On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, journalist and author Michael Pollan talks about his new book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” Pollan, perhaps best known for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” says the new book traces his learning process as he tried to understand why almost every human society has experimented with mind-altering substances.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the only person in Dolores Park eating completely gluten-rich chocolate chip cookies, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is one of my favorite journalists, Michael Pollan. He’s the best-selling author of several books, most famously “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He’s written a new book called, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” That is quite a headline. Michael, welcome to Recode Decode.
Michael Pollan: Thank you. I’m having trouble remembering that subtitle.
I’m going to keep this to the side so I read it properly every time so people ... but let’s just say it’s called “How to Change Your Mind.”
I want to go into your background first because I think people obviously do know you, you’re so well-known as a writer, especially around food. I know that’s where you’ve made your fame, although you do write about nature really, I think, right?
Yeah, before I wrote about food, my master subject has been the human engagement with the natural world. Food is obviously a very important part of that. We change nature more through our eating choices than anything we do, whether you’re talking about the land, the atmosphere, the composition of species.
But if you go back before that, I’ve been really engaged in this symbiotic relationship we have with other species. These domesticated species are ones that get ahead in evolution by gratifying our desire. Some of those desires I’ve looked at intensively are food, beauty, things like that. But the desire to change consciousness weirdly enough is a universal human desire. There’s one exception which is, the Inuit have — and it’s just because nothing good grows where they live, but as soon as they go to Canada or something they ...
Yeah, they get on the mushrooms. Let’s talk about your background first.
Let’s assume people don’t know who you are. I obviously read all your books. How did you get to writing about this? Give me a quick bio of you.
When I was in school I really loved reading about nature, and Thoreau and Emerson and Melville, John Muir, these were my heroes. I did a little graduate work in English at Columbia back in the ... really long time ago. When I got out of school a couple years later I was working as a magazine editor. I worked at Harper’s Magazine for many years. We bought a little place in northwest Connecticut about 100 miles from New York and I began gardening really seriously.
What got you into it, you just ...
I had gardened as a kid. As an 8 year old I had what I call the farm and anytime I could grow three strawberries I’d put them in a cup and sell them to my mother. It was going concern. So I always loved plants and gardening.
The first time I had an opportunity to have my own garden came in my late 20s, I guess it was, or when I was about 30. I went into gardening with all these very romantic notions about nature that I had gotten from the American Transcendentalists, which was essentially that nature is perfect as it is, that we shouldn’t try to change anything, we should just admire it and have mystical experiences.
But as soon as you start gardening you are in a much more complicated relationship, as Thoreau found at Walden. He put in a bean field to support his two-year experiment in self-sufficiency and he was wracked with guilt about pulling weeds. He didn’t know why he had a right to make what he called invidious distinctions between his beans and these weeds, which is kind of crazy.
No offense, either. But I made a garden that honored that way of thinking and it had no fence. I promptly was beset by a groundhog or a woodchuck, another pest. But I got into this war ...
I feel like we’re going to get to a National Lampoon movie, but go ahead.
Yeah it’s a little bit like Bill Murray in Caddyshack. I identify with him in that movie. I got into this war with this woodchuck actually that became more own horticultural Vietnam where I escalated up to a point of destroying the village in order to save the village, fire-bombing, essentially, his borrow. It was really stupid, but it made me realize that our behavior in nature, in a garden, that sense of entitlement, that sense that since we have the big brains we should be able to ...
To do whatever we want.
... outwit anybody and do whatever we want was representative of how our species is behaving in nature. I began writing a series of essays using my garden as a laboratory to think through these ideas and figure out whether there was a better way to engage with nature than the way most Americans had inherited from Thoreau, which was either it was the pristine goddess or it was to be raped and we have no middle ground between those two.
Right. Do you remember Henry Mitchell from the Washington Post?
One of my favorite writers.
He was wonderful. He was their columnist for years.
Yep. It wasn’t about gardening, it was about life and death, the whole ... That’s all he did.
Yeah, well, and that’s what gardening is if you think about it. It’s a wonderful ...
He was wonderful.
Yeah, he was great. But there’s a wonderful tradition of garden writing in America.
So I started there trying to figure out, well, is there a better way to engage with these species than fire bombing them?
Did you kill the groundhog?
No. I put up a fence, finally.
Oh, did you?
Solar-powered fence, it was also ... and I put peanut butter on it to make the deer go get a shock and learn about how to stay away.
Actually, in retrospect, that set my course as a writer. I recently had to re-read my first book, which is called “Second Nature.” It came out in the early 90s.
Oh, I got to find it.
It’s this collection of essays, including the war with the woodchuck. I had to re-read it because when I published it there were no audiobooks and now Audible wanted me to do an audiobook. And I hadn’t read it in like 20-30 years. I had this amazing experience of, every idea I’ve written since is in that book. I haven’t had a new idea since that book.
Right, right, right. You know what? Yeah, I have the same thing.
I wouldn’t know it as the time, it’s so interesting. So we have these abiding questions as writers and we keep coming back to them in some way or other. A big part of your career as a writer is figuring out what those are. In the first book you don’t know what they are.
Right. What was that first question from your book?
For me it was how should we engage with the natural world. It was kind of like the philosophical background to the environmental crisis and what’s wrong with the way Americans have traditionally done it and how our most beautiful ideas about nature, which is this worship of wilderness, actually gets us into trouble. America created the wilderness park. No other country thought the wilderness was something to ...
That needed to be protected.
Yes. They didn’t have it anymore, for one thing, by the time the Romantic Movement came along. We still had a lot of land that we could lock up and throw away the key. We did this amazing thing, we created Yosemite and Yellowstone and all these national parks, but that’s all we have is an environmental ethic. It’s great for the 12 percent of the land you can lock up.
