This Is Your Mind on Plants: An Interview with Michael Pollan

Written by Brad Burge

Michael Pollan is author of nine books, seven of which have been New York Times best sellers, and three of which were immediate #1 New York Times best sellers. A contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine since 1987, Pollan’s writing has received numerous awards. Since 2003, Pollan has served on the faculty of UC Berkeley, and in 2020, he co-founded the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics.

In his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan takes a deep dive into three plant-based drugs: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. Blending a unique combination of history, science, memoir, and participatory journalism—both examining and experiencing these powerful plants—he sheds light on the role they can play in changing our minds and resetting our relationship with nature and the environment. This Is Your Mind on Plants was published on July 2, 2021, and is now available.


Brad Burge:    How do you feel the reception has been for This Is Your Mind on Plants

Michael Pollan:    It’s exceeded my expectations. Really, it’s a modest book compared to How to Change Your Mind, and frankly, it was a more fun book to write so I was thrilled at the reception it got. There was a little less pressure on it then How to Change Your Mind, and it was closer to my true love, which is gardening and DIY projects. The caffeine section in particular was a departure in that I’m usually trying substances to write about them, and for this one I had to abstain from a substance to write about it, and that was definitely challenging, but I had a great time working on that chapter. I loved the research and didn’t love the abstention, but it was worth it.

Author Michael Pollan

With How to Change Your Mind I was really starting from zero; I knew very little about psychedelics. I knew very little about mental health. I knew very little about neuroscience. So I had to master a big fat subject to be able to write about it with confidence—and I hadn’t yet had psychedelic experiences, at least nothing profound. So with the new book I had a kind of toolkit already for approaching these other drugs. I think I also with this new book, I already knew that people were interested in the subject. With the last one, a lot of publishing friends thought I was treading into a very fringe subject with no known audience. Luckily, that turned out not to be the case.

Do you think it’s possible you had something to do with psychedelics not being such a fringe subject any more?

I suspect I’ve helped. 

When we did our last interview together in 2018, How to Change Your Mind had just come out. You originally expressed some hesitancy around doing psychedelic journalism, and that you didn’t want to be just another proselytizer. So now it’s three and a half years later, and you’ve done it again and even expanded your work in the field. What happened in the interim?

When I wrote How to Change Your Mind, I approached it as both naïve and as a skeptic, and was transformed by the experiences I had and the people I met. I think that’s what separated that book from a lot of other books that have been written about psychedelics. They assumed that these drugs were powerful, that they mattered, that they were valuable medicines. Most people didn’t know that, including me. So, I think the fact that I was coming in naïve made it easier for the reader to enter in because they weren’t being lectured to by a convert. 

I feel like now I’m more of a participant and less of an observer in the movement. It happened to me with food too: I wrote about food as a journalist, as an outsider, but after a couple of books (and I wrote four books on food) I found myself part of a movement. The same thing is happening with psychedelics. [laughs] I don’t know what to say about that, whether it’s a good thing for my writing or not. 

I remember the first book event I did for How to Change Your Mind in 2018 was at Harvard, and [MAPS founder] Rick Doblin was in the audience. The first person to ask a question after I’d spoken prefaced her question to me with “As a leader of the psychedelic movement…” I was surprised because I don’t really see myself that way, so I stammered and then pointed to Rick and said, “If you want a leader of the psychedelic movement…” So, I fought taking on that role as long as I could. 

In This Is Your Mind on Plants, you write about how different drugs—particularly caffeine and mescaline—can have pro-social or pro-cultural effects, in addition to countercultural ones. So, do you think we are in a similar place now with psychedelics as the Western world was with coffee in the 1600s? 

That’s a really interesting question. Coffee was considered threatening when it first appeared, and then it was embraced because it actually helped with productivity, the rise of capitalism, and the industrial and scientific revolutions. Similarly, I think the cultural valence of psychedelics is shifting from oppositional to something the culture is coming to value. 

In general, society frowns on drugs that disrupt the smooth workings of the machine. That’s what psychedelics were doing in the 1960s— that’s certainly what President Nixon thought, and it’s what many parents thought. You could argue that mystical experiences, or whatever term you use to describe what happens to people on psychedelics, are fundamentally threatening to the status quo. Such experiences have disrupted most major religions, with people having mystical experiences and going directly to the divinity instead of through the priesthood. So maybe there’s something fundamentally disruptive about psychedelics.

But there’s another way to look at it, and I’m not sure which is right: If the smooth working of society is already being disrupted by the mental health crisis—which I think it is, given soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction —and if psychedelics turn out to be successful treatments for those ailments, then won’t they be serving the interests of society? Psychedelics could go from being countercultural tools to being tools of mainstream medicine.

Substances are not fundamentally either pro-social or anti-social—it’s contextual. What sensitized me to this was not only watching the mental health community begin to embrace psychedelics, but even more so spending time with people in the Native American Church. There you have a very conservative model of psychedelic use, where peyote is used in a highly formalized and regimented way. These ceremonies are not countercultural in any way. To the contrary, these rituals are used to conserve the culture by protecting it against threats, healing it. That blew my mind– that essentially the same chemical could function so differently depending on the context. 

And there are more and more contexts where psychedelics are being used. It’s really only in the last six months or so that I’ve started using the term “psychedelic space” unironically, given the amount of investment pouring into it.

Soon it’ll be the psychedelic industrial complex, right? 

Exactly! That’s my next question—do you have any concerns about that?

