Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Dennis McKenna (@DennisMcKenna4). Dennis has spent more than 40 years researching the interdisciplinary study of Amazonian ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens. He has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon. His doctoral research at the University of British Columbia focused on the ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon.
Dennis is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute, and in 2019, he incorporated a nonprofit, the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy. Dennis emigrated to Canada in the spring of 2019 with his wife Sheila and now resides in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is a fan favorite, Dennis McKenna. You can find him on Twitter @dennismckenna4. Dennis has spent more than 40 years researching the interdisciplinary study of Amazonian ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens. He has conducted extensive ethnobotanical field work in the Peruvian, Columbian, and Brazilian Amazon.
His doctoral research at the University of British Columbia focused on the ethnopharmacology of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, two tryptamine-based hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon. He is a founding board member of the Heffter Research Institute, which has helped fund and directly funded a lot of very good science. He was a key organizer and participant in the Hoasca Project, the first biomedical investigation of ayahuasca used by the UDV, a Brazilian religious group. He is the younger brother of Terence McKenna.
From 2000 to 2017 he taught courses on ethnopharmacology, as well as plants in human affairs, at the center for spirituality and healing at the University of Minnesota. In 2019, in collaboration with colleagues, he incorporated a nonprofit, the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy. Currently the academy has several projects underway, with the most immediate being preparations for an upcoming conference in the UK, May 23rd to 26th, that’s 2022, ESPD 55. We’re going to talk a lot about this, which will cover a wide range of topics related to psycho ethnopharmacology.
Dennis emigrated to Canada in the spring of 2019 with his wife Sheila, and now resides in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The website for the event that I just mentioned, it’s ESPD55.com. Dennis, welcome back to the show. It’s so nice to see you again.
Dennis McKenna: Thanks, Tim. It’s really great to be here. Thank you for welcoming me back.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. And I want to mention to folks right up front that the first episode covered a lot of ground. I’m going to try not to duplicate too much. The title of the last episode, for people who want to check it out, is “Dennis McKenna — The Depths of Ayahuasca: 500+ Sessions, Fundamentals, Advanced Topics, Science, Churches, Learnings, Warnings, and Beyond.” So you get the idea. If you want to do a deep dive on, not just ayahuasca, but certainly a lot of your biographical details and more, listen to the first episode.
I’m going to try to deliver on the promise that I made at the end of the first episode, which was a teaser to a second conversation, which now we are in the very beginning of, during which I said we might get into, “The really strange and weird stuff.” So I’m going to make an attempt to incorporate some strange and weird stuff. I don’t think it’ll be very hard.
And I thought we could start with a number of excerpts, highlights that I grabbed from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, which chronicles many of your life experiences, adventures, and misadventures alongside your brother and the many other people in your life. And I’m just going to pull out a section here. And you can feel free to revise, or update, or now refute anything that I bring up, but here’s the line.
“They were an excellent complement to the cannabis…” we don’t have to get into all the context before this, “…which we smoked constantly, along with the occasional hit derived from shavings taken from our fresh supply of Banisteriopsis caapi, the vine added to ayahuasca as a source of MAO-inhibiting compounds.” That’s monoamine oxidase-inhibiting compounds.
Here’s the part I wanted to hear you expand on a bit. “We found that smoking the bark while on mushrooms synergized the closed-eye hallucinations in a most pleasant and intriguing way. We dubbed this serendipitous discovery ‘vegetable television.'”
So could you speak a bit more, please, about the effect of adding the smoking of the bark to mushrooms, and what that experience was or is like?
Dennis McKenna: It was pretty much an accidental discovery, as so many of these things are, but this is a good example of what happens, basically when you start mucking around with plants and doing stuff that may be not entirely safe but you had to experiment. It was just we stumbled on it. We were taking a lot of mushrooms, and that’s a whole other story that may or may not get into, but we were in a situation in the Amazon when we were doing mushrooms pretty much constantly. And when you’re doing them constantly, you get a certain tolerance built up and then you have to do larger doses to get any effect.
And we were, as it says there, we were smoking cannabis pretty much constantly through this too. So we decided to just, well, what would happen if we smoked some banisteriopsis shavings on the mushrooms? And it had this amazing effect which anybody can replicate, and I don’t think it’s particularly dangerous. But we found that we could take a hit and then we would get this efflorescence of visions that would just gently rise and last two or three minutes, and then just fade away. And then you could take another hit and you could repeat that. It was like going up and down in a balloon. You could lose some ballast and go a little higher or you could come down. It was very pleasant, actually. It was very nice.
