to trickle back to me. Everything was seen from a new perspective, separate from its surrounding context. It allowed me to reanalyse events and thoughts. I was able to reconstruct them. I would do it again, but only under circumstances where I felt safe and comfortable,” he continued.
George, 26, from England, first experienced ego death when combining psilocybin truffles with cannabis. He said, “I was with an ex-girlfriend in the park at the time about three hours into the trip. Smoking weed during my trip brought it on significantly, it was intense but manageable. It’s almost impossible to properly put what I experienced into words but I’ll give it my best shot…”
“As I smoked the cannabis, I could feel the intensity of the trip rising in the background. I didn’t think much of it at first, I tripped many times before then—I was fully aware of the extent THC has when interacting with psychedelics. It was moments after, when we stopped smoking, that I could really feel it kicking in. I felt like I was slipping away, like that feeling you get when you try and remember a name or something. It’s at the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite get it right. It was that feeling but times one thousand,” he continued.
“I tried to resist it at first. When I looked around at my ex, it felt as though I was viewing the world through someone else’s eyes. There was a separation between my body and the ‘being’, as I describe my consciousness, that was observing. It was so alien and surreal, I didn’t really know what to make of it. I felt like I was close to either freaking or being in bliss. It was in this in-between state that I remember reaching out for my ex’s hand and asking if everything is okay. When she said yes, I let go—I was taken away by the torrent.”
“I can’t really articulate what the experience was like after that. It was like I forgot what everything is, who I am or ‘what’ I am. I had forgotten that there was anything that existed at all. I really felt like once you accept it then the fear of forgetting falls away. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that if someone wasn’t there telling me it was okay though. I think this really goes to show the testament of having someone there with you to guide you through these kinds of experiences. That being said, ego death has massively influenced my outlook on life for the better.”
I’m by no means encouraging anyone to go and try this experience for themselves. In fact, I’d go as far as to personally suggest that people should avoid psychedelics. ‘Flashbacks’ following the use of hallucinogenic drugs have been reported for decades—these are also known as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). It is reported most commonly after illicit LSD use, but less commonly with LSD administered in research or treatment settings, or with the use of other types of hallucinogens. Although it may be difficult to collect large samples of HPPD cases, further studies are critically needed to augment the meagre data presently available regarding the prevalence, aetiology, and treatment of HPPD.
This article was written in an attempt to document what ego death feels like, and what causes it, so you don’t have to try it yourself. However, there is a part of me that’s fascinated by the spiritual and mysterious elements of these substances. Until further research is done, and restrictions on researching psychedelics have lifted, we may never know for certain what causes ego death. But it’s fun to ponder, right?