The ego tax
I recently read Michael Pollan's “How to Change Your Mind”. He describes the use of psychedelics - in a clinical context - to heal depression, anxiety, addiction and trauma. Participants took psilocybin - a mushroom with similar effects to LSD, took eye shades and headsets, and under the supervision of a clinician 'dived in' to face some of their deepest issues. The results are staggering - much better than ‘classical’ therapy, faster than meditation - arguably more effective than any other method in mental health. Turns out, mushrooms can turn your life around.
It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have the time for the whole book, then this podcast interview from Michael Pollan already goes a long way.
Pollan attributes the good results to one main factor - the presence of the ego in our mind. Its removal is what helps us access deeper truths. Here is how he explains the results:
“It’s an experience of ego dissolution, of complete depersonalization. It is your ego, in a way, that writes and enforces those destructive narratives (..) And if you can shut it off for a period of time, and realize that there’s another ground on which you can stand (…), that, I think, is very positive. (..) The ego builds walls. It isolates us from other people. It isolates us from nature. It’s defensive by definition. And when you bring down those walls in the psyche, what happens? Well, you merge. You merge with something else. There’s less of a distinction between you and the other, whether that other is other people in your life, or the natural world, or the universe.”
This book got me thinking about how the ego relentlessly gets us further from understanding ourselves and the world. It’s a distraction at best, an opponent at worse. This book got me thinking a fair amount about how the ego relentlessly gets us further from understanding ourselves and the world. It’s a distraction at best, an opponent at worse.
What is the ego? Let's meet your ego. I imagine it as a cop inside your brain.
Its sole mandate is to protect you.
To do so, it is constantly generating thoughts about the dangers and opportunities around you - particularly as they directly relate to you and your sense of self.
When a colleague has a promotion, it tells me “What about your career? When am you getting your own promotion?"
When you stumble upon a group photo, its first reflex is to make you look at me to see how you look.
When you're at a diner table and people suddenly switch to a language you don’t speak, it's the one suggesting: “Why did they switch? Is it to speak about me?”
When someone doesn’t answer your messages soon, it gets me to wonder “are they mad at me? Did I do something to them?"
The cop is always there in your mind. Its job is to protect you - all the time. It detects threats, and activates your brains to respond to them.
It’s a biological design. The problem is that it conditions, or even prevents some mental processes. I’ll reiterate. Many of the mental processes of your mind are triggered to by the ego, and are conditionned to satisfy its needs.
At best, the ego makes us distracted with a constant stream of thoughts about “me, me, me”.
But at worse, it build walls, preventing us from exploring key questions about ourselves or the world. Perhaps even worse - the more crucial the questions, the more the ego resists them.
A constant source of distraction
The problem with this voice in our head is that most of the thoughts it generates are directly related to us.
David Foster Wallace puts it best :
"Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real."
Wallace points towards a sort of bias that we all have - that everything relates first and foremost to us. To me, that’s this voice inside our head always generating thoughts as they relate to us. This cop is so focused on our protection and social survival that it can stop just thinking about what’s good for us and our close ones.
It makes us do this:
The science behind all this
It turns out that recent science research explains some of those dynamics inside our mind - what Wallace calls the “Default setting” of self-centeredness.
Recent research in neuroscience recently unveiled this network called the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN coordinates the activities of the other parts of the brain - a bit like the orchestra conductor for the brain - mobilizing them out as required. [Footnote] For the curious, his name comes from the fact that the DMN is ‘task-negative’ - that is, he’s active when the rest of the brain is not. He’s the default mode, the one that typically is active when your brain is not focused on another part of your mind.
Now we have reason to believe that the this Default Mode Network is directly associated with the ego. It gets activated when we conduct tasks related to ourselves - searching for autobiographical information, self-reference, reflecting on one’s own emotion. What’s even more interesting is that many of the practices that are known to reduce this network - mindfulness practice, MDMA, or being in Flow - supresses it. When you’re high and are completely absorbed in the world, when you’re focused on some intense task so much that it reduces your sense of self, or when you’re getting out of one week of meditation and finding every single flower beautiful - all those experiences are linked to lower level of DMN. Conversely, the DMN gets very active where we do not have anything else to do - when our mind wanders or reflect - hence the name Default Mode Network.
This suggests a frightening theory. That the same part of our brain protecting - this ego of ours - is not generating thoughts for us, he also has 'access rights' to mobilize the other parts of our brain. He’s both our brain administrator and a self-centered dick in charge of protecting us.
The simple rule of social interactions
This reality is so prevalent that the master book’s on human relationships - Dale Carnegie’s How to make friends and influence people - is basically a list of ways to stroke other people's egos. Here is his list of "Six Ways To Make People Like You” :
Become genuinely interested in other people. "You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you."
Smile. Happiness does not depend on outside circumstances, but rather on inward attitudes. Smiles are free to give and have an amazing ability to make others feel wonderful. Smile in everything that you do.
Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language. People love their names so much that they will often donate large amounts of money just to have a building named after themselves. We can make people feel extremely valued and important by remembering their name.
Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. The easiest way to become a good conversationalist is to become a good listener. To be a good listener, we must actually care about what people have to say. Many times people don't want an entertaining conversation partner; they just want someone who will listen to them.
Talk in terms of the other person's interest. The royal road to a person's heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most. If we talk to people about what they are interested in, they will feel valued and value us in return.
Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely. The golden rule is to treat other people how we would like to be treated. We love to feel important and so does everyone else. People will talk to us for hours if we allow them to talk about themselves. If we can make people feel important in a sincere and appreciative way, then we will win all the friends we could ever dream of.
(I’ve put in bold what I consider to be ego-stroking ideas)
It’s as if the best way to interact with someone could be summarized by “protect & cherish others' egos”. It’s also why we have brands that promote a new vision of self - 'they don’t promote the product, they promote a new way of you’.
Our defensive selves
But the worse thing about the ego isn’t that it makes us manipulable to some (habile) form of flattery. It’s that it makes us defensive.
To me, Defensiveness happens when our ego sets out the task of protecting us from something.
But we are also protective about ideas - especially one we’ve already spent so much time invested in developing, or protecting:
We become emotionally attached to those ideas, the same way we have been to those people people around us. And when an idea comes that might threaten one of those concepts, then we act in full defense mode, throwing anything our mind can summon against it.
The obvious challenge with defensiveness is the conversations it generates. They are not as much conversations as tug-of-war or verbal skirmishes. All search for truth, compromise, solutions or creativity, is abandoned. In fact, unless you enjoy verbal jousting, it’s often a remarkable waste of time. We know the other person won’t be convinced, we know we are losing time, but our egos are just too busy defending something. We know you like Friends, bro, and we know you think it just conveys an outdated and oppressive model of society, sister. But then again you are liberal and he is conservative, so why should we be surprised? Isn’t that simply the core of the matter?
One of my professor at Harvard was so used to defensiveness than when giving criticism, he often added “why don’t you think about it for a couple of days”, as a way to defuse the immediate fight and give time for the person to go and reflect. I found it incredibly helpful.
But the most vicious impact of defensiveness is that we do not only act this way in discussions with others, we also act like this in our own minds. Our ego doesn’t only battle other people, it also battles our own thoughts. It actively prevents us from thinking about specific ideas.
I see this most vividly when I fought with someone. There was an accumulation of conflicting experiences that were patiently accumulated, up to the point where they were voiced to the open. Then we both make very good cases for why the other person is wrong and we’re right - usually pointing to different parts of the past or different logic. It’s all quite silly and fun.
Then we usually part ways, misunderstood and frustrated. And That’s when the fucked-up things happen.
My brain can’t stop rehashing why I am right. I keep repeating those thoughts that give me reason - hearing the same narrative over and over again. It comes naturally to me - no need to even fight it. And worse still - my ego actively fight against the opponent narrative. Some part of me refuse to listen to it, to even contemplate whether there might be some form of truth to it. Because another part of me knows that if the other person has some part of truth, or reason, in this argument, then it means that some form of what I did was wrong, that I acted somewhat inappropriately. And I refuse to admit to that.
So instead of facing all those consequences, the ego will start adding a box in our safe of defensive topics.
And start defending that new box as well.
Facing those realities
Sadly, our ego often prevents us from even seeing what’s in this box. In fact, the idea that we even have such a ‘box’ with truths we do not want to face is pretty harmful to our sense that we are open-minded, and rational people. So we resist it as much.
This is why the first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme is the admission that one is, in fact, an alcoholic- why it’s such an important and yet difficult step for people to do.
And sometimes our ego deludes us into thinking that it is not protecting any programme at all which makes it even more tricky, because admitting that we are in fact - defensive - would bring again to face another tricky set of challenges.
This is also wonderfully illustrated by Nathaniel Branden:
"Sometimes in therapy, when a person has difficulty accepting a feeling, I will ask if he or she is willing to accept the fact of refusing to accept the feeling. I asked this once of a client who was a clergyman and who had great difficulty in owning or experiencing his anger; just the same, he was a very angry man. My request disoriented him. “Will I accept that I won’t accept my anger?” he asked me. When I answered, “That’s right,” he thundered, “I refuse to accept my anger and I refuse to accept my refusal!” I asked, “Will you accept your refusal to accept your refusal? We’ve got to begin somewhere. Let’s begin there.” I asked him to face the group and say “I’m angry” over and over again. Soon he was saying it very angrily indeed. Then I had him say “I refuse to accept my anger,” which he shouted with escalating vigor. Then I had him say “I refuse to accept my refusal to accept my anger,” which he plunged into ferociously. Then I had him say “But I am willing to accept my refusal to accept my refusal,” and he kept repeating it until he broke down and joined in the laughter of the group. “If you can’t accept the experience, accept the resistance,” he said, and I answered, “Right. And if you can’t accept the resistance, accept your resistance to accepting the resistance. Eventually you’ll arrive at a point you can accept. Then you can move forward from there…. So, are you angry?” “I’m filled with anger.” “Can you accept that fact?” “I don’t like it.” “Can you accept it?” “I can accept it.” “Good. Now we can begin to find out what you’re angry about.”