The Never-Ending Psychedelic Trip of Michael Pollan
There was a time when psychedelics such as LSD, mushrooms, and mescaline were primarily relegated to those who were wild and weird enough to brave the legal and social throes imposed by the War on Drugs. But those days are ending — if they haven’t already slipped into the past. Today these substances are increasingly embraced for their therapeutic, spiritual, and recreational value, and journalist Michael Pollan has emerged as arguably the most prominent champion of their kaleidoscopic rewards.
“It’s for spiritual experience,” he explained to Rolling Stone. “It’s for self-exploration. It’s for setting priorities. It’s for breaking habits. There are all these other ways people are using them. And we have this word ‘recreation’ that we think is negative, but we should go back and think — what is that? Well, re-creation is a very positive thing and people are using them to re-create themselves. And it seems to me that’s as legitimate as any other use.”
At 67, and having been only recently baptized in the strange seas of psychedelia, Pollan might seem like an unlikely candidate for the voice of the movement, but if you look over his body of work it becomes apparent why he would take up the mission. From food to caffeine to marijuana, his writing has always tended to focus on how various things humans ingest can affect and benefit our bodies, so the psychedelic examination offered by his 2018 book release How to Change Your Mind was a logical extension of his investigative interests.
Suffice to say that Pollan’s exploration of these drugs became personal rather than professional, inspiring him to help launch the Center for the Science of Psychedelics at Berkeley. This program’s mission is threefold: researching the physical and social properties of psychedelics; training the tens of thousands of psychedelic guides experts predict will be needed once the drugs gain FDA approval; and educating the public. Pollan is primarily involved with the educational outreach. “When I first started talking about it around the time that How to Change Your Mind came out, you could sense the resistance in the room if you said anything positive about psychedelics,” he says. But opinions are changing fast.
Now, How to Change Your Mind has been adapted into a four-part docuseries for Netflix, which premieres on July 12. It takes deep looks at LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline, explaining the complicated history of the drugs, as well as the therapeutic opportunities they offer for everything from OCD and depression to PTSD, end-of-life-therapy, addiction, and spiritual insight. Throughout the series, Pollan chats with researchers, activists, therapists, and those who have had debilitating conditions alleviated by psychedelic intervention, and their testimonials range from compelling to outright incredible.
Recently Pollan spoke with Rolling Stone about the new series, and why psychedelics have the potential to not only change your mind, but change the way our society approaches everything from wellness to climate change to spirituality.
How did this series come about?
I had worked with Alex Gibney before on a four-part Netflix series about Cooked, the book I’d written before How to Change Your Mind, and I thought they did a beautiful job bringing that book to the screen. So we started talking after this book came out, and it took a little while to put a deal together because it’s, you know, a controversial subject compared to cooking. And then there was the fact that we wanted to try to evoke the experience on the screen, which involves some expensive special effects. So it took a while, but Alex and I persisted and luckily Netflix decided they were down for it.
Netflix released a different series on psychedelics a couple years ago that was very introductory, and while yours has plenty of introductory stuff, it also has a lot to offer people who have more experience with psychedelics.
That’s a hard line to navigate because so many people are just being introduced to the subject, yet you want something that has the kind of credibility and depth that will hold the interest of people who are more familiar with it. And that was true in the book, too. There are many people who said, Who’s this guy writing this book? I know a lot more about psychedelics. But in a way a certain amount of naiveté was useful in bringing people along.
I think before How to Change Your Mind, most books about psychedelics were written by people well within the psychedelic community, which is great for the community, but it’s a small community and it’s off-putting to people outside it. They’re kind of put off by the evangelical fervor that people sometimes have. So all my books and — this is true of my films too — have the same narrative arc, which is learning. They’re all educations and the process of me starting out as naïve and gradually learning. I like to take the reader or viewer along on that journey rather than lecturing about everything I know. I don’t like writing as an expert. I like writing as an amateur.
People from the psychedelic community do tend to pontificate about them. Which is I guess understandable?
You want to take people by the collar sometimes and say, You won’t believe this! But that’s not necessarily the best way to bring them along.
You’ve had the opportunity to try all the most well-known psychedelics. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve had the most interesting experiences on psilocybin. The most purely pleasurable? I would have to say MDMA, which I think is an amazing compound. I didn’t write about it in the book, but we did cover it in detail in the film because it’s exhibiting such powerful treatment effects on people with PTSD, and it’s probably going to be the first psychedelic to be approved by the FDA.
But I have a special place in my heart for mescaline, which is not around very much. But I got very curious about it, and in my last book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, there’s a chapter on mescaline where I detail a long mescaline trip I had, and it is long. It’s fourteen hours. That’s one of the negatives on mescaline. It’s a generous compound that way, but at a certain point I just wanted to have some dinner and go to sleep and it wasn’t done with me. But I found that it had a very distinctive phenomenology. The experience felt different from the other ones, and that surprised me. There’s not a lot of hallucinations. It’s very much about the here and now. It doesn’t take you out of your world into another world. It immerses you more deeply in your world then and there. And I found that a very interesting experience. It was one of those drugs where you could stare at a bowl of apricots for three or four hours and really get a lot out of it.
