Please enjoy this transcript of my SXSW interview with Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan), 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—and one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2010. His newest book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, which will be available as a paperback in May. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you all for coming. Good afternoon. And we’re going to settle in for a long spring nap. Hopefully not that. But if you have to leave early, that’s totally fine. I just want to make sure that the doors in the back are closed so there’s not too much noise. I am thrilled to be here on stage with Michael Pollan. Michael, the cross-pollinator, as a friend of mine referenced him as being. @michaelpollan on Twitter, if you want to say hello, is the author of seven books prior to the one we’ll be discussing quite a bit, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of my favorites, and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times Best Sellers, so he’s a clear underachiever.
A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he also teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley, where he is the John S. And James L. Knight Professor of Science and Journalism, the class I’ve always personally wanted to take, but alas, I have to stick to my tropes.
In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and his newest book, which I have personally gifted to hundreds of people at this point, is How to Change Your Mind, and it’s subtitled What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Michael, thank you for being here.
Michael Pollan: Thank you, Tim. Great pleasure to be here with you. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: This is not the first time we have had an opportunity to speak. Quite some time ago, more than a handful of years ago. And I thought that in this session, we could cover some basics, some fundamentals, of the subject matter of the new book, and then stretch outside of the context, and talk about some recent developments and learnings since the publication.
So let’s begin with defining a term: psychedelics. What are psychedelics?
Michael Pollan: Well, a psychedelic is a term coined — it sounds like a ’60s term, but it’s actually a ’50s term. It was coined in ’57 by an English psychiatrist named Humphry Osmond, who was in a dialogue with Aldous Huxley, who wrote a very famous book about what were not then known as psychedelics, called The Doors of Perception, where he recorded his own mescaline trip. And he worked very closely with Humphry Osmond, trying to understand these new substances, because they just kind of were sprung on the west in the ’50s and no one really understood them.
And they went through this process of conceptualizing these strange molecules, and at first, they called them psychotomimetic, because it appeared to imitate psychosis. And the thinking at the very beginning, this was the early ’50s, was that these chemicals were a very good way to help the therapist understand the mind of the madman, the schizophrenic, and allowed you to put yourself in his shoes or her shoes. And it sure looked like psychosis, right? I mean, people were seeing things that weren’t there and hearing things that weren’t there, and they were feeling their personalities dissolve.
But then, the shrinks themselves started trying the drugs, which was very common then. It was actually considered the responsible thing to do, if you did drug research, was try it on yourself first. Now it’s considered unethical. And they said, “You know, this feels much better than psychosis.” And they were having these often ecstatic experiences. So they had this discussion, like, “Well, we need a better name.” And in this debate, actually, it was Osmond who came up with the better word, which is essentially, it combines the Greek word for mind, psyche, and delic, delos is manifested. So it means mind manifested. It’s vague in a way, but it’s suggesting that these drugs bring the mind into kind of an observable space.
And that name has kind of stuck, although there have been efforts to rebrand them post-’60s as entheogens, which means the god within. But that seemed a little religious to some people. So I decided I liked the word psychedelic, and I would try in my book to rescue it from all the encrustation of ’60s, day-glo, acid rock, all that stuff, and see if we could reclaim it, because it means the right thing.
Tim Ferriss: Why are so many people saying and writing that there is a renaissance in this field? Because a renaissance, rebirth, implies that there was a death somewhere along the line.
Michael Pollan: Or a dark age.
Tim Ferriss: Or a dark age, yeah. So give us some context to why there is a renaissance, and why that is necessary.
Michael Pollan: Why we needed one. Well, like a lot of people, I sort of assumed that psychedelics were a product of the ’60s. That’s when we first heard about them. That’s when the public first heard about them in a serious way. But In fact, there had been 15 years of very promising research into these compounds that was being done in Europe, in America, at five or six different centers, and they were using the drugs for various indications, such as addiction, depression, to relieve anxiety, people who are dying of cancer. All the things they’re being used for now, in fact. And they were getting some very good results. It’s true that the standards for scientific drug research were very different. The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial didn’t until 1962, really. So they may not be to our standards, but it was a very promising period of research.
And then in the ’60s, when the drugs were embraced by the counterculture — the way the narrative is usually told, they escape the laboratory. But actually, they were thrown over the wall of the laboratory by people like Timothy Leary and others. And as the counterculture basically adopted these drugs, it became very difficult for the researchers to continue studying them, especially when there was a turn against them in 1965 approximately, and you have this moral panic about psychedelics. That they’re leading to bad trips that are landing people in psych wards, which did sometimes happen. That they were —
And then there was a lot of medical risk. There was a big study that came out saying they scrambled your chromosomes. It was retracted within weeks as faulty science, but nevertheless, that stuck. There were stories about people staring at the sun until they went blind. It turned out that had been complete urban legend, made up by the Commissioner of the Blind for the state of Washington, who was hoping to discourage psychedelic use. He lost his job.
And the media, which had been very pro-psychedelics — all through the ’50s, Time Life, Henry Luce’s empire, ran article after article about how promising these substances were. In fact, Henry Luce himself, and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, had been treated with LSD in L.A., where there was a lot of that work going on. But the media, as it’s wont to do, turned on a dime, and they started demonizing these drugs. And it was probably because the media often follows the government, and the government was turning against them.
Nixon, President Nixon, regarded LSD as one of the reasons that boys were not willing to go fight his war in Vietnam, and he may have been right. He really saw — I mean, it was unprecedented, right? I mean, in general, for most of history, if you send an 18-year-old male to die in a war, they just go. They don’t ask any questions. That’s the history of warfare. Suddenly, they were like, “No, I don’t think this is such a good idea. Is this a just war? Is this something I want to fight for?” And LSD, which encourages people to question all sorts of frameworks in their life, may have contributed to that. Certainly, President Nixon thought so, and he started the Drug War trying to basically remove the chemical infrastructure of the counterculture.
And the drugs were also contributing — look, there were a lot of very positive things happening around psychedelics in the ’60s, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of everything that happened was really bad. Lots of very valuable experiences were had. Great art and music were made, which owes to psychedelics. But it was a very threatening drug. And the reason I think it was, was that it really did contribute to a generation gap.
We had this unprecedented situation where the young had a rite of passage that the old didn’t know anything about. That’s very freaky. Usually in culture, rites of passage, whether you’re talking about bar mitzvah, or a vision quest in the Native American tradition, is an ordeal organized by the elders to bring the young into the adult community. Here, the young were organizing their own searing rite of passage, and it plopped them down in a country of the mind that the adults couldn’t recognize, and that was very threatening, too.
So with this moral panic about psychedelics, the research gradually grinds to a halt, and by the early ’70s, there’s only one place in America where anything is happening, and that’s Spring Grove in Maryland. But the researchers just kind of backed off, the funding dried up, and the drugs, as a serious research project, disappeared. And this is unprecedented, right? To have a line of productive scientific inquiry stop. The history of science doesn’t have another example, except maybe Galileo.
Tim Ferriss: And if we look at the conditions for which some of these compounds were promising then, perhaps were promising for hundreds of thousands of years ago, since many of these have been consumed by, actually, nearly every culture, some psychoactives, psychedelics have been consumed ritualistically. And then we flash forward to current day, and you have places like Johns Hopkins, you have NYU certainly, and many others, who are doing research. What are these compounds good for? What are psychedelics — well, where do they seem to show promise?
Michael Pollan: You know, most of the researchers in this renaissance, and it’s good you mentioned Johns Hopkins, because they really drove a lot of this research. A very good and prominent researcher named Roland Griffiths, who had been studying drug abuse for years and years, got very interested in psychedelics, and drove that agenda there. And he got interested in that because he had his own mystical experience in his meditation practice that got him very curious about consciousness.
And so he began with a study that had no medical benefit or use at all, which was: could you use psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to occasion a mystical experience, and there’s a definition of that that William James helped develop, that would have enduring value for somebody’s life? And he proved that in two-thirds of cases, you could do that. And then he went about, and other people too, well, okay, how might that experience benefit people who are struggling with mental illness?
The first and most beautiful study they did there was with people who had cancer diagnoses. And that’s really what got me interested, and that’s really the germ of the book, was interviewing people with terminal diagnoses who were paralyzed by fear and anxiety at the prospect of their death, or their recurrence, in some cases. And they had these transformative experiences that, in many cases, completely removed their fear. It was the most astonishing thing. So that was one important indication, picking up again on work that had been done in the ’60s.
And then, there were — the scores that were measured in that test included anxiety and depression, so there was a signal there that there was some value in depression. So right now, there’s a lot of work going on, and there will be some very large trials trying psilocybin for depression, both major depression and treatment-resistant depression.
Addiction, it’s shown a lot of benefit. In the ’50s, and ’60s, it was used to treat alcoholics. It appears to have had about a 50 percent success rate, according to the meta analyses. It’s being used with striking success in a small study of smokers at Johns Hopkins, and a study of alcoholics at NYU. It has, I’ve seen great potential for eating disorders, and I think they’re going to try that at Johns Hopkins.
Let’s see. Any kind of behavior change. I think one of the things these drugs do is make it possible to break out of repetitive loops and destructive narratives about yourself. “I can’t get through the day without a cigarette.” “I’m unworthy of love.” These stories we tell ourselves, we know, where we tell those stories in the brain, and that is part of the brain that the drugs seem to quiet, and it gives you a chance, basically, to get out of whatever destructive groove of thought you’re in.
So that suggests all kinds of behavior change. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has been trialed in a small pilot study. Eating disorders, as I suggested. Gambling, conceivably. All of the different forms of addiction. Telephone addiction, which those are studies we can all qualify for.
So there’s a range, and I think that we don’t know yet. It’s very important to point out that, yes, we’ve had pilot studies, two studies of anxiety of depression in the dying, but we haven’t had a big study of depression yet, and we’ll have to wait and see. But there’s certainly reason to be hopeful, and for that reason, there’s a lot of excitement in the mental health community about the potential of having a new tool. And with the exception of ketamine, which was just approved last week, there has not been a new tool in the treatment of depression since the antidepressants back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and they didn’t work very well for many, many people, and they don’t work long term, and people don’t like being on them, and they’re addictive.
So the idea that you could have a treatment that really involves one or two big experiences, and these are — I mean, we should probably define. They’re guided psychedelic experiences.
Nobody’s writing a prescription, and you’re not going home with a pill of psilocybin. But you’re with a guide the whole time, a trained therapist who prepares you very carefully for what’s going to happen, creates a very safe environment, sits with you the whole time, and in these studies, it’s a male and a female usually, a diad, and then helps you integrate the experience, make sense of it after. So this is not a recreational psychedelic experience. And you’re wearing eyeshades, too, and listening to music on headphones, so you’re encouraged to really go inside, rather than dealing with all the sensory fireworks going on.
So there’s great reason for hope, but it is still bad. We haven’t proven it.
Tim Ferriss: How do scientists who are engaged in research on these compounds, or people from the underground — and certainly, you’ve spent time with some highly experienced facilitators, let’s call them, on the underground, thousands of administered sessions — how do the people you respect explain how these compounds have the duration of effect that they do? In other words, you have these people, the patients, going through, let’s just call it, a four to eight hour experience. They have preparatory sessions, which are sober, the integration sessions, which are sober. Maybe some type of psychotherapy. They have two or three of these sessions, and in some instances, you see months or years of durability of effect, as it relates to, say, addition, or compulsive behaviors. And you alluded to this, which may appear to perhaps be variations of the same dysfunction, right?
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Which is partially why this default node network, being not really deactivated, but kind of downregulated, is very interesting. How do they explain the duration of effect? Because clearly, the half life of these compounds —
Michael Pollan: Yeah, they’re out of your brain in six or eight hours. And so, it’s not a purely psychepharmoligical effect. It really is the experience you’re having. You’re administering a certain kind of experience. And it’s very powerful. It’s kind of like a reverse trauma, in a way, right? It’s a big event in your life, and many of the people who undergo this treatment say that this is one of the two or three biggest experiences of their lives, that they compare it to the birth of a child, the death of a parent, which is astonishing that a pill could have such a profound effect. So you really have to look at the phenomenology of the experience, which when it works best, is what they call a mystical-type experience.
I think what’s central to that, though, is an experience of ego dissolution, of complete depersonalization. It is your ego, in a way, that writes and enforces those destructive narratives, very often. And if you can shut it off for a period of time, and realize that there’s another ground on which you can stand, that you’re not identical to your ego, that you can get some perspective on it, that, I think, is very positive.
The ego builds walls, right? It isolates us from other people. It isolates us from nature. It’s defensive by definition. And when you bring down those walls in the psyche, what happens? Well, you merge. You merge with something else. There’s less of a distinction between you and the other, whether that other is other people in your life, or the natural world, or the universe. And so, these lines of — as the doors of perception open, as Huxley said, these lines of connection, there’s this incredible flow. And it sounds banal, but very often what flows through those connections is love. Powerful feelings of love and reconnection.
I say this based on all the interviews I’ve done, and the experiences I’ve had myself, but a lot of the problem with depression and addiction is disconnection, right? I mean, addicts get to the point where their relationship to that bottle is more important than their relationship to their children, to their spouse. It’s an astonishing thing. And the drugs appear to help people reconnect.
So yeah, you’re only having this temporary experience, but it has this remarkable authority, and that’s one of the most curious things about it. William James called it the noetic quality of a mystical experience, and that is the belief that whatever insight you have, whatever epiphany you’ve had, is not a subjective opinion or idea. It’s a revealed truth. It’s actual knowledge.
And so I talk to these smokers, or ex-smokers, now, and I would say, “So how has this experience allowed you to stop smoking? Just this one experience. This is a lifelong habit that you’ve had.” I remember this one woman, she was an Irish woman, she was about 60, and she said, “Well, I had this incredible experience. I sprouted wings, and I flew all through European history, and I witnessed all these great scenes in European history, and I died three times, and I saw my ashes, my smoke from my body, rise on the Ganges. And I realized, ‘God, there’s so much to do and see in the world that killing yourself with cigarettes is really stupid.’”
Now, probably she had thought that before, and people had probably told her that smoking was stupid, but she believed it in a way that she had never believed it before. And it has something to do with, I think, the way psychedelics, this is at high dose, dissolve the subject-object duality. Everything is objective. Or, means the same thing, everything is subjective. You don’t have this idea, “Well, it’s just an idea in my head that’s not out in the world.” It’s all about peace.
So it’s a real reset of the mind, which is very hard for conventional therapists and psychiatrists to grok. I mean, it’s a weird idea that a single experience could have that effect. But if you think that a single trauma can put your mind on a new path, perhaps permanently, unless it’s treated, whether it’s sexual abuse, or a bomb going off, or a crime being committed. I mean, the mind has certain moments where right-angle turns happen, and perhaps it can happen in a positive way, as well as a negative way.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. That’s terrific. Michael, you and I have spoken both in conversation that’s been recorded, but also over meals and such, about the activity on the scientific front, a lot of the developments that you were seeing, and you’ve also had a tremendous influx of feedback, and maybe pushback, since the book came out. And I want to explore all of that with a handful of questions, but let’s start with getting granular on psychedelic, and perhaps naming a few names.
