We are all hiding behind masks in order to protect ourselves at the least, and to reap benefits at the most. Reward and punishment engineer our minds and the masks we wear. The ego is a construct of reactions to our aversion to suffering and to our craving for power and the manifestation of our desires.
I believe that nearly all aspects of our mind, including perception and thought, are conditioned by our pursuit for valuables and escapism from pain. The way that we perceive the world is aimed at increasing our ability to get what we want from reality. This is fairly innocuous when it comes to navigating physical space to bend reality to our whims, but it develops into something more insidious once we begin to desire the comfort of a deluded perception of ourselves or the world around us.
Psychedelics may function as a tool that helps understand what a persona actually is, by disintegrating its structure.
Users of the psychedelic drugs report a phenomenon they call ego death. This entails the experience of disintegration of the constructed ego. My hypothesis is that psychedelics interrupt conditioned responses somehow, either on the level of encoded memory access or the level of incentivized cognition and perception. The first possibility seems to be supported by the tendency of people to lose memory for their lives during the experience. You can’t be yourself if you can’t remember yourself. On the other hand, the second possibility is supported by the disruption of addiction and traumas by psychedelics. Addiction seems to be a problem of incentivized behavior, while trauma is about fears and aversion behavior. It is possible that recalling our lives is dependent on incentives too. On some level, we may be addicted to the life of memories that we define ourselves with. Both of these possibilities seem feasible.
The effects of these drugs on ego seem to exist on a dose-dependent spectrum. Consider the commonly reported experience of users that low to medium doses of psychedelics cause a greater discomfort than higher doses. Users often describe a difficulty with surrendering to the experience on lower doses, whereas higher doses hurl the person beyond the point of resistance and into a state where pushback is futile. What I’ve observed with lower doses of these drugs is that there’s a point where I partially lose my capacity to be socially normal. This often induces a great stress as I want to avoid embarrassing myself and yet I suddenly lack the necessary tools to do so.
This is where things get interesting. I think this reveals something about the structure of our personas and maybe our minds. There seems to exist a hierarchy of conditioned reactions to the environment that are geared towards making us feel better. My interpretation of this partial loss of social ability is that the highest most vulnerable layer of my mind is failing, while lower more “ancient” parts remain intact. More specifically, I think that I am afraid of people disliking me or hurting me. I am afraid that I will do something that causes others to harm me. I have a learned sense of what behaviors will cause others to harm me. I have a learned set of reactions to my learned sense of fear that others will harm me. It is a hierarchy of learned responses. Conditioned reactions to conditioned fears produce a comfortable bubble in which I no longer need to fear social punishment, embarrassment, cringe, or hatred. The lower doses of psychedelics may strip away my conditioned reactions but not my conditioned fears, so that I recognize that I may soon be hurt, and I no longer have a solution to avoid that, leaving me scared.
At the full dose, we may even temporarily lose our conditioned fears, our core traumas. The kind of traumas that tell us who we are supposed to be to avoid feeling that pain again. We may become free, perhaps even free of the fear of death, which could be dangerous. Ultimately, death, sex, and hunger are at the roots, the driving forces of our sense of self. We anxiously attempt to fit within our workplace culture, showing our boss how we play within the ruleset that they are curating in employee culture. Sometimes we even convince ourselves that our persona represents who we really are, because the idea of living a lie hurts us. To escape that pain, we adopt a perception of the world that eliminates it. We do not have the choice to alter workplace culture, so we alter who we think we are in order to cope. We build a persona for our boss because disobeying the boss threatens our flow of money, which is the main resource that allows us to survive at all. Our fear of death pressures us to either lie or develop delusions.
For sex and love, we become gendered, fit within ideals of the archetypal man or woman. We become who the other wants us to be, because we want that seductive pleasure. Even pleasing our boss is somewhat sexual. Our boss has power over our relationships and our power over our boss depends on what kind of mask we wear. We use our masks to puppeteer those who have influence over us, because we are horny, because we are hungry, and because we don’t want to die. The passing of our genes is the top priority. This can’t happen if we are dead. Evolution demands that we develop a persona or ego.
We begin to lose touch with reality and accept that this structure of reactions to pain and desire is truly who we are because we feel pain by being in touch with reality. Then, someone may take psychedelics and render life into something else. They begin to see life without the biasing incentives that pay off the direction of our thoughts, beliefs, and attention, opening a doorway to something potentially truer.
The most painful reality may be that there is nothing truer. What we see is that there is not much at all. We are defined by our desires and fears. We invent the complexity of who we are not because we are someone but because we desire and fear things. We want to be someone because we think it is safer or more pleasant. Temporarily absolving ourselves of the fears of death, the desires for sex, and our hunger frees us from who we believed we were.
We are whoever we are incentivized to be.
We are paid actors, pretending to be ourselves.
And that’s okay.
Just be whoever you want to be.
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Check out the book I just finished, The Psychonet. It explores many ideas from this blog and is designed to make you feel alive, emotional, and maybe terrified. It uses AI art and depicts a story about AI.