The only one I didn’t like that I tried was 5-MeO-DMT — the venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad, which is incredibly powerful, disorienting, ego dissolving, but not in a happy way, in a frightening way. I had a very frightening experience on that. I’ve since heard from people who are more experienced with 5-MeO-DMT variously that I took too much or I took too little. I don’t know what to do with that.
Something you discuss in the series is the “War on Drugs” and its propaganda: This is your brain on drugs, and all that nonsense. How have you seen drug messaging change in the past 40 or 50 years?
I think it’s changed a lot over the last five years, actually. I think we’re going from a place where most people had in their heads, you know, This is your brain on drugs, LSD makes you want to jump off a building or stare at the sun until you go blind — we’re carrying around this baggage. I mean, I had it. I carried around this baggage. I’m a fairly skeptical person and I had absorbed a lot of that propaganda, especially about LSD.
But the identity of these drugs is quickly shifting from recreational party drugs that are dangerous to drugs that can heal, and they’re being associated now more with the treatment of mental illness than they are with, you know, kids doing reckless recreational things. It’s moving from being a youth culture thing to being something that older people are very interested in. So I think we’re in the midst of a sea change in how the public views psychedelics, and it’s happening really rapidly.
Over time, I think people’s curiosity is overcoming their fear — curiosity and desperation. We are in such desperate straits with rising rates of mental illness, especially depression, anxiety, and trauma. You talk to psychiatrists and they’ll tell you they don’t have a lot of good tools for addressing these problems. And that’s why even the psychiatric establishment has greeted this revival of research with psychedelics with open arms, and that surprised me. I thought there’d be all sorts of resistance. But in fact, psychiatry is desperate for some new tools and is remarkably open. I mean, they want to see more research. They want to see FDA approval. Obviously. But they’re not fighting a rearguard action against psychedelics. To the contrary.
In the series you wonder briefly how the monetization of something like psilocybin would work considering the fact that most people would likely only need to take a single dose once or twice in their life. Should it be monetized at all? And has there been any pushback from the pharmaceutical industry, or are they ready and waiting to pounce on it?
So far the mainstream Big Pharma has not been very interested in psychedelics. From what I understand from my interviews, they’re kind of watching the space. They’re waiting for some small pharmaceutical company — a Compass Pathways or an ATAI or somebody like — to figure out the business model, which is not easy.
As you say, these mushrooms are very hard to control, and how much can you charge for something that anybody can grow? And yes, you can have it in a standardized pill form and you can do your best to patent the way it’s used, but it’s not like your typical proprietary drug. There will always be a black market that you’ll be competing with. And so, I think the strategy of Big Pharma is to wait and see who figures out a good business model, because it also has to involve not just selling a drug but selling the therapeutic container.
You need therapists or guides with you who can prepare you and sit with you and help you integrate the experience. And that’s really the expensive part because those people make hundreds of dollars an hour for many, many hours. Once a company figures out the best way to do it, the pharmaceutical industry will simply buy that company. I mean, that’s what passes for innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. They just wait till a little company comes up with a cool new product and they buy it. So I think that’s what will happen.
But I think that psychedelics will continue to thrive outside of that medical container, that there will be other containers. There will continue to be an underground. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. It will grow. There will be an underground not just for sales, but for therapy. For guidance.
I also think you’re gonna see a rapid growth in the religious use of psychedelics, which are called entheogens. I keep hearing about new churches sprouting up everywhere where they’re using psychedelics in a sacramental way. And given the jurisprudence around religious freedom of this particular Supreme Court, it’s going to be very hard for them to say that this is not legitimate. Religious freedom is being drawn in such a broad way right now. And already there are three of course: the Native American church, which I talked about at length in This Is Your Mind on Plants, and then there are two ayahuasca churches. All three have secured the right to use a psychedelic in their worship. So I think we’re gonna see growth of this religious use, medical use and, you know, whatever we want to call the betterment of well people.
In the series many people mention how their psychedelic experience involved a realization of the “wholeness” or “oneness” of everything. It’s a consistently repeated experience that sometimes gets glossed over in the talk of specific therapeutic benefits relating to conditions like depression or PTSD. What does the research have to say about that? And have you experienced it yourself?
Researchers talk about mystical experience, which has a very precise psychological definition. There’s a scale of the mystical experience that goes back to [philosopher] William James, and it’s been updated by several people since. It includes this sense of merging with something larger than yourself: transcendence of space and time, this noetic quality that what you witnessed or thought was not just an opinion but revealed truth. It has an authority, these experiences, which is very interesting in and of itself. This has been observed by a lot of the research, that about two-thirds of people on a high dose of psilocybin have what’s called a “mystical experience.”
I had two that I think qualify, both on mushrooms. One was unguided in my garden in New England, and I had this experience that all the creatures in my garden — the dragonflies and the flowers and the other insects — were more alive than I had ever appreciated, and in fact were all conscious. I attributed consciousness to many more species than I ever have before. The plants were returning my gaze. This was a very powerful idea. Now, I’ve always given a lot of credit to plants. I wrote a whole book about how plants manipulate us, but it was an intellectual conceit. And now for the first time I felt it. I felt their presence. I felt their personhood. It was quite remarkable.
