By Edmund Murphy

Last updated: 20 February 2024 & medically reviewed by Dr. Samantha Miller

For most, this is not a straightforward notion to get your head around as we don't often consider our sense of identity in this way, let alone the prospect of its death. But many psychedelic users suggest that achieving ego death through careful administration of psychedelics opens up the mind's potential for emotional and behavioral growth.

Key takeaways:

  • By achieving ego death, you are able to step outside of this subconscious ideal into a version of yourself unburdened by the understanding of who you are. This idea is not a concrete model and is not easily recorded in psychological studies.

  • Ego death is sometimes referred to as 'autobiographical amnesia', an idea that has become of particular interest to psychedelic therapists.

  • Many spiritual people believe that practicing meditation can lead to ego death, with a deep focus outside of the mind and self. Buddhists refer to this state as enlightenment or to experience the ‘non-self’ (anattā). Sufi Muslims refer to it as Fana, to "die in god".

Psychedelic Ego Death

What is ego death?

Partaking in psychedelics or hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, DMT, toad venom (5-MeO-DMT), and ketamine can induce ego death, also known as ego dissolution. ego death is the complete breaking down of one's sense of self; a removal of the subconscious ideal of who we are.[1]

The ego is your sense of self; how you subconsciously perceive your place in the world and your value in it. It is determined by your own personal assessment shaped by years of experience.[1] To an extent, the ego shapes how you navigate life and how you relate to others, as well as your level of self-worth.

By achieving ego death, you are able to step outside of this subconscious ideal into a version of yourself unburdened by the understanding of who you are. This idea is not a concrete model and is not easily recorded in psychological studies. People who achieve ego death often describe it as a mystical experience.

Nevertheless, ego death is widely reported among psychedelic practitioners and many seek out this elusive experience every year; with psychedelic retreats and shaman lead mystical journies under the influence of hallucinogens becoming a lucrative business.

Psychedelic therapy and ego death

Ego death is sometimes referred to as 'autobiographical amnesia', an idea that has become of particular interest to psychedelic therapists. Controlled studies of psychedelic use often show heightened activity in the hippocampus when ego death occurs, as well as interaction with the posterior cingulate cortex which acts as the brain's processing hub.[3]

The hippocampus is responsible for storing and retrieving memories, and higher doses of psychedelics interrupt this information flow, creating a gap in our ability to recall our sense of self. This disruption of self-identity may be useful to therapists as it offers clients an unbridled perspective that may give insight into their conscious being.[2] 

While this freedom of perspective may be useful to some clients, it may be daunting to others. One study looking at the efficacy of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression looked at the user's experience under the influence of psychedelics to predict the benefits of long-term use to mental health.[4] They looked for two distinct states; "oceanic boundlessness" and "dread of ego dissolution".[4] Oceanic boundlessness is a positive mental reaction to psychedelics with mystical-type experiences; dread of ego dissolution is an increase in anxiety at the prospect of mystical-type experiences under the influence of psychedelics.

Patients who experienced oceanic boundlessness were found to be more responsive to the therapeutic effects of psilocybin and would benefit from mental health treatment with psychedelics under psychiatric conditions.[4]

Related: Therapeutic LSD

How is ego death achieved?

The most widely recognized context for ego death is through psychedelic use, taking enough of a substance such as psilocybin or LSD that ego dissolution occurs (though the experience may not occur every time psychedelics are taken). However, reports suggest that achieving ego death may be possible without psychedelics at all.

Many spiritual people believe that practicing meditation can lead to ego death, with a deep focus outside of the mind and self. Buddhists refer to this state as enlightenment or to experience the ‘non-self’ (anattā). Sufi Muslims refer to it as Fana, to "die in god".[5]

Others have reported the sensation of ego death during unexpected and unique moments in life such as near-death experiences and childbirth, where the situation is so profound it causes ego dissolution as the brain struggles to place the self in relation to the events occuring.

What does ego death feel like?

Ego death is a highly personal experience. People who have experienced it share sentiments like feeling they lost themselves or feeling like they were one with the universe (oceanic boundlessness) but often have their own insight into the experience.

Imagine waking up in a room where you don't recognize anything, nor do you know who you are. You have a notion you are a person and there is a world around you. However, you have no historical bias or context and can experience yourself and the world for the first time. This can often present people with profound insight into themselves and their relation to the universe. It may also cause fear as not knowing the answers to who or where you are may be frightening to some.

This is a somewhat lofty and homogenized explanation but it is the closest to an approximation of what ego death feels like. Some signs of ego death may include:

  • A feeling of oneness with the world and universe

  • Feeling connected to all human beings without knowing them

  • An inability to recall specificities about yourself or your history (autobiographical amnesia)

When the effects of ego death begin to fade, the user will often experience autobiographical memories rapidly coming back into their consciousness as the posterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus begin to work again. This feeling has been likened to "life flashing before your eyes" much like what is reported in near-death experiences.

How long does ego death last?

The duration and intensity of the ego death state when induced by psychedelic drugs often depend on the properties of the substance and the quantity used. For example, psilocybin, ayahuasca, mescaline, and LSD have longer-lasting effects (with trips often lasting many hours) meaning ego death while under the influence of these drugs can last hours. Most people who claim to have experienced ego death were under the influence of psilocybin or LSD.

Short-term hallucinogens and psychedelics like DMT may have ego-death states that only last for a few minutes. If ego death occurs with DMT, the user will often be dropped rapidly into a dissolution state, which may be overwhelming and frightening.

The reported benefits of ego death

The recreational use of psychedelics, even in the context of improving mental health, is still largely frowned upon by healthcare providers and general society. However, continuing research across the globe increasingly supports the benefits of psychedelic therapy and ego death for mental health as well as other benefits. 

Efficiency of psychedelic therapy

As the previous research study suggests, those who are able to go through the experience of ego death without the dread of ego disillusion are better positioned to benefit from psychedelic therapy. Though ego death is beneficial for psychedelic therapies, it is not the only option. There have been many studies into how microdosing substances like psilocybin and LSD can reduce symptoms of major depressive disorder and other mental health conditions. Read here to learn more about microdosing.

Improved well-being

A 2022 study looked into the role psychedelics, connectedness, and ego death played in improving mental well-being.[6] Their results found that most subjects reported improved psychological well-being, especially those with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance addictions. 

These researchers also suggest that the antithesis of ego death, being disconnected and isolated from the world around you and being self-focused, may be linked to increased negative psychological well-being and suffering.[6]

Resetting your default mode network

The brain's default mode network (DMN) is believed to be responsible for how we process and understand emotion, empathy, morality, and ego. Research suggests a link between our DMN and ego and ultimately helps shape our self-identity.[7]

People who argue the benefits of ego death often suggest that the ego, and by extension the DMN, is a restrictive lens through which we see and perceive ourselves and the world around us. By achieving ego death we dull the activity in our DMN (though, the causation may be inverted here) allowing us to experience the world without our preset notions, meaning we may see people and situations differently.[7]

The negatives of ego death and psychedelic experimentation

While achieving ego death through psychedelic use may sound positive, there are some risks associated with it. The primary risk is people being unable to take psychedelics without experiencing a bad trip.[8]

This can be common in those who have preconceived beliefs that they will have a bad time as well as those who are in a poor mental state before taking psychedelics. Other variables can affect a person's likelihood of experiencing dread of ego disillusion such as their history of drug use, gender, age, body mass index, and environmental factors.

Another downside to psychedelic-induced ego death is the illegality of possessing and consuming hallucinogenic or psychedelic substances. Currently, in the United States, most psychedelic substances such as DMT, mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin are Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act. This means they are deemed to have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse and addiction.

With most current and historical research into psychedelics pointing to the contrary; with little to no reports of psychedelic substance use disorders and considerable psychological benefits, some states are beginning to change their position. Proposition 122 was passed in Colorado in August 2022 which called for clinical access to psilocybin and in some cases DMT, mescaline, and Ibogaine with more states looking to pass similar props.[9]

If you think experiencing ego death may benefit your psychological state but are concerned about taking psychedelics or do not want to break the law, try seeking the experience through other means such as meditation.