Drugs Produce Loss of Self Like Spiritual Awakening
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“People tripping on psilocybin can experience paranoia or a complete loss of subjective self-identity, known as ego dissolution” – Annamarya Scaccia
Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings. They report a loss of the personal self. They experience what they used to refer to as the self as just a part of an integrated whole. They report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. They experience a feeling of timelessness where time seems to stop and everything is taking place in a single present moment. They experience ineffability, being unable to express in words what they are experiencing and as a result sometimes producing paradoxical statements. And they experience a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny. One deterrent to the research is the legal prohibitions for the possession and use of these substances.
The fact that experiences, virtual identical to spiritual awakening experiences, can be induced by drugs and that drugs have their effects by altering the chemistry of the nervous system, has led to the notion that perhaps spiritual experiences are simply an altered state of the brain produced by intense spiritual practices. An important observation in this regard is that alterations of the brain can make it more likely that an individual will have a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences can occur occasionally with epileptic seizures. This may provide clues as to what neural structures are involved in spiritual experiences.
In today’s Research News article “Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5441112/, Millière reviews and summarizes the published literature on drug effects on the concept of the self. He reports that a number of different psychoactive substances produce similar effects of ego dissolution. This is a dramatic breakdown of a sense of self producing a sense of unity with all things. No boundary between self and other is felt. Instead, there is a feeling of oneness with everything.
All psychedelic drugs act on the nervous system. They appear to stimulate the serotonin system in the brain and appear to suppress the activity of a set of neural structures known collectively as the Default Mode Network (DMN). These structures include the cingulate and medial frontal cortices, the thalamus which have been shown to be important for the production of a sense of self.
Another class of psychoactive drugs are dissociative anesthetics. These also appear to produce a loss of the sense of self, but act on a different neurochemical system, tending to stimulate the NMDA glutamate receptors. Glutamate receptors are the brain’s primary excitatory receptors and are widespread throughout the nervous system. So, the effects of this class of psychoactive substances on the brain are quite different from those of psychedelic drugs.
A final class of psychoactive drugs that produce an ego dissolution are kappa opioid receptor agonists. These appear to act by affecting opioid receptors which in turn affect the dopamine neurochemical system. In addition, it has been shown that drugs that block opioid receptors tend to reverse the feelings of loss of self in psychotic patients.
These findings do not reveal a common set of effects on the nervous system that are associated with the loss of a sense of self that are produced by the three different classes of compounds that elicit an ego dissolution. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a common mechanism, only that none has been identified. But, if there is not a common neural mechanism, then it would appear that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by widespread and different effects on the nervous system. In addition, thinking about the self appears to increase activity in a completely different area of the brain and paying attention to non-self elements of experience changes still another set of structures. Hence, a sense of self appears to be produced by widespread different areas of the nervous system and disruption of widespread different areas and neurochemical systems can disrupt the sense of self.
One problem with the research on the neural systems responsible for the notion of self may be that what we call self may actually be a complex set of different processes. What we define as the “self” consists of a set of components including physiology, behaviors, personality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, memories, etc. It is not a single thing rather it’s a set of things that in their entirety are considered a self. In other words, the self is a concept that summarizes a set of experiences and is not a thing unto itself. If this is the case then it is not surprising that disruption of different process may be responsible for common feelings of a loss of self.
All of this suggests that spiritual awakening may be an entirely different process than the effects of psychoactive drugs. They may each disrupt a different aspect of the set of components that we describe as the self. They further suggest that the sense of self is fragile and can be disrupted by disparate activities and psychoactive compounds affecting widespread and differing neural systems. Until there is greater clarity about which exact components of self are affected by each of the activities and drugs that produce an overall sense of loss of self, it will not be possible to answer the question as to whether spiritual awakening is due to organic changes produced by engagement in spiritual activities, or that they are representative of a totally different reality.
“There is ‘objective reality’ and then there is ‘our reality. Psychedelic drugs can distort our reality and result in perceptual illusions. But the reality we experience during ordinary wakefulness is also, to a large extent, an illusion.” – Enzo Tagliazucchi
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Millière, R. (2017). Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 245. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245
There is converging evidence that high doses of hallucinogenic drugs can produce significant alterations of self-experience, described as the dissolution of the sense of self and the loss of boundaries between self and world. This article discusses the relevance of this phenomenon, known as “drug-induced ego dissolution (DIED)”, for cognitive neuroscience, psychology and philosophy of mind. Data from self-report questionnaires suggest that three neuropharmacological classes of drugs can induce ego dissolution: classical psychedelics, dissociative anesthetics and agonists of the kappa opioid receptor (KOR). While these substances act on different neurotransmitter receptors, they all produce strong subjective effects that can be compared to the symptoms of acute psychosis, including ego dissolution. It has been suggested that neuroimaging of DIED can indirectly shed light on the neural correlates of the self. While this line of inquiry is promising, its results must be interpreted with caution. First, neural correlates of ego dissolution might reveal the necessary neurophysiological conditions for the maintenance of the sense of self, but it is more doubtful that this method can reveal its minimally sufficient conditions. Second, it is necessary to define the relevant notion of self at play in the phenomenon of DIED. This article suggests that DIED consists in the disruption of subpersonal processes underlying the “minimal” or “embodied” self, i.e., the basic experience of being a self rooted in multimodal integration of self-related stimuli. This hypothesis is consistent with Bayesian models of phenomenal selfhood, according to which the subjective structure of conscious experience ultimately results from the optimization of predictions in perception and action. Finally, it is argued that DIED is also of particular interest for philosophy of mind. On the one hand, it challenges theories according to which consciousness always involves self-awareness. On the other hand, it suggests that ordinary conscious experience might involve a minimal kind of self-awareness rooted in multisensory processing, which is what appears to fade away during DIED.