If you look at the whole history of ethnopharmacology, for example, the ayahuasca — we think of ayahuasca as being essentially a mixture of two plants. But that’s very much a simplification of what ayahuasca is. There’s a whole pharmacopeia of plants that — this galaxy of plants that is associated with ayahuasca. Not always taken with it, sometimes taken as admixture, sometimes taken as components of this dieta, which is very important in the ayahuasca tradition. The training of the curanderos and so on.
And a lot of these plants are not very well investigated from a scientific point of view, but it’s an empirical science. And the point is in some ways these practitioners, shamans, curanderos, they’re really scientists in a certain sense. They’re experimental about it and they don’t hesitate to say, “Well, what if I take this and mix it with that? What’s going to happen? How is that going to change the effect?” Sometimes they really regret — those that survive this process make discoveries, but there is the potential to take the wrong things.
People may think that ayahuasca has been pretty much figured out in terms of botany, chemistry, pharmacology, and so on but that’s not the case. There’s a lot more to be learned about ayahuasca. There’s numerous PhDs left to be done. And, particularly, these admixture plants are interesting because some of them are psychedelic by themselves or regarded to be, but they may be used with ayahuasca. So this accumulated knowledge that exists in this folk traditions, if you will, is not explored, or certainly not codified. And it’s ever changing. That’s why there is no such thing as a standardized mixture of ayahuasca because each preparation is as different as the practitioners that prepare it. It has their idiosyncratic stamp on it.
Tim Ferriss: I want to underscore a few things that you said, and then raise some additional questions. So first, I just want to reinforce how trial and error over hundreds or thousands of years can produce some very refined approaches to solving different problems. And I think that this is well represented in areas that are perhaps a little more objectively accessible by most markers than say psychedelics.
If you look at poisons used in the Amazon, and I’ve certainly learned a lot about this from our mutual friend Mark Plotkin, who is an impressive fellow in his own right and has spent a lot of time in Suriname and other places. But if you look at curare, for a very long time, for instance, western scientists who later would take that and use it as the basis for a lot of modern anesthesia saw that various species of pepper, wild pepper, were being added as admixtures to this poison. And they, after failing to do any type of assay that produced meaningful results, concluded that it was just primitive superstition.
And that was the conclusion for a long time until it was identified that, I believe it’s bioperine, in these constituent molecules found in pepper can actually increase the bioavailability of these poisons, such that they’re faster acting. And if you’re shooting a monkey in the canopy, the last thing you want is for that tail to wrap around a branch when it dies so that it doesn’t fall to the floor. And so, lo and behold, it turned out that, yes, there is a very practical purpose for the inclusion of this admixture.
And I’m sure there are some false leads, and there are things that remain that won’t be proven out in that same way. But I think there’s an argument to be made that, as you said, a lot of PhDs are yet to be earned looking at these admixtures. And just to provide a bit of context on the dieta, and please feel free to jump in and add or refute anything that I say, the dieta in many different tribes in many different contexts is the ingestion, in some cases the application, of plants that an individual is attempting to better understand or adopt and integrate as an ally. And the ayahuasca is viewed as a master plant or a teacher plant. Effectively, in some capacity, a vehicle for getting to understand and know these plants.
So over a period of time, and sometimes it’s done in a fasting context, other times it’s a very bland diet, these plants may be not ingested at the same time as ayahuasca but alternated. Say one day on, one day off, or otherwise. And then in certain cases, as you were mentioning, there are these psychedelics like toé that are brewed with ayahuasca, which can be pretty dicey in some cases.
I want to ask you about another paragraph and that’ll lead into my question. So here’s the paragraph. “In the next two or three sessions at Don Fidel’s, I experienced the same sub-threshold effects. It couldn’t have been poor-quality brew; others in the group, including Don, were clearly affected. It was something wrong with me. For some reason, I wasn’t ‘getting’ it.” In quotation marks. “Reflecting on those first experiences, I think that ayahuasca is in ways a learned experience. If you don’t know what to expect, nothing may happen. Also, my uptight hyper-vigilance may have prevented me from relaxing enough to allow the experience to manifest.”
So this paragraph highlights one brand of a null experience that I find most mystifying about psychedelics. Because I have also had experiences and many others have where they will — one out of 10, one out of 15, one out of every 20 sessions have absolutely no effect. Even from mega doses of ayahuasca. And, presumably, your serotonin type 2A receptors aren’t just out to lunch for that period of time, and so it begets all sorts of questions.
So could you speak to ayahuasca as a learned experience and also comment on, if you have any thoughts, these zero effect experiences. Because in each case I can come up with a plausible explanation for why, if it were possible, for my psyche to negate an experience, it would have negated those experiences in those settings. But it’s hard for me to make heads or tails out of.
