The dangers of looking in the mirror while on psychedelics is the stuff of urban legends. Art warns against it. Online message boards debate the potential terrors. Psychedelic users create videos to recreate the experience. But is it all superstition or can staring into your own eyeballs on hallucinogens really lead to doom?
Before I took LSD, it was the one thing my college friends warned me not to do. What’s so scary? Tripping might reveal a terrifying and distorted picture of yourself, one which may be closer to the truth of who you are than you’re ready to accept. “When we talk about the urban legend of ‘don’t look in the mirror,’ essentially your ego is suspended and it opens up a level of vulnerability,” said Ronan Levy, a co-founder of Field Trip, a psychedelic research and therapy group.
I looked in the mirror. My dyed sorority-girl blonde hair looked sickly, and my brown roots were fighting so hard to grow in. I was staring at myself while on three and a half tabs of acid. It was so much more than hair; my true nature was struggling against a failed conformity. It was the summer before my final year at a small southern college dominated by Greek life and conservatives. When (days later) I came down to Earth, I knew my attempts at fitting in were over. I dyed my hair dark and began redirecting my energy to do whatever it took to graduate early and make my way to New York City.
When I stepped into that bathroom a decade ago, I knew I was taking a risk by taking in my reflection in an altered state. However, unlike other psychedelic urban legends, such as the man who accidentally drank an entire bottle of liquid LSD, gazing upon your reflection can yield profoundly helpful insights—even if the experience is as terrifying as the urban legend would have you believe.
Shelby Hartman, the editor-in-chief of the psychedelics magazine DoubleBlind, recalled looking in the mirror in college during her first shrooms trip. “My cheeks looked like big mushroom clouds, and my eyes were all distorted in a crazy way,” she said. While Hartman has had more intentional experiences looking at her reflection since the shroom mushroom clouds, which were so therapeutic she now considers that taking psychedelics is a medicine, she notes that in the psychedelic community, trips aren’t divided into good or bad. “A big tenet of tripping is surrendering. There is the notion that whatever comes up for you is something that you should go into,” she said.
There are hard trips, but even those can be therapeutic. “What the science suggests is that there’s no such thing as a bad trip, there are only hard trips,” said Levy. “They engage things in your psyche that are challenging to deal with but that by engaging with those experiences and dealing with them directly, there’s growth and emotional awareness to be had.”
"We can see the beauty of ourselves, we can see the possibility of transformation, we can see the nature of our own death"
Chris Timmermann, a DMT researcher at the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College, said that “challenging” trips can offer great insight. “The evidence is showing that challenging experiences can lead to beneficial outcomes, especially if during the experience the person has been able to go through that difficult experience wholeheartedly facing whatever needs to be faced,” Timmermann said.
There’s a reason that psychedelics are drugs used for spiritual awakening. It’s not meant to be a quick dopamine rush. When asked about why looking in the mirror on psychedelics can be difficult, psychedelic writer and occultist Julian Vayne said, “The obvious answer is because you’re looking at yourself,” adding, “when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we’ve got the option of seeing the beauty of ourselves, and the way that we have formed, and really appreciating the remarkable nature of being an incarnated human.”
The reason that looking in the mirror may prompt novel self-realizations or visually alter our reflection is because psychedelics can turn off what is known as your Default Mode Network. The Default Mode Network refers to how our brain works in day to day life, or how what the psychedelic community often refers to as your ego. Looking in the mirror is an effective way to directly observe our brain in this child-like state.
”When we look at ourselves, we have the opportunity to experience ourselves from a number of different vantage points. We can see the beauty of ourselves, we can see the possibility of transformation, we can see the nature of our own death,” said Eva Césarová, a psychedelics activist, researcher, organizer. “We might see sides of ourselves that we don’t normally encounter.”
While on psychedelics, you’re able to see things from a perspective less attainable in everyday life. Looking in the mirror while tripping offers insight and new (sometimes frightening) ways of understanding yourself. Brown roots aren’t just a reminder that it’s time to schedule an appointment at your hair salon—they’re an alarm that it’s time to stop trying to fit in with a social group that you don’t even like. You might realize that you are worth liking.
“I was fascinated and completely mesmerized by how beautiful my own face was. Everything I love about my face seemed amplified,” said Sophia, 27, of looking in the mirror while on a combination of psilocybin and LSD. “For someone with chronic low self esteem, it felt like a transcendent and affirming moment in my life.”
Michelle Janikian, author of the upcoming Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion: An Informative, Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Magic Mushrooms, also had a transformative mirror experience. “I was struggling with a lot of body issues; I was recovering from anorexia, I’d always been hairier than other girls,” she said. “I had also been dealing with depression for most of my teens. But that night looking in the mirror, I realized for the first time in my life that I was beautiful and worthy and special, and it was a huge deal for me, or a major realization, and I think it really helped me moving forward.”
It wasn’t a sparkly experience of joy: Janikian said looking at herself was difficult, but she was able to take what she learned during the trip and apply it to everyday life for the better. “Integration is how the person bridges what was in their experience into their day to day life,” Timmermann said.
He suggested journaling as one way of integrating psychedelic experiences into day to day life. As is practiced in some ayahuasca circles, Timmermann also spoke of sharing what happened in your trip with others. Even if your moment of realization during a trip didn’t come from looking in a mirror, Timmermann noted that the introspection gleaned from psychedelics is a mirror itself, adding a meta twist to the experience.
“If you increase the level of abstraction to a mirror as the idea of psychological insight, people can change the way that they view reality and nature of consciousness after a psychedelic experience,” Timmermann said. Currently, most of the research on psychedelics is done at a handful of institutions or by the many psychonauts add college kids, but he said that one day the experience would ideally be combined with psychotherapy.
According to Vayne, looking in the mirror can also act as a barometer for your come down. “Looking in the mirror is like an anchoring process," he said. "Look back at yourself as you’re starting to come down the next morning, maybe going to the same mirror and seeing this iterative process unfolding. How was it the night before when you were amongst this huge fractating series of images, and how is it now when you look at yourself?”
While the visual effects and distortions of your psychedelic of choice play a role in your freaky image, the beautiful or terrifying experience that is looking at your reflection while tripping comes down to the fact that due to the changes in the Default Mode Network, you’re seeing yourself in ways you never have before. And while such a state of mind, invoked by yoga teaches as “beginner’s mind,” represented in Tarot by the Fool card, can provide a newfound appreciation for spiderwebs, we’re not talking about staring down an insect. The most haunting creature you can stare down while on psychedelics is yourself.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.