6:05pm - 7:05pm
Dissolution of What? The Self Lost in Self‐Transcendent Experiences
What is the relation between self and consciousness? Can the two be separated – can there be experience without self? This remains a debated issue in Eastern and Western philosophy ﴾Siderits, Thompson, & Zahavi, 2010﴿, despite an abundance
of reports of self‐transcendent experiences – experiences without or with a diminished sense of self. This is in large part because of the complexity of the concept “self”, which has several sub‐components that can be combined in different manners ﴾e.g., Gallagher, 2013; Millière et al., 2018﴿. Thus, in reports of experience without self it is often unclear both what it is that is lost and if what is left is to be counted as a self.
The purpose of this study was to investigate reports of self‐transcendent experiences, described in terms such as self‐loss, ego‐dissolution, and ego‐death, to evaluate what is said to be lost. Departing from a taxonomy of nine different aspects of self and three types of content of consciousness, we compared the experiences of twelve accounts of self‐transcendent experiences. The accounts were acquired through in‐depth, semi‐structured interviews. Two coders independently judged for each aspect of self and kind of content whether it was lost or retained during the described experience.
In two of the interviews, a sense of separateness and identification with the narrative self was retained. These two accounts did not qualify as self‐transcendent according to our definition, as lack of separateness and identification were part of the inclusion criteria. The two participants described their experience as “ego‐death” and “there being no I there,” respectively, showing that such wordings are very ambiguous.
For the remaining ten experiences, we found that while sense of separateness and identification with body and narrative self were reported as lost, bodily awareness, thoughts, emotions, sensory impressions, spatial self‐location, sense of agency,
metacognition, and personal identity were variously reported as lost or retained. At the same time, some participants emphasized the absence of either of these “optional” aspects as crucial for their judgement that the experience was without self. For example, for one participant the lack of spatial self‐location was described as fundamental for the experience, while thoughts and metacognition were retained as usual. For others, the absence of thoughts/metacognition was the most salient feature of the self‐loss.
We conclude that there is a large variety as to what aspects of self are felt as being lost in self‐transcendent experiences. We recommend that questionnaires used to investigate mystical or psychedelic experience should avoid general terms such as ego‐dissolution and instead ask about various aspects of self.
Gallagher, S. ﴾2013﴿. A pattern theory of self. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7﴾JUL﴿, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00443
Millière, R., Carhart‐Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Trautwein, F. M., & Berkovich‐Ohana, A. ﴾2018﴿. Psychedelics, meditation, and self‐consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 9﴾SEP﴿. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01475
Siderits, M., Thompson, E., & Zahavi, D. ﴾2010﴿. Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. ﴾M. Siderits, E. Thompson, & D. Zahavi, Eds.﴿. Oxford: Oxford University Press.