At the age of 60, seminal author and journalist Michael Pollan embarked on the most unusual journey of his career – an investigation into the self, psychedelics and the human mind. In an exclusive interview with the author, we discuss evolution, wonder and the profound value of the psychedelic experience.
The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.
For years, in a series of unconventional experiments, Pollan has turned over the questions and moral dilemmas that come with life and the culture of living. “Transformation,” remarked the writer, “I’m just fascinated with that process; how you turn nature into culture, how you turn one thing into the other”. In “A Place of My Own,” the author shared a first-person account of constructing his writing studio from the foundations up, whilst in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, he reared a cow to better understand the process of eating from source to table. In his latest enquiry, Pollan has concerned himself with the more progressive topic of psychedelics, and their potential to serve as an antidote to what ails the individual and collective self.
His latest publication “How to Change Your Mind,” takes us through the mystifying passages of the psychedelic experience and challenges the misconceptions that enshroud these substances. In a series of first-hand experiences, the author consults with shamans, samples desert toad venom, and mushroom hunts with an expert mycologist, in an attempt to answer the motivations behind humankind’s peculiar desire to change consciousness. Pollan’s affirmative journey of discovery presents a thrilling narrative that marries mysticism with scientific exploration to reach beyond the self and question what it truly means to change your mind.
When we eat, we are taking nature into our bodies. It is changing us, and we’re changing it. We’ve got no choice.
Considering your body of work, what attracted you to the topic of what we consume and how it affects our culture?
I am very interested in the way we engage with the natural world. Although a lot of people don’t see it that way, I think of myself as a nature writer. I am very interested in nature, not as just something we observe from the outside, but as something that we actively participate in. When we eat, we are taking nature into our bodies. It is changing us, and we’re changing it. We’ve got no choice. So that has been a common theme in my work for a very long time. I’ve always been interested in how we use nature to gratify our desires, and of course, we have a desire for nourishment, for sweetness, for beauty.
And then we have this other peculiar desire to change consciousness. Every culture on Earth uses some plant or fungus to change consciousness and what is that about? What good is it for us? What good is it for the other species? These questions have been in my work. But after doing several books on food, I thought it was time to really look at it closely.
Do you think that your enquiry into psychedelics could only come at this time in your life?
For me, I wasn’t ready to engage with these substances when I was 20 or even 30. I just was wasn’t ready, I wasn’t interested in other worlds. I was intensely interested in this world. I was afraid of the drugs and I did not feel like I was psychologically sturdy to try LSD or psilocybin, even in my teens. So for me, it was really something that became intensely interesting. I was in my 50s and that’s an age where you do feel you have these grooves of thought. You have these mental algorithms that you use to get through the day and organise your experience. And while they may be very effective and efficient, you also realise that they’re very routine and they’re not allowing you to experience the surprise of novelty because you have this set way to get through any situation.
You have habits and whether they’re adaptive or not, it’s important to question and break out of them from time to time. So the idea of ‘shaking the snow globe’ as Robin Carhart Harris puts it, came to seem very attractive.
So for me, as I was getting older, it became really attractive. But I think they have different uses at different times. I think that for people who are somewhat older, and set in their ways, the value is that it shakes things up when you are stuck in various grooves of thought and behaviour. You have habits and whether they’re adaptive or not, it’s important to question and break out of them from time to time. So the idea of ‘shaking the snow globe’ as Robin Carhart Harris puts it, came to seem very attractive. I do say in the book, that psychedelics might be wasted on the young. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the experience that people have in their 20s or earlier, because sometimes it is incredibly useful. But in terms of solving problems that people have, I think they are particularly useful a little later in life.
Mistakes, are like mutations in evolution.
To that point, do you think that our imaginations are an antidote to our current human condition?
Yeah it’s an antidote and it’s also a strategy for getting out of our current condition. Because you have to imagine an alternative world in order to begin achieving it. So every politics is based on an imagination, a desire- a utopian idea, basically. And so our ability to conjure these other worlds is very important in moving forward. Absolutely.
