What is ego death? We asked people who actually experienced it to explain

By Jack Ramage

Updated May 31, 2023 at 01:25 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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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.

What is ego death?

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.

What is ego death? We asked people who actually experienced it to explain

What does ego death feel like?

Describing the experience of ego death is no easy feat. Try and describe the colour yellow to a blind person. You can’tit’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 communicationso 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 thenI 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 goI 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?

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