Psychedelic Research Finds Ego Exists in The Default Mode Network
Researchers studying psychedelics have found themselves in the midst of a scientific renaissance as taboos fade and their work yields profound results. One possibly groundbreaking discovery could be a brain mechanism that seems to be responsible for our ego; the Default Mode Network (DMN). While implications of the DMN’s role during mystical experiences have been inferred in the past, new insights into its precise mechanism explain much more.
Michael Pollan’s latest book titled How to Change Your Mind, in which he, an admittedly skeptical atheist, took a subjective journalistic approach to psychedelic substances by consuming the DMT-containing ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, and LSD. Pollan broke down many misconceptions and fallacies modern society created to instill a fear of substances once believed to have a high potential for abuse and no medical applications.
As it turns out, psychedelic research has revealed a new understanding of normal brain behavior. And one of the most fascinating discoveries shows that the behavior of the DMN during the psychedelic experience might show us how we fall into states of depression, addiction, and unimaginative thought.
So what exactly is the DMN?
The Default Mode Network: An Evolutionary Mechanism?
One of the leading names in the world of psychedelic science is Robin Carhart-Harris, a young, urbane doctor spearheading psychedelic research at London’s Imperial College. Carhart-Harris is the protégé of renowned neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, who made waves recently for his work with government-sanctioned psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Along with Amanda Fielding, the famous psychedelic advocate and founder of the Beckley Foundation, the group hypothesized that the psychedelic experience was the result of increased cerebral blood flow, which they believed would stimulate excitation and activity in latent parts of the brain. Instead, they found a significant decrease in activity and blood flow.
Confounded by the results, the group looked at oxygen consumption, noticing there was some validity to their theory, as they saw that parts of the brain were utilizing more oxygen. But there was still a discernible drop in one region that played a role in nearly all brain function – the DMN.
The DMN is a large-scale brain network of correlated regions at the top of the brain’s hierarchy, influencing (and usually inhibiting) other parts of the brain, especially those involving emotion and memory. Centrally located in the brain, the DMN is a hub of regulatory function, consisting primarily of the prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobe.
The DMN is believed to be the home of what Freud called the “ego,” or the part of our brain responsible for judgment, tolerance, reality testing, and a sense of self. Pollan said it is sometimes referred to as the “me” network and has been shown to light up when a subject is given a list of adjectives to consider relative to their self-identity. It also lights up during daydreams, magical thinking, self-reflection, and when we receive Facebook likes. It activates “by default” when there is no task at hand.
According to Carhart-Harris, this network is the “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive” of the brain, preventing signals from being interrupted or interfering with each other.
Freud said that the ego keeps anarchic forces on the id in check, and Pollan compares this to the DMN maintaining strict connections on brain function developed over the course of our adult lives.
Carhart-Harris says he believes the DMN may have been an evolutionary mechanism, as it doesn’t become active until later in a child’s development, typically around the age of five. As we mature we tend to use life’s learnings to create algorithms, as it were, in order to respond to various situations throughout the day. Our perception of reality is filtered through those habitual connections that become increasingly ingrained as we grow older.
Aldous Huxley called this the reducing valve of ordinary perception, in which a trickle of information is filtered from all incoming stimuli. This filter, valve, or whatever you want to call it, likely evolved to conserve and use energy resourcefully. In order to efficiently process all of the information received on a daily basis, our brains have to rely on judgments and face-value observations, distinguishing between potential threats and benign situations.
“Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” – Aldous Huxley
But in our modern society, that continuous filtration can develop to a fault, closing off our minds from potential outcomes and possibilities, in turn limiting creativity and developing a narrow-minded world view. In fact, a NASA study found that 98 percent of us are born creative geniuses, but as we reach adulthood only two percent of society falls into that category. Could the DMN account for this?
Watch Ben Stewart discuss the potential for psychedelics to positively influence our neurology on this episode of Beyond Belief:
Ego Dissolution When the DMN Shuts Off
Accidentally discovered in 2001, the DMN made its debut when Marcus Raichle, using cutting-edge Functional MRI (fMRI) equipment, imaged the cerebral cortex. That same technology, paired with magnetoencephalography, or MEG imaging, was used by the team at Imperial College on subjects under the influence of psychedelics. It was also used by Judson Brewer at the UMass Medical School to image the brain activity of deep meditation states.
Both teams found that when these states were induced and ego dissolution was experienced, the DMN shut down. The dissolution of the ego is an event reported by psychedelic drug users and experienced meditators, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise when MEG and fMRI scans showed that egoic brain activity correlates directly with DMN activity.
“It appears that when activity in the DMN falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away,” Pollan said.
Buddhists often refer to it as the monkey mind – the internal chatter that leads our thoughts astray when we try to silence the interminable flow of opinions and thoughts in our head. And the monkey mind… you guessed it, that’s probably the DMN flaring when the brain has nothing better to do, defaulting to thoughts about a petty argument you had with your significant other a year ago.
For many, it takes years, or even decades to silence the inner dialogue, but for those who succeed, the fruits of labor are profound. But if one doesn’t have the patience, willpower, or time to devote to a life of meditation, recent research has found that the psychedelic experience, under clinical supervision and the right circumstances, can create the same effect, allowing for new connections to be made within the brain.
Another facet of Carhart-Harris’ theory is that our individual mental states fall somewhere along a scale of entropy. Entropy, in this case, is a measure toward a state of randomness or disorganization. On Carhart-Harris’ scale, high-entropy mental states include those experienced on psychedelics; infant consciousness; early psychosis; and creative or divergent thinking. The low-entropy end includes such states as narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; OCD; depression; and coma.
As we age, the brain forms ‘tenser’ connections based on a slower drip from the reduction valve of perception. Carhart-Harris believes this can lead to states of depression, as the valve shuts out various possibilities, closing us off and increasing introspection. The ego eventually turns on itself and “gradually shades out reality.”
A psychedelic experience increases entropy in the brain, loosening those bonds and opening the mind to a deluge of possibilities, many of which can be confusing or bizarre, hence the hallucinations and strange thoughts. But this could explain why recent studies have found that psilocybin from magic mushrooms can cure depression and act as a reset mechanism in the brain, or that potent doses of Ayahuasca or Ibogaine can cure heroin and cocaine addicts of a lifetime of addiction.
An inundation of new mental states and potential realities can not only free subjects from depression, but it can also spark creative thought and innovation. One of the biggest hindrances to creativity is a close-minded perspective and the immediate rejection of seemingly fantastical ideas. But it’s not your fault, you can blame it on the DMN.
That’s why Silicon Valley CEOs have touted the creative genius found in the psychedelic experience since Steve Jobs credited LSD for his success in founding Apple.
It should be noted, however, that psychedelics are nothing to take lightly. It’s no coincidence that Carhart-Harris’ entropic brain scale includes early-stage psychosis on the same end as psychedelics. Used improperly and carelessly, psychedelics can devastate the mind, leading to long term psychological damage in rare instances. Albert Hoffman, who discovered LSD, even expressed occasional regret in his life for the damage caused by its unfettered use.
But if we view these substances as tools or medicine, rather than recreational drugs, we can use them to our advantage. And as science continues to dissect and understand the ways they affect our cognitive function, discoveries of networks such as the DMN will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of our minds and the ability to lead enlightened lives.
Learn how to integrate the learnings of the psychedelic experience into your life on this episode of Psychedelica:
Psilocybin and Depression; Psychedelics Can Reset Brain Function
Psychotropic plants once considered taboo are now being used as highly effective clinical solutions for treating a number of psychological issues, including depression, PTSD, and end-of-life anxiety. And a recent study has gained the most traction with its successful treatment of depression with psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. The study found evidence of a reset mechanism in the brain that can have lasting effects. But, can psychedelics cure depression?
Psilocybin & Depression
A calm, relaxed feeling in the hours, days, and weeks after using psilocybin is familiar to those who have taken it before. This is sometimes referred to as an “after-glow,” and many attribute this to the sense of profundity or universal insight acquired during the experience. This sensation is often subjective and fleeting – something that would be difficult to measure in a lab.
But now a team of researchers has set out to measure this feeling and the potential it has for use as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety. These researchers believe they have possibly recorded this reaction and noticed a reconfiguration of the pathways that are narrowed down in people who experience severe depression and anxiety. Their research appears to show what they call a disintegration and reintegration in which psilocybin acts as a “reset mechanism.”
This test, conducted by researchers at Imperial College in London, looked not only at subjective measures of how patients felt in the days and weeks after but also brain scans to monitor cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity. The scientists focused on the amygdala, an area of the brain where emotion, behavior, and motivation is processed, noticing that decreased cerebral blood flow to that particular location correlated with reduced depressive symptoms.
The amygdala is directly connected to the prefrontal cortex, controlling a sort of back and forth process for measuring fear. This is basically where your fight or flight response plays out. The amygdala acts as our alarm system, sending a signal to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn tells it whether that threat is something to actually be concerned about. It’s thought that higher activity in the amygdala leads to lower activity in the prefrontal cortex which causes anxiety and depression.
This has led scientists to see psilocybin as an appropriate medicine for people experiencing anxiety and depression. But psilocybin isn’t the only psychedelic shown to have this effect. And while these material observations seem to correlate things like blood flow and electrical activity with those positive changes, some still maintain that the mystical psychedelic experience rather than the plant is what is so palliative.
LSD for Depression
Similar studies have been undertaken with LSD in place of psilocybin, providing many similar results. The most well-known trials have been conducted by MAPS, the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a group that has been working on advancing clinical research with psychedelic and empathic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
A 2014 study administered LSD to 12 patients experiencing severe depression, anxiety, and end-of-life anxiety, 11 of whom had never taken the drug before. Nearly all who completed the trials expressed the desire to receive more treatments in the future due to their notably positive experiences.
One subject said the experience caused a marked shift in her values to make time for things that were more important in life, like family. Another subject with end-of-life anxiety found that after her LSD experience she found humor in her illness and looked at herself as part of a larger cosmic entity rather than an individual. Meanwhile, all subjects reported no lasting adverse side effects after the experience.
While these clinical studies show promise and work well in closely monitored environments with professional psychotherapy sessions to accompany them, many remain unconvinced due to the small set of studies and subject samples. But this is primarily due to strict laws preventing these trials as well as difficulty obtaining these compounds from “legitimate sources.”
However, a recent shift in the public perception regarding psychedelics and cannabis seems to be bucking the trend. Meanwhile, groups like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation are helping to ease the stigma, stating that they believe certain psychoactive drugs will be approved for clinical use within the next several years.
Ketamine Depression Treatment
Clinical trials for treating depression with LSD and psilocybin often lead critics and journalists to harken back to the ’60s and make some clichéd quip about the hippie generation, or their brief stint experimenting with drugs in college. But when it comes to ketamine, personal anecdotes are few and far between. This drug, which tends to also fall into the recreational club-drug scene, has shown some profound results when it comes to its potential for treating severe depression, especially for those who are suicidal.
Though ketamine for treating depression is considered use as an off-label drug, one that is used for a purpose other than what it is labeled for, it has shown unprecedented results. Typically used as an anesthetic, in large doses ketamine is a highly psychoactive hallucinogen, and also an antidepressant.
People who are suicidal and have not had success with typical antidepressants have seen drastic changes within a few hours of ketamine treatment. Researchers believe that ketamine acts on glutamate, rather than serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals most antidepressants focus on. This particular channel can cause drastic changes and overnight transformation in attitudes of people suffering from severe depression.
Of course, doses high enough to achieve this effect are incapacitating and can be difficult to deal with. The psychedelic effect of ketamine can lead to “k-holes” or feelings of intense and sometimes frightening psychedelic experiences often paired with paralysis. This has lead doctors to search for drugs that can target the glutamate in the brain, but skip the burdensome trip.
While these drugs have amazing potential to help solve mental issues that plague large percentages of society, there needs to be a shift in drug policy to allow them to be rescheduled. All of these drugs are Schedule 1, classified as having no medical value, but clearly there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
While their use should be monitored and taken in controlled scenarios, their criminalization prevents people from taking advantage of the positive results scientists are seeing. And when an effective drug is made illegal, it can lead to those who need it seeking it out on the street where purity and quality aren’t guaranteed.