From the perspective of most modern psychologists, “the ego” can be thought of as the culmination of three components of the human psyche: the view an individual holds of themselves (self-image), how much value is placed on themselves (self-esteem), and the many beliefs, ideologies and affiliations that an individual holds (self-identity). This sense of self helps us to classify and quantify our reality, and can affect our thoughts both in the moment and in memory. While having an ‘ego’ is unarguably necessary to function in modern society, unfortunately sometimes it can serve as a gatekeeper of consciousness, admitting into awareness only thoughts that conform to our self-image.
All of these keystone components of the mind begin developing at approximately age five, when activity in the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) becomes distinct from other networks. The DMN is crucially important to the development of social functionality, the perception of time, remembering the past and simulating the future, and the separation of “self” and “other”. Writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, in his famous and widely quoted book The Doors of Perception, coined a theory on why the DMN evolved to be so intertwined with the ego, and consciousness as a whole: “In order to make biological survival possible, the vast amounts of incoming sensory data must be quickly and efficiently categorized and funneled through a reducing valve.”
The DMN, and therefore the ego, according to Huxley, act as this reducing valve, shutting out some thought and sensory input that doesn’t fit neatly into our self-image or self-identity, or which could potentially harm our self-esteem. While some filtration is necessary to prevent us from being overwhelmed by a mass of largely useless and irrelevant data, it often results in the formation of cognitive bias, and the perception of life through a lense of duality. Duality is the opposite of true (i.e. not self-constructed) reality: the division of all aspects of life into opposing forces such as love/hate, good/bad, right/wrong and holy/sinful.
As a function of this duality, the ego erects boundaries that can lead to us feeling isolated from the people around us, and disconnected from nature and even ourselves—which is why some seek states of ego dissolution, such as those produced by psychedelics or deep meditation. In this state boundaries created by the ego are utterly dissolved. You are fully “in the moment” and able to see things from a macroscopic, more objective perspective. You are no longer an individual isolated from life as it takes place around you, but rather feel interconnected with the universe and all its inhabitants, experiencing intense feelings of love, euphoria, and unity while the self is temporarily forgotten.
The above described state of selflessness and subsequent feelings of connectivity with the universe are often referred to as “ego death,” but psychedelic-induced ego death can be terrifying if you are not prepared to let go of the ego, if you’re not ready to accept your thoughts as they truly are (i.e. not filtered through the bias of ego), or if you attempt to fight the ego’s dissolution. Those who fight against ego death, under the influence of a psychedelic, may think they’re dying or becoming psychotic. Indeed this is partially true, since your sense of “you” is dying, albeit temporarily. In hindsight however, this could benefit your outlook on life, traits like empathy, and your overall well-being, as showed in studies conducted at Johns Hopkins Univeristy. If you find yourself in a situation of ego death, the best thing you can do is surrender to the experience and let yourself exist ‘in the moment’ soaking up the feelings of unity and connectedness that so many of us desire, but are suppressed by our egos. It’s also a great time to take advantage of this completely objective perspective, and analyze your own psyche. You can trust that you will return to “yourself” as a more empathetic, understanding, and open minded person.
From a philosophical standpoint, ego death can be described as a temporary transformation of the fundamental pillars of thought that comprise the psyche—shifting from self-centred to completely unbiased, and allowing for a novel perspective unclouded by the lens of duality cast by the ego over our ‘sober’ consciousness. From a scientific standpoint, ego death is hypothesized to be the result of dampened activity in the Default Mode Network. This temporary quieting can act as a “reset” or “rewiring” of the network, and consequently the rewiring of thought patterns, which are otherwise constrained by the ego. “If you do the same thing repeatedly, it is like you are walking down the same path all the time” says psychologist Dr. Matthew Brown. “Dampening of DMN activity (and the experience of ego death associated with it) ‘mows the lawn’ so that you can walk down a new path a little bit more easily.”
Ego death experiences can often increase traits like openness and empathy. Ego death can show us a true, unbiased reality—therefore illustrating where our egos have “lied” to us in order to preserve self-image, self-identity, and self-esteem. The brief amalgamation of self and other also serves to grant the realization that we are all connected, which often leads to drastic shifts in personality and even “spiritual awakening.”
Ego Death and Spiritual Awakening
The word “spiritual” is often used in a religious context, however a more apt definition is “beyond the physical or material domain of existence.” Given this definition, it is easy to see how an ego death experience, in which the illusion of self is shattered, may foster the realization that the entire universe is connected, and that consciousness in its true unbiased form transcends death.
Because it is commonly associated with darkness, decay, and sadness, the word death carries a lot of negative connotation. Naturally most individuals avoid thinking about it and live in fear of their inevitable physical death, perhaps equating it with an eternity of nothingness. However, ego death experiences can prove (at least subjectively) that this is not the case. The continuation of awareness while the ego is dissolved underscores the theories of both ancient and modern philosophers: When our identity and everything we identify with and hold dear is gone, something—some form of consciousness—remains. Realizing the immortality of consciousness (despite the fact that time living in our bodies is temporary) can be paradigm-shifting and enlightening. Those who have heard anecdotally about the experience, or are reading this article may be wondering, “how can I experience this?”
How to Induce Ego Death
Ego death has pervaded human consciousness for millenia. Ancient Buddhist monks sought what they called enlightenment, while Sufi Muslims pursued a similar state of consciousness they dubbed Fana. There are numerous ways in which this state can be occasioned, such as deep meditation, childbirth, near-death experiences, or (arguably the quickest way) through the use of psychedelic drugs. It is important to note that significant risk can also be present with the utilization of this method, and that psychedelics should be treated with healthy respect and caution. That said, these substances have shown significant safety and efficacy in treating psychological conditions associated with an overactive Default Mode Network, like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The Ego is Not the Enemy.
Despite its proclivity to filter the world in a dualistic fashion and confine our thoughts to predetermined pathways, the egos should not be thought of as an enemy, but rather as something akin to a necessary evil. Ego is crucial in order for us to be able to quantify our experiences as human beings. While ego can be detrimental, reinforcing negative thought and amplifying psychological conditions like depression and anxiety, it can also be the force that drives us to survive and prosper. The temporary experience of ego death can give deep personal insight, even enlightenment, but the ego perpetually seeps back into and places its filter over our consciousness. Ego death experiences can be thought of as a tool through which to view our thoughts and actions from an objective perspective. Once we can appreciate that ego is reactively developed, we can relinquish ourselves of its control over our thoughts and emotions.