People who use psychedelics like magic mushrooms, LSD and DMT often describe a feeling of going 'beyond their human identity'. Known as ego-death or ego-disintegration, neuroscientists from Maastricht University in the Netherlands have found a way to explain why some experience this as a 'good' or 'bad' trip.
To do so, they conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment with 60 healthy volunteers. In particular, they used MRI scans to examine each person's glutamate levels and their ego experience when using psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Glutamate is the most common neurotransmitter in the brain. It is vital for transferring information between nerve cells and thus plays an essential role in learning and memory.
In particular, they found significant neurological changes in both the cortex and the hippocampus when taking the psychedelic compound. While the researchers found higher glutamate levels in the prefrontal cortex while on psilocybin, they found lower levels of the substance in the hippocampus. This depended on whether the subject was having a positive experience of ego-disintegration (a 'good' trip) or a negative one.
"Whereas changes in [cortical] glutamate were found to be the strongest predictor of negatively experienced ego dissolution, changes in hippocampal glutamate were found to be the strongest predictor of positively experienced ego dissolution." write the authors.
Despite the correlation, the researchers are unsure on how this activity is linked to the ego, and to what extent it plays a role in ego dissolution. Their data nevertheless suggest that changes in glutamate levels in the hippocampus may be a key to understanding the neurological basis for 'good' trips and 'bad' trips.
Although psychedelics are illegal in most countries around the world, clinical studies in states where they are legal such as the Netherlands and Jamaica, have started to investigate their medical benefits. Further research into the field may allow scientists to develop more effective treatments for mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and addiction.