The felt experience is the essence of being human. Psychedelic medicines are revolutionizing the mental health field, in part because they break down barriers of the psyche, opening up alternative avenues in perception. Altered states of consciousness, like altered sensations, proprioception, and visions, can create vibrant connections with the senses. Even dissociative effects of ketamine that cause strange feelings of disembodiment, spaciness, and boundlessness are thought to contribute to long-term antidepressant effects and lifestyle changes. Simultaneously, the experience of the self shifts away from egocentricity, toward an “unselfing” known as ego dissolution. Therefore, the psychedelic experience is often ineffable, a felt sense rather than a conceptually known and measurable experience (though scientists do their best to quantify it). These experiences are the starting point for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, which supports the exploration of newly accessed consciousness, poignant insights, meaning-making, and self-growth processes.
A Neuroscience Perspective
Psychedelic-induced altered states of consciousness are proposed to arise from increased spontaneous activity or “cross-talk” between neural circuits in the brain. It is thought that the breakdown of what are normally highly organized regional activities leads to a loosening of perceptual control; those patterns and assumptions of reality created by the brain to make sense of the world are shattered. In these states of consciousness, possibility exists–the environment becomes less predictable, enriching the experience of consciousness. It is during this influential period of brain activity that persons exhibit psychological flexibility, or the ability to think about self and situations in novel ways. Increases in psychological flexibility provide opportunities for reconstructing self narratives and deconstructing negative self-beliefs.
The Inner Experience of Self
Altered states of consciousness inherently shake up previous understandings of self. Changes in reality, transcendence of self, and mystical experiences can leave people contemplating the nature of existence and who they are. In psychologically flexible states, individuals are more easily able to redefine their identities and their own judgments about them. Thus, psychedelic-assisted therapy appears to be a successful tool for connecting to self, heightening self awareness, and improving coping skills. For example, trauma can lead to difficulties in relating to self and others. A recent study has shown that MDMA-assisted therapy positively modifies self capacities like identity, relationships, and emotional regulation while enhancing mindfulness of internal states among individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); alterations of the self experience largely corresponded with improvement in PTSD symptoms. Changes in relationship to self–the concept of self and felt experience of self, including emotional distress–may be key components of psychological healing.
The Social Self
Interpersonal relationships act as a reflection for the conceptualized self. Relationships exist between self and other people, but also self and nonhuman beings: plants, animals, microbes, the collection of species on the earth. Psychedelics often tap into these relationships, with persons experiencing a sense of unity and connection beyond themselves. Increased empathy heightens feelings of interconnectedness that are evolutionarily and existentially critical to human survival and wellbeing. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy takes place in the context of the therapeutic relationship, offering the potent recipe of time, trust, and witnessing to the client. Affirmations that come with sharing vulnerable states of self can be powerful influencers of reconstructing individual self-narratives. New and strengthened connections between self and others may initiate reorganization of the relational self that embraces more positive emotions such as awe, intimacy, and love (as in, self-as-lover and self-as-loved).
The Compassionate Self
Psychedelics can support self-compassion by increasing empathy and fostering a sense of connection, not only with others but also with one’s own inner experiences. During a psychedelic experience, individuals may confront their past traumas, regrets, or self-criticisms through altered perspectives. This altered state can facilitate empathy toward their own suffering, leading to a more compassionate self-dialogue and deeper self acceptance. Many people report an uncovering of new parts, or an altered relationship to parts of themselves, emphasizing the importance of honoring multiplicity in psychedelic-assisted therapy. These emerging parts can help participants make sense of and feel compassion towards defense strategies and coping mechanisms.
It is becoming increasingly evident that psychedelics hold great promise for personal transformation and healing by engaging self-exploration. Held within supportive contexts for psychedelic-assisted therapy, who we are, what our identities mean to us, and the feelings we ascribe to our self-concepts can become less rigid and more fluid, open to interpretation. It may be important for psychedelic therapy trainings to include a contemplative approach, emphasizing the inner experience of clients and their relationship to self, others, and the world.