Summary: The San Francisco Chronicle features Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind, where Pollan explores psychedelic research in the 21st century and his personal experiences with psychedelic therapy. Buy a copy of a Pollan’s new book from the MAPS Store: maps.org/store
Originally appearing here.
Over the past 30 years, in numerous food- and farm-related articles, and in his five best-selling books, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Food Rules,” Michael Pollan has always retained a degree of journalistic detachment as he’s teased out the complexities of modern food production and consumption — namely why we eat what we eat, and the environmental and health consequences of our choices.
But when Pollan reported on a subject far more controversial than GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and Big Ag — the current renaissance in psychedelics research — for a 2015 New Yorker article “The Trip Treatment,” he realized he had “just scratched the surface” of a subject that only amped up his fascination the more he learned.
While interviewing clinicians and patients at New York University and Johns Hopkins about the exciting therapeutic potential of LSD and psilocybin to treat acute depression, anxiety, addiction and end-of-life “existential distress,” “I was hearing reports of mystical experiences, and about these underground trip guides (a large concentration of them in the Bay Area), this whole world I didn’t know about,” Pollan, 63, said on a recent afternoon while sipping green tea in the quiet bay-view living room of his Berkeley hills home.
“I got intensely curious about the experiences of people I was interviewing — stone-cold atheists telling me they’d had a profound spiritual journey, and people who’d been terrified of death completely losing their fear.
“It was clear there was so much more to learn about these extraordinary molecules — at the level of neuroscience, but also at the level of personal experience.”
First-person experience itself — of his own mind and ego while tripping (under a therapist/guide’s care) on hallucinogenic substances that have been alternately labeled since the ’60s as wonder drugs and a dangerous countercultural scourge — became central to Pollan’s fascinating and comprehensive new book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Deeply reported and disarmingly personal, the new book “took me way out of my comfort zone,” Pollan said. “I’ve written in the first person for a long time, but I don’t usually disclose very much. This was much more exposing, personally.”
Among the challenges facing Pollan from the outset: How to write about exceedingly personal psychedelic visions that are by their very nature ineffable?
“I was nervous about describing my own trips because it can be like describing a dream, and I’ve read a lot of s—y trip reports online,” he said. “There’s a fine line between profundity and banality. But once I found the voice, it was great fun to write.”
“How to Change Your Mind” is also great fun to read. It presents a vivid history of psychoactive experimentation, from sacramental Aztec ceremonies to Silicon Valley’s early computer pioneers who saw LSD as an “instigator of creativity” that prefigured the idea of cyberspace. (Steve Jobs told people that dropping acid was one of his most important life experiences.)
“Where do new ideas, metaphors and memes come from?” said Pollan. “One place is from altered states of consciousness. People think outside the box and hit on solutions. You see this in the history of people who have had transformative psychedelic experiences and went on to affect the world.”
Pollan took a leave of absence from UC Berkeley, where he’s been a journalism professor since 2003, to write the book over three years. He was a fellow at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute, where he could dig into the archives of the famous 1960 Harvard psilocybin project on the campus, where psychologist-turned-LSD-evangelist Timothy Leary first launched, for better or worse, the notion of psychedelics as an agent of cultural transformation.
Pollan interviewed an exceedingly colorful cast of characters, a who’s who of today’s prominent “second wave” psychedelic researchers whose mission is to have the consciousness-enhancing drugs reclassified for wider therapeutic usage.
He also foraged for “magic mushrooms” in Puget Sound with a Lorax-like mycologist and smoked something called 5-MeO-DMT, or “the toad,” the dried venom of a Sonoran Desert toad.
But the most fascinating subject wound up being Pollan himself, a self-described “materialist” who historically had “little patience when people start talking about ‘transpersonal dimensions of consciousness.’”
Yet he writes with remarkable openness and humor about the prospect of using psychedelics to jump the “comfortable grooves of mental habit” that are etched deeply by midlife.
“The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood,” he writes, “that there is more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up.”
Pollan knows that fans who know him best for his famous healthy-eating dictum (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) may be surprised to hear that his latest book is about Schedule 1 drugs (still classified by the DEA as having no accepted medical use). “Yet, it’s actually very consistent with my obsessions as a writer going way back,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in human engagement with the natural world, how we change nature and how nature changes us.”
In “The Botany of Desire” (2001), his “plant’s-eye view of the world,” Pollan wrote about the cross-cultural desire to alter our consciousness. Back in 1997, he wrote about growing opium in a home garden for Harper’s magazine. “It’s always been an obsession, that we partake in this chemistry that plants invented.
“I’ve always been interested in health, including mental health. So the fact that these drugs, in the view of many of the researchers I interviewed, have the potential to revolutionize mental health care seemed like a very big story.”
Pollan spoke just days before the Lancet published a study showing positive outcomes for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder after therapy with ecstasy, or MDMA, which enters phase 3 trials this summer. The Food and Drug Administration has also signaled approval of phase 3 trials for psilocybin.
“I’m not an advocate for everybody using psychedelics,” Pollan said. “If I’m advocating anything, it’s for more research. Depression, anxiety and addiction, these chronic diseases are taking a huge toll on society. They are all illnesses of mental rigidity, people getting stuck in certain mental habits,” Pollan said. In the book, he cites John Hopkins psychologist Matt Johnson describing psychedelic therapy as a way to “open a window of mental flexibility” and “literally a reboot of the system — a biological control-alt-delete.”
When asked if he believes that society is ready to embrace mainstream psychedelic therapy, Pollan said, “Just look at the speed with which marijuana has been accepted. And gay marriag
e. Sometimes the culture can change very, very quickly.
“When I was writing the New Yorker piece, if you had asked me how far away (psilocybin) is as a prescribable drug, I would have said 15 or 20 years. Now it looks like three.”