- If You’ve Ever Done Magic Mushrooms, You Know That Your Ego — or Your Sense of ‘Self’ — Can Melt Away as Quickly as the Wallpaper Seems to
- For Many, a Psychedelic Experience Can Be Life-Changingly Positive, But For Others, it Can Be a Bad Experience with Lasting Negative Mental Health Ramifications
- Despite Years and Years of Anecdotal Accounts of Good Trips and Bad Trips, the ‘Ego Disintegration’ or ‘Ego Loss’ Caused By Psilocybin — the Active Psychedelic in Magic Mushrooms — Has Never Been Properly Studied, Until Now
For the first time, researchers have looked at the effects of Psilocybin on glutamate activity in the brain. The human brain’s cortex is the presumed home of self-perception, and evidence suggests that a neurotransmitter called glutamate is elevated in the cortex when someone is experiencing the hallucinogenic effects of Psilocybin.
Through a double-blind experiment — which controlled for the placebo effect — neuroscientists closely observed the glutamate levels associated with a person’s ego when they were tripping on Psilocybin. The brain activity of 60 healthy volunteers was monitored with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and the researchers found significant changes in the cortex and the hippocampus of those taking Psilocybin.
As the most common neurotransmitter in the human brain, glutamate is vital for fast signalling and information processing, not only in the cortex region but also in the hippocampus region — which is understood to play a critical role in self-esteem.
Two Different Parts of the Brain, Two Different Experiences
The clinical study found that the two different regions of the human brain — the cortex and the hippocampus — had very different glutamate responses to Psilocybin. During a trip, the researchers found higher levels of glutamate in the prefrontal cortex and lower levels of glutamate in the hippocampus. Interestingly, this stark difference may actually be related to whether a person has a good or bad experience with their ego.
“Analyses indicated that region-dependent alterations in glutamate were also correlated with different dimensions of ego dissolution,” explained the authors. “Whereas changes in [cortical] glutamate were found to be the strongest predictor of negatively experienced ego dissolution, changes in hippocampal glutamate were found to be the strongest predictor of positively experienced ego dissolution.”
While we still don’t know for sure how brain activity is related to our ego — or even if it is — some scientists believe that psychedelics ‘decouple’ parts of our brain, thus temporarily separating autobiographical information from our sense of personal identity.
“[S]tudies of drug-induced ego dissolution have found that the decoupling of MTL regions such as the parahippocampus and the DMN correlate positively with feelings of ego dissolution, with this decoupling being hypothesized to be one of the main underlying mechanisms of the subjective experience,” the authors continue.
“In regards to why this gives rise to ego dissolution, it has been suggested that psychedelic drug-induced decoupling of these regions results in a temporary loss of access of semantic autobiographical information, resulting in a breakdown of one’s personal identity,” added the authors. “Our data add to this hypothesis, suggesting that modulations of hippocampal glutamate, in particular, may be a key mediator in the decoupling underlying feelings of (positive) ego dissolution.”
Let’s Benefit From the Positives — But Avoid the Bad Trips
This first-of-its-kind study represents another step in the direction of embracing psychedelics for a range of therapeutic uses. Following years of limited research and anecdotal evidence, drugs such as DMT, Psilocybin, and LSD are finally being explored for their health-related benefits and treatment uses.
Gaining a better handle on the neurochemical make-up and function of these substances could enable researchers to develop more effective and safe treatments, especially as they relate to mental health issues such as anxiety, addiction, and depression.
But if this study has shown us anything, it’s that before we turn to psychedelics to help us treat mental health issues, we need a thorough understanding of how they impact our ego. In other words, we need to embrace the positive therapeutic uses — while avoiding the potentially damaging effects of bad trips.