At first glance, the term “ego death” sounds like the opposite of a good time. But in the context of psychedelics, ego death might help explain why psychoactive drugs can produce therapeutic effects.
Your identity is shaped by factors like your family, culture, and life experiences. Ego death happens when your consciousness loosens its grip on your identity. It blurs the boundaries between the “you” in your head and the rest of the world.
As it turns out, something about that shift can change the way you think about yourself and your environment. Here’s what we know about ego death, psychedelics, and what the scientific literature shows so far.
What Is Ego Death?
Your ego is your identity. It’s the sense of self that perceives and interacts with the world. Ego death refers to the reduction or loss of your identity.
When you experience ego death, you move away from your sense of self-awareness. The experience interrupts the boundaries you’ve built between your identity and your surroundings.1 It can be positive and produce feelings of unity and transcendence, or it can be negative and anxiety-inducing.2
Ego death is also known as ego disintegration and ego dissolution. According to researcher Dr. Raphaël Millière, the term “ego dissolution” emerged in the 1950s to describe the effects of LSD and mescaline.3 However, ego death isn’t limited to psychedelics.
Data from self-report studies suggests that the following types of drugs can cause ego death:3
- Classical psychedelics, such as DMT, mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin
- Dissociative anesthetics, such as ketamine and phencyclidine (PCP)
- Kappa-opioid agonists, such as salvinorin A (salvia) and spiradoline
Questionnaires aren’t the same as controlled studies, but they can point to opportunities for future research. Additionally, other experiences are believed to cause ego death.
In the seminal 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience, authors Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) write that experiences such as sensory deprivation, yoga, meditation, and spiritual practices can also elicit ego death.4
And in 2022, researchers proposed that virtual reality can diminish the ego and promote a sense of connectedness similar to psychedelics.5
What does ego death feel like?
Based on anecdotal evidence, people experience ego death differently—but there are a few similar ego death “symptoms,” such as a feeling of unity with one’s surroundings, blissful transcendence, and peace.
In 2016, researchers designed a study to validate the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI), a self-report scale designed to measure ego death.6 Here are a few notable responses, based on data gathered from nearly 700 participants:
- “I felt at one with the universe”
- “I felt a sense of union with others”
- “I experienced a decrease in my sense of self-importance”
- “I felt far less absorbed by my own issues and concerns”
How Does Ego Death Happen?
First: This is a question that scientists are still studying. (Human consciousness is complicated.) However, research shows that specific brain regions are associated with drug-induced ego death, and more intense psychedelic experiences are more likely to produce ego death.6
A large body of research focuses primarily on the default mode network (DMN), a system of brain structures that relate to self-reflection and the ability to think about the emotional states of others.8 However, studies have found that other brain regions may play a role in ego death, too.
In 2020, researchers studying ego death and psilocybin proposed a theory:1 Psychedelics change the way the brain communicates within the medial temporal lobe, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory. In this communication breakdown, your brain temporarily loses access to your autobiographical information. When your brain can’t access those details about your identity, you get ego death.
Similarly, the creators of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI) suggest that psychedelics disrupt normal DMN activity. That disruption might contribute to a more free-flowing style of cognition and a looser grip on a person’s sense of self.6
Additional research has shown that ego death is associated with the salience network, regions of the brain that contribute to communication, social behavior, and self-awareness.8
All this to say, we’re not totally sure how ego death happens yet—but evidence shows that ego death isn’t limited to a single part of the brain.
The Stages of Ego Death
Scientific literature focuses on understanding the brain in measurable ways, such as charting which brain regions are activated during ego death experiences. This is a practical, Westernized approach to understanding consciousness.
In comparison, Eastern philosophy places greater emphasis on the spiritual elements of consciousness, such as the teachings found in Bardo Thödol (aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead). This funerary text is intended to assist a person through death and guide their consciousness into rebirth.
Authors Leary, Metzner, and Dass (Alpert) adapted the Bardo Thödol in the 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience. They wrote about the stages of ego death based on the three bardos (intervals between death and rebirth) in Bardo Thödol. The stages are:
- Chikhai Bardo: Ego loss and a complete transcendence of the self
- Chonyid Bardo: Where one experiences visions of Buddha or god-like forms
- Sidpa Bardo: A period of hallucinations that result in rebirth
Like the Bardo Thödol, sections from The Psychedelic Experience are intended to be read aloud to the person who is partaking in a psychedelic trip. These sections accompany each of the “stages” and help ground the tripper (or “voyager”) through the ego death experience.
So, who’s doing the reading? During a psychedelic trip, it’s best practice to have a trusted person in the room (aka a trip sitter). Their comforting guidance can help create a safe set and setting for a psychedelic trip. The term “set and setting” describes two essential elements of the psychedelic experience: your mindset and environment.
Researchers propose that set and setting can influence a person’s ego death experience and whether they welcome it or fight against it.6
Psychedelics and Ego Death
Although there are several ways to elicit ego death, high doses of certain psychedelics have been shown to cause it.
In one controlled study of 28 healthy participants, researchers found that one dose of LSD (100 mcg) produced greater ego death effects than MDMA or d-amphetamine.9 A separate study found that LSD increased connectivity between brain networks that normally don’t communicate, which is correlated with ego death experiences.10, 3
In 2018, researchers assessed 57 participants before, the day of, and after partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony. They found that more intense ego death experiences correlated to mood changes, mindfulness, and satisfaction. Higher ratings of ego death were also associated with reductions in symptoms of depression and stress.11 This was an observational study, not a controlled trial. Still, the findings point to opportunities for future studies.
