#19: Who, what, where or why is my Ego?

It’s always been there, chattering away up in my head, reflecting on the past, fantasising the future, judging others and working on its autobiography. But who, what, where or why is my ego?

The Science of Ego

Neuroscientists reckon they know. There’s one part of the brain’s orchestra that seems to act as its conductor, leading into harmony the cacophony of primitive instruments that would otherwise lurch from note to note, score to score, with no sense of direction. It marshals lower order brain processes such as our emotions and memory, and assumes responsibility for our higher meta-cognitive capabilities including self-reflection, chronesthesia (mental time travel), and our ability to empathise and read the minds of others (not literally).

In 2001, neurologist Marcus Raichle claimed the opportunity to name this, the pinnacle of evolutionary neurology (clears throat):

the default mode network.

Talk about deflating my Ego: I sound like a 1980s circuit board.

The Art of Ego

Aesthetically if not scientifically, I prefer the poetry of earlier philosophers and psychologists who attempted the delicate task of pinning to the page the Ego’s bubble.

Jean-Paul Sartre, counter-culture French philosopher par excellence, captures the essence of the Ego in a short parable. You are crouched at a closed door, peeking through the key hole, watching two lovers in bed enjoying each other’s bodies with rampant abandon. You are totally immersed in the scene, perfectly concealed and relishing your voyeurism. Then you hear a creak on the floorboards behind you. The sudden rush of blood to your face is the belated return of your Ego: your shameful sense of self as distinct from others.

The Psychology of Ego

Whichever you prefer, art or science, to live with No Ego is to forget yourself, to be in the moment and indivisible from the universe. Why on earth would I want such a feeling? Well, quite apart from any ego-driven fantasies of becoming an enlightened being or more earthy desires like not being such a self-centred douche-bag, the activity of the default mode network is what psychologists call mind-wandering and it’s not very good for our mental health.

In 2010, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert ran a study to find out how a wandering mind (thinking about anything other than the present activity) affects our happiness. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” they concluded. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” Even when your mind wanders to some pleasant thought, they found, you are no happier than if you’d stayed focused in the moment.

When our egos are in charge, we become dissatisfied with life. There are several ways to turn down the volume on the default mode network, including acupuncture and sleep deprivation, but the two methods I explore are silent meditation and psychedelic compounds. Groovy.

The Psychedelics of Ego

Robin Carhart-Harris is the Head of Psychedelic Research at the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. He describes the default mode network as a conductor of an orchestra, sitting at the head of a hierarchy that manages what we perceive from the sensations we pick up from the world around us.

But when he gave his study participants a psychedelic dose, Carhart-Harris saw a great reduction in blood flow and electrical activity in the default mode network. “It’s like the conductor’s left the room,” he says. What’s more, as the default mode network shuts down, volunteers also reported feelings of ego dissolution. The psychedelic experience of ego dissolution is well known and has been established beyond doubt by a comparative survey of the psychedelic, cocaine and alcohol use of over six hundred people.

When the default mode network is engaged, patterns of neural activity look compartmentalised: visual regions communicate mostly with other visual regions, for example. Silence the default mode network, however, and the whole brain gets involved in visual processing.

As Carhart-Harris describes it, the brain becomes “untethered” from sensory input, allowing us to “see” visions summoned from the depths of the mind, rather than from the eye’s input. “It’s a perceptual error,” Carhart-Harris says, “but it’s a function of how the perceptual system works. What we’re seeing are the brain’s predictions, they’re just wrong predictions.”

Psychedelics are popularly portrayed as chemically inducing these strange hallucinations: that’s not true. Carhart-Harris’s neuro-imaging results clearly show that the psychedelic (in the case of this study, psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms) resulted in less neural activity, not more.

Why Disable the Default Mode Network?

The default mode network definitely helps us get on in the world, but the reality it creates is one of few surprises. As Carhart-Harris says, “Our normal waking consciousness is very habitual and actually it probably forms so that we aren’t surprised by the world.” By reducing novelty and uncertainty to its lowest possible level, we inhabit a steady, familiar world. That’s the best possible world for an organism whose priority is to survive, but Carhart-Harris warns “there may be a danger that our models of our world that we’ve formed do become too rigid, too ossified”.