We have so many interesting examples of people who use psychedelics to fundamentally change the terms of a problem, instead of dealing with them in the conventional way. That’s one of the things they seem to be good at, helping us think outside the box.
Absolutely. In relation to ‘thinking outside the box’, I feel that is linked to the notion of improvisation. You have mentioned the author David Lenson, and how he felt that Jazz inspired a new cultural movement because it revised our understanding of mistakes through the practice of improvisation.
That’s right. Mistakes, are like mutations in evolution.They’re mistakes, but they can lead to very positive outcomes. Most of them probably don’t, but every now and then, a mistake turns out to be the next thing.
MICHAEL POLLAN’S FIELD NOTES
Can you describe the psychedelic experience?
One of the striking things about the psychedelic experience is how vivid it is. It’s not like a dream, which always kind of fades as soon as it’s over. The images are very indelible and are really etched on your mind. You can remember the tone of the experience, it’s not hard to recover. There has been a taboo in this culture about talking about your psychedelic experiences. But many people have had a lot of very meaningful trips at one point or the other. Because my book has emboldened them to talk about the experiences they had, people will tell me about trips they’ve had 40 or 50 years ago and they’re just like they happened yesterday.
Do you feel a resistance to surrendering to an experience?
I usually did before it happened. I always had a sleepless night before I went on one of these journeys. I found that the moment I actually passed the point of no return and ingested the molecule I was able to let go. It’s like, ‘nothing I’ll be able to do now, it’s happening! We’ve jumped out of the plane.’ I have never gone skydiving, but the moment before you jump, must be scarier than the moment because you have a decision to make. Once you’ve jumped, what are going to do.
How long do these trips last for?
It depends on the drug and the person. LSD is supposed to last a very long time, like 10 or 12 hours. But it didn’t for me. It only lasted five or six hours. I seem to metabolise these drugs very quickly, I’m always done before anyone else. In the case of psilocybin that was about six hours. The weirdest drug I did was the toad venom that only lasted 20 minutes, but it was very intense! It was the longest 20 minutes of my life. It was horrible. The only good thing about it is that it only lasted 20 minutes!
One average how long does a toad venom drug last?
I think it’s short. There’s a series of psychedelics related to that, including DMT, that are very short acting. They come on really strong and they fade really quickly.
Are there other ways of changing our consciousness?
There are other ways to change consciousness that don’t involve drugs. There’s lots of things to introduce; hypnosis, holotropic breathwork, sensory deprivation. I was just talking to somebody last night about these tanks you get into and the water is exactly your body temperature and there’s no sound and no light. Those experiences are very psychedelic.
One way to look at microdosing is as an attempt to tame the force of this drug and fit it into the gears of the society we have.
But drugs, especially psychedelics, tend to augment the experience of fear.
Yeah it does, it’s the fear of the unknown. It’s like any adventure, you’re putting yourself in some jeopardy, psychic jeopardy. You’re going somewhere you haven’t been before, and it’s natural to feel fear. It often stands between us and satisfying our curiosity. So, fear is a healthy and necessary human emotion. But you also need to overcome it to accomplish things. Fear often holds us back from doing what we need to do. We need to have a relationship with fear that’s healthy and sceptical. So many things that I’ve done in my life, that have really been important, have involved overcoming fear. That includes getting married, having a child, all sorts of things. Fear is what slows you down and makes you really look at the landscape, to make sure you understand it and that you understand the risks and benefits. But if we listen to that voice all the time we’d be frozen in place.
Why do think there is such a fascination with the idea of change these days?
Well, the world we live in right now has its problems. Some of it is escapism, and going back to your point about imagination, you want another way to organise life. It’s that effort to imagine other states and not be so confined by this one. It’s a difficult time out there, politically, ecologically. I think part of the attraction of psychedelics is that they address two of the big problems we face in civilisation. One is the environmental crisis which flows from our disconnection from the natural world, and our objectivation of the natural world, which is a defence reaction.
