Long known for his wildly popular books on food, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Berkeley resident and Cal professor Michael Pollan takes a new approach to the relationship between nature and health in his new book, which is already a bestseller. Called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (Penguin Press), it is a highly praised new work exploring mental health through the underground world of psychedelic drugs.
Over the course of 465 pages, Pollan approaches various psychedelic drugs in all their idyllic and illegal glory. In each of the five rich chapters, he tempers the psychedelic community’s native enthusiasm for its work, without diminishing that community’s astounding research findings across psychology, neuroscience and biology. He also chronicles his transition into becoming a “reluctant psychonaut,” detailing his own trips on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and 5-MeO-DMT – the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad.
Throughout, Pollan is as adept discussing the finer points of serotonin receptors as he is describing what it’s like to exist without ego, time or space while high. The book is a wonderfully sane mix of memoir and investigation, with Pollan openly debating his own materialist worldview against the life-affirming drug experiences of those he interviews.
We spoke over the phone about the book’s origin, the stigma surrounding psychedelics and his approach to writing the indescribable.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Berkeleyside: So just to start, I was hoping you could talk about where this whole project started from.
Michael Pollan: Well, before, I was writing about food, and I was looking generally at the way we engage with the natural world. And we use plants and fungi not just to feed ourselves, or for beauty, or for sweetness, but also to change consciousness. I’ve had a long-standing interest in that human desire – which appears to be universal, and is, you know, somewhat perplexing.
Then I started hearing about this new [psychedelic] research. I was interested to learn more about it, and pitched the New Yorker on a piece that would focus on these two research projects going on. There was one at NYU and one at Johns Hopkins. They were giving psilocybin to people with cancer diagnosis to see if it could help them deal with their anxiety and depression. And they were getting wonderful results – I spent time interviewing a lot of the [study] volunteers, and they had just the most incredible stories to tell, of how a single experience on psilocybin could completely reset their attitudes toward their death and the rest of their lives. And in many cases it allowed them to die with an equanimity that was astonishing to hear about.
You had this previous focus on food and botany, and you’re very well-known for that, so [it’s] sort of a left-hand turn into psychedelics. But, in the way you focus on plants and how we’re intertwined with plants in a significant way, it made more sense.
It’s all about nature and our implication in the natural world – how nature changes us and we change it, so there was continuity [with the previous work]. The other continuity was health. I’ve had an interest in my last couple books with bodily health, and this was a venture into mental health. In both areas, there’s an incredible crisis, borne of modern industrial civilization; chronic diseases on the physical side, and really, an epidemic of mental illness on the mind side.
I also have a lot of trepidation about drug experiences in general, so I’m curious: what was the moment where a switch flicked for you, when you’re like, “I am going to try this, I am going to pursue a psychedelic experience for myself”?
Well, frankly, I was starting to envy the people I was interviewing, some of whom had cancer. Just because they had had such spiritually powerful experiences, and I had never had such an experience. And it made me realize there were dimensions to consciousness, and dimensions to existence that I was unfamiliar with. Here I was approaching 60, and if I wasn’t going to learn about this now, I was never going to learn about it; so what began as kind of a simple journalistic curiosity evolved into kind of a much more personally urgent quest.
“If you’re going to let your ego dissolve, and put down all your defenses, you need to feel safe.”
I describe in the book how every one of these trips I had a sleepless night before, trying to decide if this was a crazy thing to do or not. But, in each case, my desire to see what this experience was like prevailed over my hesitation. And I did find, as soon as I took the medicine either into my lungs or onto my tongue or swallowed it, and it passed the point of no return, that I was able to let go of the anxiety and really surrender.
For most of my trips I was working with guides, and that’s a very different kind of experience than your so-called recreational trip. They’re looking out for your body while your mind is wandering, so you feel very safe. Frankly, if you’re going to let your ego dissolve, and put down all your defenses, you need to feel safe, or it can be a pretty terrifying experience. So I was very lucky in the company that I had on these journeys.
How surprised were you by the degree to which this underground psychedelic guide community had professionalized themselves?
I had no idea they existed, let alone that they were as professional as they were. They’re very careful about who they let in, as they should be, since they’re operating at great risk. I found a code of conduct, medical forms… even though they’re working underground, they take the work very seriously, and are very cautious about it.