Yeah, or 8 percent, but for the other 92 percent it was silent as an ethic. It became like, well, either save it or destroy it. So we need an ethic for the rest of the landscape and that’s where I thought that the garden had a lot of potential resources. People like Wendell Berry, who was a real hero to me, the farmer and writer. So I spent a lot of time thinking about that relationship.
You got into food then.
Yeah, and I got into food because the issues you deal with in the garden are very similar to what the farmer deals with. You have to deal with pests. You have to keep your soil fertile. You have to understand genetics and varieties, and things like that.
Actually, as a garden writer, I was doing a series of pieces for the Times magazine, and back in the late ’90s I started hearing about this new technology called genetically modified crops and this was the newest thing going in agriculture and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to grow a genetically modified crop in my garden, learn everything about it. So that was my first ... I did a piece that ended up being a cover story called “Playing God in the Garden” for the Times magazine in ’98 or something. The technology was new and I had wonderful access to Monsanto and all their customers. That was my introduction to looking at big ag.
I went out West, I was an Easterner then. Easterners have no idea how agriculture works in this country because there are lots of cute little farms with picket fences and 100 acres.
In Vermont, yeah. Connecticut. The Amish.
Exactly. It’s very sweet and it’s wonderful, but it’s history.
Well, the Amish have some big farms, but go ahead.
Yeah, they’re getting bigger, but they still farm in an interesting way. As part of this, Monsanto proudly wanted to show off one of their model farms. I went out to the magic valley of Idaho where they were growing these genetically modified potatoes called the New Leaf that had a bacteria toxin in every leaf so it would poison the Colorado potato beetle. But that was not what was interesting when I got there. What was interesting was that there was such a thing as a farm that was 35,000 acres divided into crop circles, each of which were 175 acres that had this sweep second hand of the irrigation pivot through which the farmers sent water, pesticide and fertilizer and did it all from a bunker, remote control.
I had no idea. Part of the reason he did it from the bunker is he was using pesticides that were so toxic he couldn’t enter his field for three days after he sprayed. The reason he was doing this was because there is a disease that potatoes sometimes get called net necrosis and you’ve seen it, it’s that little black line, or brown line, or dot when you slice open a potato. To control that purely cosmetic defect you had to use this horrible pesticide called Monitor. I asked him, “Why?” He said, “Because McDonald’s” — which buys 8 percent of the crop — “wouldn’t take any potatoes with net necrosis.”
I said, “Is there another way to control it?” He said, “Yeah, just don’t grow Russet Burbanks.” That was the particular kind of potato. I said, “Well, why not? Why grow it?” He said, “Well, McDonald’s only take Russet Burbank potatoes.” And then I said, “Well, why do they only take that?” He said, “They give you the longest spud, and Americans love a long French fry.” And you know that red cardboard thing with that bouquet of French fries, you don’t get that effect with any other potato. It made me realize that we were implicated in the system because our aesthetic preference ...
Right, which they gave us.
Which in a way they gave us, but also there was no way for us to communicate with that farmer. If we understood, we’d happily go for a shorter French fry.
Don’t make them poison themselves.
But the food chain had gotten so long that communication between consumer and producer had broken down. So that was my first lesson in industrial agriculture and how it worked and how we were implicated in it. That set me off writing about food.
On everything else.
What was the impact of your food writing? Because I think more than any other food writer you’ve probably had the most impact on ... especially because you were writing a lot about technology. This is a technology-focused podcast but we talk about everything. You opened a lot of people’s eyes to that.
Yeah, it’s hard to measure your impact as a writer. As you know, there’s so many factors at work and a lot of people give me too much credit for the rise of the food movement and this new politics around food. But Eric Schlosser had already written “Fast Food Nation” before me.
Yeah, he did.
Marion Nestle had written “Food Politics.” So it was a perfect storm of a bunch of journalists — plus some food safety scares that were happening there, and mad cow disease too.
Which we’re right in the middle of another one now.
Yeah, that’s right. Every food safety scare kind of peels back the curtain on the system. When mad cow came up people were like, “Wait a minute, we’re feeding cows to cows?” I had no idea, none of us had any idea. The ranchers had no idea. So we’ve had this learning experience. And I think the big change from the period before “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is just that people are much more conscious and interested in the story of where their food comes from.
Every food manufacturer now has to tell a story, whether they’re making it up or not. But it used to be that you just bought this object ...
Whatever it was.
... and you had no sense that it had a set of origins or that it in fact was not a thing but a set of relationships, and put you in relation to nature and farming.
Or anything we get. I remember years ago when I was at the Wall Street Journal, like 20 years ago, I said, “Why don’t we follow how a computer is made?” so they can see right back to the kid who’s shoving the thing into it, every piece of it, take the whole thing. They didn’t want to do it. It was really interesting.
I think it’s a great taboo.
Because I knew it would end up at a kid.
Do you know what I mean?
And a kid who was being exploited somewhere in China.
Yeah. It’s one of the great taboos of capitalism, basically. To know too much about the origins makes your marketing much more difficult. You want to create a Utopian narrative about your product, how it’s going to solve problems. And it’s never about where it comes from, or it never was. But now there is more interest.
I’ve been surprised. It worked with food, why isn’t there an omnivore’s dilemma of clothing, for example? Here is another agricultural product, huge impact on the environment. There’s the movement to look at sweatshops and that’s been helpful, but not to the extent that it has happened to food.
Of how it’s made.
It’s because food is so intimate, we take it into our body. The clothing just stays on the outside.
So you had written about food for ... I want to get to this book, how you got to this. You were writing about food, obviously it’s a great business for you because everybody wants another book from you about where food was going. Your last one, what was it? “Eat Food” ...
“Cooked,” oh that’s right. Then you had a series on Netflix too.
Then you had “Eat Food,” that was a shorter one.
Yeah it was called “Food Rules.”
“Food Rules,” yeah.
My big food rule —
“Eat food, not too much.”
And I have to come up with something else or this is going to be on my tombstone: “Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants.” My editor at the Journal said ...
