I once laughed at a bumper sticker that read “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” A Fresh Air interview with Michael Pollan about his book How To Change Your Mind convinces me that ego is for people who can’t handle reality.
The Harsh Neurotic Chatterer
The closest author Michael Pollan could come to describing his psilocybin (aka magic mushroom) experience to Terry Gross was this:
“I felt my sense of self scattered to the wind, almost as if a pile of Post-its had been released to the wind, but I was fine with it.”
He didn’t feel the desire to put the papers back in order. The consciousness that beheld this was not his normal consciousness. It was unperturbed, dispassionate, content.
“And what I brought back from that experience was that I’m not identical to my ego.”
Considered by researchers to be one of the “healthy normals,” Pollan doesn’t see much of a problem with his ego, the neurotic internal chatterer who narrates his life. He claims he couldn’t have written How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence without it. But even he admits that at times his ego “can be very harsh, and it’s liberating to have some distance from it.”
The Black Mass
The egos of people Pollan interviewed for his book were worse than neurotic. The internal narrator of a sixty-ish figure skating instructor kept telling her a tale of terror. Her bout with ovarian cancer wasn’t over. The cancer was coming back to get her. Her fear was debilitating.
So, on her psilocybin trip, she journeyed into her body to face her storyteller down.
“She saw this black mass under her rib cage, and she realized that was not her cancer. It was her fear. And she beheld this black mass, and she screamed at it. She said, ‘get the fuck out of my body.’ And it vanished. And when she came to, her fear had been absolutely extinguished.”
The Most Unearthly Sight
The image that took Pollan’s breath away showed up one day on his computer: a photo of an emaciated man with an oxygen clip in his nose wearing a hospital gown, taken three days before his death.
“And he was beaming,” said Pollan. “It was the most unearthly sight. And that’s how he died. And it was this experience – and I say experience, not just drug – that allowed him to die that way.”
The fifty-something journalist had enrolled for a psilocybin clinical trial after receiving the diagnosis that his bile duct cancer had spread to his lungs. The experience allowed him to live the last seventeen months of his life without fear. His equanimity was so remarkable that the staff at Mount Sinai hospital gravitated to his room during his last days just to be near him.
Pollan ascribes the staying power to insights gained on these psilocybin trips to what William James called noetic sense. “This isn’t just opinion. This is revealed truth.”
The Default Mode Network
Though Pollan, the skating instructor, and the dying journalist all discovered that their ego was not their self, progress in brain imaging has helped scientists pinpoint where ego goes to work. The Default Mode Network is a group of structures built on the brain’s newest evolutionary real estate. Its programming includes self-reflection, rumination, time travel to our future and the past, and our ongoing autobiography.
DMN is not the part of the brain that produces emotion, but that more primitive region receives the network’s broadcasts via cable.
The most common flaw in DMN programming is reruns: it might run the same thoughts dozens if not hundreds of times a day. A more challenging flaw is that to get our attention it often goes negative: You’re worthless. No one could possibly love you. You’re not worthy of love. Life will never get better.
Reining in the Ego
Whether it’s the Cartoon Network, Fox News, CNN, or DMN: spending too much time with any programming distorts our reality. But, stories from the Default Mode Network create a unique hazard. There’s a reason journalists don’t fact check their own stories. We think what we think is true is true. And, unlike the stories from external networks, DMN stories have a direct pipeline to our emotions without going through fact checking, editing, or even as much as a spell check.
Depression is like watching DMN nonstop.
Psilocybin therapy quiets the network long enough to give the ego a chance to reboot. Sometimes the mere threat of cancellation puts our ego on notice that it’s time to come up with new stories, or else!
If You See A Monster
According to Pollan, in the clinical trials, two guides: one male, one female, accompany the subject. The traveler lies on a couch wearing eye shades and headphones: to listen to a carefully curated playlist of instrumental music. (For the record, because music is one of the most effective influencers of emotion, I think using it in this setting is a terrible idea.)
Pollan gave examples of the trip instructions that the guides offered including what to do if you see a monster. Don’t run away. “Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, what do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?”
Just as our life is much more than our autobiography, this therapy shows us that what we think of as our “self-interest is something larger than what is contained by our skin.”
I can think of my body as me, but every last molecule of it is made from food, air, and water that came from outside me.
If my thoughts are me, who am I when I’m not actively thinking?
I might think of my consciousness as me, but without my internal and external environment, what would I be conscious of? And what about those times I’ve been under anesthesia?
Since early studies of psilocybin therapy indicate that they’re safe for non-psychotic people, non-addictive, and four times as effective as current antidepressants, Pollan supports continuing the research, and supports thorough regulation, but he doesn’t draw the line at clinical use.
Mental Health Clubs
Even those of us who aren’t clinically depressed suffer from suboptimal autobiographies and behaviors.
“Imagine if we had mental health clubs,” mused Pollan, “where you could go once a year, let’s say on your birthday, and have a guided psychedelic experience as a way of taking stock on where you are in life. I think that could be a kind of nice idea.”
Ten Minute Exercise
By deactivating the Default Mode Network, psilocybin allows us a very vivid experience of what it’s like to experience the world directly without our ego turning it into a story.
To keep our ego in check at other times, it helps to remember that it’s only the brain talking to itself. To keep that conversation civil, try practicing the following exercise.
1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
3. Sit down with back straight and close your eyes, or gaze a few feet in front of you without focusing on anything in particular.
4. Take three intentional breaths and focus your attention wherever you experience it most distinctly.
5. Breathe naturally.
6. When your ego sends you a thought, ask yourself the following questions.
• Is it factually true?
My clothes are in the dryer would be a fact.
My clothes are old, shabby, and I need to buy new ones would be an opinion.
• Is it useful?
Remembering that I need to take the laundry out of the dryer might be useful.
Beating myself up for all those times I forget to take the laundry from the dryer is not useful.
• Is it connected to the goal?
Our present goal is to notice how to skillfully respond to our ego. Noticing that we’re thinking about an activity we’re not presently doing is useful.
Getting up to tend to the laundry would not be useful.
• Is it gentle and agreeable.
It would be a good idea to take the clothes out of the dryer after the timer sounds because then your clothes won’t be wrinkled would be gentle and agreeable.
Get up and take the clothes out of the dryer right now because you’re a scatterbrained idiot and won’t remember would be harsh and disagreeable.
7. When you’ve finished analyzing a thought. Return your attention to your breath until your ego dispatches the next thought. Repeat the vetting process.
8. When the timer sounds. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body feel before continuing with your day.