What I learned hearing Michael Pollan speak about psychedelics
To see a couple hundred people of diverse ages and social temperaments, gathered in a public space to listen to someone in a button-down speaking about psychedelics, isn’t normal. Yet that’s precisely what happened recently at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver — and the man speaking was Michael Pollan, renowned food expert.
Michael Pollan? That food writer? Speaking about psychedelics?
The very same. He’s also a 63-year-old New Yorker-published journalist and professor who’s had popular discussions with both Oprah and NPR — whose books, from “The Botany of Desire” to “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” have appeared numerous times on the New York Times best sellers list. And now, to add to his repertoire, he’s published a book some 480-pages on illegal drugs.
It’s called “How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” and is quickly becoming a landmark in the current psychedelic renaissance.
Though psychedelic research reentered universities as early as 1990, Pollan’s book marks a significant movement into the mainstream; at long last, a highly-trusted, highly-influential public voice is reporting on the power of these substances long bearing the burden of Nixon-fueled taboo. Pollan admits, “I’m less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.”
He’s come around to the possibility of them being beneficial to society. And wants his book to do the same for others.
Throughout the Tattered Cover speaking event, Pollan — tall, bespectacled, khaki-wearing, bald — rarely ceased smiling. His joviality and exuberant expression enraptured old and young alike. That was one of the more amazing qualities of the event: seeing straight-edge folks in their 70s sitting beside millennials with spirals tattooed on their faces — all listening enraptured to Pollan’s joy-fueled recounting of his psychedelic experiences, all laughing together at the beyond-description imagery and familiar preliminary fears. (Is doing this going to kill me?)
Though he admits the book is a departure from earlier works, he claims his past interests have never been about food itself; rather, it’s been humanity’s engagement with the natural world. Many of the psychedelic plants he writes about — ayahuasca, psilocybin, iboga — have been consumed for millennia. It falls right in line.
Pollan speaks on the topic with enthusiasm, but he’s calculated in his language, a far cry from the prophetic formlessness of folks like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna who followed psychedelic streams wherever they led, regardless of scientific validity. Pollan refrains from suggesting psychedelics will “heal the world” or “fix society.” Instead, he sets out to make the public more aware of the history, criminalization and current research being done with these substances at places like Johns Hopkins and NYU — noting even the 2013 study showing psilocybin-assisted therapy significantly reduced anxiety about death in numerous terminal cancer patients.
“The premise of psychedelic research,” Pollan writes at the book’s outset, “is that this special group of molecules can give us access to other modes of consciousness that might offer us specific benefits, whether therapeutic, spiritual, or creative.” “How To Change Your Mind” investigates these possibilities in acute detail.
Amidst his detailed research, he says of the book, Pollan became so fascinated with the fantastical, mystical claims that he decided to give them a go. Despite being over 60, he engaged in guided LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), and DMT journeys for the book, all of which he recounts while acknowledging their impossibility in being recounted. (He’s a big fan of the word “ineffable” and refers regularly to William James’ pointing to the “noetic quality” of mystical experiences.)
Apart from some light dabbling in mushrooms back in the day, these were Pollan’s first psychedelic experiences. He gives the uninitiated reader a trusted perspective through which to journey into these realms, realms that may be capable of treating a variety of psychological conditions exponentially better than any current medicine available.
In fact, Pollan claims that older folks can benefit more from these substances than younger folks. He speaks often of the brain’s default mode network (DMN) — namely, the neural connections that inform (and embed) our fundamental perceptions of reality and self, the “algorithms of daily life.” He details how psychedelics have been shown to significantly reduce activity in this mechanism of the brain. Given that one’s identification with the DMN has been connected to such rampant conditions as depression, anxiety and addiction, this reduced activity suggests high therapeutic potential for these conditions’ treatment.
Pollan also suggests we tell ourselves stories that limit reality — what Aldous Huxley referred to as the brain’s “reducing valve” in “The Doors of Perception” — and the older we become, the more firmly embedded become those stories. Psychedelics literally open the mind to new possibilities of self, with default mode network activity reduced, different synapses and regions of the brain become temporarily interconnected. Reality is seen in a “broader” sense than has become standard, and many routine perceptions of self and world wound up inside the default mode network are seen for what they are: ego-based delusions.
Despite his enthusiasm, Pollan remains fairly conservative on the subject. He’s adamant that he has no intention to convince people to trip. He, like Johns Hopkins psychedelic researcher James Fadiman (former student of Leary’s Harvard sidekick, Richard Alpert, later renamed Ram Dass), remains steadfast on the necessity of a trusted guide. Pollan speaks as a man who understands the heartbeat of the masses, and he presents this information in a subdued yet honest manner that will reach them, regardless of what internalized restraints ignite their default mode networks. Pollan makes it a point to bring up psychedelics’ dangers, most notably that they mustn’t be taken by those prone to schizophrenia or other serious mental conditions.
He doesn’t suggest they should be legalized either. He simply promotes the research and advocates their therapeutic regulation, a process very much underway with support from the FDA.
But let’s not mistake Pollan for some psychedelic prophet, some contemporary Leary, or even some master of the territory. “There are many psychonauts in this room with far more experience than me,” Pollan says. He’s no guru. He’s the guy with the power to bridge new understanding of these misunderstood substances into the mainstream. As vocal as Joe Rogan has been on the topic for years, he could never have truly ushered these topics into the mainstream — he’s too edgy, too tatted-up. We need the button-down, sport-coated, happily-married Michael Pollan to take these journeys and communicate their special validity to the uninitiated, the skeptical, the War on Drugs affectees.
In the end, there’s very little Pollan shared at the event that he didn’t express on his podcasts with Tim Ferriss, Joe Rogan and Terry Gross. So, when I approached him to get my book signed, I asked him the question that’s been bouncing through my mind for the last year, the question nagging me throughout the presentation.
“How do I publicize my profound experiences with these substances when I don’t have New-Yorker-level credentials and fear the social ramifications of admitting to the use of schedule I substances?”
Pollan beheld me with compassionate blue eyes. His glasses frames appeared to bisect his irises, creating perception of an extra pair of eyes on his wrinkled forehead. With clear intention and calculated language, he said he’d never instruct anyone to do something with potentially destructive social consequences. But he reminded me that in writing about these topics, he had far more to lose than me, and he discovered that so long as he wrote about them with interest and integrity, his readers — from close family members to strangers — responded in kind.
The last thing he said to me before I shook his hand and thanked him was, “Trust your instinct.” I went upstairs, passed through groups speaking enthusiastically about ego, art and Burning Man, found a table, and started writing this piece. I have experienced the healing powers of LSD, psilocybin, and ayahuasca personally. I intend to play my part in lifting the illusory taboos surrounding these substances, that they may become medicines that may heal people from our epidemic of mental illness that no current medicine or therapeutic practice can consistently cure.
As I wrote, I watched a father leading his 4-year old son out of the reading room. I realized that when that kid reaches my age, the cultural perception of these substances will be radically different than it’s been for my paranoia-fueled generation. I’m certain in that future moment, Michael Pollan’s "How To Change Your Mind" will be recognized as instrumental in bringing that revised cultural lens to be.