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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01475

Psychedelics, Meditation and Self-Consciousness

 Raphaël Millière1*,  Robin L. Carhart-Harris2, Leor Roseman2, Fynn-Mathis Trautwein3 and Aviva Berkovich-Ohana4
  • 1Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 2Centre for Psychiatry, Department of Medicine, Imperial College London, United Kingdom
  • 3Department of Social Neuroscience, Max-Planck-Institut für Kognitions- und Neurowissenschaften, Germany
  • 4Faculty of Education, Edmond Safra Brain Research Center, University of Haifa, Israel

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 hallucinogens, 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: psychedelics, Meditation, self-consciousness, Consciousness, Bodily self-consciousness, autobiographical memory, mind wandering, mental time travel

Received: 16 Mar 2018; Accepted: 26 Jul 2018.

Edited by:

Jennifer M. Windt, Monash University, Australia

Reviewed by:

Chris Letheby, University of Western Australia, Australia
Monima Chadha, Monash University, Australia  

Copyright: © 2018 Millière, Carhart-Harris, Roseman, Trautwein and Berkovich-Ohana. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Mr. Raphaël Millière, University of Oxford, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford, United Kingdom, raphael.milliere@philosophy.ox.ac.uk