How LSD can make us lose our sense of self

First functional magnetic resonance images of people's brains while on LSD help to explain the phenomenon known as 'ego dissolution.'

Every single person is different. We all have different backgrounds, views, values and interests. And yet there is one universal feeling that we all experience at every single moment. Call it an “ego”, a “self” or just an “I” – it’s the idea that our thoughts and feelings are our own, and no one else has access to them in the same way.

Our sense of self is something so natural that we are not always fully aware of it. In fact, it is when it is disturbed that it becomes the most noticeable. This could be due to mental illnesses such as psychosis, when people might experience the delusional belief that their thoughts are no longer private, or it could be due to the influence of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, when the user can feel that their ego is “dissolving” and they are becoming at one with the world.

The first functional magnetic resonance images (fMRI) of people's brains while on LSD help to explain this phenomenon known as "ego dissolution." As researchers report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 13, these images suggest that ego dissolution occurs as regions of the brain involved in higher cognition become heavily over-connected.

For the study, researchers studied 15 healthy volunteers before and after taking LSD, which altered their normal feelings of their selves and their relationship with the environment. These subjects were scanned while intoxicated and while receiving placebo using functional MRI, a technique that allowed researchers to study the brain’s activity by measuring changes in blood flow.

Results of this study showed that the experience of ego-dissolution induced by LSD was not related to changes in only one region of the brain. Instead, the drug affected the way that several brain regions were communicating with the rest of the brain, increasing their level of connectivity. These included the fronto-parietal region, an area that has previously been linked to self-awareness, and the temporal region, an area involved in language comprehension and creating visual memories.

"This could mean that LSD results in a stronger sharing of information between regions, enforcing a stronger link between our sense of self and the sense of the environment and potentially diluting the boundaries of our individuality," said Dr. Enzo Tagliazucchi, the study’s lead author and researcher at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

They also observed changes in the functioning of a part of the brain earlier linked to "out-of-body" experiences, in which people feel as though they've left their bodies. "I like to think that our experiment represents a pharmacological analogue of these findings," Tagliazucchi said.

These results highlight that a full understanding of the brain will never be complete unless scientists focus on the connectivity between regions as part of a complex network, just as a symphony is fully appreciated only when one listens to all members of the orchestra playing it together, and not by studying each individual instrument separately.

Finally, “Psychedelics provide a window of opportunity for the patients to perform new associations and acquire new insights, which can have a lasting effect over time,” said Tagliazucchi. “In the case of anxiety — more precisely, death-related anxiety in terminal stage cancer patients — a very important insight comes from the experience of ego-dissolution.” The loss of one’s personal identity, as well as their sense of self within the environment, helps patients cope with their inevitable deaths, he says, which is reflected in previous research by psychiatrist Dr. Peter Gasser.

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