The Fix: Michael Pollan Wants to Change Your Mind with Psychedelic Drugs

Summary: The Fix covers Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, and the modern psychedelic research renaissance. “[Pollan is] helping replace fear with hope,” explains MAPS Founder Rick Doblin, Ph.D.

Originally appearing here.

Thousands of patients were treated for addiction and alcoholism with LSD and other psychedelics in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which proved so successful that the Canadian government for a time made it a standard option for treatment.

Future generations may look back at last week as the defining period when the conversation around modern psychedelic research entered mainstream society. With appearances everywhere from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to an extensive interview broadcast on NPR’s Fresh Air (and dozens of other news programs), perhaps one of the more unlikely figures to emerge as a spokesperson for psychedelics, renowned science journalist and author, Michael Pollan, has been discussing his new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

At the book’s launch event in New York City, Pollan admitted, “I was a reluctant psychonaut,” referring to a phrase embraced by psychedelic users as so-called astronauts of the psyche. “But I’m an immersion journalist, it’s what I do,” he boasted with a grin on his face. Pollan made a name for himself as a food writer, with five New York Times best sellers, but nearly missed out on what would become a life – and career changing – discovery. Writing for the New Yorkermagazine in 2015, Pollan took an extensive look at a small clinical trial at NYU involving patients with life-threatening cancer diagnoses whose existential distress around dying left them with crippling anxiety and depression.

Almost a decade earlier Bob Jesse, a key figure responsible for bringing a renewed look at legitimate scientific investigation into psychedelics, emailed Pollan a copy of a groundbreaking 2006 paper from a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The paper described a study that concluded how psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms, could reliably produce a mystical experience in the majority of participants. Pollan writes that he ignored the email, but four years later he came across a front page article in the New York Times, “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.”

The Times article focused on an earlier psilocybin study by the Hopkins team, the first of the many successes there and at NYU in treating anxiety in cancer patients. By the time Pollan’s “The Trip Treatment” reached the pages of the New Yorker, psychedelics had been undergoing a quiet but steady resurgence among a small group of researchers, and were being used as adjuncts to therapy for PTSD, existential distress at end of life, as well as nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine use disorders.

The chapters in How to Change Your Mind can roughly be organized into three parts: the first wave of psychedelic research up until their demonization, the modern renaissance of the past few decades, and Pollan’s own personal journeys. Much of the information in the first two parts will be familiar to close followers of psychedelic news and history. But Michael Pollan’s books are known for their expertly woven first-person accounts of historical, biographical, experiential, and scientific narratives. Even overconfident psychedelic aficionados are likely to come away learning something new.

Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit organization funding clinical research into psychedelics and cannabis, agrees that Pollan’s new book and resulting publicity signals a kind of watershed moment about the major importance of the renaissance in psychedelic research. Doblin’s goal is to acculturate psychedelics into mainstream society. “[Pollan is] helping replace fear with hope,” Doblin wrote in an email. Unlike the previous acolytes of the 1960s counterculture movement, Tim Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey, whose embracing of psychedelics underscored their efforts to undermine authority, Pollan brings a new cast of characters into the fold. Strait-laced, reserved, and in some cases the most well-respected in their fields. This new era of psychedelic researchers won’t encourage America’s youth to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” though they do become wide-eyed and gleeful when describing what they hope is the promise of their early results.

Take Roland Griffiths, whose career at Johns Hopkins as a psychopharmacology researcher led to hundreds of published studies and a lifetime achievement award from his colleagues. He tells Pollan in an early chapter, “We ended up demonizing these compounds. Can you think of another area of science thought to be so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades?”

A generation before the hippie movement spread counterculture fever around the nation’s youth, psychedelics were being administered to thousands of people for a variety of psychiatric conditions, as well as trials exploring creative enhancement and as tools to better understand consciousness. Hundreds of scientific papers were published during this period, and several academic conferences solely dedicated to psychedelics took place.

Stephen Ross, now head of Addiction Psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital and New York University, recalls to Pollan what it was like to discover this history after a colleague told him about how LSD was once used to treat thousands of alcoholics. “I felt a little like an archaeologist, unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge…by the time I got to medical school in the 1990s, no one even talked about it.”

Thousands of patients were treated for addiction and alcoholism with LSD and other psychedelics in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which proved so successful that the Canadian government for a time made it a standard option for treatment. This method even appealed to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson, who tried unsuccessfully to petition the fellowship to include LSD use as an opportunity for recovering alcoholics to get a taste of what a spiritual awakening could be like.

Substance use disorders are another area of renewed interest for psychedelic researchers. Although the recent trials using psilocybin have all been conducted without a control group, two completed trials, one for alcohol and another for nicotine use disorder certainly compel further research. The nicotine trial led to abstinence rates at more than six months in 12 out of 15 volunteers, with 10 remaining tobacco-free for a year.

