Brain and Body

New Brain Scans Explain Why People Strengthen “Sense of Self” While Tripping on Acid

April 18, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Psychedelic art
Photo credit: new 1lluminati/flickr (CC B& 2.0)

And why users report having “out of body” experiences.

From the kaleidoscope-like visuals to the unifying sensations of being “One” with all of humanity and the universe, there’s a laundry list of ways in which the psychedelic drug LSD can profoundly affect the mind. However, how the drug has these transformative powers on the brain has remained more of a mystery — until now.

For the first time ever, researchers in the United Kingdom captured mind-blowing images of the brains of participants who volunteered to get high on LSD in the name of science.

With these brain scans, the scientists were able to see which brain regions are activated by LSD, as well as how regions that usually work separately begin to signal each other in response to the drug. It’s this heightened level of connectedness in the brain that may produce the intense effects on the mind.

In fact, the researchers believe that these images have provided new insight into a phenomenon known as “ego dissolution” — when people who take the drug feel as though “the boundary that separates them from the rest of the world has dissolved,” as the press release explains.

SEE ALSO: How Does LSD Radically Transform an Individual’s Consciousness?

Enzo Tagliazucchi of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam notes that the team found particularly increased connectivity in the fronto-parietal cortex, which is a brain region associated with self-consciousness.

The scientists saw increased connection between this part of the brain and the sensory areas, which manage the information received about the world around us.

"This could mean that LSD results in a stronger sharing of information between regions, enforcing a stronger link between our sense of self and the sense of the environment and potentially diluting the boundaries of our individuality," Tagliazucchi said.

This is particularly intriguing because most of us feel as though we know ourselves and have a distinct “me” with unique opinions, thoughts, and consciousness. But now we’re seeing that this sense of individuality may simply boil down to the interactions between brain regions, and when our conventional brain patterns are disrupted by LSD, the confinements of our “self” are broken.

"There is 'objective reality' and then there is 'our reality,'" said Tagliazucchi. "Psychedelic drugs can distort our reality and result in perceptual illusions. But the reality we experience during ordinary wakefulness is also, to a large extent, an illusion.”

"So when we take psychedelics we are, it could be said, replacing one illusion by another illusion,” he continued. “This might be difficult to grasp, but our study shows that the sense of self or 'ego' could also be part of this illusion.”


Additionally, the researchers observed changes in the functioning of part of the brain that was previously linked to “out of body” experiences, adding evidence for how the strange sensation occurs. "I like to think that our experiment represents a pharmacological analogue of these findings," he said.

It’s critical to strengthen our understanding of how psychedelics have their profound effects on the brain, particularly because there is a growing body of research exploring the therapeutic benefits of the drugs for a number of disorders like depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Next, Tagliazucchi says he hopes to make direct comparisons between people in a dream state versus a psychedelic state. We can’t wait to hear how that goes.

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