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. 2018 Sep 4;9:1475.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01475. eCollection 2018.

Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness

Free PMC article

Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness

Raphaël Millière et al. Front Psychol. .
Free PMC article


In recent years, the scientific study of meditation and psychedelic drugs has seen remarkable developments. The increased focus on meditation in cognitive neuroscience has led to a cross-cultural classification of standard meditation styles validated by functional and structural neuroanatomical data. Meanwhile, the renaissance of psychedelic research has shed light on the neurophysiology of altered states of consciousness induced by classical psychedelics, such as psilocybin and LSD, whose effects are mainly mediated by agonism of serotonin receptors. Few attempts have been made at bridging these two domains of inquiry, despite intriguing evidence of overlap between the phenomenology and neurophysiology of meditation practice and psychedelic states. In particular, many contemplative traditions explicitly aim at dissolving the sense of self by eliciting altered states of consciousness through meditation, while classical psychedelics are known to produce significant disruptions of self-consciousness, a phenomenon known as drug-induced ego dissolution. In this article, we discuss available evidence regarding convergences and differences between phenomenological and neurophysiological data on meditation practice and psychedelic drug-induced states, with a particular emphasis on alterations of self-experience. While both meditation and psychedelics may disrupt self-consciousness and underlying neural processes, we emphasize that neither meditation nor psychedelic states can be conceived as simple, uniform categories. Moreover, we suggest that there are important phenomenological differences even between conscious states described as experiences of self-loss. As a result, we propose that self-consciousness may be best construed as a multidimensional construct, and that "self-loss," far from being an unequivocal phenomenon, can take several forms. Indeed, various aspects of self-consciousness, including narrative aspects linked to autobiographical memory, self-related thoughts and mental time travel, and embodied aspects rooted in multisensory processes, may be differently affected by psychedelics and meditation practices. Finally, we consider long-term outcomes of experiences of self-loss induced by meditation and psychedelics on individual traits and prosocial behavior. We call for caution regarding the problematic conflation of temporary states of self-loss with "selflessness" as a behavioral or social trait, although there is preliminary evidence that correlations between short-term experiences of self-loss and long-term trait alterations may exist.

Keywords: autobiographical memory; bodily self-consciousness; consciousness; meditation; mental time travel; mind wandering; psychedelics; self-consciousness.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Multidimensional models of self-loss in global states of consciousness. (A) A simplified two-dimensional model of self-loss. The X-axis represents the degree to which multisensory aspects of self-consciousness are disrupted, and the Y-axis represents the degree to which narrative aspects of self-consciousness are disrupted. The color gradients represent the gradual disruption of narrative aspects (blue), multisensory aspects (red), or both (yellow) within the two-dimensional state space of altered states of consciousness induced by meditation and psychedelics could theoretically be plotted. This two-dimensional model can be conceived as a conceptual sketch that reduces the dimensionality of the notion of self-consciousness to two orthogonal principal dimensions, somewhat similarly to Principal Component Analysis. The shortcomings of this simplified model are tentatively addressed in the more complex (B). (B) A tentative multidimensional model of self-loss. Global states of consciousness are plotted on the radar chart according to their score on six dimensions (using an arbitrary scale), representing the degree to which they involve (1) a sense of body ownership, (2) awareness of bodily sensations, (3) awareness of spatial self-location, (4) rich phenomenology, (5) access to semantic autobiographical information, and (6) self-related thoughts. Regions in the radar chart represent idealized examples of global states of consciousness, including an ordinary state during wakefulness (dotted black line), two examples of meditation-induced states and two examples of drug-induced states. The region in pink is an example of a typical meditative state with increased bodily awareness (via attentional focus on the breath), slightly decreased overall phenomenal richness (via visual-auditory deprivation) and decreased frequency of self-related thoughts. The region in red is an example of a “selfless” state described by experienced meditators, with a cessation of self-related thought, a loss of body ownership, agency and self-location, and significant reductions in bodily awareness and phenomenal richness. The region in light green is an example of a state induced by a moderate dose of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin, with increased bodily awareness (modulated by salient and unusual bodily sensations) and increased phenomenal richness (via decreased sensory gating and vivid perceptual abnormalities). The region in dark green is an example of drug-induced ego dissolution with a loss of narrative and multisensory aspects of self-consciousness, but rich sensory content. (B) illustrates how even states of “total self-loss” as represented by a single region on (A) can differ from a phenomenological perspective between meditation (red line) and psychedelics (dark green line). In addition, it shows that some states of consciousness induced by both meditation practice and psychedelics can also score higher than baseline on certain dimensions of self-consciousness, in particular bodily awareness. Overall, states of “self-loss” are the exception rather than the norm for both modes of induction. Finally, it should be noted that the phenomenology of altered states induced by meditation and psychedelics may considerably change over time, sometimes very quickly; consequently, the idealized states plotted on this figure should be considered as phenomenological “snapshots” at a given time. For example, “Psychedelic state 1” (light green line) could be part of the same drug-induced experience as “Psychedelic state 2” (dark green line), assuming that the phenomenology dynamically shifts toward the peak of the experience (during the transition to drug-induced ego dissolution).

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