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  • Matt Breton

The Ego

I just finished a couple of books, How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, and The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. Both good reads. While initially they seemed unrelated, as I dove into each one, there were some compelling similarities.

Pollan's book is about psychedelics and covers a lot of ground around the history of these drugs, as well as the experiences of a lot of people who have used them. While useful, I really dug into the neuroscience of these drugs, and their implications for our mental well being as self-conscious animals.

Storr drew together his work for previous books that included a fair amount of psychological research , interestingly, and a class he teaches about story telling. The craft of sharing stories is as old as humanity and has its roots in our minds. Character, story lines, tragedy, humor, plot twists and resolution all play out along the lines of our psychology. Who we cheer for in a story, and who we like to see fail, has much to do with our mindset. Manipulating these variables is key to a good story, but knowing this, it is also powerful in understanding our own minds.

The relationship in these two books comes down to attempting to better understand our ego, the self. Our ego is our story of our self, and we write that story (and rewrite it, over and over) as we wind our way through the world. The story we tell ourselves about our place in the world frames many of our thoughts and actions. Even unconnected bits get woven together to make sense of the fabric of the world and our place in it. The arc of our lives, from birth to death (and even after death) is understood by the telling of that story. Early in life, our sense of self is almost non-existent and there are an infinite number of possible we age, the possible selves gets narrowed until we eventually see our self as being on one path, despite the fallacy of this. It is our ego (the internal storyteller) who has us on our path and locked into who we are, which ends up being mostly habit and routine.

In my clinical work as a PT, I get to intersect with any number of stories on a daily basis. When I take a minute to step back, I can see how people tell themselves different stories about their circumstances, and how those stories play out in how they ultimately do. There are some people who show up, unwilling to change, who I suspect will not get much better - they've already written the story as a tragedy. They may want one thing, but don't ultimately see a way to make that play out. They feel a lack control of their situation, often with a victim mindset, and ultimately turn inward with their thinking. Others come in with an attitude that suggests they are headed somewhere, that they are in control, that something different is possible; it is a story of triumph. This happens almost regardless of the location, severity, or even presence of injury.

Stepping back even further, I can see how the story I tell myself impacts me on a day to day basis, with how I feel about the world, and my place in it. Connecting this idea of ego and story back to Pollan's book, a lot of the potential benefit around psychedelics seems to come from a transcendental experience, which often centers around the dissolution of the ego, or a loss of self. This experience, in the central nervous system, seems to come from a reduction of activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain, which allows for a host of other areas to fire up and connect to one another. This is vastly oversimplified here, but the effect of quieting the DMN is one of belonging in the world/universe, an overwhelming sense of connection along with sparks of creativity. Interestingly, the DMN gets quieted (without psychedelic aid) when we are active and in situations of extreme challenge - goal directed tasks especially. It results in an expansive experience related to feeling small in the world, but deeply connected to it, like when we see a fantastic view from summitting a mountain, or have a runners 'high' after a long run, or after seven hours of tracking a buck.

While the DMN is important at a resting state, we need to be able to quiet it as well. Cognitive processes, according to studies that relate the activity of DMN to metacognition, are important in building and updating internal models of the world, based on memories about oneself or others. Too much DMN, or turning inward, a contracting experience, perhaps has relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and attention deficit disorder; these conditions are characterized by a diminishing state of vigilance and an increase of inner dialogue toward negative ruminant thoughts. (HindawiNeural PlasticityVolume 2019, Article ID 7067592, 15 pages

So in a crazy world, there is probably some measure of comfort in turning outward and thinking big, to realize that we are all indeed connected, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. The story we write doesn't need to be just about "I", instead, maybe it can be one about "Us" where we all triumph, each with our own little piece of it.

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