Oh no, it was brilliant. Why do you have to think of a new one?
Oh I don’t know. You always want to be looking forward.
How about, “Don’t touch that, put it down.”
“Put it down now, step back from the plate.”
“Get a carrot. Make sure it’s from somewhere safe.”
My editor at the Wall Street Journal, for whom I just did a piece of in the new book, he said, “All right, we’re on board, but you have to let us call it ‘Take Drugs, Not Too Many, Mostly Psychedelic.’”
Right, right, oh that’s good.
Yeah, but they chickened out, they didn’t use it.
They didn’t use it, why? Who is that editor?
Oh I don’t want to ...
I used to work at the Wall Street Journal.
I’m sure you know who he is.
So we’re going to talk about this, you were writing about food. “Cooked” the series is still on Netflix.
No, it was four parts.
For four parts.
There’s kind of a sequel that’s going to come, but I’m not involved with it.
Right. So you were writing about it, but what made you shift?
Well, a couple of reasons. When I finish a book I often do a couple long pieces to do some R&D on a new topic. I had heard about this research going on using psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, to treat people who were approaching, people with cancer diagnoses. I was fascinated by this work and it tied back into a discussion I’d had about drugs in “Botany of Desire” where I wrote about cannabis and why we’re attracted to cannabis and what’s in it for the plant. So there was that.
I did a piece for the New Yorker, a long piece. I talked to dozens of patients who had just the most powerful, often mystical experiences at a single psilocybin session that completely changed their thinking about death and allowed them in the case of some of them to die with perfect equanimity. It was the most unlikely, most implausible thing. I got very curious as to how could this chemical, this molecule, affect us in this way, create an experience that would actually change such deeply held views.
You know, as a writer there are two kinds of articles: There’s one you finish and you’re like, “I am so sick of this subject. I’m so glad I’m done.” Then there’s the other where, “My God, I just scratched the surface.”
Tech would be that for me.
There’s so much. Yeah.
I’m still interested in tech.
I’m still interested in food but I was ready to move in part because as a writer — and this is really a craft question — I like writing nearer to the beginning of the learning curve. I like not knowing.
That’s a really good point.
The way I write my articles and my books is they’re stories of my learning process, that’s the narrative.
Right, yeah you do. Yeah, the hunting.
I’m so sorry you inspired Mark Zuckerberg to hunt animals.
He kept citing that. I was like, “Oh geez.”
You can’t take total responsibility for what you write.
I’m giving it to you. I’m giving you that one.
I just enjoy that process and I enjoy taking the reader on that process. The alternative, of course, is you write from a place of perfect knowledge as an expert. I find that a little dead on the page.
Oh no, I like your ...
And I actually think readers don’t like to be lectured at. It was becoming a little difficult for me to do that with food because I knew a lot. I was now an expert, I was an advocate, and it deprived me of that space where I like to be as a writer. So I was open to a new subject. Thankfully, I have an editor. I have the best editor in the world, she’s edited every single one of my books, who was like, “Great, go for it.”
And you picked this topic why? Then we’ll get into it more in the next section.
Because it fed back into this idea of why is it that we want to change consciousness. Why is that adaptive? What does it do for the species? How does it help us evolve? There was that. Second, what’s in it for the mushroom or the fungus that is at the heart of LSD? That’s a very curious chemical to make. There are simpler chemicals that could ...
What’s in it for the mushroom? What do you mean?
For plants and fungi to make these very complicated molecules that happen to be the key that unlocks receptors in the animal brain. There’s simpler poisons they could make, but for some reason they’re making these really complicated things that work on us, and that’s a very curious question. I think it has to do with the fact that if you are defending yourself against a predator, killing the predator isn’t necessarily the best strategy because you’ll select for resistance very quickly, as with a strong pesticide. The members of that species ...
The predator will figure it out.
Yeah, they’ll figure it out. Whereas, if you discombobulate your predator, you confuse them ...
Confuse them, yeah.
You make them forget where you are.
Actually, a lot of sea creatures are doing that, right?
Yeah. You just mess with their minds, that’s a lot better.
So mushrooms are messing with our minds.
So mushrooms are messing with our minds and probably animal minds. But it’s also become a strategy for world domination because people’s interest in these mushrooms, which we now know goes back probably a 1,000 years, they would pick them up and move them. Every time you carry a mushroom, whether it’s a ...
The spores go ...
Yeah, you’re just trailing this fairy dust, this pixie dust.
It’s a perfect thing to get around the world.
Some of the best habitats for psilocybin mushrooms now are at college campuses, the lawns in front of police stations where people are getting rid of stuff, they’re human habitats. When I went ...
I had no idea. I’m going to go right over to the police station.
Well actually, right after I published the article in the New Yorker I was having lunch near campus, I teach at Berkeley, and the waiter sidles up to me and he’s taking the order and says, “Do you know that there’s psilocybin all over campus?” I said, “No. Where?” He said, “Look at the wood chips.”
Oh, you’re kidding.
Well, landscaping, wood chips, which mostly come from lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest where there’s lots of psilocybins, they’re full of spores and of course they get spread all over the country.
So look in the wood chips.
What is Jeff Sessions going to do now?
All right, when we get back we’re here having a fascinating discussion with Michael Pollan. His new book, I’m going to read the entire thing right now, is “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” We’re going to get into what he found next.
We’re back with Michael Pollan. His new book is called “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Okay Michael, we’re going to get to all those things. What does the new science of psychedelics teach us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence?
It’s teaching us things on two different levels. One is therapeutic, all those illnesses.
Which you talked about, cancer.
Yes, cancer, depression ...
Which cannabis is now, that’s the big ...
Yeah, cannabis helps people who have nausea and who are trying to build up their diet — their calories, basically — when they’re taking chemo drugs. It’s been very helpful for that, but this is helping at a very different level. This is helping at the psychospiritual level, basically. Oncologists have told me Paxil and Zoloft, they don’t help with the kind of fear and anxiety that attends a cancer diagnosis because it’s very much a spiritual issue.