So within the umbrella of psychedelics, and you have different chemical classes which you don’t necessarily have to get into, the tryptamines, phenylalanines. But if you were to look at, say, some of the usual suspects, LSD, psilocybin, as you mentioned, we have DMT, ibogaine. And then DMT, often confused with NMDMT, or DMT, then 5-MeO-DMT. Ibogaine. You mentioned ketamine earlier, which I think is one of the 10 most essential medicines, according to the World Health Organization, as anesthetic, but at sufficient enough doses, has a psychedelic effect.
Which of these compounds have most captured your curiosity, and why? And it doesn’t have to be limited to that list. We didn’t really get into mescaline-containing plants, or just by itself.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. I’ve focused a lot on LSD because of its importance to the social history psychedelics, and it’s one of the most powerful, long-lasting psychedelics, but it’s not being used in research in this country, mostly for practical and political reasons. It’s very controversial. Everyone’s heard of it, so you’re more likely to get some congressman standing up and saying, “We’re funding LSD research, and what a scandal that is,” whereas that same congressman probably doesn’t know what psilocybin is.
Tim Ferriss: It’s hard to pronounce, even.
Michael Pollan: Exactly. Hard to spell.
Tim Ferriss: The Brits and the Americans can’t even agree on it.
Michael Pollan: It’s true. And then, there’s the practical benefit that psilocybin has a shorter half life. And the importance of that is, you know, you can fit it into a therapist’s workday, right? Instead of a 12-hour trip, hangover time — I mean, it’s a long trip. Psilocybin is like, four to six hours. So you can fit it in. Psychedelic therapy is going to be very hard to fit into psychotherapy as we practice it, but it would be much harder if you were talking about 12-hour trips.
But you can get the same effects, probably, on LSD. It has much more association, though. You’d have to deal with everything. Since set and setting are so important with all psychedelics, people bring a lot of baggage to LSD, and that was the one I was the most frightened of, personally, because of everything I’d heard.
There is very little — the research on DMT is essentially ayahuasca research. DMT is the psychedelic in ayahuasca, and there is some work being done, especially in Brazil, to try ayahuasca as a treatment for depression. It’s a tricky one, though, because there are too many variables. It’s two plants.
Tim Ferriss: It’s hard to standardize. It’s like an old-fashioned.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, exactly, it’s like an old-fashioned. I asked a researcher in Brazil —
Tim Ferriss: But not as effective, to be clear.
Michael Pollan: I asked this researcher who was doing a very interesting study with the urban poor in Sao Paulo, and giving them ayahuasca. I said, “How much are you giving them?” And he said, “I have no idea. I just ask the shaman how much to give them each.” I don’t think you can get published in JAMA with a study that’s like, “A shamanic dose of ayahuasca.” So that’s hard to study, but worth studying, I think.
I mean, everything about psychedelic research is a square peg in the round hole of both reductive science and psycho — mental health care as we practice it. DMT in the chemical form is a very fast-acting and short-lived psychedelic, which some people think might have some value.
Tim Ferriss: In Earth time.
Michael Pollan: In Earth time, yeah. It’s an eternity by other scales, or in other dimensions. So to me, it looks like psilocybin has the best practical prospects. And people don’t bring a lot of associations to it. It’s not as controversial.
Tim Ferriss: And by practical, you mean in the scientific context, research?
Michael Pollan: Yeah, research, exactly. Yeah. And frankly, access to it. I mean, it’s not hard to get access to. People can grow it themselves, if they want. So yeah, I think it offers a lot of benefit.
Tim Ferriss: Speaking personally, because at least as I recall it, you did not set out to have a quarter or a third of your book comprised of personal experiences — or maybe it wasn’t that high a percentage, but a decent chunk. Were there any particular experiences that have seemed to have a lasting effect on you personally?
Michael Pollan: Yes. I had a series of experiences for the book. Which, I knew when I decided to write this book, I had to do that, for various reasons. To describe the experience without having had it, and just relying on interviews, was not satisfying. I also, this is what I do as a writer. I mean, when I wrote about the cattle industry, I bought a cow. And so this was my equivalent. I think my readers expect some first person. Don’t you?
Tim Ferriss: Buying the psychedelic cow. I can see the headline now.
Michael Pollan: But I didn’t expect to go quite as deep as I went. So I had an experience on LSD —
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s a common statement.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: “I just had one drink.” It was ayahuasca.
Michael Pollan: That’s right. A couple of experiences on ayahuasca, a couple on psilocybin, and one on 5-MeO-DMT, which was not a happy experience. It was a terrifying experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And that is not DMT. It’s a different chemical, that it is the smoked venom of the Sonoran desert toad. How about a species that figures that out, huh? A hand for humanity. How did they figure that out?
Tim Ferriss: Also, figured out pretty recently, like in the last 50 years.
Michael Pollan: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: This is not an ancient, indigenous tradition. It’s squeezing toads onto plexiglass to scrape off this —
Michael Pollan: And Dr. Andrew Weil was involved in that discovery. So yeah, that was not — and we can talk about that more later, but that was my introduction to a really bad trip. And I’ve been told since, in fact, at an event we were at together, that either I took way too much, or not nearly enough. But what do you do with that information? I don’t plan any further experiments. But you asked about lasting.
Tim Ferriss: And if you’re willing to share, what effect did those experiences have, with psilocybin and ayahuasca?
Michael Pollan: So I had a high-dose psilocybin experience, guided, with someone that I really trusted, who created a very comfortable environment. I mean, safety is so important. If you’re going to allow your ego to get blasted to smithereens, you really have to feel safe. It’s a dangerous thing to do psychologically, and she created an environment where that could happen, and to my amazement, did happen. So I mean, I could recount it quickly.
It was a trip that didn’t begin very well. Her taste in music left a lot to be desired. She put on this New Age music that I learned later was by an artist who I hope is not in the room, named Thierry David. And I looked up later, he was thrice nominated for “best chill/groove album.” Only nominated. But it sounded like electronic music, and one of the most amazing things about psychedelics is the synesthesia. The fact that one sense gets cross-wired with another. So that with music, especially if you have eyeshades on, you are projecting a concrete version, that the music is generating landscape, place, emotion. It’s just the most amazing thing, that every note was creating this black and white, computer-generated landscape that was — I’m not into video games. It’s not where I wanted to be, and it went on and on and on.
I subsequently learned why that happened. It turned out it wasn’t electronic music, but my ear heard it that way. And that was that I had brought a computer into the treatment room to do a test, an experiment on myself. There’s a famous test called the rotating mask, or the mask illusion. You’ve probably seen it, maybe. But it’s a mask, one of those dramatic masks, and it’s hollow on one side and convex on the other, and it’s on a turntable, and it turns, and as the convex part gives way to the back, to the concave part, it pops out and becomes convex again. Your mind refuses to see a face as hollowed-out, because it never has before.
This is predictive coding. This is the predictive brain. Which is to say, we don’t just take in information. We’re actually having a controlled hallucination most of the time. We’re projecting what we expect to see, and then we’re letting reality correct it. So this is a classic case of the brain providing a fictional version of what it’s seeing. But that’s pretty adaptive, because, hey, most faces are not hollow. Almost all faces are not hollow.
But I had read that schizophrenics, the illusion doesn’t work on them. I mean, it doesn’t pop out. They see more truthfully. And people on high-dose psychedelics, also, it doesn’t pop out. So the predictive coding, that handshake between the model in your head and the sense information coming up from your senses, breaks down. And I thought, that’s really cool, I’m going to test this on myself. So I brought that imagery into the room, and it completely infected the whole experience.
Now, just very quickly, the test, when I did it, I did it once, it didn’t work. Did it twice, didn’t work. The third time, when I was at the highest, the peaking of my dose, I opened it up, I pressed the button, and the thing started rotating, and then it just melted. I mean, it just — so it was just a bust.
