Psychedelics have long been a subject of fascination and controversy. From their use in ancient rituals to their resurgence in modern therapeutic settings, these substances have the potential to offer profound insights and catalyse personal growth. Among the most captivating transformations reported by individuals who have experienced psychedelics is the shift from ego-centred to eco-centred perspectives. It’s important to understand what this change means, how it could be catalysed by psychedelics, and whether they can shift people’s attitudes towards supporting environmental movements.
The ego-centred perspective
Ego-centredness is a common state of being in our modern society. It is characterised by an excessive focus on the self, often to the detriment of connection to the world around us. This mindset can lead to a range of problems, including materialism, individualism, and environmental degradation. Many people become trapped in a cycle of self-centred pursuits, ignoring the interconnectedness of all life forms on earth.
Psychedelic experiences may induce individuals to profoundly altered states of consciousness, often involving the dissolution of the ego, a phenomenon described as ‘ego death’. During these experiences, individuals may temporarily lose their usual sense of self and identity, leading to a profound sense of unity with the world around them. This dissolution of the ego boundaries allows for a more holistic and interconnected perspective to emerge, setting the stage for a deeper connection with nature and a shift towards eco-centred thinking.
How could psychedelics boost nature-connectedness?
Psychedelics have been used for centuries in various cultural and spiritual contexts. In recent years, scientific research has rekindled interest in these substances due to their potential in causing neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. Increased neuroplasticity means the brain can adapt, learn, and change in response to experiences and environmental stimuli. This includes breaking down ego boundaries, as psychedelic experiences can cause the dissolution of the usual sense of self, encouraging a state of profound sense of unity with the surrounding world. Psychedelics have been called “psychoplastogens” for their impact on neuroplasticity, helping people shift away from rigid, ego-centric thinking towards a more open and receptive mindset that better recognises the interconnectedness of all living beings and the environment.
Dr Sam Gandy, an ecologist who also researched the connection between psychedelic experiences and “nature connectedness” highlighted in a recent study that psychedelics have “the capacity to elicit a connection with nature that is passionate and protective, even among those who were not previously nature-oriented”.
During his study, participants revealed they had acquired a new understanding of nature following their psychedelic experience, with some expressing that “harming nature would be like hurting myself” or that describing non-sentient parts of nature as animate.
The study further showed that psychedelics can create an “awareness of nature being alive”. This manifested in some people changing their diet towards vegetarianism, with participants reporting a desire to “limit suffering”, citing “compassionate and environmental reasons” and a newfound “compassion for all living things”. Along with Gandy, others are now finding evidence that psychedelics may influence pro-environmental behaviours and argue in favour of psychedelics to help solve our environmental problems.
This impact has led Gandy to state that “the amount of good that can come from [psychedelic experiences] is massive”. In a prior study, he determined that participants’ nature connectivity remained considerably higher for up to two years following their psychedelic experience. He believes that psilocybin was the best at instilling long-lasting sentiments of oneness with nature. This could be particularly interesting for countries with low levels of environmental connectedness like the United Kingdom, which has been identified as Europe’s least nature-connected country and one of the world’s most nature-depleted nations.
The role of indigenous wisdom
As we explore the transformative potential of psychedelics in fostering an eco-centred perspective, it is crucial to acknowledge and honour the Indigenous cultures that have preserved these ancient traditions for millennia. Indigenous communities have long understood the profound connection between humans and the natural world. They were the first stewards of the Earth, nurturing biodiversity and living in harmony with the land.
Today, Indigenous peoples remain at the forefront of environmental conservation, protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Their ancestral knowledge is invaluable in our collective efforts to address climate change and ecological degradation. It is not just about using psychedelics; it is about respecting and learning from those who have used these ancient remedies to enhance their relationship with the natural world.
The ongoing psychedelic renaissance
The fascination with psychedelics and their potential to create positive change in society has gained renewed attention in the so-called psychedelic renaissance. However, for this promise to fully manifest, certain indigenous communities must play a leading role in guiding the transition from eco-centred to eco-centred. This is not only because many of these communities hold the ancestral knowledge of psychedelic use for environmental connectedness, but because they play a critical role in preserving our planet’s fragile ecosystems.
As we journey from ego-centred to eco-centred, we are reminded that the history of psychedelics is not a recent one, but rather an ancient tapestry woven by Indigenous hands. Their sacred ceremonies, like the use of ayahuasca, have been instrumental in deepening the human connection to the non-human world of plants, animals, and spirits. These ceremonies are inseparable from the rich biodiversity of the Amazon basin, a vital fight against climate change.
Yet, many indigenous tribes now face various threats: from deforestation to illegal mining; to Western fetishism of indigenous psychedelic use and exhausting these natural psychoactive resources. To harness the full potential of psychedelics for environmental movements, we must prioritise the preservation of Indigenous cultures, including the lands and substances they steward.
Do all psychedelic experiences shift the ego to eco?
While personal transformations can occur with psychedelic experiences, they do not all necessarily shift towards nature-loving, environmentally conscious perspectives. Although some experience a shift towards more liberal or progressive views, others may find psychedelic experiences reinforce existing ego-centric beliefs like xenophobia or fascist values. Hence, these experiences do not necessarily create the same experiences and environmental benefits for everyone in the same way beliefs.
However, previous research suggests that psychedelic experiences that cause significant transformations in political or religious ideas are significantly impacted by other elements such as mindset and setting. This suggests that even though a shift from ego to eco values doesn’t always happen, you can encourage this change to happen. DolenLab suggests that, during a psychedelic experience, someone who is not environmentally driven could be introduced to the notions of nature-relatedness and the importance of climate action. If done within a reopened window of plasticity, this could have long-lasting effects.
However, while it’s important to disseminate the urgency of climate action across all communities, it seems immoral to use drugs to influence someone into supporting this cause. Environmental consciousness can be developed by using the power of psychedelic experiences to connect emotional to their natural surroundings, develop an appreciation for traditional uses of these plants, and a recognition of the interconnected nature of life on Earth. The psychedelic renaissance has the potential to develop a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the natural world, but this needs to be done intentionally and responsibly.