Michael Pollan: Can Psychedelics Save the World?

With 'The Omnivore's Dilemma,' he changed the way we approach our food – and his new book could transform how America thinks of psychedelics

By looking at the effect of psychedelics on the mind you learn a lot about the mind, about depression, about dying, about addiction," says author Michael Pollan. Credit: Jeannette Montgomery

Most people know Michael Pollan as a food writer. His 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is widely credited with helping spark the modern food movement, in which everyday Americans began asking questions about where their food comes from. But in his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Pollan shifts his lens away from food and onto the world of hallucinogenic medicines, in which people are tripping – both legally and illegally – on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics in order to heal mental and emotional afflictions. If this book does for psychedelics what his other books did for food, this could prove to be a pretty big deal.

Pollan and I began talking psychedelics five years ago. Our conversations started while I was a student of his, but have continued due to a shared interest in plants and fungi and what humans can learn from them, particularly while hallucinating on the compounds certain species produce. In How to Change Your Mind, Pollan explores the ways these compounds are showing promise treating a host of maladies, from anxiety and depression, to addiction and obsession. It's at times a deeply personal account, taking readers not only into the lab, but into ​Pollan's own less-than-legal hallucinogenic experiences, showing what he learns along the way about his own mind, and his connections to himself and his family.

As with all Pollan's work, the book is thoroughly researched, diving deep into history and science. A solid quarter of the book is devoted to the complicated past of psychedelic research in the mental health community, while a considerable number of pages are spent describing various brain functions, and how certain psychedelics interact with our minds to enhance our thinking, and possibly improve our lives. It all comes together to offer a broad look at psychedelics in Western medicine and culture, and to challenge readers to examine what makes something a drug and what makes it a medicine.

We met on a Sunday morning in a Manhattan apartment to discuss the new book, and what Western culture might stand to learn from a larger conversation around psychedelics.

First I want to just ask you about the title, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. I'm curious why you didn't make the subtitle longer?
[Laughing] Ran out of space! I'm trying to get across that this is not simply a book about psychedelics. It's a book about what psychedelics teach us about the mind. When I started I was very intrigued and somewhat outraged by that quote from [pioneering transpersonal psychologist] Stan Grof that LSD will be for the study of the mind what the microscope was for biology or what the telescope was for astronomy. I mean, really? You know that's a big claim. But I wanted to test that claim and in fact I think there's a lot to it. The fact is by looking at the effect of psychedelics on the mind you learn a lot about the mind and you learn about depression and you learn about dying and about addiction and transcendence.

I think that all comes across, although I do feel like I need a bookmark for the subtitle… Anyway let’s talk about how psychedelics have changed your life.
It's a really complicated question that I haven't fully begun to answer, because I think the ripples are still playing out, but I think the biggest was changing my relationship to my ego.

I describe that big psilocybin trip in the middle of the book which was for me the most productive – not necessarily the most dramatic – but the most productive, and I had this experience of seeing my sense of self or my ego spread out over the landscape like paint. Yet I was still beholding it. And it gave me a kind of distance on my ego I hadn't had before.

I think do a better job of realizing when my ego is doing its thing. That I don't have to react the way he wants to react. People can attain that through 10 years of psychoanalysis, four days a week, probably, but I attained it in four hours and that was kind of amazing.

Has it calmed you down a little bit?
I think it has calmed me down without question, and I think it's made me more open. You know my dad died in January and I was here [in my parent’s apartment] for several weeks and lived in the apartment with him and my mother when this was going on. And I think had I not had these experiences it would have been a more fraught experience for me going through this and I probably wouldn't have spent quite as much time here. You know you can always find excuses not to be around when someone is dying.

On the topic of family, you talk about your connection to your wife, Judith, a fair amount in the book, and about how your love and connection came up for you in a lot of your medicine journeys. How have these psychedelic experiences that you had changed or influenced your relationship with her?
Well you know she was my first "integrator," to use the jargon of the guides. They make the point that integration is a very important part of the process, it's not enough to just have an experience you have to figure out what to do with it. What does that mean? How do you apply it to your life?

And they're very odd, inchoate, mysterious experiences that are hard to make sense of sometimes. So even before I went back for integration with the guide, the night of the experience I would tell her what happened and we would sit at the table and have a long dinner and talk it out. And she – who knows me better than anyone – she would often help me connect dots and help me interpret things that had happened.

Would she say that you've gotten better?
I think she would. I think she would say that I'm more open and more patient. Not in dramatic ways, but in subtle ways.