Although current research using psilocybin for Alcohol Use Disorder is still in early stages, with one completed study of ten volunteers showing significant decreases in drinking behavior following a psilocybin session (the study measured drinking severity as opposed to strictly abstinence rates). An ongoing double-blind placebo controlled trial at NYU is looking to enrollnearly 200 patients, and a similarly designed study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has been treating cocaine addicts.

I know all too well the depths that addiction can bring, and fortunately I also experienced firsthand the groundbreaking treatment that certain psychoactive medicines can have on recovery. In 2011 I sought out ibogaine—an illegal drug in the United States, but used in several countries around the world, including just over the border in Mexico—to in
terrupt my addiction. Curiously, Pollan barely mentions ibogaine in his treatise, likely because there haven’t been any rigorously controlled studies involving the illegal drug in decades.

But my story is a testament to ibogaine’s promise, as was shown in an observational trial sponsored by MAPS. Each month throughout the year following my single dose treatment, an investigator called me to administer an outcomes interview measuring my addiction severity, and mailed me additional scales to fill out myself. At the end of my participation in the trial, ratings for depression, anxiety, and addiction severity had plummeted, reflecting the new lease on life ibogaine had brought me.

Connecting Pollan to the testimonials featured in his book, as well as my experience, came from his own self-experimentation. “I didn’t know if I could explain it otherwise,” he says to justify his use of psilocybin, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT, a drug found in the dried venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. The book ends with an attempt to relate the phenomenology of Pollan’s own trips with the latest neuroscience research explaining psychedelics’ impact on the human brain. He tries to tie together his own personal narrative with both the brain science and the psychological impressions of the effect of a reduced ego on the spectrum of psychological disorders, and also run-of-the-mill healthy neuroticism that the average person can relate to.

People that have taken psychedelics before participating in neuroimaging experiments and claim to have experienced a reduction in their sense of self (or “ego”) showed corresponding decreases in the very same neural systems likely responsible for keeping the ego in control. Known as the Entropic Brain Theory, psychedelics seem to act by temporarily creating a seemingly chaotic effect of connecting what are usually distant regions of the brain, while reducing blood flow to regions involved in higher level executive function. When people in this state have a mystical experience, their personalities become more open.

Falling short of the emotional power that resonates from the challenging journeys of people being treated with psychedelic therapy for serious problems, Pollan’s own “trip reports” seem to lack a crucial ingredient. Although they’re commendable for their vulnerability, the stakes aren’t quite as high. Pollan admits he comes off as a curious but cautious journeyer, but whether his psychedelic voyages led to fundamental personality changes – as seen by many of the participants from the research he reports on – isn’t quite clear.

In writing this book, Pollan confesses that he had to break the law and rely on a community of psychedelic therapists operating in secret. He approached this work with careful vetting of his would-be guides before finally settling on people he felt were the right ones, and even consulted his cardiologist, who suggested he avoid MDMA because of its stimulant effects. Despite acknowledging the illegality of his actions, Pollan won’t exactly recommend others to approach this type of self-experimentation, and cautions even more strongly against unsupervised personal use.

In one of the last questions during the launch event, Derek Rosenfeld from the Drug Policy Alliance asked Pollan whether he supports ending criminal punishment for psychedelic and other drug use. Pollan pointed to an article he wrote previously on opium that largely discussed the harsh implications of drug prohibition and stated that he has called for reform throughout his career, but he hesitated to say whether psychedelics should be available outside a tightly regulated medical model.

Pollan’s answer echoes those of the main group of researchers his book focuses on, whose work with psilocybin is largely sponsored by the Heffter Research Institute. Similar to MAPS, Heffter was formed seven years later in 1993 by David Nichols, then Purdue scientist (now retired) and expert in psychedelic chemistry. Heffter likes to let the science speak for itself, whereas MAPS’ Rick Doblin is happy to share his vision for beyond medicalization, a vision where those interested in having a psychedelic voyage can do so in special centers. Despite Doblin’s grandiose future and Pollan’s more reserved optimism, both agree that a repeat of Leary’s ‘60s would be detrimental.

But it begs the question, where has society come since the so-called psychedelic heydays? According to recent epidemiological studies, more people today try psychedelics for the first time than they did in the ‘60s. Further analyses have shown that personal use of psychedelics has led to populations with lower rates of suicide, psychoses, opiate addiction, criminal behavior, and domestic violence. Contrast these findings with the cultural hysteria that helped land this class of drugs in the grips of prohibition; perhaps society has also learned from the mistakes of the Leary generation.