So what seems to happen ... There’s a lot of therapeutic research going on — and we can talk about depression, anxiety, obsession, addiction, which is really interesting and kind of surprising — then there’s also this kind of pure neuroscience work going on of what can these drugs teach us about the mind.
Right, or expanding the mind as they ...
Well, expanding the mind, but even about normal consciousness, because one good way to understand a very complex system is disturb it. Think of a particle collider. You take the atom, you put it under incredible stress and it yields its secrets, it pops off new particles that you’ve never seen. And it works with people too, and it works with normal consciousness. So you can disturb normal consciousness and then watch what happens in the brain and learn a lot.
I’ll give you an example: One of the big surprises of this research early on was that when they started doing FMRIs and other kinds of scans, they expected to see a brain that was hyperstimulated because of the fireworks of the experience. What they found instead was that a very important brain network was actually suppressed, down-regulated significantly, and that’s called the default mode network, which I’d never heard of.
It was actually only recognized about 15-20 years ago. It’s the part of your brain ... it connects parts of the cortex, which is the most recent part of the brain with deeper, older areas involved with emotion and memory, and it’s a hub. It’s a very important communications hub. One neuroscientist called it the corporate executive of the brain or the orchestra conductor or the capital city. The brain’s a hierarchical system and this is on top. It’s involved in metacognitive processes like self-reflection, theory of mind, the ability to imagine mental states and others, time travel, the ability to think about the future or the past, and what is called the autobiographical memory. It’s the part of your brain that appears to connect what happens to you day to day with your narrative of who you are. So it helps you maintain a stable sense of identity over time, which is probably illusory but very useful. So it’s involved in all these very important functions related to the sense of self, the ego. The fact that it goes off, is turned off, by this experience ...
So you want it turned off.
Well, meditators turn it off too. It’s that chattering neurotic voice in your head that actually gets in the way that’s very defensive and has its trigger-happy reactions.
Has its narrative.
So turning it off has very interesting effects. It is felt phenomenologically as a matter of felt experience as a complete dissolution of ego, and that’s a hallmark of a high-dose psychedelic experience. But when it goes offline, other networks in the brain that don’t ordinary talk start striking up conversations. That’s probably what gives you synesthesia, the ability to see a flavor or feel a sound. It may also account for hallucinations, because your emotion centers are talking directly to your visual cortex. You get all these new connections that temporarily are formed in the brain, new linkages while you’re on the drug.
While you’re on these.
We don’t know how they endure, because new connections sometimes do seem to endure.
After the experience.
Afterwards. But we do know that ...
So essentially you have this sort of asshole in charge of you ...
And you somehow lock him in a closet.
You lock him in a closet. But I don’t want to demean the asshole completely because ...
No, he gets things done.
Yeah, he gets this podcast done. He got my book written.
So give him some credit. But yeah, it often gets in our way. And it particularly gets in the way if you’re depressed or anxious, which are very similar formations. One is regret about the future and the other is regret about the past.
But the ego basically enforces very destructive habits of thought in some people and it gets you stuck, it is defensive. It’s defending you against the other, whatever is not you, and it’s defending you against strong emotions and your subconscious. Neuroscientists hypothesize that depression is partly the function of an overactive ego. Getting a break from that, even if it’s a six-hour vacation, reminds people that there’s another way to be, another place to go mentally.
Even if they have never been there.
Or they haven’t been there for years.
I interviewed a woman who had not been free of depression since 1991. She forgot what it was like not to be depressed. She had only a month, but she had a month completely free of depression and that changed everything because she said, “Oh, I know that place. I can get back to that place through other means, through meditation, through thought.” The more you reinforce a thought pattern, the more deeply it becomes etched.
Interesting. I want to get back to therapeutics, but a lot of Silicon Valley people are doing this. I can’t go to a lunch where I don’t get offered an LSD experience or let’s do ayahuasca together, which I dearly would love to be, but not with them. But you know what I mean?
Well, set and setting are very important.
I may or may not, I don’t want to vomit. I’m not a big vomiter. But they bring ayahuasca people and I know it’s illegal here but they manage to do it and ...
It’s not always illegal. There are a couple churches that actually have the right under a Supreme Court decision to administer ayahuasca.
And a few more churches about to be established. But anyway.
Under medical ...?
Not not under medical, under religious dispensation.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The same thing that allows Indians, Native Americans, to use peyote.
It’s very hard for the government to say you’re not a religion if you say you’re a religion.
It’s hard for them to argue.
Yeah. So anyway.
Talk about this concept, because everyone who talks to me about it, they’re all entrepreneurs and they feel like they’re stuck. They’re successful, a lot of them are very successful entrepreneurs and they feel like they don’t have another idea. So what they do is they use LSD or ayahuasca seems to be a popular thing. They all meditate. A lot of them are very deeply into meditation. Sometimes it seems ridiculous when they talk to me about it, but they do believe they get ideas, that it opens their brain up to ...
Well, I think there’s a few things going on. There are lots of tech people — and I’ve met lots of tech people who are deeply committed to psychedelics of all different kinds.
Not just psychedelics but also all kinds of pills to ...
The idea that you can improve your mind with chemistry.
Food, they do it with food.
Yeah, oh yeah. Part of it is about that life hacking ethos that we can live forever, download our brains, all that kind of stuff, that’s part of it, but I think that’s a small part of it. Part of it is Burning Man where many of them are exposed to these substances for the first time and sometimes have transformative experiences. You can’t de-emphasize the importance of Burning Man on the history of Silicon Valley’s interest.
The other thing that really surprised me is that there are very deep roots in Silicon Valley going back to the ’50s. There is something about engineers and psychedelics that needs to be explored, and I touch on it in the book.
Steve Jobs is the most famous.
