It’s an industry that has unconsciously found its way into our stomachs and minds. Behind this quest to get us thinking more about our health, Pollan is a truth seeker. Like any great journalist, he will unravel an entire field, before he puts pen to paper and his approach has earnt him millions of fans across the world.
For his next endeavour, he’s used himself as a guinea pig to better understand the profound area of psychedelics and its effect on the brain. A subject that has revived itself through the orthodoxies of science to much public interest.
It’s only 75 years since a Swiss scientist called Albert Hoffman took a pleasant psychedelic outing into the woods, changing the field of chemistry and neuroscience forever. Now through new discoveries, we are challenging century-long assumptions about what psychedelics can do for us. Are scientists to become the new shamans of our time or will we lock up these profound discoveries for fear of what we might find out?
“You have scientists studying the mystical experience. Isn’t that some kind of oxymoron?” – Michael Pollan (Alamy images)
I first came across your work through Cooked, but you’ve done so much incredible work in agriculture & health. How did you come to this area of psychedelic drugs?
Well, it’s funny, it’s a departure from what I’ve done before, but there are some strong lines of continuity. If you go back before the books that I’m probably best known for on food and agriculture, I wrote a book called The Botany of Desire where I explored how domesticated plants evolved to gratify human desires. If you study them you can learn something about human desire. One of our desires is to help us change consciousness. Whether we’re talking about caffeine, or nicotine, or psilocybin in mushrooms, this is a powerful and abiding human desire, along with the desire for sex, and shelter, and food and stuff like that.
I’ve always been interested in that and in fact, I wrote about cannabis and consciousness in The Botany of Desire, and have written a couple of other pieces over the years about drugs. I just think it’s one of the more fascinating and universal human urges. It’s a bit of a mystery why we have it, but the majority of people are taking some kind of psychoactive drug whatever the culture. Many of them are legal, many of them are not.
Then I started hearing about this research going on at John Hopkins at NYU where they were giving psilocybin to people who were facing terminal cancer and were getting remarkable results. Results that seemed to me to be too good to be true. There were people who would have one psilocybin treatment and completely lose their fear of death. So I became intensely curious in understanding that from a narrative perspective but also from a scientific perspective.
The fact that you’re a novice is endearing and I think people can probably learn a lot more because when you’re an expert you’re so mired in the subject that you probably lose sight of the basics.
You’re absolutely right. You use jargon without thinking. As a science writer, I’m embarrassingly ill-trained. I’m usually a couple of days ahead of my reader in terms of understanding the science, so I tend not to describe it in jargon. I don’t take things for granted, I start from the beginning. I mean I didn’t know where the posterior cingulate cortex was when I started this book. I knew nothing about brain anatomy. My eyes would glaze over when I would see those kinds of terms. I think one of the things I can do is present things in a way that is very accessible without dumbing it down. At the end of the book you may become something of an expert but at the beginning, you’re not.
"Before you’re five or so you’re tripping all of the time."
Michael Pollan on the brain's default mode network
There are so many powerful ideas in this book, maybe we can start with the first. This idea that taking psychedelics threatens hierarchical structures. The establishment is terrified of it.
Well you know a lot of society is organised around the idea of people in authority, and whatever their power, wisdom or insight is filtering down to people. So it’s mediated.
Religions are a great example. If you’re a Catholic the authority lies with the pope and you are not supposed to commune with God on your own. You have to go through the priests. The sacrament is symbolic, although Catholics actually believe it is the body and the blood of Christ, you’re relying on their statements to that effect.
Compare that with say the mushroom eaters that the Spanish Catholics discovered when they got to Mexico. These people also had a sacrament that they called the flesh of the gods, but theirs allowed them to actually see the gods and commune with them. It was direct and unmediated. This was a huge threat to the Catholic church in the same way that the Reformation was, because what they were saying was I can have a relationship with my god without going through the priesthood. So the Spanish Catholics crushed it.
I think something similar happened in the 60s where kids who had taken LSD started questioning the right of the government to send them to Vietnam.
This was a very unusual moment in history where the young developed their own aesthetics. Their own music, dress, codes of conduct, sexual morals. A remarkable autonomy in a way culturally. And I think that will never happen again because it was really a product of the novelty of those drugs. The threat in the 60s though was also born of the unfamiliarity of the elders in the culture with this practice, with psychedelics. We had this very unusual situation where the young were undergoing a powerful and searing right of passage.
However, there is another way of looking at this experience. There are cases, I’m thinking of Charles Manson where he used the drugs to brainwash people and they lost their sense of autonomy. So there’s a footnote you have to add to almost everything you say about psychedelics which is that they are so suggestible and the experience is not the product of the chemical but your mind after the chemical unleashes things.
