By Shira Jacobson
That psychedelic drugs, including LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and DMT, may lead to an experience of “ego dissolution” and feelings of personal peace is well-documented.
The phenomenon, termed “Drug-Induced Ego-Dissolution” (DIED), is described by users as a loss of distinction between themselves and the rest of the world. Boundaries between one’s self and others seem to dissolve and feelings of unity are increased. Users furthermore describe the experience as one of connection, oneness, and harmony.
Moreover, research shows that the experience has sustained long-term benefits.
This outcome is especially promising for an area less explored but ripe with potential in the global arena: The use of psychedelic drugs in peace mediation.
Researchers explain the process of ego-dissolution, sometimes called ego death, as related to temporal thickness in the brain. When not under the influence of psychedelic drugs, temporal thickness allows for the existence of a rich self-model. This enables individuals to successfully distinguish between themselves and others, and behave in ways that ensure their continued survival.
Such cognitive functions serve to protect us. However, a rich self-model may also produce psychological barriers and individuated distinction, leading to unnecessary suspicion of and separation from others.
Conversely, under the influence of psychedelic drugs, high-level priors or beliefs are “relaxed”. There is a collapse in temporal thickness and, subsequently, the corresponding self-model. The precision of high-level priors decreases and the brain’s “gating mechanism” for incoming sensory data temporarily suspends. This structure change allows for a dissolution in the sense of self and separation from others. It also increases the user’s ability to operate outside of normative cognitive biases.
In other words, one’s own brain suddenly “allows” them to interact in ways that they might otherwise avoid. The mechanism of self-consciousness wanes and a different type of interaction may ensue.
Therapeutic Use of Psychedelic Drugs
Over the last two decades, researchers and practitioners have increasingly turned to regulators for approval in conducting clinical trials using psychedelic substances to treat a variety of conditions.
Studies, while still limited, have found that “when utilized under supervision in a carefully controlled setting, these substances can produce lasting and significant psychological and behavioral changes.”
These outcomes are especially noteworthy in treating anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be very significant in the field of peace efforts. This is because the cognitive functions affected by drug-induced ego-dissolution are precisely those targeted in the conflict resolution process.
Long-Term Unresolved Conflicts
A basic component of peace mediation is enabling two sides to release preconceived fears, suspicions, and conditions, focusing instead on mutual interests. In doing so, they may meet and progress on common ground, resolving issues and healing based on joint concerns and goals.
By releasing suspicions and instead bringing out shared motivations, both sides can succeed in moving beyond ingrained distinctions and boundaries.
However, this is often a challenge, particularly for people living in cultures experiencing decades (or more) of long-term unresolved conflict.
Such conflicts, termed “protracted” or “intractable”, include persons or groups who experience hostile interactions that persist over time. These interactions often include continuous clashes or outbreaks of sporadic violence, leading to further hostility and weakened chances for peace.
In such environments, individuals learn from an early age to be suspicious of the other side. They grow up assuming the irreconcilability of their differences, which pose a threat to their very existence. They believe that the distinction between themselves and the other side is inherent and that angry separation is necessary for ensuring their own future existence.
Affected individuals therefore find it difficult to release the deep-seated psychology of demonization that colors their reality. They persist in believing that the other’s existence is an actual threat to their very identity.
As a result, those living in intractable conflicts usually view their individual self-model as at odds with the self-model of the other. Behavior stems from preconceived notions, perceptions, and conditions. People tend to prioritize the self-model as the only tool for ensuring sustainability and continued existence.
And the two sides become even more incompatible and incapable of communication.
Conversely, when the static sense of self emancipates itself, boundaries dissolve. Then, it is possible to create a common meeting ground with the other side.
Implications for Peacemaking
The self-model and its accompanying cognitive functions are vital for survival. However, when it comes to conflict, they may very often stall potential progress.
Collective therapeutic treatment involving psychedelic drugs is a promising field for overcoming these boundaries and distinctions. This concept takes individual treatment under psychedelics one step further. Rather than addressing an individual’s mental condition, participants on either side of a long-term conflict undergo treatment together.
This approach is new, and not many case studies yet exist. However, it has begun to gain early ground in Israel and Palestine, the center of a regional decades-long conflict that recently saw a tragically deadly flareup. There, some groups of Israelis and Palestinians intentionally gather to drink ayahuasca, a medicinal psychedelic brew native to South America.
The results of these programs are still largely anecdotal, but personal accounts point to a successful treatment direction. Participants commonly report “a strong sense of togetherness, oneness, and connectedness”. They also note that the experience has led to “a transformation of anger into compassion, especially in the context of ongoing struggle.”
The limited experience of these Israeli-Palestinian communities, coupled with growing research involving the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs and overall user reports, points to an area worth watching.
Continued grassroots efforts among Israelis and Palestinians may yet create a window out of the current ongoing conflict. Whether other areas of conflict will turn to such treatment remains to be seen.