He’s the most famous, but it turns out it had been going on for a couple decades. In the early ’50s the first real Silicon Valley company before it was called Silicon Valley was Ampex. Do you remember Ampex?
Yes, they were ...
They made magnetic recording for computers and video tape. They had tens of thousands of employees, they were somewhere in the South Bay. A couple of their engineers were turned onto LSD by a very odd, interesting character named Al Hubbard, sometimes called the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. He was an amateur. He was an inventor. He was a very dubious character who worked for the OSS, the predecessor organization of the CIA, may have worked for the CIA. Was a rum runner and a gun runner, just a really interesting, mysterious character. He always wore a paramilitary uniform. He kept a sidearm by his side at all times. He had this military crew cut. He was very bizarre.
Too much LSD.
Too much self-realization.
But he became an evangelist for LSD. He wanted to turn on the best and brightest and have the wisdom trickle down to the populous. One of the places he went was the computer industry, the early computer industry when people were just designing the first chips. Engineers who were working on chips found LSD very helpful in imagining a structure as complex as a computer chip. Remember, before there were computers, designing a computer chip was much harder. So it was a three-dimensional structure, layered, and you had to hold an incredible amount of information in your head. So there was that.
A couple of these engineers were so excited by LSD that they left their company, formed something called the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park and began giving LSD to people for $500 and giving them a certain kind of guided experience. They gave it to people like Doug Engelbart, very important figure in the history of ...
Creator of the mouse.
Before he created the mouse on LSD he created something called the tinkle toy, which was a device ... He did this under the influence. They had a creativity experiment. It was a device to help boys toilet train, the stream of urine would turn this pinwheel.
Oh wow, that’s perfect. Makes total sense. I have two sons.
He went on to do the computer mouse, email interface.
There is a lot of ... I asked Peter Schwartz — you know Peter Schwartz, futurist, Salesforce executive — “What is it about engineers and psychedelics?” He thought it had something to do with the fact that engineers, unlike scientists, deal with an irreducible complexity. There’s so many variables that instead of reducing a problem to simplicity the way scientist’s minds work they have to find patterns in a very complex space. That’s what LSD does, and other psychedelics, it helps you find patterns. I’d be very curious to hear from other engineers whether this rings true to them, but I thought that was an interesting explanation.
Well a lot of them for some reason talk about it as idea generation.
Not just complex, it’s that I don’t have an idea and this will give me ... It’s in my head and I can do it again. Some of it is there was a moment of clarity on something.
Yeah, people do get ideas. There are memes that get started. Stuart Brand, it was on an LSD trip that he had this idea that we need to see a picture of the earth from space and that would change our whole sense of the environment. He said it, he was on the roof of his house in North Beach.
You did guided trips, which is great, which was exactly right to do. You couldn’t write about it ...
Look, I’m an immersion journalist, and when I wrote about the cattle industry I bought a steer.
Mm-hmm, yes you do.
When I wrote about architecture I built a house.
Yeah, you made a meal out of ...
That’s what I do. I couldn’t get into the trials.
Immersion journalist. I love that.
I didn’t qualify ...
Sous vide journalist.
(laughing) That’s right. I had no alternative but to go to this underground. I learned, I didn’t know, this thriving underground of therapists, really serious professionals, who are working with these medicines underground. Then there are the shamans doing ayahuasca trips. So there’s circles also. I did a few circles with ayahuasca, but I also did one-on-one with psilocybin LSD, and a very bizarre one called 5-MeO-DMT.
What’s that? What’s that one?
Well, you’re not going to believe it, but it’s the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad.
I’m sure. No, I think I’ve seen it in a movie.
Who figured that out? Yeah, it’s toad venom.
They licked a toad or something.
Yeah, except licking it in the case of this toad will get you sick. You have to smoke it to burn off the toxins. These experiences, I worked with different guides. They were actually very interesting, in some cases incredibly productive personally experiences. One was, the toad was absolutely horrifying, I would never do that again.
Because, hallucinations probably?
It went beyond hallucinations. I had not only the dissolution of self, but the dissolution of everything. There was no matter left. There was just this pure storm of energy that consumed the world. It was in my head. It was out of my head. There was no place to stand at all.
Was that from you or something you see that’s maybe real?
Who knows? I just felt like I was in an explosion. I was in the middle of an atomic explosion.
Why is that a bad thing?
Because it’s terrifying and it kills you. I thought I was dying. The only good thing about that trip is it only lasted 20 minutes and when I reconsolidated as an eye with a body in a place that had a floor and windows, I was so grateful. I had a sense of gratitude such as I’ve never had before for the ...
That you’re here.
Not just that I’m here, that anything exists.
That there is something rather than nothing.
Try talking to Elon Musk, we’re all in the simulation. We’ll get into that in a minute.
You’re not here.
I was here and it felt great, and I was so grateful, and I just touched my legs and my face. It was fantastic. So you could argue for that ...
So no on that frog venom, but the others?
The others, I had one trip in particular ...
This is mushrooms?
On mushrooms, a guided psilocybin trip with a very skilled guide, very professional. I had an experience of ego disillusion on that that was incredibly useful and still is useful to me. Basically that you can see yourself out there and I experienced myself painted over the landscape, I was a coat of paint, or butter, or something. But I was still perceiving it. I know that sounds paradoxical. It made me realize I’m not necessarily identical to my ego and that my ego is this character that is useful, but also annoying, and that you can get out from under that sway by mediating, by just recognizing there he is, he’s doing that thing again, and getting that kind of distance.
Ten years of psychoanalysis might give you the same ability. It’s not unique to psychedelics, but it happens very quickly. I got it in four hours and I think it’s slightly changed my relationship to my ego. It’s also made me somewhat more open and less defensive than I would normally be.
I’m a little less trigger happy.
Is LSD different than that?
It’s not substantially different. I didn’t have that kind of experience on LSD only because I didn’t have as big a dose, I would guess. LSD is a much longer experience, which for some is troublesome. Sometimes people want to be done and they’re not done.
Ayahuasca to me wasn’t substantially different.
These are all just similar.
I think that these so-called classical psychedelics, they work on the same brain networks. They all lower the default mode network. But they have different textures or qualities. And this is probably just the power of suggestion, but ayahuasca is always very much about plants and jungle animals. There were a lot of vines that I was imagining. I had this amazing image. It was almost like a visual koan. I was wearing eye shades, which is very common, and I had these tight straps, and I felt a little constrained. Suddenly the straps turned into bars and I was encased in this black steel bar.
Oh my God. The things that ...
It was a little scary. Then I saw this vine growing up through the bars and just happily rising, and using the bars to advance its interest, and then escaping.
Oh, I can get out.
Then I realized you can’t cage plants. You can only cage animals. How can I follow that plant?
How can I be a plant?
That’s perfect for you.
For me it was a big deal.
I am the vine.
Yeah, I am the vine. I still don’t know what it means, but it’s one of those images that is very vivid in my mind and from time to time I think about it.
Wow so do you recommend people do this regularly then?
No, I don’t recommend anybody do anything. They’re not for everybody.
Right, but just like a one-time thing or a many-time thing?
I don’t know, you know ...
Because many people do it many times, right?
Yeah, people do it routinely. Some people do it very often, which I can’t imagine. My first reaction after doing it — they’re very big experiences, or they were for me — was, “I don’t need to do this again.” They’re not addictive and you see why, it’s just too intense.
I know people who do it every year on their birthday as kind of a stock-taking. If they were legal and it was cool to do it openly I think I would do that. I think it would be very useful. I think they’re much more useful the older you get. Oddly, there’s a line in the book which I really believe, which is, “Psychedelics may be wasted on the young.” But once we’re stuck in our habits and our patterns and we have creative blocks, that I think is when it’s most useful.
All right, we’re talking to Michael Pollan. This is fascinating. When we get back I want to talk a little bit more about this idea around addiction and where we go as a country from here using these things, because there’s sort of another new war on drugs.
Again, Michael Pollan’s new book is called “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” We’ll get to transcendence at the end when we get back.
We’re here with Michael Pollan. This has been a fascinating discussion. He’s obviously the journalist and bestselling author of several books, most famously “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He’s written a new book, though, on a different topic, sort of related, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
So Michael, we’ve been talking about your experience doing them. What about everyone’s experience? When you think about the way ... Look, cannabis has just gotten — here in California — legalized. It’s headed that way no matter what Jeff Sessions says. It’s going to be a major industry.
Yeah, it’s not going to stop.
And I think probably a federal kind of a thing. How do you look at that in comparison? Is that the movement towards things more ...
I don’t think that’s the model in this case. I really think the model is going down the path of FDA drug approval.
For treatments around dying, depression.
Right, the different indications that we talked about.
That’s happening. They’ve completed phase two trials of psilocybin for depression and anxiety and the dying. The FDA has signed off on a phase three, that’s the last step before approval, and the FDA surprised researchers by saying, “We don’t want you to just study cancer patients. We have a huge depression problem in this country. Depression rates are high, SSRIs are not working that well. We want you to study depression in the general population, what’s called major depression.” That’s what they’re going to do. The money has been raised without Big Pharma’s involvement, which is incredible. So the phase three trials are going to get under way later this year.
Why not Big Pharma? Wouldn’t they want to jump right into this?
Well, you would think. I think that they’re stymied by a couple things.
Or Monsanto would love to get ...
One, there’s no ...
It’s a plant!
... there’s no IP here. There’s no intellectual property. The patents on LSD have expired, and psilocybin, there are no patents as far as I know.
Because it’s all over Berkeley.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a mushroom.
So you go over there to eat wood chips?
Don’t eat the wood chips.
Don’t eat the wood chips. MDMA, which also is Ecstasy, that too has an expired patent. So there’s that. You can’t control it.
Is that related?
Well, some people consider it a psychedelic, and it’s being researched and supported by the same group of people. It’s had remarkable success in treating people with PTSD, whether they’re rape victims or Iraq war veterans. That too is going into phase three. It has breakthrough status. The FDA has said this is a very important, promising medicine. So we may see that coming, too.
I think that this is the path. Once the FDA, if these results in phase three are anywhere near as good as they were in phase two, and phase three is bigger studies, more sites, they will have to reschedule it. Right now psilocybin, LSD, are on Schedule One, which means there’s no accepted medical use, high potential for abuse. They’ll change that. Then doctors will be able to prescribe these drugs. I think that’s the proper path.
At the same time, you will have this underground. There are people who could benefit from these drugs who don’t have pathologies. What one researcher memorably described to me as “the betterment of well people.” Now how do you help them? I think that becomes a real issue.
You have a richer life or to get ...
Yeah, or deal with their ...
Yeah, remove obstacles.
We all have minor league versions of addiction, we all have addictive behavior.
We all have episodes of depression and anxiety. We all have these mental patterns that we would love to break. And here is a tool.
Right, but we’re functional, for the most part.
Yeah, we’re functional, but here is a tool that could make us better than we are. So how do you give access to those people? Well, eventually, many of those people are just garden-variety neurotics and they go to shrinks, and shrinks give them medicine, and they may then become eligible for some of these experiences. We may look ahead to a time when there are mental health spas in the same way you go to a gym.
To clarify yourself.
Yeah, and that you would go once a year or something and have this big experience.
What happens, then, to the drugs that are used in this area of addiction or depression?
In depression, I guess, it would be bad news for the people who sell Paxil and Zoloft and Prozac if this works as well as they think it does. The other reason Big Pharma’s not interested in it, though, it’s not just IP, it’s the fact that you don’t have to take this pill every day.
They want to sell drugs for chronic diseases if ...
Right, as they do with everything.
Exactly. They’re not interested in a drug you would take once or twice or three times in your life. They don’t know how to make money off of that. That’s going to be an interesting business challenge.
The last thing that makes it a square peg in the round hole of psychopharmacology as we know it is that it’s not just the drug, the guiding is very important. It’s really psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. You need someone to prepare you. You need someone to be in the room with you and tell you what to do when you get into trouble. The guides work from a set of flight instructions and they tell you, “If you see something really scary and monstrous ...”
“You need to tell me.”
No, “You need to go up to it and confront it and say, ‘What are you doing in my mind? What do you have to teach me?’” If you turn and try to run and resist, that’s when you have a bad trip.
It’s that poem, “In my mind’s reception room, which is what, and what is whom.”
Who is that?
I think it’s T.S. Eliot. T.S. Eliot, something like that.
If you see a door, open it.
I can recite that.
That’s great. It’s a very good poem for this.
“When the candle’s lighted all the guests are uninvited,” something. It’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful poem. Anyway, go ahead.
I need to look that up.
You need the guide to be with you, and that’s very reassuring because they’re looking out for your body. You can ... They’re ground control and you can go out to space.
The naked running of LSD people, yes.
Then you need someone to help you make sense of the experience, integration they call it. It’s really important because it’s a very nonlinear ...
It can be really confusing. If you think about it, most people have had a big experience with psychedelics they put it in this box labeled “Weird Drug Experience” and they just, you know. But in fact, it’s a product of your mind. It’s not a product of the drugs, and it bears analysis. So you need someone to help you open that box.
Where do people find that? How did you know someone who’d be dangerous versus ... because you could see this being abused bad.
I interviewed a lot of guides and I have to say I did talk to some that made me really nervous, I wanted nothing to do with them. They were just a little too wanky. I think it’s like interviewing therapists. You see somebody you connect with and you feel like you trust them and they’re not crazy.
But they’re operating illegally presumably.
They are. What surprised me is they have a code of conduct. They have medical release forms. They take medical questionnaires. Even though they’re operating illegally, they’re very professional, and that surprised me. I’m sure there are tons of charlatans out there, but the community that I was able to get into in my journalism, I was very impressed by their seriousness and professionalism.
What do you imagine our government will do around this? It feels like a third rail for them, although I never thought cannabis would get ...
Yeah, I know, it’s very hard to predict. Change comes in this country sometimes very suddenly and quickly, cannabis is an example, gay marriage is an example. Here you have a case where these drugs have the potential to help people who are not being helped, PTSD victims, people with depression.
It’s important to understand that mental health care in this country is badly broken. There has been no innovation since the early ’90s with the introduction of the SSRIs, and their effectiveness is fading. To my surprise, a lot of very establishment voices in mental health care, people like former heads of the American Psychiatric Association, former heads of the National Institute of Mental Health, are very open to this research. The reason is because they say, “Well look, the system’s broken.”
If you compare mental health care in this country to any other branch of medicine, it’s pathetic. It hasn’t increased our lifespan.
Nope. It has not made us happier.
It has not made us happier. I think that there’s an openness, and that’s true for the regulators, too.
What about elsewhere in the world?
In Switzerland, psychedelic therapy has been going on for a long time, it’s interesting. Of course, LSD was discovered there by Albert Hofmann in the ’30s and ’40s.
There is a company getting started called Compass Pathways that’s established in England, and they have permission to do trials all through Europe, to use psychedelics such as psilocybin specifically to treat treatment-resistant depression, depressions that haven’t yielded to two other treatments. This is a business and they’ve raised so far about $19 million. They’re going for like $40 million, and that will give them enough to get through the trials they have to do.
They’re going to sell a package, sort of what I was describing, of the trained therapist, the pills and the room. They’re going to sell that to clinics and they’re going to sell it to national health services if they can show that it’s a more efficient way to treat depression than what we now have.
Wow. So I’m going to finish up taking a little bit about the other life-hacking because it’s part of the same thing, this nootropics and this idea of fasting and things like that. I’m just curious, it’s all part of the same idea of the old Timothy Leary thing, “free your mind,” which I think is what it gets stamped with too much in San Francisco, free your mind, drop in, tune in ...
I think it would be a shame if ...
What is it? Tune in, drop out, tune in.
Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Drop out, right.
Which was a tendency.
Drop out is the wrong part.
Well, that was the part that freaked out all the parents.
Because kids did drop out. They wouldn’t go to Vietnam and they went to the Haight in 1967.
Drop out’s not the right word, drop out of that.
I think that was the most threatening word in the whole thing.
It’s the wrong word, too. Why would you want to involve yourself that’s ...
Well, you were dropping out of a civilization that was really corrupt to create another one, ideally.
There should have been another. Anyway.
Anyway. We can go relitigate the ’60s.
I think that people are searching for alternative realities and alternative ways of approaching their work and living, and this is part of that general movement. It is not strictly a tech community thing.
The best guide I worked with was someone on the East Coast. It’s more coastal, I would say, than Midwestern, as far I can tell. The tech community has given a lot of very good funding to the research. But others have too.
The idea of the perfectibility of your body and soul. That’s really what’s behind it.
That’s an old American utopian idea, right?
Yeah, Chautauqua and Kellogg’s ...
Yeah, and going back to the Transcendentalists and basically transcending your ...
That’s what Kellogg’s was, right?
Yes, oh yeah. It was a health spa that was going to improve you.
Tonics or whatever.
Not just from biologically but morally and spiritually. This is an old American idea, self-improvement, that’s our thing, the pursuit of happiness, the perfection of self. I think that’s one reason psychedelics have always resonated with Americans. They’re a utopian project. There are many people involved in this work. We have to bring some skepticism to it, too.
So what is the skepticism to it?
Well, for drugs that were supposed to help you transcend your ego, it produced some amazing egotists, like Timothy Leary. There’s an ego inflation that seems to go on with some people.
They get too much, yep.
People get evangelical about it and they want everybody to take it, and they want to put it in the water supply.