This rigidity of the mind can become a serious problem in some. People suffering from depression have excessively rigid minds, stuck in negative or hopeless patterns of reality that just reinforce themselves in a continuous loop. What we call addiction is a consequence of similarly repetitive and rigid compulsions for dysfunctional behaviour harmful to the addict’s life.

Over the past thirty-odd years of existence, my default mode network has compiled a logical and functional reality for me to live by. Thank goodness it has: just writing these words would be a struggle if my perceptual system saw anew every morning the mesmerising lights of the computer screen. But every sensation I collect passes through my default mode network, every sight, sound and smell is squished and squashed until it will fit through the ego’s filtration system and neatly into my existing world view. This all happens without me knowing what’s going on: I have no conscious awareness of the way I’m seeing and I literally don’t know what I’m missing. This makes our rigidity of mind a problem, not just for the depressed and addicted, but for everyone.

As I hope I’ve shown through my experiments with mobile phones, supermarkets, aeroplanes and others, we all carry around certain dependencies, certain rigid patterns of the mind, and all of us would benefit from taking a look at those every once in a while. The default mode network, what we might call the ego, is the repository of all our dependencies. And we’ve discovered chemicals that can switch it off.

Switching Off the Default Mode Network

“What psychedelics may do is to disturb those overly reinforced behaviours which rest on overly reinforced patterns of brain activity,” Carhart-Harris says. He describes psychedelics as shaking up the brain “like a snow dome”, and after well-mediated sessions one can hope that the snow will resettle into a healthier pattern. “Psychedelics seem to have the capacity to weaken these constraints and when you do that you can potentially be more creative, you’ve got a more supple mind, you’re more open-minded.”

In 2016, Carhart-Harris was part of a team who found that 75 micrograms of LSD reliably, and in the long term, increased the personality trait of openness in healthy subjects. This replicated the results of a similar 2011 study at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where participants were given psilocybin.

Slowly being released from the shackles of fearful over-regulation, scientists are finally able to test the outlandish claims of hippies and shamans. What we need are not more fear-provoked and fear-provoking legal bans, but mature, informed encounters with drugs, therapies and medicines that have such potential to create profound, mystical-type experiences of the world. Encounters such as the one offered by The Psychedelic Society: one timeless weekend in a rented house in Amsterdam – but no time to go into that here!

Further Reading

Raichle, M. E., A. M. MacLeod, A. Z. Snyder, W. J. Powers, D. A. Gusnard, and G. L. Shulman. ‘A Default Mode of Brain Function’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 2 (16 January 2001): 676–82. doi:10.1073/pnas.98.2.676.

Sartre, J. P. Being and nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library. 1956 (Hazel Bames, trans.) p222

Killingsworth, M. A., and D. T. Gilbert. ‘A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind’. Science 330, no. 6006 (12 November 2010): 932–932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439.

Carhart-Harris, Robin L., David Erritzoe, Tim Williams, James M. Stone, Laurence J. Reed, Alessandro Colasanti, Robin J. Tyacke, et al. ‘Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by fMRI Studies with Psilocybin’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 6 (7 February 2012): 2138–43. doi:10.1073/pnas.1119598109.

‘Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris – Psilocybin and the Psychedelic State’. Vimeo. Filmmaker: Matt Faw. Accessed 25 October 2016. https://vimeo.com/44412867.

Nour et al. Ego-Dissolution and Psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI) Particle News http://www.particlenews.com/n/03Lxupzy

Lebedev, AV, et al. (2016) LSD-induced entropic brain activity predicts subsequent personality change Human Brain Mapping: Online 6 May 2016

Maclean, KA, et al. (2011) Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness Journal of Psychopharmacology November 2011 vol. 25 no. 11 1453-1461 http://jop.sagepub.com/content/25/11/1453

What do you think?