God comes up in the book. Who is God? Did you come close to meeting God?
No. I came close to a sense of the imminence of some something spiritual in nature. There are dimensions of consciousness and dimensions of nature and reality that we have not begun to penetrate. We haven't begun to penetrate consciousness.

And the mind, too. It's utterly unexplored in so many ways.
Yes, and the links between brain and mind are very poorly understood, and some of our understanding has come from psychedelics, certainly about the ego and self-reflection and things like that.

So did I arrive at a concept of divinity? Not exactly, no. But to move from such a strict position of philosophical materialism to an open mindedness that philosophical materialism might not explain everything, that's a big shift. That's a really big shift, even though you know I still have lots of skepticism.

One thing that stood out to me as not being in this book are voices of more indigenous people. As you know, various indigenous cultures have worked with a lot of these medicines like ayahausca and psilocybin for hundreds or thousands of years, yet the sources in the book are mostly doctors and researchers who work with psychedelics, the so-called "White-Coat Shamans." Why didn't you seek out more Indigenous voices?
You know, because the door I came in through was Western science. And I'm using that door, in part, because I'm comfortable going through that door, I'm a science writer. And science has a unique authority in our culture. If you can prove something to the satisfaction of scientists, it's true. Even though I'm very skeptical of that idea, I make good use of it.

And I think even though I didn't come in through that other door – which I am really interested in – I think I'm trying to make the point that the wisdom resources of indigenous communities are critical, and that in fact what’s happening is a translation of shamanism into Western terms. I don't know that our society will credit shamanism as much as it deserves to be credited unless it is somehow this process of cultural translation – which you can call appropriation, but I think it's translation this case – takes place.

Psychedelics came to Western culture shorn of all that thousands of years of wisdom, and that's why we got into trouble in the Sixties with it, to the extent we got to trouble. And that's why we had a backlash. It was just a free for all. I think one of the big problems with the way psychedelics entered the West was that we ignored the lessons of shamanism, which are: this experience is very powerful and needs to be regulated very carefully, and you need elders, and you need ritual and ceremony to contain it. And you don't do it outside of that setting. I wanted to reflect a recognition that we discard this wisdom at our peril. But finally we're going to have to use it in a different way. We're going to come up with our own ceremonies.

I’ve found that psychedelic medicines have helped me untangle some of life's bigger knots in my mind and I think a lot of people could be interested in psychedelics when they hear that they can help you kind of unlearn things within yourself. So I'm curious how can psychedelics help us unlearn things that hold us back in our lives?
It allows you to sneak up on your life and see it from a different perspective. You know many of the volunteers I talked to talked about having the camera pulled back.

Zoomed out.
Yes, zoomed out, and they could see themselves and say 'Wow, that's what I'm doing." A lot of our problems with habit is a lack of perspective. We're too in it, and we respond to stimuli the same way over and over again. You see your life in a new way, and that's a predicate for change. So I think that's very important

We need our own mind to see itself.
And that's the value of acquiring, even temporarily, another consciousness. Because we are divided internally, and we do have internal debate. But you get more of a sense of diversity in that realm: 'Oh there's that way to look at it, and that way to look at it,' and that can be liberating. It may be confusing to some people, but I think that in general it's liberating and that it's the univocal mode of consciousness that gets us into trouble. It's animal consciousness. It's the thing that is programmed to react the same way to the same stimulus all the time. And breaking free of that, it's a very healthy kind of self-consciousness I would say.

Let's go deeper though. Why is it important to change our minds?
Because most of us are stuck. And as a culture we're stuck. You know I mean look at the political landscape we're frozen in place. Democrats and Republicans. We're facing environmental crisis we seem stuck in dealing with it. Addictive behavior is rampant in this culture, whether it's Twitter or alcohol or pot. Rates of depression are climbing. Suicide is rising alarmingly. So to the extent that all these problems reflect a kind of rigidity, which I think they do. There are many of us in need of shaking the snow globe. So I think it's no accident that there's new attention being paid to psychedelics.

I do believe that these medicines have the potential to address the two biggest problems we face. One is the environmental crisis. People come out of these experiences feeling differently toward nature. To begin to see subjectivity in nature is to begin to realize it's not our object to trifle with, that we need to bring another kind of attitude of respect and an ethic to nature.

And the other big problem we face is tribalism, which is to say the objectifying of other people, right? And not recognizing what we have in common with the refugee, or the person trying to come across the border. Both are failures of connection. Both are products of egotism, of 'I' before 'we,' of a narrow sense of self-interest.

So here we are. Those are the two biggest problems we face and we have a medicine that seems to address them in the individual. The big question becomes – and this is where Timothy Leary got into trouble – is can you prescribe a medicine for a whole culture? That's a kind of wild idea.