What is ego death and does ayahuasca really cause it? From scientific research to anecdotal evidence, here’s what you need to know about this transformative experience.
Ayahuasca is a powerful plant medicine that has been used for centuries by Indigenous cultures in the Amazon as a means of healing and spiritual exploration. It’s the brew of two rainforest plants that when combined release DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine), a powerful hallucinogen linked to a powerful experience called “ego death.”
One of the most common experiences reported by those who have used ayahuasca, ego death is a profound, and often overwhelming, dissolution of the sense of self and identity.
In his 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, journalist Michael Pollan explores ego death and its impact.
Pollan describes his own experiences with ego dissolution in the book, noting that while the experience of ego dissolution can be terrifying and disorienting, it can also be transformative and healing.
“For me, ‘spiritual’ is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced. If nothing else, these journeys have shown me how that psychic construct — at once so familiar and on reflection so strange — stands between us and some striking new dimensions of experience, whether of the world outside us or of the mind within.”
But what exactly is ego death?
Ego death, also known as ego dissolution, is a term used to describe the experience of losing one’s sense of self or ego, including one’s identity, beliefs, and even memories and emotions.
This can be accompanied by feelings of unity, interconnectedness, and transcendence, as well as by intense emotions such as fear, awe, and bliss. Ego death is often described as a transformative experience that can lead to insights, healing, and spiritual growth.
“When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest,” Pollan writes. “What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic — that is, more spiritual — idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.”
Ego death is not unique to ayahuasca use; it can also occur spontaneously, through meditation, or as a result of trauma or mental illness, and with other psychedelics such as psilocybin. However, ayahuasca is known for inducing ego death in a relatively consistent and intense way, especially when taken in a traditional shamanic ceremony setting.
Megan Fox described her experience with it:
“I felt this quiver. The only other time I’ve had it is when I was giving birth. [A feeling that] I’m not sure I want to do this – but a sense of no turning back, you’re here and you’ve got to go through this.
“I don’t remember my body being around after that.”
What is the role of ayahuasca in ego death?
Ayahuasca’s role in ego death is not solely due to its chemical properties. When administered traditionally, ayahuasca ceremonies are often conducted in a supportive and ritualistic context that emphasizes surrender, trust, and connection with nature and realms beyond our consciousness. This context can create a sense of safety and trust that allows individuals to let go of their ego and surrender to the experience.
Moreover, ayahuasca is often consumed in the presence of a shaman or facilitator who can guide and support the individual through the experience, and who may use icaros (sacred songs) and other tools to facilitate healing and integration.
These songs play critical roles in guiding the experience very much in the same way that maps help drivers navigate their journey. Recent research has confirmed this and found the use of traditional shamanic music can help facilitate deeper healing while under the influence of ayahuasca.
What happens in the brain during ego death?
The neurobiological mechanisms underlying ego death are still poorly understood, but some studies suggest that it may involve a disruption of the default mode network (DMN), a network of brain regions involved in self-referential processing and mind-wandering.
The DMN is thought to play a key role in generating and maintaining the sense of self, so its disruption can lead to a loss of ego boundaries and a sense of unity and connectedness.
Psychonaut Dennis McKenna explains the phenomenon:
Studies have suggested that ego death may involve changes in the brain’s serotonin system, which is the primary target of ayahuasca’s active compound, DMT.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in mood, cognition, and perception, and it is thought to play a role in altered states of consciousness, including those induced by psychedelics.
The experience can mimic the phenomenon known as Near Death Experience (NDE). That phrase came by way of the philosopher and psychologist Raymond Moody, who studied 50 people that experienced clinical death but were revived. Most recalled similar experiences during that time such as seeing a bright light, feeling detachment from the body, as well as feelings of security and warmth. Some reported encounters with spiritual beings such as angels.
“What has amazed me since the beginning of my interest are the great similarities in the reports,” Moody wrote. “Despite the fact they come from people of highly varied religious, social, and educational backgrounds.”
What are the effects of ego death?
The effects of ego death can be both positive and negative, depending on the individual, the setting, and the context of the experience. Some people report profound insights, spiritual revelations, and a sense of connection with the universe as Pollan experienced, while others may experience fear, confusion, or a sense of disorientation.
One of the potential benefits of ego death is the release of deeply ingrained patterns of thought and behavior that can be limiting or in some cases, harmful. By letting go of one’s ego and identity, one can gain a fresh perspective on oneself and one’s life, and reframe goals and values.
Ego death can also facilitate emotional healing by allowing one to access repressed or suppressed emotions and memories. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he found healing during an ayahuasca experience.
However, ego death can also be destabilizing and disorienting, especially if it occurs in a context that is not supportive or safe. Some people may experience intense fear, anxiety, or paranoia during ego death, which can be exacerbated by a lack of preparation, guidance, or integration support.
Long-term effects of ego death and other psychedelic experiences are being studied by a number of universities and organizations. And while there’s much to be learned, the findings look promising — from decreased anxiety to relief from depression and other mental health benefits.
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