Dennis McKenna: It’s very hard to do any controlled study on this. You can’t do that. I think what this speaks to is that ayahuasca, or any psychoactive drug, not just psychedelics, but it happens in psychedelics, is — the experience is a combination, of pharmacology, pharmacogenetics, the way that your unique body, we’re all biochemically unique, and the way your body handles the absorption and the elimination of the substance, and the circumstances. Set and setting. This dynamic of the environment that we harp on constantly is the importance of set and setting.
I forget who it was, I think maybe it was Andy Weil who once made the observation, psychedelics are a kind of placebo in a certain way. And if you take them under the wrong circumstances, or inappropriate circumstances, you’re not going to get any effect because it doesn’t sync with the expectations that you may have or other things. And it just won’t happen. You have to surrender to it. You literally have to surrender to it to let it happen.
But I think that this whole area of how the pharmacology and the expectations interact, it’s a dynamic process that involves the medicine, your expectations, the dose, and your biochemical individuality and all that. It’s interesting.
For example, there are some people — most of us, for example, smoke DMT and we’re blown away. DMT is hard to ignore if you smoke it. It’s profound, very quick, but very intense experience. There are people who experience nothing, which is rather strange. So what’s that about? And without looking into — well, okay, so what’s unique about their serotonin pharmacology? Maybe these people are genetic knockouts, natural genetic knockouts. Maybe they don’t have high levels of 5-HT2A receptors. Or maybe their MAO is super active or super high.
But the problem, Tim, with studying this stuff is it all comes down to these are case studies. So you can’t do a controlled experiment, really. You can’t do a group and really study this effectively. It’s all about, well, there’s this one individual that no matter how much he takes, he or she takes DMT, he’s insensitive to it.I heard a case of someone who, for example, was insensitive to DMT but very sensitive to 5-methoxy-DMT. Why would this be? It’s just a mystery.
Tim Ferriss: What also just produces more questions than answers, certainly for me, is when you look longitudinally at the experience of a single person. So their pharmacogenetics should be reasonably stable, you would think. And let’s just say, in my case, where I’m extremely sensitive to ayahuasca, generally speaking. And then in a handful of cases, I have two or three cups and absolutely zero discernible effect.
And I have my own subjective explanation for why that plausibly could have happened. But, biochemically, I don’t know how that is possible. Because my expectation was that I would feel the effect. And, similarly, there are cases where even if we remove the expectancy effect, there are certainly cases of people being dosed, let’s just say, with LSD and any number of incarnations and they end up tripping their faces off, even though they hadn’t planned on spending the rest of their evening in the 17th dimension.
I should also add just a quick note related to the smoking of the Banisteriopsis caapi bark with mushrooms, I’ve never experienced that. I find that actually incredibly — I’m not recommending it. For all of the drug disclaimers and everything else, please revisit episode one. But I will say everything we’re discussing, or a lot of what we’re discussing can go terribly sideways even if you are highly experienced. So we’re not recommending you do any of these things. Talk to your medical professional, et cetera, et cetera.
However, all of that having been said, I find what you did more interesting than, say, what someone did who I may or may not know, which is ingesting harmine, or harmaline, or tetrahydroharmine, orally in combination with ground Psilocybe mushrooms. Where you hit the tennis ball, or you hit the golf ball more accurately, and you can’t un-hit it. And in that case, just for people wondering, the multiplier effect on the subjective experience of mushrooms is about a three to four X. So if you were to take 1.5 grams of mushrooms and combine it with the MAO inhibitors in this way, the subjective feeling is the intensity of 4.5, let’s just say, grams. So you want to be aware of that.
But the smoking is super interesting because you can titrate that additive effect up or down. Which is the same reason why I found some of my experiences with intravenous ketamine very interesting versus intramuscular, for instance, because in real time you can dial up or down the intensity assuming you haven’t pushed yourself through the looking glass with a huge bolus in the very beginning. In that case, forget about it. All bets are off.
But if you’re starting at a dose and a drip on a per — this kind of milligrams per kilogram basis over 60 minutes, that you can manage a conversation with, then you can dial it up and down, which is extremely interesting because you’re able to better observe the effects at least.
Dennis McKenna: Like you say, all the caveats about being careful with anything like this, anything you’re doing, I think that one should be careful. One thing about the mushroom smoked banisteriopsis thing is that it does seem very gentle, very easy to control. Again, your results may vary. Your mileage may vary. Everybody’s different. If you’re super sensitive —
I’ve always been a little puzzled why people would want to combine beta-carbolines with mushrooms because they don’t require it. They’re orally active. That’s what sets them aside. That’s what sets psilocybin aside, apart from DMT. It does not require activation by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor.
And I’m a person that tends to think, “Avoid combinations if possible,” because every drug you add into the mix complicates the pharmacokinetic picture. And everything else potentially makes it a little more hazardous. So to the people that say, “Well, I can take a gram and a half of mushrooms and potentiate it with peganum harmala and get a much higher effect.” My question is, well why not take four grams of mushrooms and let it go with that?
Tim Ferriss: That is a much more straightforward approach.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, you’ll get to the same place. But this idea about titrating dose is interesting. That’s another approach to DMT that you can take that’s interesting, which I haven’t worked with it that much. But vaping DMT in a volcano vaporizer, I’ve had some of the most profound experiences with DMT that way because you don’t have to mess around with the pipe. You just get the bag full of smoke, and then you can deal with it.
If you put under your tongue, sublingually, a little bit of banisteriopsis tincture 10 minutes before you do this, then you can smoke the vapor in DMT and, again, you get this ability to just gently rise up into the place and you can maintain that for a while. And then you can drift back down, and then you can take another hit, and you can go back up there. But you feel this sense of — it’s very much less threatening. You don’t feel this sense of being out of control. And you just take three huge hits of DMT.
It’s like, okay, we’re jumping off a cliff here. Open the umbrella, hope for the best. But this is a much more controllable way to approach it. And if it gets scary, well, you just let yourself down gently and come in for a gentle landing. And if not, you can go to 28,000 feet or 50,000 feet or all the way into orbit if you want. If there’s a point to this wrap, route and dosage and the way that you approach that, that’s part of the dynamic of this set and setting. Drug, individual, setting, and dose. And that includes route of administration.
Tim Ferriss: I have, not surprisingly, a whole slew of questions that I’d like to ask. I’m trying to sequence them so we can, in some rational way, which I think some could engender just a whole new branch of the conversation.
Let me start with one that I’ve heard you discuss on some capacity before but I can’t remember the answer and I just love your help. We’re probably going to get into like phylogenetic trees and all sorts of stuff but I heard someone talking, not too long ago, and they said something along the lines of, “Well, if you look at the fact that we have cannabinoid receptors in our brain, why else would we have those if it weren’t for the fact that we’re designed to consume cannabis?” Something along those lines. I think the logic was something like that.
How would you explain the prevalence or existence of receptors for these various types of molecules? I mean, we could use, is it cannabinoids? Is that how you say that correctly?
Dennis McKenna: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Not sure if I was pronouncing it correctly. What would your response to that be? If you’re sitting at a dinner table and someone brought that up, where would you take it?
Dennis McKenna: I think it’s not that complicated, actually. The fact is, we have cannabinoid receptors in our brains. We actually have cannabinoids in our brains. We have these prostaglandin like compounds called anandamides, and other types of things. These serve effectively. They’re our brains’ own cannabinoids.
Similarly, you see this with opiates. Opiate receptors in our brain bind to these opiate peptides, like endorphin and dynorphins and those sorts of things. They just happen to bind to the alkaloids from opium and have that effect.
Similarly, with serotonin receptors or dopamine receptors, all of these have their own endogenous, the term is an endogenous ligands. Obviously, for serotonin receptors, their serotonin is the endogenous ligand but interesting new findings, Tim, showed formally there was a lot of, there was excitement. There still is excitement about endogenous DMT. It’s all related to the pineal gland and that sort of thing.
Not so much, the current understanding is that the pineal is not so important but DMT occurs in the brain, in certain parts of the brain, in rather high amounts in the frontal cortex. This hasn’t really been discussed or studied as much as it should. My friend John Chavez has gotten into this and rather deeply.
DMT is an endogenous ligand and DMT is a very simple molecule. It’s only two steps from tryptophan, which is in everything. This is one reason why you find DMT in plants, animals, fungi. I sometimes in my lectures say, “Nature is drenched in DMT.” It’s not uncommon at all. How did this come about? Well, it came about because these neurotransmitter-like compounds found in the brain are also found in plants and fungi and they have similar evolutionary origins, basically.
At some point, the fungi, the animals, and the plants split off from each other. There’s this concept of the LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor, which was, nobody knows what it was, but we know that it had to have existed. Probably, it already had the genetic machinery to make these neurotransmitter-like compounds. Just like neurotransmitters in the brain, what they do is they facilitate signaling. They’re signal transduction molecules.
But plants and fungi and everything else use very similar molecules. Sometimes the same molecules for signal transduction processes in the ecosystem. Plants modulate their relationship with other organisms in the environment through signal transduction. These messenger molecules, the plants make these sort of, they’re called secondary compounds.
