Doing yoga and dropping acid used to be countercultural pastimes, but now the medical Establishment has taken a turn toward mind expansion: It seems like every month there’s a new study coming out about how hallucinogens deflate anxiety and depression. A Johns Hopkins study last year found that psilocybin helped people who had been smoking a pack a day for decades quit at double the success rate of the best pharmaceutical treatments. “Our data does indicate that stronger mystical experiences are associated with success,” lead author Matthew Johnson told Science of Us. “Such experiences tend to reframe life priorities, with pure pleasure-seeking dropping, and other aspects increasing (family, connection, higher principles).” At the core of these psychedelic journeys is what neuroscientists call ego dissolution, or “a reduction in the self-referential awareness that defines normal waking consciousness.” One 2016 paper found that “classical” hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin are the most promoting of the state, and that’s evidently a good thing; separate research has found that lifetime classical psychedelic use correlated with less psychological distress and suicidal thinking compared to a control group.
Contemplative practices have similar, albeit substance-free, effects. Harvard Medical School associate professor Sat Bir Singh Khalsa told me that the ultimate fruit of yoga is “unitive experience,” where the chatty voice in your head goes away and you feel at one with the divine, the universe, or whatever you call the place we live. Indeed, he pointed me to a study of ashram residents who described their mystical yogi times as like being on LSD, but without the feeling of being out of control. Similarly, brain scans indicate that meditators in the midst of transcendence have reduced activity in the parietal lobe, an area of the brain associated with perceiving objects in space, which may drive the felt experience of becoming one with your environs.
While there’s still tons more work to be done on the subject, in talking with researchers, it seems like the reason ego dissolution is healthy stems from the way these experiences rejigger the way you relate to reality. Even after the altered state is gone, your perspective has been altered.
Last year, Enzo Tagliazucchi, a postdoc at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, co-led a brain-imaging study in Current Biology on LSD-induced ego dissolution, and found that the state was associated with increased connectivity between several brain areas. In explaining to me why that dissolution might be therapeutically helpful, he said that the entire psychedelic experience — even the challenging parts — has a way of “extracting the patient from his or her usual patterns of thought and contemplat[ing] upon them from a vantage point,” he explained over email. The dissolution itself seemed to play a direct role in the case of anxiety in terminal cancer patients, he added. It’s a catalyst for epiphany. “In a typical ego-dissolution experience, the user feels the boundaries between his or her body and the rest of the universe dissolve, and becomes ‘one’ with the surroundings,” he added. “This might lead to feelings of transcendence or permanence in the patients, making them realize that even after their death they will still be part of something ‘larger.’”
That’s consonant with the Johns Hopkins findings on smoking cessation: There were only significant correlations between reductions in cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, and personal meaning, as well as “mystical-type psilocybin effects,” where users rated themselves as having “acute feelings of unity, sacredness, a noetic quality.” The last of which, not coincidentally, is one of the qualities by which William James defined mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience, arguing that for the experiencer, the mystical state is also a state of knowledge. “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect,” he wrote. “They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.” In a braiding of these threads, Johns Hopkins is recruiting rabbis, roshis, and priests to feed them psilocybin and see what kind of religious experiences they have.
There’s also reason to believe that you don’t need to embrace your inner mystic in order to have these effects.
Abraham Maslow, the inventor of the so-called hierarchy of needs and coiner of the term positive psychology, studied what he called “peak experiences,” or “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment,” and maintained that they were available to everybody. In a 1968 television interview, the famed psychologist said that he found everyday Americans describing “peak experiences” like they were contemplatively trained monks or nuns. He went into the research thinking they happened to “one saint every century” or so, but his subjects spoke of hiking mountains, listening to music, and playing sports like they were Saint Theresa or Meister Eckhart. In attempting to generalize, he said these were experiences of perfection. In athletics, for instance: “A young man breaking through with a ball into an open field, and then running down the field and reporting in the same words that ancient mystics had used,” he said. “This was a seventeen year old boy.” Or, in a completely different direction, a woman in childbirth reporting ecstasies.
The peak experience is similar to the psychological construct of flow, or the sense of being completely absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing, according Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. In both cases, your sense of self melts into the task, whether it’s shaping a sculpture, talking with your beloved, or staring up at the stars. Rather than having self-referential, evaluative thoughts about being good, smart, or attractive enough, your attention is completely invested. Absorption begets dissolution. “Peak experiences shake us out of our ordinary concerns and points our attention toward something higher, perhaps greater versions of ourselves and others,” he explained. “As to why it can be long-lasting, well, sometimes peak experiences come along with a realization of a purpose, or higher meaning for one’s life.” Whether you’re camped out in a Himalayan cave or dancing in a Bushwick warehouse, the effects can last. Just ask Maslow: “If you see the world, in the peak experience, in a more pure form, this can be remembered,” he said in the 1968 interview. “Some people do remember, some people don’t remember. People that do remember tend to be changed, just as the ancient mystics reported.”