“The Spanish Catholics crushed it.” – Michael Pollan on early mushrooms eaters in Mexico. (Alamy images)
One of the things that kept coming back to me constantly in the book was how we’re so obsessed with ourselves. We’re obsessed with our own progress, we’re obsessed with our transformation. We’re constantly trying to unveil, to awaken, and I just thought, are we even supposed to be taking psychedelics?
Well, we evolved this really interesting brain network I talk about. The default mode network with all the operations of the mind that you’re talking about that animals don’t share. As far as we know, self-reflection, time travel, the theory of mind, all this complicated stuff goes on.
It obviously has some value. It’s helped us to build a complex civilization. But it also torments us in various ways. You know, rumination. I don’t know if animals ruminate. These may be uniquely human capabilities and the ability to shut them off is only valuable because we have them. If you don’t have them you don’t need to shut them off. Kids don’t have it either. Before you’re five or so you’re tripping all of the time. You’re taking in information in that way, and processing it or not processing it in that way. So yeah the fact that these drugs work at all and are attractive to us is very much a product of the very special way in which the human mind works.
Another idea in the book which you touch on is trying to find evidence for what initially kindled the religious impulse, which was supposedly inspired by psychoactive mushrooms. That is a big idea.
I think it’s very interesting that one of the very common takeaways from the psychedelic experience is a conviction that there’s a world beyond the world as it presents itself to our senses in ordinary consciousness. This is a foundational premise of any religion. Where would you get such an idea? Dreams would be part of it but they don’t quite have the conviction that a psychedelic experience has. So yes, it might come from dreams, it could come from fantasy. But the conviction, that noetic sense, as William James called it, that is revealed to you on psychedelics has this remarkable authority and makes me think it’s not implausible that the religious impulse was kindled by psychedelic drugs of one kind or another. They were certainly used.
Think of the Greeks. They had the Eleusinian Mysteries which was a ritual once a year, accompanied by the consumption of a drug we haven’t identified but it sure sounds like a psychedelic, that allowed people to have visions and travel to the underworld, a very important idea in Greek civilisation, and imagine that there was an unseen world. It’s very consistent with Plato’s metaphysics that there’s an ideal form of all the things that we experience in another dimension.
It’s interesting that you can have that experience and put a religious interpretation on it and say this must be God, or heaven, or hell. But you don’t have to. There are other ways to interpret it. There was an interview with Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist, and he described how an LSD trip at fifteen opened him up to physics. Why? Because he’d had an experience that showed him time could be very different from the way he had always thought of it. It no longer seemed implausible that time could be relative, or space could be curved, or that particles don’t exist until they’re observed. The ideas of modern physics are just as wacky as the ideas of a lot of religions. So he gained a conviction that there was an unseen world and he followed that into theoretical physics.
Neural interconnectivity in normal brain state vs. psychedelic brain state
We spoke to one of the pioneers of this area David Nutt, and one of the things he said was that psychedelics will revolutionise the treatment of many psychiatric disorders and that within ten years he believes mushrooms could be an acceptable alternative to the current treatment for depression. What are your thoughts on this idea of psychedelics being accepted into the establishment so to speak?
Well, I think we’re two-thirds of the way through a process of getting these psychedelic substances tested according to the usual standards that it takes to approve a drug and so far they’ve behaved remarkably well. The results are impressive and promising. Most of the researchers I interviewed believe that like David says this could be a revolution in mental health treatment. I don’t discount that possibility but there is still a big step or two.
You tend to get better results in smaller earlier studies because you can really cherry pick your volunteers, and the people administering the drugs are incredibly well trained. Remember how suggestible the drugs are. If your therapist thinks this is going to cure your depression there’s a good chance it will. But that’s real too. As one researcher said to me, these drugs may be placebos on rocket boosters.
But I do see the potential. Especially in light of the fact that mental health treatment is so badly broken right now. We have not had an innovation in mental health care since the early 90s. That was the introduction of the SSRI antidepressants. What’s come along since then?
Rates of depression are rising dramatically, rates of suicide are rising dramatically, addiction is rampant. So we need a revolution in mental health care and if this is it, wouldn’t that be great? But with depression, for example, we still need to test it on larger populations. We don’t have to understand the mechanism in order to treat it. We don’t actually understand how SSRI’s work. But we need larger samples. And the great thing is we’re going to get them because the money has been raised to do this research, which is really exciting.
Psilocybin mushrooms (Alamy Images)
One of the best lines in the book is from Brian Turner, who was a military contractor turned Zen practitioner. He said, “science can bring you to the Big Bang but it can’t take you beyond it. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.” That’s very suggestive and powerful.
Well yes, the world view of science is questioned by this. That’s one of the really interesting things. You have scientists studying the mystical experience. Isn’t that some kind of oxymoron? No, it’s not.