The other is tribalism, and the fact that we are objectifying people unlike ourselves. So these are walls we are building, and that’s exactly what the ego does. People who have these experiences often have the wall come down. They feel connected to nature in a way they have never before, and they feel connected to people in a way that they never have before. That’s exactly what we need. The challenge then becomes how do you take that other form of consciousness and make it available to everybody. I don’t know that the answer is everybody taking LSD, you know we don’t have a model for drugging a whole society and I’m not advocating putting it in the water supply. But it’s interesting that it speaks to these two big problems.
When psychedelics were really having its moment in the sixties, ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ was the motto of the time. Nowadays, microdosing seems to address the converse of that, where people are plugging in, to plug in.
Yes, and it’s a work drug for a lot of people. It’s very interesting that we’ve taken this drug that is so profoundly disruptive of everyday normal consciousness, perhaps of your life and by reducing the dose to a tenth or a twentieth of what it would be, we are turning it into a drug that allows you to go to work, be a successful worker, be more productive, more efficient and that sort of seems sad. It’s exactly what you would expect capitalism to do. It’s like, how can we domesticate this drug. So, one way to look at microdosing, is an attempt to tame the force of this drug and fit it into the gears of the society we have.
I feel like we need to revise what we understand about the concept of self-betterment. There is so much emphasis on productivity and optimisation of the individual, but there is a whole conversation of self betterment that is not being addressed.
Well, it depends on how ‘self betterment’ is described. Sometimes it’s described as a way to make you compete more effectively and play the game better and win, and other times it’s about fulfilling your potential. So is it aimed towards developing your own value system or conforming to someone else’s value system, it can go either way. Is it all about the individual or is it about the community. So self betterment is just like an arrow; it can point to many different places.
Given the really sad climate of suicide of successful figures like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, I feel like there’s a culture of success that needs to be addressed as well.
It would be arrogant of us to interpret what was going on in those cases, we don’t know those people or what their struggles were. I think we were mostly surprised because we think that people with that level of success must be happy. And if you’ve been around very successful people you know that isn’t true, sometimes they’re in torment.
I think it would be foolish of us to turn our backs on something that has the potential to help the many, many people who are suffering. That, in the end, is the most exciting thing about this. They have things to offer people who aren’t sick. They had a lot to offer me. We all get depressed, we all have addictive behaviours in our lives. This is not a special category of persons, we’re on a spectrum. So the betterment of well people is important too.
Our brains are tuned for novelty and so they ignore the wonders that are in plain sight all around us because they’re familiar.
Did this whole experience and research in your book have, did it have any impact on your relationships?
Yeah, it definitely did I think. My dad died in January, and it was a very, long hard process because he wanted to be at home. I moved in with my mother for the last ten days or so and spent a lot of time with him. It’s really hard when people die at home. It’s better than the alternative, but it takes a lot of care. My wife felt like I would have not have been so present for the experience, or so open to it, had I not gone through this process. I was very able to experience my feelings to my father, to my mother, to my sisters in a very emotionally available way. She thought I would have been a little more defensive. One of the things our ego defends us against is death; thinking about death, the prospect of death, the death of people close to us. We don’t think about it very much, but I was able to. I was able to be there for the whole experience; my own feelings, my fathers feelings, everything got said. She said, no doubt I could have found excuses not to be around that much if I wanted to. So yeah in that sense, and I feel closer to my sisters as a result.
Is it ever too late to change your mind?
No, people have deathbed conversions.
Is it ever too late to experience wonder?
No, never. I know lots of people much older than I am, who experience wonder. It’s always there. I think the challenge is overcoming the detached, ironic, skeptical, cynical perspective that we cultivate in modern society because we have a lot of defences against wonder. I talk a lot in the book about what a fine line there is between banality and profundity. A sentence like ‘love is the most important thing there is’ can sound like Hallmark card, but I claim in the book that in fact there’s truth to it. We blind ourselves to that truth because it’s so familiar. Our brains are tuned for novelty and so they ignore the wonders that are in plain sight all around us because they’re familiar. So the familiar gets deemphasised or denigrated because our brains are tuned to look for new things. So the challenge is to approach the familiar with new eyes and freshen those perspectives.