I can imagine this book will spark a lot of interest in people trying to find these underground guides…
It already has.
So what do you say to that?
I can’t make recommendations, I think that would endanger everybody concerned. I don’t want a guide to accept somebody that they think I’ve referred to them and then find out that that was a cop. I mean, that could happen. So I’m not doing that.
I put a lot of resources on my website, there’s lots of stuff about psychedelic societies; these are groups of people interested in psychedelics to get together and talk about them, not do them, but talk about them. But I’m sure that through those societies you might well find somebody who could guide you.
People can take that sort of grapevine approach, a friend of a friend of a friend.
Yeah, and there are other paths into the community. There’s something called holotropic breathwork, that I experimented with, which is a perfectly legal non-pharmacological means of consciousness transformation. But there’s a tremendous overlap of people who practice that and psychedelic guides. Essentially, you know, people need to do what I did, which is ask around and gradually find their way into the community.
And do you hope that this book plays a role in lifting the stigma around psychedelics?
Yeah –psychedelics got rebranded in the Sixties as a certain kind of thing that was a threat to society, a threat to the sanity of the individual, a very dangerous drug. And there’s a lot wrong with that picture. That picture obscures the very fertile period of research in the 1950s into using these drugs therapeutically. We need to get past that. They’re tools, and they have uses, and they’re good for some things and not for others. So I’m hoping it does that, and hoping it also allows researchers the space in which to complete their work.
“I’m not advocating for anybody to use these drugs, nor am I advocating for them to be simply legalized. I think it’s more complicated than that.”
But this book is not an advertisement for psychedelics. The only thing I really feel comfortable advocating for is more research. I’m not advocating for anybody to use these drugs, nor am I advocating for them to be simply legalized. I think it’s more complicated than that.
Did all this research re-contextualize the Summer of Love for you, living here in the Bay Area?
Well, being in Berkeley, certainly you’re in one of the places where this work was done, although I spent some of the research period at Harvard, where even more of the work went on as a research matter. It’s no question that psychedelics helped shape the local culture, in some ways that are wonderful. The Grateful Dead crowd was involved in LSD, so it shaped the music scene here probably more than anywhere else.
The Sixties, so-called, are so over-determined – there were so many factors at work. But, without doubt, psychedelics was an important one, in shaping the very idea that young people wanted a separate culture, that would differ from their parents’ culture at every level. That was very much a product of the fact that they were having a rite of passage, called ‘The LSD Trip’ or “The Acid Trip” that their elders were completely unfamiliar with. That’s a very unusual situation, in any culture.
You also read a lot of other writers who have taken psychedelic trips. How did you, as a writer, work through describing these ineffable experiences?
You know, The Doors of Perception [by Aldous Huxley] is a beautifully written book, but it’s very tidy. I think he had the experience that proved his theories. [Laughter] I was reluctant to do that, and left more rough edges to the experience, and was very candid about saying, look: here’s the limits of my language. I can’t take you into this trip I had on the toad.* There’s no space. There’s no time. There’s no character. And without those three ingredients, you can’t really construct a narrative.
So you’re thrown back on metaphors, and I’m very frank in that chapter: none of them are quite right. But this is as close as I can get. And as a literary challenge, it’s very exciting to work on that edge. These are the kind of challenges writers live for.
What was the most challenging part of the whole experience, the way it’s contained in the book?
There were so many challenges. Unraveling neuroscience, was for me, a huge challenge. I had never written about that. Describing the toad trip was an enormous challenge, for the reasons I outlined. What else? Overcoming my reluctance. I had many kinds of reluctance. One was going crazy. One was having a heart attack. Another was being able to write about this. Another was the kind of woo-woo, New Age stuff from some of the guides. I was way out of my comfort zone. [Laughs] But you know, I’m very happy I did that. It’s really important as a writer, if you hope to grow, at any age, to just kind of put yourself in an uncomfortable spot, and see what happens.
That’s the beauty of the title, right? “How to Change Your Mind.”
Yeah, and I was ready. And it’s important that we continue to be willing to change our minds as we get older. It’s very easy to get trapped in comfortable patterns, and this certainly got me out of that.
* 5-MeO-DMT is commonly referred to as “the toad.”