What Is Ego Death?

The feeling of 'losing yourself' during psychedelic use

man staring at himself in the mirror

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Ego death, also known as ego dissolution, is a phenomenon commonly linked with the use of psychedelics. It's described by people who have experienced it as a feeling of losing one's self. It is termed so because it has been reported as feeling like a form of dying in which one lets go of their sense of self and identity. 

Psychedelics that have triggered ego death include LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine. Words that have been used to describe the experience include eye-opening, cathartic, blissful, and scary. Understanding what one means when one refers to the ego is crucial to understand ego death better.

The ego is your self-identity. It is determined by how you view yourself. More than you may realize, your ego determines how you perceive and go through the world. It determines how you interact with others and the degree of your self-esteem. 

Now that you understand what your ego is, you can view ego death as the realization that it holds significantly less importance than most people place on it. Visualize your ego as a deck of cards built into a tower and ego death as the collapse of this tower.

History of Ego Death 

While the premise of ego death may seem terrifying, it may surprise you that people seek out the experience of "ego death." 

The history of ego death as an idea can actually be traced to centuries-old religious and spiritual practices, such as Zen Buddhism, as a method of communion with the universe or a given deity. In more recent decades it has also come to be associated with psychedelic use. People turn to recreational psychedelic use for one of many reasons, one of which is phenomena like ego death. 

LSD and Its Therapeutic Effects

Human beings have dabbled in psychedelic use for over a thousand years. However, when Albert Hoffman created LSD in 1936, people began to turn to the drug for its potential therapeutic effects. While government restrictions slowed research into the drug, the curiosity of the medical and scientific community never waned. 

These days administering psychedelic therapy for conditions such as depression and anxiety isn't uncommon. The potential for psychedelics to improve the psychological well-being of the average person is also being studied. 

Early studies recognize that psychedelics have the potential to benefit the average individual therapeutically. The extent and mechanism of these effects are not entirely understood, however. 

Coining the Term 'Ego Death'

The term ego death appears first to be used in connection with modern-day psychedelic use by Timothy Leary in the 1960s in his book The Psychedelic Experience. In the book, Leary describes how ego death may occur while using LSD. He mentions that the experience may be terrifying or enlightening depending on how prepared you are for the occasion. 

A decade later, in the 1970s, Stanislav Graf, an acclaimed psychologist, suggested that the main aim of psychedelic therapy should be ego death.

One way psychedelics seem to be therapeutically beneficial through the phenomenon known as ego death or ego dissolution, particularly in connection with a sensation known as 'connectedness.' Both are thought to be closely related. A simple way to think of connectedness is a feeling of connection with oneself, others, and the world at large. 

Current scientific theories suggest that both experiences can positively influence your mental health and well-being. However, more research needs to be done to understand how this may work. 

Signs of Ego Death 

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.

In a 2020 study into the link between glutamate use and ego death, researchers observed that higher levels of glutamate in the medial prefrontal cortical resulted in a negative experience of ego death, while lower levels in hippocampal glutamate were associated with a positive experience of ego death. 

Signs You're Experiencing Ego Death

When you experience ego death:

  • Your sense of being will no longer feel distinct from the world
  • You may feel as though you are connected to the universe
  • You might feel you are connected to all human beings

What Triggers Ego Death?

Although it's often linked with psychedelic use, other things can bring on ego death. Ego death may either be induced by psychedelic use or entering a deep meditative state. Other life-altering experiences like near-death experiences and childbirth have also been linked to experiences akin to ego death. 

Spiritual people believe it can be conjured by your mind alone by entering a deeply meditative state. For Buddhists, the phenomenon is described as enlightenment. For Sufi Muslims, it's called Fana, which is defined as the passing away of self. It translates to "Die in God." For Sufi Muslims, Fana is achieved by constantly reflecting upon the qualities of God. 

At the core of it, ego death is the demise of your sense of self as you know it. Ego death results in a significant reduction of self-referential awareness, sparking a disruption in how you view yourself in the world and sometimes encouraging a feeling of unity with others and the world in general. 

Positive Benefits of Ego Death 

Attempting to attain ego death often means dabbling into recreational psychedelic use. Doing so is strongly frowned upon by many healthcare providers. However, there's promising research into the benefits of psychedelic use resulting in ego death on one's mental health and well-being. 

Improved Well-Being

In a 2022 study into psychedelic use and the role ego death and connectedness play on your mental well-being, researchers found that there are potentially beneficial therapeutic effects, including improved psychological well-being. This is especially true across several mental health conditions, including depressionanxiety, and substance use disorder.

Researchers also suggested that isolation and being overly self-focused, which are at the opposite ends of the scale of ego death and connectedness, may be linked with mental suffering. 

Default Mode Network

Research shows a link between your ego and sense of self with your default mode network (DMN). The DMN is thought to be responsible for many things, including ego, emotion, morality, and empathy. How you view yourself and how much value you place on your sense of self and your self-identity all culminate in forming your ego. 

Some people regard the ego as a lens through which they view the world. People who argue for the benefits of ego death suggest that this lens is often restrictive. So, in turn, they believe that ego death serves to remove these restrictions. Where ego death is triggered by psychedelic use, there appears to be a dulling in the activity in your DMN, which is thought to possibly trigger ego death. 

Potential Pitfalls of Ego Death 

While ego death can be a potentially blissful experience, it can also be a terrifying experience. People react uniquely to psychedelics. Factors such as a history of drug use, gender, age, and other environmental factors all come into play in determining your psychedelic experience.

It's possible to have negative reactions to psychedelic use. For instance, you might experience the following:

  • Nausea
  • Sleep problems
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Panic
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis

The long-term effect of experiencing ego death from psychedelic use is unknown, and data may one day may reveal unexpected side effects. Also, because modern materialistic science views our perceptions only as biological phenomena, it lacks the capability to consider “un-scientific” but possibly significant religious or spiritual effects that may occur with ego death from psychedelics.

A Word From Verywell 

Ego death is undoubtedly a dynamic experience. However, whether this is good or harmful to you has long been a topic of conversation amongst psychedelic experts and enthusiasts. It's crucial to note that the recreational use of substances such as psychedelics can be accompanied by many unpleasant and potentially fatal side effects. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.