I mention all this to say that it was not entirely a happy trip for this part. I really felt trapped. At some point, I took off my eyeshades, because I had to reconnect with reality. I was feeling claustrophobic, and it was amazing. This woman’s loft was just jeweled with light. It was incredible. And I had to pee, so she kind of walked me to the bathroom. I was a little wobbly in the legs. And I get to the bathroom, and I really — I’m not going to look in the mirror, because I don’t know what I’m going to see. And I mentioned this to an audience in England, and someone says, “Oh, yes, trip face.” To be avoided.
Tim Ferriss: Oldest trick in the book.
Michael Pollan: I peed. I produced this spectacular crop of diamonds. Very proud of that. I make my way back to the woman I call Mary in the book. That’s obviously not her real name. And she asks me if I’d like a booster dose. And I had originally said I was going to go up to a certain dose. I was trying to basically mimic the Johns Hopkins dose using real mushrooms. They use the synthetic psilocybin.
And she squatted next to me, and Mary is very Nordic-looking. She’s got long blond hair, parted in the middle, high cheekbones. And I looked at her, and she had been transformed into a Native Mexican, indigenous, a Mazatec Indian. And I knew exactly who it was. It was Maria Sabina, who is this legendary character who gave the first Westerner a psilocybin trip in 1956. And so Mary’s hair had turned black. She had leathery brown skin, and then a wrinkled brown hand that she handed me this mushroom. I didn’t know whether I should tell her what had happened to her. I did later, and she was so proud, because it’s one of her heroes.
I go back under, and I’m still seeing video game world, and I ask Mary to change the music. We finally agree. She puts on some Bach, this beautiful piece of music called Unaccompanied Cello Suite in D Minor. It’s the saddest piece of music in the repertoire, it’s amazing. Amazingly sad.
And I look out, and I see myself burst into a cloud of little Post-its, like confetti. And that’s me. And I’m gone. I’m just completely gone. But yet, I’m perceiving it. And I didn’t understand this new perspective had opened up. I mean, I’m using the first person, but it wasn’t exactly me. I’m just kind of objectively watching myself. And then I look out again, and I’ve been transformed into a coat of paint on the landscape, or butter. I’m just spread, this very thin layer.
And it was fine. I wasn’t upset. This other perspective was so calm and reconciled to what had happened, and it was the most amazing — one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And so I no longer had a self, and what then happened was, I merged with this piece of music. I became one with this, it was Yo-Yo Ma, and I could almost feel the horsehair of the bow going over my skin. And then I felt like there was no space between me and this music. I was it.
And it was an astonishing experience. It was ecstatic in the literal sense, of I wasn’t in my usual body. But it wasn’t happy. It was sad. I was incredibly sad, and it was all about death. But I was completely reconciled to it. And it was that moment that I understood what happened with the cancer patients, I think. That they had attained this consciousness, this perspective, where the loss of their bodies, the loss of their self, was the most natural thing in the world. It was a rehearsal of death, basically.
And the calmness of this perspective basically told me that there was another ground on which to stand, that I’m not identical to my ego, that I can let my ego go and not be obliterated. And most of us, I think, assume, are identical to our ego, right? That shattering voice in our head that’s being self-critical, or keeping your distance from things, protecting you. And we think that when that voice goes quiet, we’re dead, but in fact, that’s not true. The ego is one character in this drama inside your head. And that was valuable.
I went back the next day for my integration session, and I said to Mary, I told her what had happened. And she said, “Isn’t that worth the price of admission?” And I said, “Yeah, but my ego is back in uniform, back on patrol. I’m back to baseline.” Going back to your point about enduring changes. And she said, “Well, you’ve had a taste of that perspective, and you can cultivate it.” And I asked her how, and she said, “Through meditation.”
There’s a very organic passage from psychedelics to meditation. Most of the American Buddhists began with psychedelics. And psychedelics are not a practice, right? I mean, you can’t do it every day. It’s a very bad idea. And it probably wouldn’t work. But meditation is a practice, and you can bring — you can achieve some sense of that ego-free consciousness through meditation. And indeed, I became a much better meditator after this experience. I sort of had a sense of the space I wanted to get to. I know we’re not supposed to strive in our meditation, but we do. So that had an enduring effect.
It also, I think, changed my understanding of what is spirituality, and I was really not a spiritual person when I started this. I had described myself as spiritually retarded, and I think that is true. And part of that was because I’m very much a materialist in my philosophical outlook, that nature is all that there is, and everything can be explained as a result of the laws of nature and energy.
But it turns out — so I thought to be a spiritual person was to believe in the supernatural, and I was allergic to that. I didn’t believe in the supernatural. But this experience, and especially the kind of merging that went on, made me realize that that’s not the right duality. The opposite of spiritual is not material. The opposite of spiritual is egotistical. It is our ego that keeps us from the profound connections, whether with your loved ones, with humanity, with nature, with a piece of music. That’s the wall, and if you can bring down that wall, that, to me, is what spiritual experience is. And that was a big takeaway. For me, that was the biggest takeaway in the book.
Tim Ferriss: So as you recount this story that we just heard, if, say, a talk therapist were to sit down and try to guide you through that —
Michael Pollan: 10 years minimum.
Tim Ferriss: 10 years minimum, and it would also be very off-script for many therapists to do so. Have you received much resistance after the book has come out? And I should also say that if you were to read the trip reports, or the summaries of subjects that go through this type of experience for smoking cessation and so on, they’re going to have quite an interesting movie, with parts that are sort of coherently related to the addiction, perhaps, but a lot that aren’t.
Michael Pollan: No, that’s right.
Tim Ferriss: Nonetheless, going in with that intention, and I’m sure there’s some selection bias, can have some really remarkable outcomes. What type of resistance, if any, have you run into? Like, which groups have been least receptive, and which have been most receptive?
Michael Pollan: Well, in general, I’ve had a lot less pushback than I expected, from all quarters. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I mean, I was worried about legal pushback. I’m talking about a felony. And I was worried that somebody might come after the guides that I worked with. And that it would be ridiculed by the mental health establishments. But it wasn’t, actually. There’s a remarkable receptivity, as I said earlier, borne of desperation, basically.
Mental health care is really broken in this country, and in the world. If you compare mental healthcare to any other branch of medicine, cardiology, oncology, infectious disease, they’ve all made huge strides in the last 50 years. They’ve reduced suffering, they’ve prolonged life. Can you say that about mental healthcare? No. I mean, depression is getting worse numbers. Suicide is getting worse. Addiction is getting much worse. And mental health professionals are really at a loss.
So on the one side, you see openness to it, and I’m hearing — I get invited to speak at grand rounds in hospitals and psychiatry departments. I didn’t expect that to happen. Or address the American Psychological Association. I didn’t expect that to happen.
But there are kind of old line psychiatrists who have trouble processing the idea that psychological experience, not simply a neurochemical effect, can be therapeutic. There is a lot of reductive science, and they will tell you, “No, no, depression is a neurochemical process. It can only be addressed at that level.”
And in the same way, psychology used to be about psychoanalysis, and the criticism was that it was brainless, right? It didn’t take into account the brain as a physical organ. Well, now it’s mindless, right? Psychiatry is completely mindless, and there’s not a lot of room for talking about experience, and psychological experience.
So I have heard from people who just cannot figure out why this would help anyone with depression, in particular. Now it may not work on all types of depression, it’s true. Some may be more neurochemical than others, and the depression of someone with cancer is a special case, right? I mean, it’s an event in their life that has given them very good reason to be depressed. They may not be lifelong depressives. So those are all active questions.
And then there are the psychiatrists, some of whom have written to me, or spoken about what I’ve said, what I just told you about, and many psychiatrists, if they heard the story I just told you about that trip, would say that I had had a psychotic episode, right? I had depersonalization. I was seeing things that weren’t there. I was looking at this blond woman, and she turned into an Indian. I was crazy. And by their diagnostic criteria, I guess I was. So I just think that’s a limit of that framework. But I think it will change. I definitely think it will change.
But in general, I think that’s been the exception. I’m really amazed at how many medical schools and departments, because this is very much — if you go to any psychiatry department around the country right now, they’re talking about psychedelics. Could we study this? How could this work? How can we use our training to interpret this event?
It is true what you said earlier, though, about “What about in talk therapy? Could I get to this point?” And I would say, “Probably.” I mean, if I had the patience for it and the money for it. But it would take me at least 10 years to get that kind of perspective on my ego. Which is what you work on in talk therapy, very often, I think. But I got there in an afternoon, and that’s pretty astonishing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s remarkable. And I want to come back to something that I think you said in passing, which related to explaining how these compounds do what they do, and that a lack of ability or tools to explain the mechanism of action does not mean that the mechanisms are unexplainable, or supernatural. And I’d be curious if you’ve had any conversations with what people might consider hard scientists, physicists, people along those lines. How do they respond to this conversation, or to these experiences?
Michael Pollan: I think it’s important to note that we do a lot of psychiatric and psychological treatments, and we have no fucking idea how they work. Don’t let any doctor tell you that they know how SSRIs work. They don’t really know. We think it elevates serotonin. There’s no evidence it actually elevates serotonin. It changes what happens at that little juncture. And the pharmacopeia is full of chemicals that seem to have some effect on psychosis, on whatever they’re trying to treat, but no one really can explain, because our understanding of the brain is really primitive. Much more so than I realized when I started this process.
So a lot of what we say about mechanism is hard. We don’t really know exactly how a psychedelic drug — we know it binds the serotonin to a receptor, and then — seriously. And then you start seeing things. But that cascade of effects…
Tim Ferriss: Dot, dot, dot.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, ellipsis. They use terms like that. And then the cascade of effects leading to synesthesia and hallucination and things like that. But we don’t know. It may be that it alters the pattern waves. I mean, your brain, we’re learning now, only recently, communicates not only through chemistry, but there’s a wave action, too, that seems to organize brain activity.
And there was a study that just came out two weeks ago, that was the most astonishing thing, where they sliced a hippocampus, a memory center, in half, created a gap, and they found that one set of neurons on one side of the gap, nevertheless, was able to interact with ones on the other, without direct contact. What the hell is that? Maybe it’s this wave action. Maybe there are other levels of communication going on in the brain that we don’t know about yet. So it’s really important to be humble in anything we say about the brain.
The best model, with all that by way of warning, is this idea of the default mode network, and one of the really striking findings when they began imaging the brains of people on psychedelics, both LSD and psilocybin, the expectation — and this happened in England first, Robin Carhart-Harris’ lab at Imperial College. The expectation was that they’d see lots of activity everywhere, because it’s a pretty lively medical experience.
Tim Ferriss: [crosstalk]
Michael Pollan: Right. But they were very surprised to see that one particular brain network, called the default mode network, which I’d never heard of, was suppressed in its activity. Less blood flow, less energy going to it. And that was curious.
And then, so, what is the default mode network? Well, Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University, discovered it about 20 years ago. It’s a tightly linked set of structures in the midline that connects the cortex, which is the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain, executive function, consciousness, supposedly, to older, deeper areas of memory and emotion. And it’s kind of a traffic cop for the whole brain, but it’s intimately involved with ego function.
It is where time travel takes place, the ability to think about the future or the past. And if you think about it, without that, you don’t have a self, right? Your self is everything that’s happened to you before that you remember, and your objectives for the future. People who don’t have memory don’t have a self.
It’s involved with self-reflection. It’s involved with the narrative self, the stories that we tell ourselves. So for example, there’s a part of it called the posterior cingulate cortex, that if I showed you a list of adjectives, patriotic, handsome, chubby, whatever, I’m just being hypothetical —
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, very much.
Michael Pollan: I said handsome! It would not light up, right, if you just read that list. And then I say, “All right, think about how all those adjectives apply to you, or don’t apply to you.” Boom. The posterior cingulate cortex goes into action.
Tim Ferriss: It’s self-referential.
Michael Pollan: It’s totally self-referential. So if the ego has an address in the brain, it’s somewhere in this network, and this network is the one that gets quieted. When it does, since it has a kind of management function for the whole, as the ego does, other parts of the brain start talking to one another. And there’s a two-page spread in the book where I show, using these Imperial College scans, what a brain on normal consciousness, how it’s wired, and then how it gets rewired temporarily. And it get rewired in a very novel way. Everything is talking to everything else, rather than going through the orchestra conductor of the default mode network.
So the curious thing about this is, it was confirmed by scans of very experienced meditators.
They put someone with 10,000 hours of meditation into an fMRI scanner, asked them to meditate, and then took pictures of their brain, and the scans looked identical. Their default mode network was suppressed. And of course, ego dissolution is one of the goals of meditation.
So it’s opening up these really interesting questions of consciousness, and what is the self? What is the self for? Do you need to have one? Would you be better off without one? Now there are very good reasons to have an ego. Ego got the book written. The ego does all sorts of good stuff. On the other hand, an overactive ego is a tyrant.
Tim Ferriss: And if you look at the availability of the type of experience you described, and we could get into the science, and I think we might get into more of it. And for people that are interested, I would certainly recommend, there are many talks out there, including Roland Griffiths’ TEDMED talk.
Michael Pollan: Or anything by Robin Carhart-Harris.
Tim Ferriss: Robin Carhart-Harris.
Michael Pollan: Who has really been the most interesting theoretician of what’s going on in the brain with psychedelics.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Has a great paper called The Entropic Brain.
Michael Pollan: The Entropic Brain is a fantastic paper. I had to read it six times, but it’s a fantastic paper.
Tim Ferriss: It’s dense. Fantastic and dense. So you can get an overview through those types of talks on the outcomes of studies applied not just to pathological conditions or addictions, but also to healthy volunteers, for various purposes, and I think we’ll see more studies looking at so-called normals.
Michael Pollan: Healthy normals.
Tim Ferriss: Healthy normals, yeah. High-functioning neurotics. What I’d love to talk about is the bottlenecks. The things that are currently preventing wider access. And it seems to me, at least one of them is a scarcity of funding. If you look at the field as a whole, we’re dealing with mostly schedule one drugs. Some people call them narcotics, although we could certainly disagree.
Michael Pollan: Well, they’re not addictive.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so that’s part of the problem with that designation. But what is the path forward, then? Because there’s a lot to learn from underground practitioners, but they are underground because the activities are illegal. And there’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge, but to translate into national, international level access for people with PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, there seem to be pieces of the puzzle that are missing. So what would you like to see, or if that’s too personal, what might happen over the next handful of years, and what are the risk factors that could set us back from wider access?
Michael Pollan: I’m glad you mentioned it, because it’s very important that we talk about this. So we’re on a path right now toward basically going though the standard FDA new drug approval process, and that’s three phases. There’s phase one, which is kind of a pilot study, very small numbers. Open label, in other words, no placebo. And then there’s a more ambitious placebo-controlled trial, phase two. And then a much bigger version of the same thing.
And if you get over those hurdles, and you show that the drugs are both safe and effective, the FDA will approve it as a medicine. And believe it or not, we’re not that far away from that happening. It could happen in five years.
Tim Ferriss: For MDMA and psilocybin?
Michael Pollan: Yes. For MDMA — MDMA is actually a little further ahead. They’re already in phase three. This is ecstasy, being used to treat trauma, especially. The challenge is — and the FDA has been remarkably supportive. In fact, it’s granted breakthrough therapy status to both psilocybin and MDMA, which means that they actively help the researchers design trials that will quickly move these drugs to approval. This is quite astonishing. This has all happened in the last year.