That implies they’re not important. They’re absolutely important but what they do, plants substitute biosynthesis for behavior, right? Plants modulate, optimize their relationship with everything in the environment because they can’t respond. They can’t run away, right? They’re stuck in one place, so they do it through chemistry.
Sometimes, this is my usual rap but sometimes the message is very simple. Stay away. Get away from me. I’m poisonous. You don’t want to muck with me. Other times, the message is come closer. Let’s symbiose. Let’s form relationships. All of this is mediated by the signal transduction processes, which is a special kind of signaling process in organisms that involves a receptor and a molecule that comes from somewhere outside or some other part of the brain and actually binds into that receptor. It’s a physical molecular interaction, that’s what I mean by signal transduction, as opposed to say, electrical nervous transmission, which also takes place.
That’s the myst — it’s not really a mystery. We evolved from the same origins, not surprising that our brains have neurotransmitter-like compounds that resemble those we find in nature. The interesting thing is something like psilocybin is a good example. Psilocybin has phylogenetically, we’re pretty sure that psilocybin has been around for at least 75 million years. The higher mushrooms, the basidiomycetes are very old, long before there were animal nervous systems for them to interact with. But then animals did evolve, and it turns out they have interesting effects with psilocybin.
What was psilocybin doing in nature before them? Well, probably insects. It had to do with insects that it was either an attractant or a repellent, more likely an attractant. There are some interest — we could go down that rabbit hole.
Tim Ferriss: Like going to the bar for the local insects.
Dennis McKenna: Right. Yes, effectively, yes. You’ve heard of the psilocybin cicada story, right?
Tim Ferriss: No. I have not.
Dennis McKenna: Oh, well.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, I missed the psilocybin cicadas story. Sounds like a punk band.
Dennis McKenna: It does really. Well, I don’t know if you want to go into it.
Tim Ferriss: I do. Yeah. Of course, I do. Are you kidding?
Dennis McKenna: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dennis McKenna: Very interesting study came out a few years ago. Cicadas are those things that spend like 17 years underground, and then they come out every 17 years, or different species come out at different times, and so on. Well, it turns out, I mean, I should be able to quote more detail but if you Google this, it’ll all come up.
Cicada, there’s a fungus, which is not a Psilocybe. It’s called Massospora, is the fungus, but it makes psilocybin and it makes cathinone, which is a stimulant compound that’s found in khat. Massaspora infects these cicadas while they’re in the ground and they take it over and when they emerge out of the ground, essentially, their abdomen has been replaced by fungal sporangia.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Dennis McKenna: This kind of a grisly tale. They emerge out of the ground and instead of having a butt basically, their tail is replaced by these massive spore masses. They’re hypersexual. They try to mate with anything that moves or even that doesn’t move. They’re waving around their butts and spreading spores everywhere, infecting more cicadas, and this is how the fungus affects their, effectively the fungus has taken over the cicada and enslaved it into a — turns them into sex-crazed zombies, if you want to put it that way —
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Dennis McKenna: — and facilities —
Tim Ferriss: Also a good punk rock band.
Dennis McKenna: Sex-crazed zombie, yes.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God.
Dennis McKenna: This is actually known in mycology. There’s another group of fungi called the Cordyceps. You’ve heard of Cordyceps?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Cordyceps. I have.
Dennis McKenna: Same thing. I mean, they don’t use psilocybin but they use, they infect something like an ant or caterpillar or many, many kinds of insects, many kinds of species of Cordyceps and they effectively will take over the insect’s brain and direct its behavior. For example, in ants, there are certain kinds of ants, the fungus will infect the ant, doesn’t kill it, but it causes it to climb up a blade of grass to the optimal position for spore dispersal, then it kills it.
Then, it will explode out of its head with sporangia and the spores will spread, fall to the ground, infect more ants. Effectively, these Cordyceps are taking over the behavior of the ants. Maybe psilocybin is doing something like that to us, except they don’t have to infect our brain. We happen to like it, so we consume it.
We’re serving the Psilocybe’s evil agenda, which isn’t so evil. It basically wants to reproduce and spread.
Tim Ferriss: Nature has some crazy sideshows out there.
Dennis McKenna: Crazy shit. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Crazy shit. I pulled up, I just searched cicada, psilocybin and the first thing that pops up is an article and the headline is, “These Fungi Drug Cicadas with Psilocybin or Amphetamine to Make Them Mate Nonstop — The Insects Keep At It Even If Chunks of Their Abdomens Fall Off.” The fungus is apparently Massospora cicadina, I think it is. I’m probably mispronouncing that.
Dennis McKenna: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: But there are also cases, mammalian cases, I can’t recall the exact disease, I should actually be able to recall this, but it causes rodents to become suicidal in the sense that they become aggressive towards cats —
Dennis McKenna: Yes. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — and effectively bait them, and then the cats eat the rats or the mice and they contract this disease, which then has effects on cats. I mean, it just goes on and on and on. Nature’s got a lot going on.
Dennis McKenna: It’s got a lot going on. From a standpoint of like human ethics, this seems bizarre and crazy, actually, evil, but it’s not. It’s just this is nature, nature in action, and things try to optimize their survival strategies and for fungi, spreading and sporulating and all that, that’s all they really want to do. That’s what they want to do.
If you want to attribute a desire to them, they’re optimized for reproduction and they’ll do anything. They don’t care if they have to take over primates and control — look at how psilocybin’s symbiosis, psilocybin symbiosis with humans has been beneficial for us —
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Dennis McKenna: — for them and for the mushrooms because everybody’s growing them. They’re growing them all over the place. That’s true of many plants and fungi, if you domesticate something, generally, if humans domesticate a plant or a fungus, that’s like going on easy street for the organism because we’re here to take care of it until we blow up the planet completely, entirely, but until then, they have a pretty good free ride.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you a question about a comment that you made in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss about LSD as a potential treatment for dyslexia. And I don’t have all the context, but I pulled this out and this is going to lead to a broader question about perhaps unusual or unexpected applications or indications for psychedelics.
But this section here reads, “It did lead me to speculate about the use of LSD as a potential treatment for dyslexia. We have a limited understanding of neuroplasticity, to say nothing of how psychedelics might affect it. That man’s anecdote…” So, of course, I’ve omitted an anecdote, “…hints at the curious link between psychedelics and language, as do the more prevalent accounts of synesthesia I’ve discussed earlier.”
And then I’ll actually read one more sentence: “Psychedelics have some fundamental relationship to the way our brains create meaning and understanding out of sounds and images, convinced that further investigations into this phenomenon would yield new insights.”
Could you expand on that? Because I would agree certainly with the assertion of this fundamental relationship. Any thoughts on LSD specifically as perhaps a tool for addressing dyslexia or psychedelics for any other indications that people might not guess?
Dennis McKenna: The connection to LSD and language, and I think even more so with mushrooms, because — you’re probably familiar with an essay, I think by Henry Munn, that was published in a book called — I think it was by Peter Furst called Hallucinogens and Culture. This was around 1970. There’s a wonderful chapter in there called “The Mushrooms of Language.” It’s by Henry Munn. And it makes the points — and, again, I talk about this in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, it makes the point that in this mushroomed state, poetry, the language becomes much more fluid. It just flows out of you. And that’s why these people can chant for hours. And they’re actually instantiating — the mushroom is speaking through them. This gnosis. Literally, the logos is the word. The pure logos actually flows through them.
And then there’s the phenomenon of synesthesia, which psychedelics, especially mushrooms, can reliably do. And you know I’ve — the association with meaningful images with sound. Some people are naturally, genetically synesthetic and it’s very interesting how their synesthetic experiences often have to do with words and numbers and things like that. And they’ll say things like, “Well, the number 13 is chrome-shaped and spiky. Shiny and spiky.” What? But for them, that’s a reality.
And I’ve argued that mushrooms — well, I have, Terence have, lots of people have, that mushrooms were important in the origin of consciousness. And I think that it is this connection to language that — what we understand as true consciousness depends on this construction of this worldview, essentially, and that’s built on language. This artificial reality that we construct for ourselves that’s a combination of sensory input that is filtered and processed in a certain way, and either linked to associations, memories, all of that kind of thing. So we build this, what the neuroscientists now call, the default mode network which is kind of ordinary consciousness. Our ordinary state of consciousness.
Long before I heard of default mode network, I was calling it the reality hallucination. Effectively, we live in a hallucination. We live in an artificial world reality that our brains construct. And it must reflect whatever’s out there, because we’re not wandering around stepping in front of buses and things like that. So it does map to reality in some ways, but it’s actually an impoverished version of reality. A lot of what the brain does is filter things out.
And Huxley had this insight, he talked about the reducing valve. That to make the world comprehensible, you have to selectively filter what gets in. You inhabit this filtered — you could almost use the word curated — version of reality. Otherwise, it would just be a blooming, buzzing confusion you wouldn’t be able to navigate. And then you can take a psychedelic. You can disable those mechanisms. You can disable this default mode mechanism, open the gates of the reducing valve, and that can be very beneficial in terms of helping you get outside of your reference frame.
And that’s very useful. I think that that’s what psychedelics, I think that’s where the therapeutic effect really, for many of the things it’s indicated for, it’s this ability to step outside your reference frame temporarily and look at your situation from a different perspective. But you wouldn’t want to be there all the time, because you wouldn’t be functional. That’s, again, why you have to be very selective about your set and setting.
It’s a complex topic because I think it does relate to the way that we link images, essentially. Internal images to sounds and meaning. Because I’m here rapping to you. And I’m making, effectively, small mouth noises, which are inherently meaningless except that we happen to share a language.
And so when I make these small mouth noises, chances are your brain is reflecting it in terms of images. I say, “Chair,” you see a chair. I say, “Star,” you see a star. It’s more complex than that, but I think that’s the basis of cognition, really. And if you look at culture, if you look at consciousness, it’s all based on this relationship between sound, image, and meaning, or what they sometimes called portentousness.
Tim Ferriss: And ascribed meaning. It’s a learned association that is not automatic. I think about this a lot with, say infants and language, and I’m sure there’s someone who could comment on this much more intelligently than I can. But when an infant, let’s say before they develop full depth perception and so on, if they were to look at what’s in front of me they wouldn’t see laptop, webcam, microphone, wood table, et cetera, a pile of papers, as discreet objects until they have, likely, at least not to that level of fidelity, until they have labels for those things.
Dennis McKenna: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: It might just be a flattened, two-dimensional sheet of colors and shapes and shadows. And I think about that quite a bit also, as you know, you mentioned in the last episode that you’ve done who knows how many sessions with ayahuasca. 500+, and it does seem that people develop, or some people develop, an ability to discern and see in those spaces in the same way that an infant develops the ability to discern between these discreet things that we have labels for as adults. If that makes any sense at all. I’m not sure if that resonates at all, but I do think about that a lot.
And I wanted to come back to something you said, which was adopting a new reference point and how that can be applied to many different, say conditions or issues. And in some ways a lot of the outcomes that we see, or even the case studies that we might see in the case of this person with the dyslexia, or Andy Weil with his allergies, defy conventional mechanistic explanations for how that could happen. As far as I know, LSD is not an antihistamine. So it raises all sorts of questions.
And I wanted to read — this is going to be the last section that I wanted to read to you. And I realize that The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss was written quite a while ago. So if this goes to a dead end, I’ll take the blame for it. But I pulled this out, which was a segment on Apollo 14. It says — this is another example of reference point changes.
“Apollo 14 is mostly remembered for the two golf balls that Alan Shepard hit with a makeshift club he’d brought with him. It was also the mission on which,” and this is the part that I bolded, “astronaut Edgar Mitchell…” I’m guessing that’s how that’s said, “…had his famous ‘savikalpa samadhi’ experience, or mystic glimpse beyond the self into the true nature of things. Mitchell subsequently became interested in consciousness research, paranormal phenomena such as ESP, and went on to become a founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences,” or IONS. What happened to Edgar? I don’t actually know this story.
Dennis McKenna: I think he had a mystical experience, basically.
Tim Ferriss: And this was in space while he was in orbit?
Dennis McKenna: In space. Or on the moon, whatever. But I think — we know these things happen spontaneously. I think, basically, he got so far out of his reference frame, and who wouldn’t be out of their reference frame if they’re on the moon or in space, and so he had a spontaneous mystical experience. We are all one with the cosmos and all that. Now if he had been on psychedelics at the same time, he might have really — but I think that’s what happens.
So that speaks to the idea that this ability to step literally outside your box, outside of this default mode network is probably at the center of the psychedelic experience, at least in terms of its therapeutic effect. It’s profundity, if you will, the mystical experience or however you want to describe that.
Roland Griffiths and his people, even though they were pioneers in looking at psilocybin and mystical experiences, but they really toned it down because they don’t want to alarm people. They don’t talk about mystical experiences anymore. They talk about personally meaningful experiences. Well, that’s nice. But they’re mystical experiences, damn it. They are experiences of transcendence, and it’s important, I think, to acknowledge that.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I agree. They did also develop the — I’m probably getting the terminology wrong, but the mystical experience questionnaire, which had the parameters and characteristics, which include ineffability and so on.
Dennis McKenna: And some people just get this naturally. For example, Albert Hofmann. Albert Hofmann had numerous, what you might call, quasi or actual mystical experiences in nature long before he took LSD.
Tim Ferriss: I did not know that.
Dennis McKenna: He was a person who was able to do this and it was very meaningful for him.
Tim Ferriss: For people who don’t have any context, Albert Hofmann, the first to synthesize LSD-25. Was that the —
Dennis McKenna: That was one that got him off. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: That was the one that was the one that he was called to take before he went on his bike ride?
