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. 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. 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.
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.
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?
You heard it here first (or maybe third): mushrooms are having a moment. Plant-based diets are in vogue, and not only are mushrooms replacing the Big Mac, but they’re also used as leather-like alternatives and digesting toxic waste, and are being crushed into medicinal powders. So are countries like the UK and the US finally waking up to a potential that the rest of the world has known about for years?
Unlike other countries in Europe, the UK has mycophobia—an irrational fear of mushrooms. Yes, pick the wrong one and you can die, or get incredibly high. We all know what happened to Alice when she took a bite from the toadstool—she grew inhumanely tall. Fungi have been vilified and fabled into stories as harmful, and have been associated with witchcraft and altered states. As a former colony of the UK, the US has inherited these prejudices. Dr Cornelia Cho, paediatrician and president of the Georgia Mushroom Club explains, “the genocide of the Native American population contributed tremendously towards losing existing traditional lore.”
In other cultures, however, fungi are celebrated. Traditional Chinese medicine has adopted mushrooms for years. Cho remembers receiving dried shiitake by post from her Korean grandmother. Chinese American photographer Phyllis Ma recalls her mum making medicinal broths with a parasitic mushroom that grows on caterpillars. Most white Americans don’t understand how tasty this food can be, having been brought up on canned button mushrooms that taste as slimy as they sound. “Urg. I don’t like to eat those either,” Cho muses. “But frustratingly, the people that try them have made a huge generalisation based on one of the sorriest culinary specimens out there.”
If you’re interested in mushrooms, it probably didn’t take long for you to realise their health benefits. “I found out as soon as I cared,” William Padilla-Brown tells me. A celebrity in the fungi community, William dropped out of high school to follow his passion for farming. After dabbling in the magical variety, he soon realised how important these species were to natural systems and strived to grow his own.
Finding no educational instructors in the area, Padilla-Brown turned to Youtube. “I didn’t have any money or funding, to begin with”, he told Screen Shot. “My set-up was very low tech. I used to hang the mushroom blocks off the ceiling with strings.” Today, Padilla-Brown specialises in cultivating and selling Cordyceps militaris, a parasitic medicinal mushroom that looks like a cheese puff. Not only is it anti-viral, but it boosts energy and can even make you better in bed.
“During this COVID-19 crisis, I wouldn’t want to be without medicinal mushrooms,” Cho tells me. “Most support our immune system.” As a paediatrician, she recommends that her patients eat more mushrooms, period. They act as prebiotics, the soil needed to make probiotics grow, and they can treat a variety of symptoms. “A doctor I know in Indiana read about oyster mushrooms being helpful for eczema. He put them on his sons scrambled eggs every morning and his atopic dermatitis cleared up in weeks. I now offer it as an option for parents.”
Both experts advocate the same thing, food is medicine—an idea still not granted the time of day across the west. Nutrition barely enters into a trainee doctor’s curriculum. Western medicine may have made some giant leaps, but it is reactionary rather than preventative. “By jumping in to solve problems, Western medicine has not actually succeeded in helping people stay out of trouble,” Cho explains.
She quotes the American novelist Wendell Berry, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are healed by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” We’ve become disconnected from what we eat and therefore all that grows. It is this severing from the natural world that Padilla-Brown believes makes us so reliant on western medicine and over-prescribed drugs. Humans are living longer, but they’re also getting sicker and this cycle is feeding greedy pharmaceutical giants.
The US and the UK are approaching this newfound interest in holistic medicine in a typically problematic and western way. What should really be eaten and grown is being reduced to powders to be sold on shelves. When a customer sees these capsules, they can’t truly understand where it comes from. “The demand we have seen from Western countries has trifled our understanding of indigenous uses for these mushrooms,” Padilla-Brown explains. “It has pushed the prices up to the point where the people that use them indigenously don’t have access to them. It’s now more viable for them to sell them.” Cho compares it to the societies whose ancient foods, like quinoa, have become trendy ‘superfoods’, “these then get outpriced for original consumers.”
The solution is to grow your own or at least turn to local and ethical producers. Luckily, if you know what to do, “medicinal mushrooms are relatively cultivatable and expansible,” Cho comments. When Padilla-Brown first started cultivating cordyceps there was no information in English, his solution was to write a handbook.
For him, it is important that information is democratised, so everyone has an equal footing. His focus is on teaching in inner-city, lower socio-economic areas, where there’s less access to resources and education. “It’s beneficial that I am not a stereotypical scientist. I look like a regular street kid,” he enthuses. “I go in and communicate with them on their level and relate to them because I can. I’ll go in and perform music as well as teach people about ecology.”
The photographer Phyllis Ma advocates that you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate fungi. Her colourful still lifes bring mushrooms into popular culture channels, so we can witness each specimen’s mischievous personality. “They’re a lot like people,” she muses. “You come to realise each is distinct when you get closely acquainted.” She’s foraged for mushrooms from Brooklyn to Berlin, as well as sourcing supplies from New York City’s only mushroom farm, Smallhold. Padilla-Brown has also provided her with cordyceps—he explains, “exposing people to new realities is one of the most important things we can do.”
We’re so used to seeing lifeless button mushrooms littering the shelves, that it’s no wonder the UK greets this food with disgust. Phyllis Ma’s photographs, alongside Padilla-Brown and Cho’s work, teach us that there’s so much more to fungi and it’s time we acknowledged it.