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To calibrate a baseline level of activity for my PCC, Brewer projected a series of adjectives on the screen—“courageous,” “cheap,” “patriotic,” “impulsive,” and so on. Simply reading the list does nothing to activate the PCC, which is why he told me now to think about how these adjectives either applied or didn’t apply to me. Take it personally, in other words. This is precisely the thought process that the PCC exists to perform, relating thoughts and experiences to our sense of who we are.

Once he had established a baseline, Brewer, from another room, led me through a series of exercises to see if I could alter the activity of my PCC by thinking different kinds of thoughts. At the completion of each “run”—lasting a few minutes—he would project a bar graph on the screen in front of me; the length of each bar indicates to what extent the activity in my PCC had exceeded or dropped below baseline, in ten-second increments. I could also follow the ups and downs of my PCC activity by listening to rising and falling tones on a monitor, but I found that too distracting.

I began by trying to meditate, something I’d gotten into the habit of doing early in my foray into the science and practice of psychedelic consciousness. A brief daily meditation had become a way for me to stay in touch with the kind of thinking I’d done on psychedelics. I discovered my trips had made it easier for me to drop into a mentally quiet place, something that in the past had always eluded me. So I closed my eyes and began to follow my breath. I had never tried to meditate in front of other people, and it felt awkward, but when Brewer put the graph up on the screen, I could see that I had succeeded in quieting my PCC—not by a lot, but most of the bars dipped below baseline. Yet the graph was somewhat jagged, with several bars leaping above baseline. Brewer explained that this is what happens when you’re trying too hard to meditate and become conscious of the effort. There it was in black and white: the graph of my effortfulness and self-criticism.

Next Brewer asked me to do a “loving-kindness” meditation. This is one where you’re supposed to close your eyes and think warm and charitable thoughts about people: first yourself, then those closest to you, and finally people you don’t know—humanity at large. The bars dropped smartly below baseline, deeper than before: I was good at this! (A self-congratulatory thought that no doubt shot a bar skyward.)

For the next and last run, I told Brewer I had an idea for a mental exercise I wanted to try but didn’t want to tell him what it was until afterward. I closed my eyes and tried to summon scenes from my psychedelic journeys. The one that came to mind first was an image of a pastoral landscape, a gently rolling quilt of field and forest and pond, directly above which hovered some kind of gigantic rectangular frame made of steel. The structure, which was a few stories tall but hollow, resembled a pylon for electrical transmission lines or something a kid might build from an Erector set—a favorite toy of my childhood. Anyway, by the odd logic of psychedelic experience, it was clear to me even in the moment that this structure represented my ego, and the landscape above which it loomed was, I presumed, the rest of me.

The description makes it sound as though the structure were menacing, hovering overhead like a UFO, but in fact the emotional tone of the image was mostly benign. The structure had revealed itself as empty and superfluous and had lost its purchase on the ground—on me. The scene had given me a kind of overview effect: behold your ego, sturdy, gray, empty, and floating free, like an untethered pylon. Consider how much more beautiful the scene would be were it not in the way. The phrase “child’s play” looped in my mind: the structure was nothing more than a toy that a child could assemble and disassemble at will. During the trip the structure continued to loom, casting an intricate shadow over the scene, but now in my recollection I could picture it drifting off, leaving me . . . to be.

Who knows what kinds of electrical signals were leaking from my default mode network during this reverie, or for that matter what the image symbolized. You’ve read this chapter: obviously, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the ego and its discontents. Here was some of that thinking rendered starkly visible. I had succeeded in detaching myself from my ego, at least imaginatively, something I would never have thought possible before psychedelics. Aren’t we identical with our ego? What’s left of us without it? The lesson of both psychedelics and meditation is the same: No! on the first count, and More than enough on the second. Including this lovely landscape of the mind, which became lovelier still when I let that ridiculous steel structure float away, taking its shadow with it.

A beep indicated the run was over. Brewer’s voice came on the loudspeaker: “What in the world were you thinking?” Apparently, I’d dropped way below baseline. I told him, in general terms. He sounded excited by the idea that the mere recollection of a psychedelic experience might somehow replicate what happens in the brain during the real thing. Maybe that’s what was going on. Or maybe it was the specific content of the image, and the mere thought of bidding adieu to my ego, watching it float away like a hot-air balloon, that had the power to silence my default mode network.

Brewer started spouting hypotheses. Which is really all that science can offer us at this point: hunches, theories, so many more experiments to try. We have plenty of clues, and more now than before the renaissance of psychedelic science, but we remain a long way from understanding exactly what happens to consciousness when we alter it, either with a molecule or with meditation. Yet gazing at the bars on the graph before me, these crude hieroglyphs of psychedelic thought, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a wide-open frontier, squinting to make out something wondrous.

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