The Neuroscience of Ego Dissolution and Transcendence

“To me, mystical or spiritual experience is what happens when your ego is put aside. Spiritual experience is about a sense of merging with something larger than you. And it’s your ego that stands in the way. To the extent that you can subdue it, or just put it off to the side for a few hours, amazing things happen, and you realize that you are part of a larger energy…”

(This is the continuation of a series exploring the nature of the human ego in the world’s religions and science, beginning with this post.)

“To me, mystical or spiritual experience is what happens when your ego is put aside. Spiritual experience is about a sense of merging with something larger than you. And it’s your ego that stands in the way. To the extent that you can subdue it, or just put it off to the side for a few hours, amazing things happen, and you realize that you are part of a larger energy…”
—Michael Pollan, bestselling author and journalist, from a 2-hour long interview with Tim Ferriss

Just a few days ago I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by bestselling author and journalist Michael Pollan, who’s written a new book on the subject titled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. (A much longer article was also published in the New York Times). It is about what is currently being studied about the nature of the mind and consciousness through the ingestion of psychoactive substances, or what have traditionally been called “psychedelics,” including LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), mescaline (peyote), and DMT (ayahuasca), etc.
These are substances that when taken into the body alter consciousness in extraordinary ways, often leading to profound spiritual or mystical experiences of reality. Such substances became well-known in the 1960s, but were soon banned as illegal “drugs” by governments. Now researchers at such institutions as New York University, Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, and Imperial College in London, are once again studying these substances closely to see how they might be helpful in therapeutic settings, provoking positive transformations of consciousness, and in learning more about the nature of the human mind.
What they’ve found is that these substances can help cure in remarkable ways many different mental illnesses and conditions such as depression, alcoholism, smoking, and “existential distress” in cancer patients. At the same time these studies are opening up our understanding of what may be the underlying nature of these conditions and the nature of the human mind.
How could such substances help treat such conditions? It seems to be related to the way they can cause a deconstruction the ego or “self” in consciousness. In such addictions and mental conditions there seems to be a strong presence of mindlessness, of rumination and negative self-talk, separating one’s self from the rest of reality, becoming defensive, closed in, shut down, and trapped. These substances seem to break down those ruts that the ego-mind has gotten stuck in, and allow the people to expand their perspective substantially, beyond their ego, beyond who they think they are. They are able to see “outside the box” of their own “self,” or see their “self” from an external perspective, and they realize they have power over that “self.” As Pollan notes:

All these disorders involve uncontrollable and endlessly repeating loops of rumination that gradually shade out reality and fray our connections to other people and the natural world. The ego becomes hyperactive, even tyrannical, enforcing rigid habits of thought and behavior—habits that the psychedelic experience, by loosening the ego’s grip, could help us to break.

In fact, the substances seem to facilitate what the scientists themselves are actually calling “mystical experiences,” and that the intensity of these spiritual experiences often has a direct correlation to the effectiveness in treating the conditions. What is the nature of these mystical experiences? Pollan notes that they are

described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a merging of the self with nature or the universe, a mystical experience can permanently shift a person’s perspective and priorities…

The substances cause a powerful psychological experience in the mind of the person that seems to break down the “person” that they thought they were, revealing to them a much greater sense of being, and this transforms their consciousness at a deep level which has positive effects in their lives.
How the substances work may teach us a lot about how our minds work, and particularly the nature of our egos. Researchers have found that there is an area of the brain called the default mode network (DMN) which may be the “seat of the ego,” or the region of the brain that constructs and maintains our sense of “self.” They discovered that when the participants experienced dissolution of their ego, the activity in this region of the brain dropped significantly as well. Such changes in brain activity have also been found in meditators when they experience ego dissolution.
This may indicate that such changes in brain activity, whatever their chain of causation may be, is common to mystical experience generally (perhaps also to NDEs and other spiritual experiences), and may be what leads to the loss of a sense of “self” and the transformative effects of such experience. It seems that when one experiences no “self,” then one becomes identical with one’s experience; without the regular subject/object split, with “me” here experiencing everything else “out there” or “over there,” all experience becomes subjective, becomes nondual, becomes One. There is no “self” experiencing things, but purely the experience itself, which is perceived as one and the same as one’s own conscious awareness. There is no separation between consciousness and what is perceived, but rather they become One, united, the knower and the known become One essence, One experience, One knowing. Many describe this experience as “Divine,” blissful, sublime, transcendent, ecstatic, deeply moving, loving, holistic, interconnected, alive, animate, beautiful, etc.
Such experiences may not be solely for helping to alleviate mental illnesses, but what has been called “the betterment of well people.” Pollan concludes:

One of the lessons of the new research is that not just mental illness but garden-variety unhappiness may owe something to living under the harsh rule of an ego that, whatever its value, walls us off from our emotions, from other people and from nature.

Pollan was a guest on the The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to talk about his new book, and he described his own personal experiences of ego dissolution while researching his book:

I had this experience of ego dissolution. My sense of self fell apart. It was like a bunch of post-its being blown in the wind. And then I saw myself out on the landscape like paint. But I was still seeing it. I was experiencing it from a new vantage that wasn’t my usual self… But what it taught me is that, we assume we’re identical to our ego, this chattering voice in our heads that’s telling us what to do… and can be very harsh… it also defends us against fresh experience, against emotion, against other people… that [ego] dissolved in such a way that I felt like, oh, I am not identical to my ego. There’s another ground on which to stand and take in reality… It’s really the idea that these defenses you’ve built up over your whole life, you don’t need them, and that you can lower them and not face complete annihilation.

An interview with Pollan has also been published on Scientific American.
I think it is interesting that the title of Pollan’s book How To Change Your Mind recalls one of the meanings behind the New Testament Greek word metanoia, which has been translated as “repentance” in most English translations, but which also has a deeper meaning of “changing one’s mind,” or even “beyond mind,” meta meaning “after, outside of, beyond” and nous meaning “mind.” Thus, the “repentance” as preached by Jesus and his followers might have had more to do with changing one’s consciousness, even going beyond the traditional ego-mind, transcending the typical thoughts of our minds, than many people might have considered.
As a side note, one of the apostles from my Mormon background, Elder James E. Talmage, once researched and experimented with psychoactive substances while he was studying at Johns Hopkins University. In 1884, on three occasions he ingested hashish, a resin made from Cannabis indica (one of the major forms of what is colloquially known as marijuana), to study its effects on him, because “such a course is the proper one for the study of the effects of the drug.” The first two doses he felt nothing, but after the third and highest dose of “20 grains,” he said “the effect was felt in a not very agreeable way,” although he acknowledged that the “effect is said to be widely different in different people.” [Rowley, Dennis. “Inner Dialogue: James Talmage’s Choice of Science as a Career, 1876–1884“, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17(2): 112–30 (Summer 1984).]
John Hopkins is today one of the leading institutions to be studying the effects of these psychoactives, and are finding that some types do indeed facilitate mystical experiences which have transformative effects. One of their most insightful studies published in 2006 was entitled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.
Once again, even in scientific studies, we see that “sacrificing” ego consciousness leads to transcendent experiences of the world that are life-transforming and that significantly shift our perspective of life and our deep connection to all other things and people around us. We see infinitely beyond our “selves” to the Wholeness of all things.
We are just on the cusp of gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the neuroscience of mystical experience and ego dissolution/transcendence, but what is particularly remarkable to me is that through science we are recognizing that this may be what the ancient mystics were experiencing and trying to describe in their visionary writings, which may have been the foundation and origin for many of the world’s religious doctrines and practices, and which does appear to have significant positive effects in people’s lives. A reconciliation between science and religion I believe will have far-reaching implications, as more religious and scientifically-minded people consider these possibilities.
In the next post I’ll explore Confucianism and Taoism.
(Next post in series: Overcoming Ego and Transforming Self in Confucianism & Taoism)

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