That’s one of the really interesting things that some medicines can do. Cannabis does that too. Cannabis gets you like, ‘hands… hands are really incredible’, so it actually takes your eye to the novel. They know this scientifically, that there are parts of the attentional network that are changed- the familiar becomes more salient and the novel becomes less salient. I think that goes on with psychedelics too, and I think it’s a very positive thing about them. There’s this reevaluation of the familiar because that’s where wonder lies.
I had always thought that I was identical to my ego and I think that most of us do. I realised that’s not the only way to go through life, and that the ego is a tool, a projection in your mind. It’s good for certain things, it gets books written, it gets work done but it also gets in our way.
As an immersive journalist, what have been the most mind changing experiences you’ve had to-date?
I would have to say it was this. It was the psychedelic experiences in terms of being personally transformative. I mean every time I’ve done one of these exercises in immersive journalism, I’ve learnt really important things. Whether it was about the cattle experience when I bought a cow, or building my little writing house to learn about architecture and building. All those experiences changed me, but I think the psychedelic experience changed me in the most personal and fundamental ways. I just developed a new perspective on my ego. I mean my sense of self changed so that’s pretty profound. I acquired a distance with my ego. I had always thought that I was identical to my ego and I think that most of us do. I realised that’s not the only way to go through life, and that the ego is a tool, a projection in your mind. It’s good for certain things, it gets books written, it gets work done but it also gets in our way. It can be a very harsh ruler and demanding task master.
When you realise you’re not completely dependent on it, you can put it aside and it can be liberating. It’s hard to do, but I had a taste of that other way of approaching things that was very empowering. It’s now something I cultivate through meditation and other means. Because meditation and psychedelics have a lot in common, they seem to deactivate the same parts of the brain; that voice in your head that’s always telling you what you should do, what you should worry about, how you should react. Meditation for many people becomes the way to implement the insights of a psychedelic experience. You’re not going to have a psychedelic experience everyday, but you can meditate everyday. So, it leaves you with a map when you’re meditating that can be very helpful; finding your way to the perspectives you’re hoping to sustain.
I’ve lowered the influence of ego thinking on my life and can recognise when I am acting that way. I think that makes you a little more emotionally available.
Have you changed much over the years from the person you were prior to all the experiences you’ve had?
Yeah I think I did, and this is something that is subtle. I don’t feel like I’m a dramatically different person, I would recognise the pre-psychedelic me, but I think I am more open, a little less defensive. I think I’ve lowered the influence of ego in my life and can recognise when I am acting that way. I think that makes you a little more emotionally available. The ego defends you against other people, against nature, against your subconscious. We need our defences for certain things, but sometimes they’re too strong and they keep things from getting in, or keep you from seeing things. And to an extent, I’ve quietened that voice a little bit. I think it lets in more information from the world; from my senses, from my subconscious, my feelings and memories. It allows me to feel things more strongly because the ego protects you against strong emotion too. But it’s a slight move of the dial. It’s not a revolution and there’s further to go; you don’t just do this and be done. There’s a journey that begins, and for me, I’ve continued it in meditation.
What do you hope to contribute towards the wider discourse?
Well, what I hope happens is that we’ll have a new conversation about these substances. We’ve put them in familiar box called ‘A-list drugs’ or ‘drugs that make you crazy’, but we need to take another look and have a very matter- of- fact conversation about these molecules. What are they good for? What are they not good for? What are the risks and benefits? And get out of this moralising, fearful box that we put them in. So yeah, that’s what I hope happens. And also, frankly, to give pleasure. That’s why I write; to give pleasure in learning new things.
Michael Pollan is a writer, teacher and activist. His most recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, was published in 2018. He is the author of seven previous books, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times Bestsellers. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the ten best books of the year by both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Pollan teaches writing in the English department at Harvard and at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he has been the John S. and James, L. Knight Professor of Journalism since 2003. Several of his books have been adapted for television: a series based on Cooked (2015) is streaming on Netflix and both The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food premiered on PBS. In 2010 Time Magazine named Pollan one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Pollan lives in Berkeley with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer.