“Ego death” — or the dissolution of the ego or sense of “I” — is a common experience reported by psychedelics users. By some, it’s referred to as a terrifying experience, enough to make them abstain from using it again for the rest of their lives. For others, it’s an extremely profound experience that makes up the crux of the psychedelic experience and the reason they go back again and again.

Modern experimentation with psychedelics largely revolves around psilocybin — a compound found in magic mushrooms — and LSD — a chemical compound synthesized for the first time in the 1930s. But traditional usage of psychedelic plants far exceeds any modern “experimentation,” with ancient civilizations in the Amazon region practicing with psychedelic plants for thousands of years

Scientific research kicked off in the early 1900s after the discovery of LSD, and psychedelic compounds were showing a lot of promise for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. A pharmaceutical company called Sandoz laboratories even marketed an LSD medicine called “Delysid” in the 1950s.

If you’re reading this, you know that this research has neither lasted for long, nor has it caught definitive hold in the medical community. As soon as LSD was associated with the anti-war hippie movement, it was demonised; research came to a standstill, and it was the end game for psychedelics.

Until now.

Fortunately, 2020 is here, and there are some curious, eager minds out there wondering where psychedelics fit into the grand scheme of psychiatric medicine. Magic mushrooms are now decriminalized in Colorado and efforts are underway in California. In Canada, it’s still illegal to use magic mushrooms, but exemptions are made for medical use. So now, there are even magic mushroom dispensaries in Canada.

So what’s behind the ego death of magic mushrooms and what causes it?

Scientists now think they have a lead on what it is under that tiny mushroom cap that might be a game changer for psychiatry of the future.

The Netherlands Maastricht University study.

A magic mushroom growing in the forest.

It was only recently in May 2020 that researchers from the Netherlands Maastricht University published a paper in Neuropsychopharmacology that might explain how psilocybin mushrooms break down your sense of self. They think this discovery could help explain the difference between a “bad trip,” or terrifying ego dissolution, and a “good trip,” a profound dissolution experience. They think this information is going to open doors for understanding how psilocybin can be used in psychiatry.

Using brain scans of subjects under the effect of psilocybin, researchers discovered that the ego dissolution effect is caused by a substance called glutamate. Glutamate is the king “instigator” in the brain, in that it assists the movement of impulses between neurons. In a normal brain, it plays a huge role in learning and memory. 

Scientists observed that those in the middle of a “good trip” had lower levels of glutamate activity, while those in the middle of a “bad trip” had higher glutamate activity. And interestingly enough, psilocybin can do both: either increase glutamate or reduce it.

In and of itself, this doesn’t reveal much about mushrooms. But it sure as hell reveals some bizarre phenomena about human consciousness: just change the activity of one biomolecule in the brain, and the entire subjective experience of reality changes. That’s a pretty big deal for the study of psychiatry.

David Nutt, and his commentary on psilocybin.

A toxic amanita muscaria mushroom growing in the forest

David Nutt, the infamous professor who lost his job on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, has a lot to say about psychedelic drugs. In fact, the reason he lost his job there was because he pointed out in a paper he published in The Lancet about how government scheduling of drugs doesn’t at all express the dangers of certain drugs. 

The neuropsychopharmacologist contributed to a film called Magic Medicine which outlines his clinical trials on the use of psychedelics.

Nutt talks about the psychology behind depressive and anxiety disorders, and refers to those thought patterns as “memories”. Essentially, Nutt believes that psilocybin and LSD give us access to those “memories” so that we can stop the cyclical thought pattern. They also give those with depression and anxiety an opportunity to think about other things that otherwise don’t have space to express themselves.

In an interview with NQ, Nutt said the most exciting thing about psilocybin mushrooms was “your generation” — meaning us. He also said that drugs should be taken out of the Home Office, which is about law and order. But drugs — they are for the Department of Health according to Nutt, and for obvious reasons, too.

With the movement towards medicinal psychedelics well and truly underway in America and Canada, there’s a lot of promise for the future of psychiatry and psychology. Groundbreaking research is showing us not just that psychedelics might be effective in treating psychiatric disorders, but how they are effective.

Have you experimented with psychedelics? Did you experience an ego dissolution, and was it positive or negative? We’d love to hear from you in the comments. 

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