The challenge is, they’re expensive to do these studies. They cost millions of dollars, and the government will not fund this, for two reasons. One is, it’s still controversial. You could imagine people getting upset about tax dollars being used to fund psychedelic research. But the main reason is there’s no money for mental health research. The NIMH, which is part of the NIH, National Institute of Mental Health, has a budget of like, one or two billion dollars. That’s it. So there’s not a lot of money to play with.
So all of the psychedelic research being done so far has been privately funded, by foundations and individuals who really believe that this is important work. And more people need to step up and finish this work.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to pause for one second. We should say, for people wondering, it’s not just San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, tech liberals at all, right?
Michael Pollan: Oh, no. I mean, there are people in the tech community who —
Tim Ferriss: You have that, but you also have Rebekah Mercer, you have the Pritzker family.
Michael Pollan: That’s right. You have some right-wing money too, which is great inoculation, right? Rebekah Mercer has contributed to the MDMA work, and it’s not a right-left issue.
Tim Ferriss: No, these are bipartisan issues.
Michael Pollan: Especially when it comes to treating soldiers for PTSD. And people in the pharmaceutical business have gotten interested in this, privately, to help fund it. So there’s money to move forward. It’s not like it’s stymied by lack of money, but it will take a fair amount.
And then there’s the whole issue of how you incorporate it into mental healthcare as we practice it. I mean, think about it. What’s the business model? It’s really hard to figure out. The pharmaceutical industry is not interested in the drug you only take once. They make money — they won’t even research antibiotics anymore, because you only take them for five days. They only do drugs that you take every day for the rest of your life. That’s where the money is. So they’re not going to put a lot of money into it.
And then look at the therapist community. Their business model depends on you coming back every week for years and years and years. So they’re not going to love this. And it takes a very heavy intervention for that short amount of time, right? You’ve got, we talked about the preparation session, the guiding, two guides. It’s a lot of labor over a short amount of time.
So exactly how — and it’s also just unconventional in that, as we said earlier, you’re not simply prescribing a drug. You’re prescribing an experience. And it’s not simply psychedelic therapy. It’s psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. You need both. It’s a package. Doesn’t work without — you need both elements. So that’s going to be hard for the mental health community to get their head around, and I think we’ll figure it out, but it’s a whole new structure, it’s a whole new paradigm, and so that may take a little while.
The risks, though, you asked about that. I do worry that there could be another backlash. Right now, the press on psychedelics is very positive, as it was pre-1965, and all through the ’50s. You don’t read a lot of negative stories about it, but it could happen. The risk of, I think, sexual abuse in that therapeutic setting is real. Hearing about the situation where underground, you only have one guide, usually, you don’t have two. So you don’t have the chaperone function. And the person on the psychedelic is not in a position to defend herself or himself. And MDMA in particular creates this deep bond of trust with the therapist, that an unscrupulous therapist could abuse. So I think that’s a real concern.
Tim Ferriss: Can we do anything to hedge against that, or to mitigate? Any of those factors.
Michael Pollan: Well, here’s the problem with an illegal drug. I mean, the fact that the underground is underground, it’s very hard to regulate something that’s illegal. One of the best arguments for decriminalization, or legalization, is you can then set rules. You can have professional society from which people can be expelled if they behave badly. You can have penalties. You can set standards. You can have a code of conduct, and all these kind of things like other professions have.
Doing that with an underground, even an underground that is somewhat organized, and in fact does have a code of conduct, I write about that in the book. But who knows who’s subscribed to that code of conduct? Lots of people are just declaring themselves psychedelic therapists. I think one of the big risks now is the demand is so great that there are unscrupulous people declaring that they’re therapists. Or simply people who are green, and don’t have enough experience, and don’t know how to react to a medical emergency, don’t have that kind of training.
So there are real risks going into the underground, and I say that having interviewed many underground therapists, some of whom I would not have entrusted my mind to. I mean, I didn’t have confidence in them. But many of whom are professionals, and are incredibly conscientious. So it’s a mixed bag, but it’s the wild west, so you’re taking a chance.
In terms of generally, the risks of the drugs, though, which I think it’s very important to say a word about, and perhaps I should have done earlier. Here’s what we know: the physiological risks on psilocybin are remarkably light. There are — we don’t even know the lethal dose of psilocybin, okay? We know the lethal dose of Tylenol. You have many drugs in your medicine cabinet that have a lethal dose in the dozens of pills.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, sure. I mean, Tylenol is in the top three, four for fatalities, at least for ERs. It messes with the liver.
Michael Pollan: Yep. So there’s no LD50. We don’t know. They’re not that toxic to the body. They raise blood pressure a little bit, heart rate, things like that.
Tim Ferriss: LD50 is, if we gave everybody in this room, 1,000 people, a dose, that it would kill 50 percent of you. That’s LD50, which is determined for a lot of —
Michael Pollan: And we know that for most drugs, but we can’t find it for this drug. There is an elephant that was killed with LSD once. What a horrible idea. Like, who’s like, “Let’s see how much you have to give an elephant to kill an elephant?” I mean, but they were also giving — they had to tranquilize the elephant to get him to play, so it may have been the tranquilizer. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go down that path, but it horrifies me, that story.
They’re non-addictive. They’re not habit-forming. If you set up that classic thing with the rat in the cage, they have two levers, and one administers cocaine to their bloodstream, the other glucose, and the rat will keep hitting the cocaine lever until it dies. You put LSD in that setup, and the rat will do it once, and never again. Rats do not like to trip.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think humans like surprise trips very much, either.
Michael Pollan: Well, that’s true.
Tim Ferriss: Have some apple juice. Ahh!
Michael Pollan: This was a thing in the ’60s, though, dosing people. I mean, the Grateful Dead were famous for dosing anyone who came near their green room, which I think is an incredibly cruel thing to do. I just can’t imagine that.
But so the risks are psychological, the real risks. And they’re real. And I think that using the drugs in a poor set and setting can lead to potentially psychotic breaks. There are people who have been tripped into schizophrenia. Would that have happened anyway? Probably. There’s a phenomenon where before the onset of schizophrenia, which happens when you’re around 20, very often, and then again at around 30, is that you feel weird for a period of time, and you start self-medicating. And so it can be kicked off by LSD, but also alcohol and cannabis.
So we don’t understand that phenomenon, but there are people that have trips that are so bad that they’re traumatizing, and about eight percent of the people who use psilocybin not in a clinical setting report seeking psychiatric help at some point after their experience. So those are real risks. They’re mitigated to a large extent if you’re in the care of an experienced guide who’s prepared you properly, and knows what to tell you if you do get into trouble. And I found that was the most useful, getting that kind of advice.
Tim Ferriss: Like the flight instructions.
Michael Pollan: The flight instructions. What do you do when something really scary happens? Well, don’t run away. Or if you feel yourself going mad, or your ego dissolving, go with it. Surrender, is the basic takeaway. And that is the best advice for using psychedelics, I think.
Tim Ferriss: What do you hope to see, or what are the most exciting things that are happening right now, or have been happening since the book came out? Is there anything that comes to mind that is particularly interesting or exciting to you?
Michael Pollan: Well, I think the mainstreaming of this as a subject. It’s a subject people can talk about. People are coming out of the closet and talking about their psychedelic experiences. I’ve had many conversations with psychiatrists, and even some celebrities, that they feel safe talking about it now. And I think that’s great, because the more this is closeted, the more stigma attaches for that reason. So I think people talking frankly about their experiences is a very positive thing. Telling stories, and kind of demystifying it by talk. I think that’s very encouraging.
I’m very encouraged to see some very mainstream psychiatry departments, medical schools, places like Yale, Columbia, wanting to conduct psychedelic research. Roland Griffiths took a huge chance, and Steve Ross, at NYU, when they started doing this, and they got a lot of shit from their bureaucracies. And now, these universities proudly boast about the psychedelic research going on on their premises. When Steve Ross started studying cancer patients at NYU, the oncologist would not give him patients. Said, “I don’t want you near our patients. You’re giving crack to our cancer patients.” And it was only the nurses that would tell people about the study. And now he’s been invited into the cancer center to set up a treatment room.
