Michael Pollan’s work has mostly focused on what we eat and why, most famously in his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. That book’s advice — Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. — became gospel for many readers (including my mom, who still recites those words like a mantra). Pollan’s 2013 book about the transformative process of cooking, Cooked, was adapted into a Netflix series. But on this week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show, he talks about something very different: psychedelics.
Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind, started out as an investigation into how LSD and other mind-altering drugs are being used to treat terminally ill patients and evolved into a “mental travelogue” comparing the science of human consciousness to our lived experiences. The book, subtitled What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, will be released Wednesday. Ezra called it “one of the most mind-expanding books I have read this year.”
Over the course of this conversation, Klein and Pollan use several metaphors for psychedelic use. One compares tripping to rebooting a computer, hitting Ctrl-Alt-Delete on your brain, or filling a sled imprint with freshly fallen snow. Pollan describes the way our senses dictate our experience of reality, comparing it to that of a bee whose body emphasizes different sensory experiences. It’s a trippy conversation about a trippy subject, one that will make you come away questioning your reality for days, no LSD required.
When asking for book recommendations, Ezra specifically requested books that “changed the way [Pollan] think[s] about [his] brain.” Two of Pollan’s choices, unsurprisingly, are literary accounts of psychedelic trips that he read when researching for How to Change Your Mind. The third is relatively unrelated.
Pollan calls Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception “the best introduction to what the experience [of tripping] is like.” The book describes Huxley’s involvement in a clinical study of the hallucinogenic peyote plant, commonly used in Native American and Mexican religious ceremonies. (Peyote contains mescaline, a powerful psychedelic.) Pollan says he “learned a lot about describing the experience” from Huxley.
Miserable Miracle by Henri Michaux, which describes a similar experimentation with mescaline, is the opposite of The Doors of Perception, according to Pollan. Though Michaux’s experience took place in the same year as Huxley’s peyote trials, Michaux recounts things completely differently. Pollan says, “to read those two books is to get a good sense of the two poles on how to describe [tripping].”
Finally, Pollan recommends The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World by Richard Prum. Despite primarily focusing on the sexual selection of certain bird species, The Evolution of Beauty, Pollan says, is “the most exciting book [he’s] read recently.” The New York Times agrees; it named the book one of the best of 2017.
You can listen to the full conversation with Michael Pollan on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: