We hear stories of people losing themselves when they ‘trip’ on psychedpsychedelic substances like mushrooms and LSD. While we have long known that consuming these substances triggers a change in the way our brain works while being ‘high’ or under the influence, scientists have never fully exacted evidence of how this process really works.
But a new study revealed that the effects of psilocybin, the active ingredient in mushrooms, work to dissolve a person’s ego, a phenomenon known as ego-death or ego-disintegration. Researchers say psilocybin triggers a break down of the sense of self through a chemical reaction in the brain.
According to Science Alert, a first-of-its-kind study titled Me, Myself, Byeperformed by researchers from the Netherlands’ Maastricht University offered evidence that suggests this ego-disintegration while ‘tripping’ might be linked to changes in glutamate levels.
Glutamate is the most common excitatory neurotransmitter released by nerve cells in the brain. It is important for fast-tracking signals and information throughout our brain, especially within the cortex and hippocampus.
The brain’s hippocampus, it turns out, is believed to play a role in a person’s self-esteem.
To identify this complex chemical response in a person’s brain while under the influence of mushrooms, researchers set up a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment of 60 volunteers where they analyzed the glutamate levels and sense of ego of volunteers while they took psilocybin.
Then, researchers monitored their brain’s responses using magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans.
The team found significant yet contrasting changes in the brain’s activity within the cortex and the hippocampus. This difference in glutamate levels between the cortex and the hippocampus appeared to be linked to how a person perceived their trip experience as well.
“Analyses indicated that region-dependent alterations in glutamate were also correlated with different dimensions of ego dissolution,” the authors write. “Whereas higher levels of medial prefrontal cortical glutamate were associated with negatively experienced ego dissolution, lower levels in hippocampal glutamate were associated with positively experienced ego dissolution.”
Past studies have suggested that psychedelics are able to tap into our nerve cell system and decouple regions of our brain. This leads to a momentary separation of factual or autobiographical information with one’s sense of personal identity, deteriorating the ego during the psychedelic trip.