Mystics and philosophers have long contemplated the notion that the fixed self is an illusion. Neuroscientists now think they can prove it and help us glimpse this truth with help from psilocybin, the psychoactive property in magic mushrooms.
Researchers are exploring the drug’s transformative power to help people quit smoking; lower violent crime; treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; and trigger lasting spiritual epiphanies in psychologically healthy people, especially when coupled with meditation.
The limitations to psilocybin studies tend to be small, and rely on volunteers opened to an alternate experience. But the research could have major implications in an age characterized by widespread anxiety.
An alternate view of reality
Psilocybin offers a route to an alternate view of reality, in which they shed the limitations of their individual consciousness and embrace a sense of universality. These trips have transformative psychological effects. The studies offer insights on how we might minimize suffering and gain a sense of peace.
A recent study concluded that psilocybin leads to mystical experiences that can have long-term psychological benefits in conjunction with meditation. The greater the drug dosage, the more potent the positive psychological effect was. Participants showed significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping.
Another experiment involving clergy and psilocybin that enlisted priests, rabbis, and Zen Buddhist monks to take drugs, meditate, and collect inner experiences. The results are not out yet. But so far, the clerics report feeling simultaneous more in touch with their own faith and greater appreciation for alternate paths.
To understand how magic mushrooms can change our views, we must explore how brains shape our sense of self. Our awareness of existence is created by the brain, it hallucinates consciousness for your experience of the world and of yourself within it.
Yet when you are unconscious, you continue to exist without perceiving your own presence. You cease to participate in reality but continue to live. When roused back into consciousness, you lack a narrative to explain the time away. The narrative of the story that seems to be your life is just a function of your brain’s mechanisms, not who you really are. Still, the hallucination of consciousness is one we’re all having in tandem. In this agreed-upon reality, we are each separate individuals, whose stories begin with our births and end with our deaths.
But there are other ways to experience reality. Sometimes our consciousness shifts. The boundaries of the self seem to become less rigid and we commune with another person or thing, as can happen during drug-induced epiphanies, but can also happen when people fall in love, meditate or go out in nature.
Philosophers from numerous traditions argue that people are sad and hostile because we live with a false sense of separation from one another and the rest of the world. This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms).
The brain’s Default Mode Network
Normal consciousness relies, at least in part, on the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), which is a network of interacting brain regions that acts as a cognitive transit hub, integrating and assimilating information. As the name implies, it’s the usual system of organization for your mind.
In studies analyzing the effects of psilocybin on brain wave oscillation and blood flow, it was found that when the DMN was inactive, an alternate network of consciousness seemed to arise. When some study subjects tested psilocybin, they reported a strong sense of interconnectedness, as well as spiritual, magical, and supernatural feelings.
In the alternate mode, brains produced a different world that offered other sensations and realizations than in everyday life. In this mode, the self wasn’t the protagonist of the narrative. Thus the DMN generates the feeling we each have that we’re individuals, a feeling that manifests very strongly as reality. And that means we can temporarily switch off, or mute, this part of the brain.
According to psychoanalytic theory, the feeling of having a personal identity is known as the ego. It’s the boundary-maker and gatekeeper, drawing lines and dividing me from you. But the ego is mutable, our sense of identity can shift—from infancy to adulthood, within relationships, and with certain practices, like meditation.
People need the ego to draw lines, protecting us from people who may take advantage of too much kindness or too open a spirit. But muting the ego can be a good thing. Switching off the default mode changes the connections between cortical regions and activates new modes, new sensations and thoughts, which leads to insights that are kept from consciousness.
Experiencing this state of uninhibited consciousness can lead to lasting changes, even after the psilocybin wears off. For someone who is severely depressed, changing brain activity with psilocybin may be able to jolt them out of a cognitive rut, wherein their default mode repeats negative thoughts and feelings in a damaging loop, and in someone who is psychologically healthy, the additional perspective provided by the alternate consciousness can also improve overall well-being.
Trials of psilocybin in healthy volunteers showed that brief drug-induced mystical experiences changed people over time, leading them to report better moods, heightened altruism and forgiveness, more closeness with others, and a sense of connection.
Subjects rated the experience during a psilocybin session so meaningful that it fell within their top life events. The researchers believe the memory of the drug experience continues to influence people long after the drug itself has technically worn off.
Psychologists distinguish radical transformative experiences as “quantum changes,” as opposed to incremental behavioral-based shifts. But the two are not mutually exclusive. An epiphany prompted by psilocybin can give rise to a new enthusiasm, curiosity, or sense of wonder that can trigger behavioral changes.
No momentary experience is so magical and profound as to make every moment thereafter easy to manage, which is why practitioners of meditation may experience illumination, but still struggle in day-to-day life.
Dissolving the ego doesn’t happen once and for all. The default mode network will resume its duties, and it can be hard to stay in touch with alternative states of consciousness. The epiphanies some people experience on drugs, then, offer a touchstone to which we can return when the brain’s default mode is on.
In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners meditate to cultivate a mind that is conscious of simultaneous modes, able to navigate the two planes of connected consciousness while recognizing the self’s presence. Expanded perceptions of alternative forms of consciousness are a tool to be applied to everyday life. An epiphany may be initially thrilling, but that’s not the point. Extraordinary experiences become normal, and once you perceive the brain’s prankster at work—and then you can really relax.