I think that there’s more capital than there are good ideas so far. I see investment capital looking for places to land, yet very few people have any idea what the business model for legal psychedelic medicine will be. There are just so many questions, and it seems to me that you have to have a really strong stomach as an investor to jump in here now. We can hope for non-profit organizations and some enlightened business organizations to hold the line against the inevitable co-optation. How it develops, whether in a healthy and ethical or corrupt manner, is going to be a matter of business people’s ethics and how they withstand the demands of their investors and shareholders.

MAPS is a very interesting experiment because they want to commercialize MDMA as a public benefit corporation. I don’t think that’s ever been done, so we’ll see how that works as an alternative to the capitalist Big Pharma model. But as MAPS is discovering, it takes an enormous amount of capital to bring a drug to market. On top of that you need tens of thousands of therapists who need to be trained. So, it’s a giant undertaking. This is the positive side of capitalism: that when large amounts of capital are deployed, you can scale something fairly quickly. But whichever way it goes, it’s going to be very interesting to watch, and I think it’s going to be great for journalism, if not necessarily patients and stockholders.

Is that what’s behind the Ferris-UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowships you’re going to be offering through the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics? What role do you see journalists playing in this new field?

At the Berkeley center, we’re nurturing a generation of journalists to cover this new bear. Psychedelic journalism will be business journalism to some extent, as well as science and culture and political journalism. We need journalists in the space who are sophisticated about business and can evaluate some of these ideas, but also savvy about neuroscience and psychiatry. This is going to be a very important beat, in the same way that more sophisticated food and farming coverage emerged in the early 2000s. 

When I first started writing about food and farming, they were two separate beats; nobody had connected the dots. But there was a generation of journalists that came of age in the 2000s beginning with Eric Schlosser— he really was the pioneer with Fast Food Nation—and then we had Marion Nestle’s work on food politics, then my work with The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, and the film Food, Inc. in 2008, and suddenly there was a recognition of food and farming as a single very powerful system that needed to be covered by journalists in a very comprehensive way. And now we have a generation of journalists that does that, and does it very well. 

Psychedelics need the same thing. Somebody’s got to hold these businesses accountable. Somebody has to help people navigate the policy issues that we’re already confronting. We’re going to need people to explain the science to the public and evaluate it. So, this is a very exciting moment for journalists interested in the subject. 

What do you hope journalists will take away from the fellowship?

I want to see some really great pieces of long-form journalism about psychedelic business and psychedelic policy. We want to give young journalists, especially, a leg up so they can then take these stories and get them published. Some will end up in small magazines and journals; others will end up in big national magazines. Tim Ferris is the visionary funder who’s making this possible, having recognized early the need for this kind of journalism.

In addition to the fellowship, we’re launching a newsletter and will have a weekly digest of the most important stories in psychedelics and interviews with newsmakers in the field. We’re in the process of creating a massive online course called Psychedelic Science 101, which will be led by UC Berkeley faculty. We’ll also be working with researchers to develop a training program for psychedelic therapists, in coordination with MAPS and other institutions already leading in that field.

But the most exciting work we’ll be doing at the center is basic science—not drug trials, since other organizations have that covered and UC Berkeley doesn’t have a medical school. What we do have is an incredible group of neuroscientists and psychologists with big reputations in the field who have never worked with psychedelics, but recognize the potential of psychedelics to help answer fundamental questions about human consciousness. Plus, we have neuroscientific tools, including state of the art fMRI, that are as powerful as any in the world. I think if we can better understand the mechanisms by which psychedelics work, it will hasten their acceptance, because right now it’s kind of a black box.

You’re really doing an incredible amount of work for the field of psychedelics. Which makes me wonder, did you have caffeine before this interview? I definitely did.

I did. I had a cup of iced coffee this morning. So yeah, I’m totally back on caffeine after my fast. Some people have drawn the wrong lesson from the book, that by abstention that I’m recommending total abstention, but I’m only recommending abstention for a brief period of time so that you can appreciate the power that caffeine has in your life. Otherwise, it’s just the background; it’s the furniture you don’t see any more. This goes for alcohol, for nicotine, for any kind of drug. I learned this from Roland Griffiths, who dared me to get off caffeine– most people don’t know he was a leading caffeine expert before he was a psychedelic expert. We did a Zoom interview and he had a big coffee sitting right there in front of him as he told me that the only way I could really understand the power of caffeine was to get off it like he had at various times in his life. But he’s back on it, too.

What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects or new books coming up?

The Berkeley psychedelic center is taking up a lot of time, since we’re building an institution from the ground up. I’ve got some other writing projects in mind. I’m not ready to say what they are, and it may be a few years. I can say there’ll be another book.

We’ll be looking forward to it. Thank you, Michael, for so generously sharing your time with us today. It’s always a pleasure.

It’s always fun, Brad. Thank you.

References
Burge, B., & Pollan, M. (2018) How to ChangeYour Mind: An interview with author Michael Pollan. MAPS Bulletin Vol. 28, No. 1. https://maps.org/news/bulletin/announcing-maps-values-and-principles-bulletin-2021/

Brad Burge earned his B.A. in Communication and Psychology from Stanford University in 2005 and his M.A. in Communication from UC San Diego in 2009. He directed communications and public relations for MAPS, including serving as editor-in-chief of the MAPS Bulletin, from 2011 to 2020. In 2020, Brad founded Integration Communications (integrationcommunications.com), which provides industry-leading PR, media relations, and communications in psychedelic science, therapy, health, and wellness. Brad is also a certified Wilderness First Responder, and when he’s not plugged in, you’ll find him in the mountains, carrying a backpack, somewhere down a long trail.