So that’s very exciting. I’m very heartened by that. I think one of the best indications is people who have not just cancer, but life changing diagnoses. People who have just learned that they have Alzheimer’s. People who learn they have ALS. People who have learned they have Parkinson’s. They go through a very difficult psychological passage, and I think that these medicines could help people in all those areas.
I do worry that we’re putting all our chips on the square marked depression, and there’s a lot of resources going to treating depression, and I don’t want to leave behind these other things. Addiction, I think, is very important, and cancer. We have so little to offer terminal cancer patients, and this seems to — I mean, it’s really proven itself more in that case, I think, than anything else.
Tim Ferriss: And we talked about one aspect of maybe misperception of psychedelics, or misrepresentation, over lunch, which was — or rather, a distinction that his helpful to make, and that is, psychedelics are not a panacea. They do not treat everything. They will not pay your bills for you.
Michael Pollan: Well, in my case —
Tim Ferriss: Well, actually, in your case, they do pay the bills. But even that, I can see the late night programming now. Just lay Michael Pollan’s psychedelic blanket on your stack of bills. But in any case, what I was going to say is, they do seem to hold promise for conditions that are frequently thought of as intractable or untreatable.
Michael Pollan: Yes. And separate. I mean, one of the interesting things about it —
Tim Ferriss: And separate.
Michael Pollan: The indications, the forms of mental disorder that they seem to work best on — I was very skeptical of this panacea idea too, and I was interviewing Tom Insel, who was former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, and I said, “Isn’t it a little suspect that the same drug would work for depression, and anxiety, and addiction?” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “It’s like, it’s a panacea.” And he says, “No. Don’t assume all those conditions are so different.” They may be a product — they may be different symptoms of the same mental formation, which is an excessive rigidity in the brain. They’re all forms of stuckness. They’re all forms of destructive narrative. And so we may learn something about the nature of mental illness in this research too, which is very exciting.
And psychedelics seem to work on those kind of locked-in conditions, that all are characterized by obsessive thinking to one degree or another. And somebody said, who I interviewed, depression is regret about the past, anxiety is regret about the future. They’re similar. They’re very similar. And addiction and depression often go together.
So I thought that was very interesting, but then there’s a whole — that’s one end. If you think of mental disorder on a spectrum, and at one end you have those very rigid, closed-down brain conditions, at the other end, you have brains that are obsessively chaotic, or too entropic, to use Robin’s phrase. And that’s schizophrenia, not useful for that. Personality disorder, probably not useful. Manic depression, less likely. And so we may see that a lot of the things that it treats are the same thing.
And he said that these words, like depression, anxiety, addiction, these are DSM artifacts, right? “We need to put a label on things so we can charge the insurance companies and write our code,” he said, “but they’re artificial.” They’re totally artificial. And I didn’t realize that.
So one of the things that excites me most about psychedelics is, yes, there’s a treatment here, potentially, and it could be very important, and help us deal with one of the biggest problems we face as a civilization. On the other hand, they’re also very interesting probes to understand the mind. And way back when, Stanislav Grof, famous psychedelic psychiatrist, who did really great work in the ’60s and ’70s, he wrote this line, which actually got Robin Carhart-Harris started, and got me started, in a way. He said that “Psychedelics would be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy, or the microscope for biology.” Now that is an audacious claim. But I no longer think it’s crazy.
Tim Ferriss: And for those who are interested in where this is going, you mentioned that there is currently effectively a complete lack of federal funding. And there is some money, but what a lot of people may not realize, and what I didn’t realize until a few years ago, is that even the most productive scientists working on psychedelics today spend, in some cases, upwards of half their time writing grants for non-psychedelic studies to pay for their salaries.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So there is a certain survival mode that most of these groups experience, which makes it very hard to commit to the types of studies that the scientists and the world would like to see, that require staff for multiple years, and so on.
Michael Pollan: And most of that money is for drug abuse studies, from NIDA, National Institute of Drug Abuse. And NIDA money is supporting Roland’s lab.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So there are studies that I’m aware of that have sort of yet to be funded, related to it, whether that’s opiates/opioid addiction, or Alzheimer’s disease, as you mentioned, which would also track their cognitive parameters and so on. If someone in the audience is interested in trying to facilitate this type of research, better understanding of these compounds, that then lead to better understanding of the mind, including the pathologies, how would you think about selecting the higher-leverage places to invest your own time or money?
Michael Pollan: Well, if I had endless resources and felt — as a journalist, I can’t contribute to this without creating all sorts of ethical quandaries for the publications I write for. But I would consider it a very good, highly leveraged investment to give money to one of the labs doing this research, whether it was Roland Griffiths, or the UCSF work, which I think is really exciting, Josh Woolley’s work, or NYU. These are relatively small investments that have the potential to have a tremendous payoff for society. And I think that you will see more kind of charitable organizations of various kinds, grant making organizations, doing this.
I also think, though, there’s the pure science piece, which is really interesting. I interviewed, in the book, Alison Gopnik, this psychologist who’s a colleague of mine at Berkeley, a child psychologist, and she has a fascinating — she studies the mind of a child, which she thinks is an altered state of consciousness. And she said, “If you ever want to experience an expanded consciousness, just have tea with a four-year-old.” And she really believes that kids are tripping all the time, up to about four or five. And in a very specific sense, that they take in information in this global way that we don’t. We have something she calls spotlight consciousness.
Tim Ferriss: Or the reducing valve?
Michael Pollan: Or the reducing, exactly, it’s the same metaphor. And it’s also ego-driven consciousness. It’s very pointed. We can block everything out. But kids have lantern consciousness. They’re taking in information from all different sides. That’s why you can’t keep them on task. But they’re doing something really important, which is exploring their environment and mastering it in a way that we, as adults, cannot at a certain point. It’s like learning a language after you’re 10. It just gets much harder.
Michael Pollan: So she’s kind of got a very interesting model that you could use psychedelics to restore some of the qualities of children’s consciousness, the kind of creativity, the kind of problem-solving that kids actually do better. We talked about the mask experiment, predictive coding. Kids don’t have all those models in their head telling them what’s likely to work, or what’s likely is happening. So they’re taking in all that sensory information, and they’re more creative as a result. Well, could you put us back in that head?
So there are pure science experiments that I know she would love to do that need to be funded, also. And I think there’s a real potential to learn important things about consciousness. Basically, one of the ways you learn about any complex system is disturb it, and we now have this amazing tool for disturbing everyday, normal consciousness, and studying the results. So I would love to see that happen, too. And that’s academic research. And I hope that there will be centers for psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins, perhaps at UCSF, where this work could be done, because I think the payoff could be tremendous.
Tim Ferriss: So I know you can’t contribute to many of these things, for all the reasons you outlined. I can, so if anybody is interested in helping to build centers at these universities, reach out to me. And just to give some concrete examples of how a very little can go a long way, you mentioned Josh Woolley, Brian Anderson, UCSF, they’re looking at long-term — or, I should say, treating long-term demoralization in AIDS survivors. And they’re doing some things that are very innovative in a research setting, like group integration, which could transcend that study to apply to a lot of other things. And to get that off the ground, I was involved with that, it was a meaningful contribution to commit $10-25k.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That is enough rocket fuel, along with a few other people, to get it off the ground as a pilot study. So this is really, it could have significant implications, and open the door for lots of other studies with larger amounts of money later.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And if you’re looking for the larger, let’s say more involved, longitudinal studies with — we were just talking about this at lunch — say, opiate addiction, my best friend growing up had a fentanyl overdose. My aunt died of a Percocet-alcohol combination a number of months ago. This is the scale of this problem, and the suffering —
Michael Pollan: 70,000 people last year died of opiate —
Tim Ferriss: Which is comparable to what?
