Berkeley food journalist Michael Pollan has developed an appetite for psychedelics—and the mind-expanding new science behind them.
San Francisco magazine
May 15, 2018
Name: Michael Pollan
Occupation: Professor, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and author
San Francisco: Your new book, How to Change Your Mind, is a first-person account of taking psychedelics and a survey of new scientific research on them. If your three rules of eating are “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” then are your three rules of drug taking “Take drugs. Not too much. Mostly mushrooms”?
Michael Pollan: That’s one way to put it. I have to tweak it; I don’t want to be so imperative.
To me, LSD and psychedelic mushrooms are too mysterious to make recommendations about. The only thing I feel strongly about is that this scientific research should go on.
Could you tell us about one of your trips?
The psilocybin trip I had with a guide I call Mary was very positive, although it did not start that way. She had put on this really insipid piece of music by Thierry David. It wasn’t scary, just distasteful. I wanted to stop for a minute—I also needed to pee. When I came back, she offered me a booster dose. The experience deepened, my sense of self fell apart. I beheld myself—and I know this sounds paradoxical—as spread out in the landscape as a coat of paint. That separation of myself was a completely new experience. I was beholding my identity from a much more objective, dispassionate, imperturbable vantage. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t ego consciousness.
How does your writing on drugs connect to your earlier work on food?
My fundamental interest as a writer, even before food, was our engagement with other species. It’s a pretty incredible fact of natural history that these chemicals that so radically alter our experience of consciousness are coursing through the plant and fungal world. Why is that adaptive? My best guess is that these chemicals create mental variation in the same way that radiation causes mutations in genes. That’s not to say that most drug trips are full of culturally useful material. Most of them are not, in the same way that most radiation is really bad.
You’ve often argued about the need to create new modes of consumption—by cooking our own food, eating at a dinner table with our family. It seems like the mushroom ceremonies you document work similarly.
I’m very interested in, and have mixed feelings about, the traditional and New Age armature of the [psychedelic] experience. Some of it is incredibly hokey, but there is often something there, something threatened by consumer capitalism. When these drugs burst on the West in the ’50s, we didn’t know how to use them. It was like discovering fire and not yet having fireplaces. I have this fundamental assumption, and it may be wrong, that tradition represents a distilled wisdom. Through trial and error, through countless generations, in culture and biology, people figure out what you should eat. Olive oil is really good with tomatoes. Psychedelics are really good with a guide.
Much of the research you discuss argues for psychedelic drugs as a way for dying patients to reconcile themselves to their mortality. Fair enough, but isn’t another way of looking at it that you want to pump dying people full of delusions?
Think about what we do now: We pump them up with morphine, which clouds the experience, too. We have to sort out whether the psychedelic—and the insights it gives you—brings the user closer to or further from the truth. It’s an open question. You may be right, I just don’t know.
How could we even know if the drugs were revealing the truth or hiding it?
Right—no one comes back from death. I kept trying to get an answer because my immediate feeling talking with these patients was that they had been drugged into an illusion. I didn’t come away with that conclusion. I came away with the idea that the sting of death is connected to the sense of separation that we have as ego-driven bags of bones.
Do you think that if we understand how psychedelics work, we’ll be that much closer to understanding consciousness?
[Psychedelics] do have the potential to help us in that general direction. One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it, as a particle collider disturbs an atom. Psychedelics disturb consciousness. I don’t know exactly where you take that, but given how few tools we have to [scientifically measure] consciousness, smarter people than me are starting to use it.
What do you think about microdosing? It’s huge in tech right now.
There’s no science on microdosing yet, only anecdote. What can we say, except that a lot of people in the tech community and [author] Ayelet Waldman think it’s been helpful? I was much more interested in the transformative trip, rather than turning LSD into yet another productivity drug to make you a better worker.
This is a book about drugs and the science of the mind, but it’s also about your midlife crisis. How have psychedelics helped ease you through this period?
When you approach 60, you have a set of really dependable mental algorithms cutting you off from wonder and novelty. I started talking to people who had broken through those habits to new ways of looking at their lives and deaths, and it was very attractive. I thought I’d never had a spiritual experience, and time was getting short. In the end, I did, and it was nothing like I thought it would be.