Ayahuasca and LSD aren’t the only drugs that cause ego death; 5-MeO-DMT, ketamine, mescaline, and psilocybin have also been shown to disrupt a person’s sense of self.
It’s also important to note that psychedelics and ego death can create difficult experiences. Psychedelics can induce uneasiness and feelings of dread, although a 2022 review noted that a person’s set and setting could help minimize a person’s anxiety.2
Can Ego Death Be a Good Thing?
Studies have shown a positive correlation between ego death and well-being.6
One possible reason: Ego death changes the way a person directs their attention, temporarily shaking loose the tendency to hyper-focus on one’s own concerns, fears, and negative sense of self. Changes to attention, some propose, can contribute to new perspectives about underlying beliefs.7
For example, people with anxiety and depression tend to ruminate on negative thoughts about themselves and others. Because ego death shifts the focus away from the self, the experience effectively interrupts a person’s thought patterns.
That interruption might make a person more receptive to therapy or more inclined to think differently about their problems, although more research is needed to understand the therapeutic potential of ego death.
Ego Death Real Stories
In this interview, author and journalist Michael Pollan shares the metaphor that a researcher used to describe ego death:
“Think of your mind as a hill covered in snow and your thoughts are sleds going down that hill. After a while, after a lot of thoughts have gone down that hill, there will be these grooves that get deeper and deeper. At a certain point, you can’t go down the hill without slipping into those grooves. That’s who we are at this age. What psychedelics do, he said, is flatten the snow. Lots of fresh powder. Then, you can take the sled any way you want to go.”
Similarly, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently went public with his psychedelic experiences, including ego death after drinking Ayahuasca. Rodgers explained, “It gave me a deep and meaningful appreciation for life.”
For musician Sting, ego death gave him a new perspective on mortality. In the Netflix documentary “Have a Good Trip,” he said, “What the experience does is it presents you with the idea of mortality right there. It’s your own mortality, the mortality of the planet…that is the central issue of consciousness.”
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I know if I experience ego death?
You’ve experienced ego death if you feel like your sense of self has disappeared. Some describe it as the sensation of dying, then emerging into a state of blissful connectedness. It’s a distinct, consciousness-shifting experience. You’ll know it if you experience it.
How long does ego death last?
Ego death can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on what you’ve taken. DMT tends to produce shorter trips that last anywhere from five to 30 minutes, while psilocybin and LSD can take as long as six to 10 hours.
Can ego death improve your mental health?
There’s some evidence that intense ego death experiences are correlated with improved well-being. However, more research is needed to determine whether ego death improves mental health.
Is ego death the same as a mystical experience?
Ego death and mystical experiences are related, but different. A mystical experience is a transcendental, spiritual feeling of unity that might involve an encounter with a higher power or God. Ego death is a feature of a mystical experience.6
Psychedelics, meditation, and sensory deprivation are ways to trigger ego death, which feels like a sense of oneness with the universe and the loss of a person’s identity. Ego death is a hallmark of an intense psychedelic experience, but it remains a poorly understood part of human consciousness (for now).
- Mason NL, Kuypers KPC, Müller F, et al. Me, myself, bye: regional alterations in glutamate and the experience of ego dissolution with psilocybin. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020;45(12):2003-2011. doi:10.1038/s41386-020-0718-8
- Ko K, Knight G, Rucker JJ, Cleare AJ. Psychedelics, mystical experience, and therapeutic efficacy: A systematic review. Front Psychiatry. 2022;13:917199. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2022.917199
- Millière R. Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017;11:245. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245
- Leary T. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Citadel Underground). 1st ed. Citadel; 2000:160.
- Glowacki DR, Williams RR, Wonnacott MD, et al. Group VR experiences can produce ego attenuation and connectedness comparable to psychedelics. Sci Rep. 2022;12(1):8995. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-12637-z
- Nour MM, Evans L, Nutt D, Carhart-Harris RL. Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Front Hum Neurosci. 2016;10:269. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00269
- Stoliker D, Egan GF, Razi A. Reduced precision underwrites ego dissolution and therapeutic outcomes under psychedelics. Front Neurosci. 2022;16:827400. doi:10.3389/fnins.2022.827400
- Lebedev AV, Lövdén M, Rosenthal G, Feilding A, Nutt DJ, Carhart-Harris RL. Finding the self by losing the self: Neural correlates of ego-dissolution under psilocybin. Hum Brain Mapp. 2015;36(8):3137-3153. doi:10.1002/hbm.22833
- Holze F, Vizeli P, Müller F, et al. Distinct acute effects of LSD, MDMA, and D-amphetamine in healthy subjects. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020;45(3):462-471. doi:10.1038/s41386-019-0569-3
- Tagliazucchi E, Roseman L, Kaelen M, et al. Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution. Curr Biol. 2016;26(8):1043-1050. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.010
- Uthaug MV, van Oorsouw K, Kuypers KPC, et al. Sub-acute and long-term effects of ayahuasca on affect and cognitive thinking style and their association with ego dissolution. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2018;235(10):2979-2989. doi:10.1007/s00213-018-4988-3