Michael Pollan: Well, 50,000 people died in the entire Vietnam war, just to give you an idea. It’s mind boggling.
Tim Ferriss: So to begin to chip away at that in a leveraged way, then you’re talking about millions. But it’s not $100 million. It’s like, $2-4 million. So in any case, this is a place where you could really potentially bend the arc of history, not necessarily only financially. One thing I’ve wondered is, if there are ways to sort of galvanize the space to get more researchers involved, because 20 years ago, this was career suicide, or at least viewed as a dead end. It’s ceasing to be labeled as such, but nonetheless, it’s hard to get, say, a guaranteed salary for many, many years if you want to make psychedelics your focus.
So offering, say, fellowships. If anybody is listening who may want to sort of galvanize for even lower dollar amounts, $50,000, $100,000, there are probably ways to do that. Or if you’re a researcher that could actually look into spending more time on this, because as you pointed out, phase three trials on MDMA — which we could debate whether or not that is a psychedelic; for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it a psychedelic — is already in phase three for PTSD.
And for people who are interested in seeing what that looks like in practice, I also want to mention, actually two documentaries, before I forget. The first shows actual therapy sessions that are MDMA psychotherapy sessions for PTSD, and it’s called Trip of Compassion, and I ended up just helping filmmakers who are based in Israel to launch this digitally, literally yesterday. So it’s now available for people who want to watch that. I don’t make a cent. I’m doing this all pro bono.
Fantastic Fungi, which should be coming out shortly, in which you make a cameo, covers a lot of the, not only the incredibly complexity and beauty and mystery of fungi and mycelium, but also the work done at places like —
Michael Pollan: Johns Hopkins.
Tim Ferriss: Johns Hopkins and NYU. So if you want to really have a visceral response to seeing what this can do, and to see cancer patients with terminal diagnoses, and hear their stories, these two documentaries are really, really worth the time.
For people who are curious about learning more, you mentioned, of course, your book, as I stated at the very beginning, How to Change Your Mind, I’ve gifted to literally hundreds of people. And that, I think, is a tremendous resource for a historical overview, and a scientific primer, along with your personal stories. And I think walking that, sort of threading that into a narrative, is extremely difficult, so I want to applaud you again for putting the book together.
What other resources would you encourage people to perhaps take a look at?
Michael Pollan: Well, I do think there’s great value in looking at some of these documentaries that are out and coming out, just to hear the voices of the people whose lives have been transformed. The people who are really in trouble. And so I found looking at those accounts, reading those accounts when I had the opportunity, because all the patients, all the volunteers write up a narrative of their experience. That was just something.
I think, as I mentioned earlier, Robin Carhart-Harris, if you’re interested in the neuroscience piece, that’s where I would look, is some of his papers, which are quite striking. He’s the rare scientist in that he’s doing therapeutic work, clinical work, he’s doing theoretical work, and he’s doing brain imaging. And it’s very rare you get one scientist doing all those things.
Another place to contribute, though, is MAPS. They’re focused on MDMA work right now, but they have — Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, has really driven this renaissance, and he deserves a lot of credit. In 1985, when he was graduating from college, he wanted to be a psychedelic therapist, and he said, “I’ve got to change the laws in this country in order to be a psychedelic therapist.” And he’s been knocking his head against this wall since 1985, and it’s finally yielding, and it’s an amazing story. They need money, too, to conduct this MDMA work.
And there’s another nonprofit called The Heffter Institute that’s funding a lot of the more speculative psilocybin work, and that’s also worth looking at.
God. Other things to read? One of the experiences I had working on this book was, “Wow, I have all this space to myself. Why isn’t anyone — why aren’t there 20 books on this topic?” I didn’t understand it. There’s a good book on MDMA therapy called, for some stupid reason, Acid Test, because it has nothing to do with LSD, but it’s a very good book by a man named Tom Shroder, a Washington Post reporter. So if you’re interested in the trauma, MDMA side, that’s the book.
Tim Ferriss: It covers a lot of work with veterans, as well.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. It’s really good. And there will be more. There’s going to be a lot more.
Tim Ferriss: If you were trying to give guidelines to people who are going to ask, and I’m sure have asked you, how do I find a guide? Which is a tricky question to answer. I mean, which is also tricky for me to answer. I get asked this constantly. One of the recommendations I have made is, read some of the books that MAPS.org publishes, like The Secret Chief, about Leo Zeff, who is a stellar guide. Or, I think it’s Healing Journey, or The Healing Journey by Claudio Naranjo from Chile, so that you understand what a good guide looks like. And then, you at least have some litmus test by which you can discard the people who don’t qualify.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. I would add to that James Fadiman book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, which actually has very good advice for people who want to guide, or are shopping for a guide. He’s a psychologist who was very involved in the research in the ’60s and ’70s. And the code of conduct for guides is reprinted in that, and he has a lot of instructions, so that’s useful.
Look, it’s — one of the most striking things, and we were talking at lunch, what is it like being the psychedelic guy after having been the food guy? And I have to say, the food guy was a lot easier. They sent over a nice extra dessert when you went to a good restaurant sometimes, and there were perks like that. Here, it is an unrelenting stream of emails, phone calls, and letters from people who are really suffering. Who have a suicidal son, or an alcoholic mother, who are really at the end of their rope, and they think that this holds out hope. Perhaps the last hope in many cases, for people with cancer.
And I haven’t been able to make any referrals. I mean, it just, it wouldn’t be smart. Especially for the guides themselves, because if I introduce somebody to a guide, they’re assuming this person is vetted, but of course, the person isn’t vetted. At some point, law enforcement may decide to bring down a guide to set an example, so I can’t do that.
But a practical strategy is: go find a ketamine therapist. And there are legal ketamine clinics, now, all over the country. And if the ketamine therapist doesn’t think you are right for ketamine, that actually have trauma, not depression, or you have addiction, not depression, they’re often in a position to make a referral. There’s some overlap in those communities. So that’s my inside tip.
But it’s just too big a responsibility to introduce someone to an underground therapist. Things can go wrong. It is underground. And so you have to be very careful. And interview whoever. If you’re actually doing this, interview several. It’s like choosing a shrink. You’ll know when someone has the right head for you, and you have a bond with. And if you have any doubts, stay away.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. When in doubt, decline.
Michael Pollan: And you can volunteer for these aboveground trials, by the way. There are waiting lists at all these places, and if you go on the website at Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffiths’ lab, or NYU, they’re listing what they’re studying, or about to study, and maybe you’ll get lucky and there’s a big, healthy, normal study.
Tim Ferriss: Which does happen, actually. I have a few friends who have become subjects, sometimes for compounds that are not as friendly as psilocybin. In any case, this has been a wide-ranging and very fun conversation for me. I’m personally very fascinated and dedicated to this space, because I’ve received a lot of the letters that you’ve received, thematically. I have friends say, in law enforcement and military, or even, say, who are commercial pilots, who say, “I am not allowed to have mental illness.”
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And they are depressed, or they’re suicidal, and they do not want to run through insurance, and they feel trapped. So systemically, there’s things that need to change, and I think that you are part of changing the national conversation, as you mentioned, just as one example, by the types of organizations that are now inviting you to speak. And for that, I thank you. Do you have any closing comments, requests, asks, anything of the audience, before we wrap up?
Michael Pollan: I mostly want to thank you. It’s a pleasure to have a conversation with someone who knows as much about this as I do. You’re really in deep, and I applaud you, and you’re making a positive contribution to this work.
I guess I would say to the audience, please pay attention, follow this research, support it if you can. And if you decide to have an experience, safe travels.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Michael Pollan. Thank you, everybody.
Michael Pollan: Thanks so much.
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