Breakthrough psilocybin study uncovers neurochemical origins of human ego

New research asks, how does psilocybin create a feeling of ego dissolution, and what chemicals in the brain create our subjective sense of self?

Impressive new research, led by scientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has uncovered a new neurochemical mechanism by which psilocybin generates its hallucinogenic effects. The research also revealed a direct relationship between a psychedelically-induced subjective sense of ego dissolution and this particular neurochemical process. New Atlas spoke to Natasha Mason, lead author on the new study, to learn more.

The death of the ego

rapidly growing body of evidence is being generated by researchers all over the world supporting the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic compounds. Psilocybin, the primary psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms, has been demonstrating such profound efficacy in early trials for treating major depression the FDA has twice granted it a Breakthrough Status designation over the past year.

Exactly how psilocybin generates its beneficial therapeutic effects is still unclear, both physiologically and psychologically. Anecdotally, perhaps the most commonly reported subjective effect of a psychedelic drug is a disruption to one’s sense of ego. It has been so frequently reported over decades that suggesting psychedelics generate a feeling of “oneness with the universe” is virtually a trite cliche at this point.

Nevertheless, this blurring, or even complete disintegration, of the distinction between our subjective sense of self and the external environment under the influence of psychedelics has long fascinated researchers. Timothy Leary called it “ego-loss” back in the 1960s, while more modern scientists variously use terms including ego-death, ego-disintegration and ego-dissolution.

Considering ego-dissolution is a seemingly fundamental part of many psychedelic experiences, researchers are beginning to explore how this deeply subjective phenomenological sensation could be mediating the therapeutic benefits of these drugs. And, even more intriguing, how our brain chemistry is influencing the way we experience our sense of self.

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