I think we have to work on healing individuals. The idea that a drug could heal civilization is really dubious, but there are people that think that way.
There’s a kind of irrational exuberance that happens even to very sober researchers when they study this and that is that, “My god, this is really important to civilization. This could change everything.” That’s what got Leary impatient with science and led to the backlash.
Even with Jobs, I don’t think he thought of it quite as much as everyone else made a big deal of it. Everyone always says, “Oh he did this and therefore Apple ...” I’m like, I’m not so sure that’s quite ...
I don’t think you can draw that line.
But they do that. They do that idea of ...
He famously said had Bill Gates tripped once, Windows would be a much better product.
Gates responded, “But I did. I did.”
It’s very hard to trace in any creative endeavor, what was the cause. Have there been important contributions to technology and culture as a result?
The answer is yes, 99.9 percent of drug experiences don’t produce anything of interest. You do enough of them it’s like that mutation. You’re going to get that mutation, that amazing new way of thinking and that new idea, and that could change everything. That has happened and I think will happen again. I just think we have to be very sober as we look at this. The main thing, if I advocate for anything, it’s not for everybody taking these drugs, it’s for let’s do this research, let’s play it around therapy, but also around understanding consciousness.
The first thing I learned when I started studying consciousness and reading all the scientists and all the philosophers is we don’t know shit about consciousness. It’s really amazing how little we know and it may never yield to the normal tools of science. Here is something that’s telling us some very important things about consciousness.
That it’s multi-layered and there’s ...
Yeah, and that ego consciousness is only one kind of consciousness. William James said this 120 years ago, that next to our everyday normal consciousness may lie just behind what he called the filmiest of screens other forms of consciousness.
There’s an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli, he wrote this sweet little book called “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.” He gave an interview to the Guardian a week or two ago where he said, “It was an LSD experience at 15 that opened me up to the idea of theoretical physics. It seems absurd to me before that that space was curved and time was relative.” He said, “But on LSD you realize well maybe the way reality presents it to us normally is not the right one, that there is an unseen reality.” Which of course is the premise of theoretical physics, of religion, and of other systems of thought. Psychedelics can put us in touch with that.
So we glimpse these ...
We glimpse them.
We glimpse them in regular life and then perhaps it brings you out and there’s other consciousness. That whole concept of ... there’s been a million movies about that, that we’re not accessing our brain.
Right, and you do one of the ...
That idiot Scarlett Johansson one.
Remember that one?
Yeah, I do. If I learned anything, it is that the brain is much vaster and ...
It’s astonishing how little we know.
It is astonishing.
That’s your next book.
There’s so much more going on there than we know and that they’re probably right, we’re probably using 1 percent of this biocomputer.
Some people do not agree with that. I’ve studied that a lot. It’s a really interesting question and lots of people think we are. It’s, again, another big thing in tech that we aren’t accessing it and when we do we’ll be able to move tables around, which of course what people always want to do, move a fucking table around.
Yeah, I don’t know why, we’ve got these hands. It works perfectly fine.
I’d like to go back and forth in time if there’s anything. Then you get into the idea of simulation and stuff.
Yeah, I haven’t gotten too far down that path.
Oh you got to go meet those people, every time ... Oh God, this is what I do. I get ayahuasca offers and then I’ll get offstage and I’ll say, “That was really good,” with one of these tech people. They’re like, “Well it’s not really you know.” I’m like, “Oh for fuck’s sake.” I’m really like, “Okay.” All right.
I don’t go down that path.
It does blow your mind when you start to think about it though a little bit.
It does, it does. I mean look, the other thing that I learned is that there are other ways to access these other planes of consciousness.
That’s right. Meditation.
Meditation is very powerful. For me the legacy of my psychedelic trips is I became a much better meditator.
Ah, of course.
I could kind of get to that place.
I’m the worst meditator.
Look at all the American Buddhists, people like Jack Kornfield, Joan Halifax. Psychedelics started them on that path and I think that’s really interesting.
Ultimately that’s what everybody needs to do.
Yeah, and that’s something that you can do regularly, legally. There are breathing exercises that can access and alter state of conscious that I experimented with too.
Very last question. I was joking about Twitter and social media, what does that do?
It’s more addictive behavior, I think.
Addictive and ego-driven.
Yeah it is ego-driven. We’re getting that little dopamine surge every time we get a “Like” and that feedback loop gets deeper and deeper and deeper. It can be very destructive. One way to break out of that is having one of these experiences. Then you’d look at it and say, “Twitter, what an absurd thing that is,” and you would believe it in a way you’ve never believed it before because there’s this conviction.
Put it right down.
The insights you have on these experiences come with this incredible conviction. Even the most banal insights, like “Twitter is stupid,” you’ll believe it.
Yeah, okay, all right. Then I’m coming right over to your house, at least. I’m going to do that ayahuasca, person who just asked me over lunch. I will not do it with you.
Anyway, Michael, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you, Kara.
Read this book, it’s really fantastic, it really was. Are you writing about food next or nothing ... What’s your next? You don’t know?
I don’t know what I’m doing next.
What are you doing?
I sort of let my audience tell me, in a funny way. I go out and talk about a book for a couple months.
Space travel. Please take on space travel.
No, that’s my ... How can I do it, though?
You need to go. I’ll introduce you to them.
My interest in the mind was really stimulated by this and there may be other things to do in this general area.
Oh it’s huge. It’s a huge area.
I don’t want to write a food book right now. I’m very active, I’ll write articles on food. I’m very active in the politics of food.
Yeah. Don’t be their dancing monkey, Michael, don’t do your food thing. Give us another food, Michael.
As you know, the great privilege of being a journalist is you get to learn whole new subjects as an adult.
I know. Yup.
Where else do you get to do that?
Yep, it’s wasted ... LSD and education is wasted on the young.
So I’m taking full advantage.
Anyway, thank you so much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.