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In a fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker, The Trip Treatment, food critic Michael Pollan discusses the early results of a recent resurgence in the use of hallucinogens and guided hallucinations in psychological research. The era of fruitful study for this type of research came to an abrupt end in the early Seventies during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Psilocybin mushrooms and LSD were declared Schedule One substances by his administration, banning their further use by government fiat stating that hallucinogens had no medicinal value and therefore no place in any valid medical research. The implications of more recent clinical trials involving controlled dosages of psilocybin would suggest otherwise, and are well worth reading.
I’d like to respond to a brief passage in Pollan’s article regarding depression, the ego, and a recently-identified region of the brain elegantly named the default mode network (DMN).
Too lazy to look it up for myself, I feel convinced that the default mode network is fast becoming an area of increasing focus within the study of both autism and schizophrenia. Perhaps this will validate my long-held belief, based on observation as well as personal conjecture, that autism and schizophrenia are in fact the same neurological phenomena distinguished only by time of onset.
The main thrust of recent psilocybin studies deal with how people face their own illness and death, with a primary focus on death anxiety in terminal cancer patients. According to research, after a single dose of psilocybin followed by several hours work (with the support of two psychologists acting as guides), patients come face to face with the reality of their own death, finding peace and acceptance where previously there had been only terror and denial. Apparently, the impact of the experience is so transformative and life-altering that its effects persist for the remainder of the patient’s life.
It’s kinda trippy, but I’ve digressed, because I really wanted to focus on the article’s brief discussion of depression.
The default mode network, only identified as a separate structure within the brain as recently as 2001, “comprises a critical and centrally-situated hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper, older structures in the brain, such as the limbic system and the hippocampus.” It’s been described as the brain’s “orchestra conductor, charged with managing and holding the entire system together.” In some recent fMRI studies, experienced practitioners of deep meditation seem to be able to quiet the default mode network, something that also appears to occur under the influence of psychedelics, most notably in correspondence with “volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution” as suggested by statements such as “I am at one with the universe.” One researcher, more personally aligned with early analytical modes of psychological thought, associates this experience with a return “to the psychological condition of the infant who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual.” It’s as if the default mode network is the seat of the bounded sense of self, and it makes sense that this researcher identifies the network as the seat of the Freudian concept of the ego.
In Freud, very briefly, the ego mediates the polar experiences of the superego, our inner righteous, judgmental parent, and the id, our rambunctious, sexualized, raging inner child. Recent fMRI studies indicate that when the default-mode network is shut down, “other brain regions are let off the leash.” Mental contents hidden from view… come to the fore: emotions, memories, wishes and fears.” Developing a solid sense of self allows us to function in the world, and it is thought that this action is seated within the default mode network. Part of this process is the development of patterns of control as exerted by this network. I think that a well-adjusted adult that knows herself has a consistent pattern of both control and freedom as exerted within this network, with all the different brain structures working together in a consistently titrated, non-rigid way.
What Pollan has to say about depression really speaks to me. “The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality.”
Oh yes, I know that feeling.
As pertains to The Painted Brain, this reading really reinforces my deep commitment to ideas of radical acceptance. The ability to accept people as they are is a gift we can offer, a token gesture in honor of the truly difficult work: the radical, knowing acceptance of oneself.
Dave Leon is a licensed clinical therapist and founder/director of The Painted Brain