LSD and the Default Mode Network: Ego Death

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Understanding Ego Death Using Brain Scanning Techniques

More often than not, in life, relationships, and at work, we become our own obstacles because of the way in which we allow our ego to be in the driver's seat, taking control of our mental and behavioral habits. Pulling yourself apart and subsequently putting yourself back together is the only way to break free from yourself. You can do it quickly or slowly; the choice is yours.


Here, we will explore what ego death is, how and why your brain is trying to preserve your sense of self, and how psychedelics can help with reinventing yourself and living more authentically.


Why Does Ego Death Sound Scary?

The reason why we create a sense of self is to define ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. This narrative we create for ourselves is always relational and bi-directional. As babies, before being two years old, we explore the world more directly through our senses, engaging in perceiving the world through taste, touch, feeling, and sound. Everything is one, and thus, it can be a little chaotic. However, slowly as we input the outer world through our senses, we start to categorize and restructure reality. And so, with this categorical structuring on the world, we begin to define ourselves in relation to that which is around us. 


As children, we transition from the sensorial age (0-2 years old) into an identity-forming age, when meanings and stories about what's outside become internalized. We start building ourselves through the way we perceive reality and the meaning we assign to what we perceive. This is a very susceptible time, and our sense of self is extremely fluid, and easily influenced. However, as we age, the information consolidates and we become more sure of who we are in the world, how we relate to people, how we learn, how we explore, and so forth. Consolidation is not harmful and having an ego is an essential part of being human, helping up to navigate reality, weigh up what is important, and achieve what we set our minds to. Our ego gives us a 


Our ego gives us a sense of volition and authorship about what we choose to do and how we choose to be in this world; about what we can and can't change about our immediate reality. In a way, our ego defines our role in this world and provides us with peace of mind.


When ego death occurs, our sense of control melts. What we thought we knew about ourselves changes, the stories that kept us playing big or small in our lives dissipate, what we knew about how we show up in relationships no longer stands. All the meaning we gave to everything in our lives slowly falls away and we are left with nothingness.

Questions like, “Who am I?”, “What is really important to me?”, come to mind, but this time there is no narrative to fill in the gaps. This is the best time to reconnect with who you are, your life, and who it is that you want to be. 


Before we even dive into explaining how psychedelics (in particular LSD) relate to ego death, we have to get familiar with some of the terms used throughout this article and among the psychedelic community.


LSD: Lysergic acid diethylamide is a potent serotonergic hallucinogen that alters consciousness profoundly and characteristically.


DMN: The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a collection of brain hubs that work together to control and repress consciousness. Similar to the conductor in an orchestra, the DMN filters the amount of sensorial information that enters our sphere of awareness. The DMN is the part of the brain that has been associated with ego formation. The DMN is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions, and is the neurological basis for the self associated with autobiographical information, memories, and self-referential thought. 


Ego death: Ego death, otherwise known as ego-dissolution, is a "complete loss of subjective self-identity". The term is used in multiple contexts, and they all bear relation to one another. In psychology, Jung talked in-depth about “psychic death”, which refers to a fundamental transformation of the psyche. In mythology, ego death is a phase of self-surrender and transition in the Hero's Journey, as described by author Joseph Campbell in his research. Whilst, among psychonauts, during psychedelic experiences, one might experience ego-dissolution, which refers to a (temporary) loss of one's sense self.


Beckley Foundation Study

The Beckley/Imperial Research Programme was one of the studies which released images of how the brain looks while on LSD. Their findings demonstrated that the brain on LSD makes connections between neural networks that are typically isolated and usually work separately from each other. Further, showing an increase in connectivity in the visual cortex, which might serve to explain some of the visuals one gets when using LSD.


Increase in the brain connectivity after LSD (right), compared to placebo (left)

Another finding was a decrease in blood flow to the DMN, correlating with large experiential changes in consciousness. Knowing DMN's function in generating our sense of self, and the decrease of its activity while on LSD, it is no wonder that people are experiencing immense revelations about who they are and what's around them. Ego Death in Relation to the DMN

Your ego is your self-identity, the part of you that separates you from everything else as well as creates narratives about the outside world and your story within it. When the ego dissolves, your sensation and feelings don't cease like when you are unconscious. Rather your attachment to your identity dissolves and all that's left is naked perception.


When your conductor, orchestrating all the output, quietens down, it can create a sense of inner panic. You lose control of what comes from the outside, your confirmation bias filter, and who you are and your narratives about the world become less rigid and more open. 


Losing control can be scary, but it's your chance to be reborn. Take it!