The other time as I described in How to Change Your Mind was the experience of ego dissolution, which goes with a mystical experience. My sense of self had exploded in a cloud of blue post-it notes and then kind of came down to the ground and formed a puddle of blue paint. And that was me. I was observing this from some new vantage that I’d never had before. And without a self, without an ego I was completely open to whatever was going on in my environment. My guide was playing this Bach unaccompanied cello suite — #2 in D minor — I’ll never forget it: I had an experience of music the likes of which I’d never had. I completely merged with the music. There was no distinction between me and it. I was it, it was me. I could feel the horsehair bow going over my skin.
It’s amazing how a person can have such a powerful experience but have no way to explain it to another person.
If you look at the mystical experience questionnaire, ineffability is right up there. A lot of these experiences you feel at a loss for words to describe. And that was a challenge writing about them, believe me, but I found my words. It took a while.
There’s a lot of talk about how psychedelics can benefit the individual, but what about communal benefits? You touch on this briefly in the documentary in regards to climate change, but what kind of impact do you think the widespread integration of psychedelics could have?
This is a very interesting conversation that goes on among psychedelic researchers and us amateurs, which is that, okay, we know a lot about the impact on individuals — it can be transformative. And there is evidence that psychedelics push people in a certain direction in terms of their attitude toward nature, for example, or their tolerance for authoritarian behavior. So many people believe that this is exactly the prescription for our troubled culture right now; that if lots of people have psychedelic experience we will have more nature connectedness — that is something that’s been measured, that people feel more connected to nature after a single psilocybin experience — less tolerance for authoritarianism… so there is some evidence of belief change that accompanies psychedelics.
But I have to sound a note of skepticism. The people who volunteer for psychedelic research trials are not typical of the population as a whole. We have not been giving these drugs to people who are hostile to the environment. This is a scientific question we have to answer: This belief change under psychedelics — does it always go in the same direction, or does it accentuate beliefs people already have?
And so something I’m spending a lot of time on these days is this new psychedelic research center that we started at Berkeley, where we’re going to be doing basic science research about psychedelics but also social science research about psychedelics. And one of the things we’re going to investigate is this very question — how do beliefs change under psychedelics? — using a demographically representative population of volunteers that has conservatives as well as liberals. Hopefully this will give us a better baseline to judge those belief changes before we put it in the water supply.
Psychedelics weren’t part of your life until relatively recently, but it seems like you’ve really gone in with full steam. So do you think you’ll continue being a part of the movement? What’s next for you?
I’m working on another book that is not primarily about psychedelics but will have an element of that there. I mean, it seems to be popping up. It’s a book on the quest to understand consciousness, human consciousness — where it came from and what it’s for and how does, you know, three pounds of grey tofu in between your ears produce the experience of being alive? And it’s a question that psychedelics put front and center, right? There’s no one who takes psychedelics who doesn’t start wondering about consciousness. It’s kind of like when you smudge the clear pane of consciousness — as psychedelics do — you suddenly say, Oh, there’s a pane there! So psychedelics play some element in that, but it’s not primarily a book about psychedelics.
And the center takes up a lot of my time. I’m one of the co-founders and I’m on the executive committee. It’s a startup, and we’re busy designing experiments and finding office space and hiring staff. But it’s very exciting to be involved with. The scientists are so jazzed to be able to work on this. Anyone who studies the mind — psychiatrists, psychologists, neuroscientists — a surprising number of them have psychedelic experience, and I think that’s probably what got them into it. But most of them have felt this is a career killer. That it is suicide to work on this, if not for them then for their graduate students. All that’s changing. The stigma is lifting and they’re very excited to do this work. So I think we’re gonna learn some really amazing things in the next five years. Not just at Berkeley, but as the field opens up. Now there are at least a dozen psychedelic research centers around the country at really good universities. So when you put good minds on that problem you’re gonna get some interesting results.
What advice do you have for people interested in trying psychedelics for the first time?
Approach it with care. It’s a very consequential thing to do. There are risks involved.
This is if you’re working at a high dose — I’m not talking about micro doses and things like that — but if you’re working with a high dose, make sure you have somebody with you who knows the territory. Don’t do it casually. Give a lot of thought to where you’re going to be: the set and setting, as Timothy Leary called it. Make sure you’re in a safe place and you’re in a good frame of mind. I think all these things are really important.
And find somebody to talk it out with afterwards. I think it’s really important. The interpretation of these experiences is almost as important as the experience. That can be very confusing, but with the help of another person you kind of turn it into narrative, you can take a lot of very valuable lessons from it. But they don’t just appear to you. You have to work at it.
A lot of people have one of these experiences and they say, I saw God or the plants were talking to me, and then they just put it in this box called “drug experience” and they let it go. It wasn’t the drug that gave you those thoughts or images: it was your mind. The drugs are catalysts. So it’s worth trying to understand what your mind is trying to tell you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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