They’re trying to penetrate this mystery as best they can. I think that the scientists involved have a humility that a lot of scientists don’t have. That quote I think is perfect. Science can take you so far but that’s not the only place to go. There is another layer. There’s always another layer. Consciousness, of course, is the great example. I spent so much time reading about consciousness from scientists, and some admit they don’t know, and some pretend they know but actually also don’t know. The subjective experience is completely beyond the reach of any scientific tool we have. When people say consciousness is an emergent property of complex systems that’s just making it up.
As a science writer, I’m keenly aware of the limitations science holds as a tool for understanding stuff. Sometimes the poets get there first. Sometimes the philosophers get there first. I try in my work to layer perspectives so you see science as one incredibly powerful and useful vocabulary among several others. So I think that the kind of spiritual questions that psychedelics raise, yes it makes some scientists really uncomfortable because it is poking at those areas that science hasn’t figured out how to penetrate yet.
I want to talk a bit about your experiences, especially the toad. Out of all the experiences you’ve had that gave me the biggest jitters.
Yeah, I bet. That one will put you off for a couple of years on your experiments.
“Psychedelics will be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy."
Paraphrasing psychadelic researcher Stan Grof
Well yes, one phrase that stands out is, “I was blasted to a confetti cloud by an explosive force and I felt like I was in a flimsy wooden house erected in the bikini atoll.” Reading that I thought is this drug even beneficial?
I’m not sure about the toad for a couple of reasons. It’s so fast and incoherent that you don’t bring back a lot of useful material. With all the other experiences you come back with some narrative, or imagery, some insights that you can do something with if you take the time to interpret it. This experience was so obliterating of all mental landmarks that you don’t feel like you have much to work with when you come back. It’s so fast and so violent. I’m not sure it has a therapeutic value. Although some people think it does and they’re using it in conjunction with ibogaine in Mexico to treat opiate addicts.
Did it have a value for me? Yes, it did. The value was the extraordinary feeling of gratitude I had for the very fact of existence. The fact that there is anything rather than nothing. When I reconsolidated as an ‘I’ with a body in a room with gravity, and matter, I was like, “this is fantastic. I’m never going to take this for granted again.”
Would I do it again? No, I’m not eager to do it again, even though I think if I did it again I would know the arc and the trajectory, and so perhaps would be less frightened, and more able to surrender to the experience.
What do you hope the book brings to the world?
I see it as a book not just about psychedelics but a book about the mind. I really see psychedelics as a tool. There’s a quote I have in the book from Stan Grof, he said it sometime in the early 70s. “Psychedelics will be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy, and what the microscope was for biology.” When I first read that I thought, “well that’s hyperbole”.
It was such an audacious claim. But as I’ve explored this territory I’ve come to think he may be right. So for me, it has kindled my curiosity about the mind. This tremendous mystery between our ears.
On the other side what I hope the book accomplishes is that I hope it will build support to do this research. I think it is such a promising field, whether we’re researching for therapeutic applications or as David Nutt’s lab is doing so brilliantly, to understand the mind and consciousness. We have this tool, and we should use it. So I’m hoping the book will build support. Already I know of people who have read it and written big cheques to researchers, which is great. If I can help put some wind in their sails, I would feel really good.
I didn’t write it to encourage people to take psychedelics. I feel really funny about that because I’m sure that in some cases it will. In the same way, when I was writing my books about food, I really avoided telling people how to eat. What I wanted was for people to just be conscious about their choices, whether they decided to come out of that process eating meat, or not eating meat, I just wanted people to do something we generally do thoughtlessly with some consciousness.
The defining moment in the book for me was when you were on mushrooms and you had this massive awakening that the two oak trees in your garden were your parents. When I read it I really felt like I was there with you.
That’s gratifying to hear because when you write something like that, half of you is like, “are you crazy? Who’s going to go with you down that path?” To me, it’s a very risky kind of writing. I looked out and I saw my parents, and they were these trees. It felt very real to me but whether I could make it real to anyone else, that was a big question. So hearing from you that you were with me is wonderful news.
An early advocate of LSD Timothy Leary
It’s interesting because now there’s this ayahuasca tourism going on. I feel like there’s a big hypocrisy that lies in the centre of pop culture. In the sense that all these kids in the 60s were taking it and even now neglecting the real value of what it is. The question should be asked if you can handle the power of this transformative tool. This is a lifelong assistance tool.
I think without question there’s a lot of careless use of these drugs. People don’t realise the magnitude of it and young people, in particular, they think they’re immortal. It’s a big step to disrupt your normal consciousness and surrender your defences. I think that’s the big thing and the fear people feel. Over the years you have built these defences and they may limit you in certain ways and close you off. On the other hand, they protect you. That’s what a defence does. So to put that aside for a period of time is a risk. It can be incredibly rewarding but we should make no mistake that you take a chance when you do that.
I just don’t want you to become the new Timothy Leary.
[laughing] That’s so not my style. I’m a much more cautious man than he was. And I have something that he didn’t have which is the example of Timothy Leary.
How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics is out now through Allen Lane