Dennis McKenna: That’s right. There’s a wonderful book I should mention — you know I like to plug books others have written. You’ve probably read it, called Bicycle Day by Brian Blomerth.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard of it. I haven’t read it.
Dennis McKenna: It’s a graphic novel. It’s a graphic comic novel about his discovery of LSD. I wrote the foreward.
Tim Ferriss: Oh. Amazing.
Dennis McKenna: But it’s a great book. People should get it.
Tim Ferriss: Bicycle Day.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah. Bicycle Day.
Tim Ferriss: So Bicycle Day, we’ll link to that in the show notes. I also wanted to mention a book that is related to a word and a concept and an experience, a phenomena, or phenomenon, I guess, that — it’s really a set of phenomena, synesthesia. So there are two resources I want to recommend. The first is a book that I first bought in, I want to say late high school, called The Mind of a Mnemonist. So the mind of a — as in mnemonic device. The Mind of Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory, and it’s written by A.R. Luria. Or maybe it’s with a foreward by Jerome S. Bruner, written by A.R. Luria.
But it’s effectively a case study of a Rain Man-like figure who regularly experiences synesthesia. So this intermingling of the senses. So as you mentioned, identifying numbers as shapes, or smelling colors, having tastes associated with musical notes or sounds, things like this. Which can be either, and in some cases both, an enormous blessing or the most difficult curse if it is something that you can’t turn off. That’s one.
There’s also a, I want to say a documentary or it may have been a TV series called Brainman about a young Brit, at least at the time was young, who experiences, or claims to experience, synesthesia. As I understand it, also fairly controversial. Daniel Tammet is the figure in this one. But still makes for a fascinating watch. And I think it’s Kim Peek, the actual basis for Rain Man, who was also featured in that book who, believe it or not, can read two pages at the same time, one with each eye. So try that at home and see how far you get. But those are two points on synesthesia.
What I’d love to ask you about now is ESPD 55. So we should probably also provide some context. Maybe you could do this, what ESPD stands for and just a bit of the histories, for those who don’t have it and didn’t hear the first conversation. And then I would love to hear you describe some of what is going to be discussed. The why to do it, et cetera. Because, as you know, I have a collection of these sort of historical anthologies already.
Dennis McKenna: ESPD stands for Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs. In 1967, the National Institute of Mental Health sponsored a conference in San Francisco by that name, and it was a closed conference. The only thing the taxpayers ever got out of it was this book that they published, the proceedings of the conference. Well, somehow or other, that came onto my radar at the age of 18, the next year, the year after the conference was done. Somehow I got it, and then opened up the world for me of ethnopharmacology.
Well, the government staged this conference, published this book, they were supposed to have follow-up events every 10 years or so to keep abreast of what was going on in the field.
Well, that never happened. The War on Drugs came along. They were embarrassed, basically. They’d never done anything, even though you could order it from the US Government Printing Office for many years. So I always wanted to stage a follow-up, and 50 years went by. Circumstances never allowed that to happen. But in 2017, everything came together. I had funding. I had a place. I had people to help me organize it. I want to give a shout out to them because it wasn’t me that did it. I had a lot of help.
We did this conference in 2017. We did ESPD 50, this commemorative 50th anniversary conference, and we published the original ‘67 volume together with the 2017 volume as a box set. We put the videos on — the videos are still up there. People can watch them. Now it’s been five years. We’ve decided to do a five-year follow up. God knows if I’ll be here in 10 years. We decided to do a five-year follow up, but that’s what ESPD 55 is, the five-year from the 2017 conference or the 55th year of the first conference. That’s the origin. That’s the whole idea of it.
The 2017 conference was pretty much focused on ethnopharmacology and sort of the unexplored dark corners or fringes of ethnopharmacology. In other words, the ideas that search for psychoactive drugs. It’s a quest. We’re doing that this year. We have some really interesting topics. We have, for example, one person that’s presenting on psychedelics found in sponges and marine sponges and that sort of thing but we’ve also got a couple of forums.
We have three forums that don’t really fit into this pattern. One of them is a forum on coca. The need to destigmatize coca. We’ve got — coca is a wonderful medicine, as coca, not as cocaine is horrible. Cocaine is a horrible drug, but coca is beneficial. Coca is just at the center of Andean traditions and medicine and all that and potentially could be as a nutraceutical, as an herbal medicine that could be very beneficial. There are all sorts of aspects because it gives the people who grow it, who formerly were basically just told by the cartels, “Okay, you work for us now. If you don’t produce it, we’ll just kill you,” but give those families mostly economic benefits and bring coca back as a respected medicine.
We’ve got Wade Davis participating in this. We’ve got Andy Weil. Both of them are long time advocates of coca as a medicine and a food actually, which it also is. It’s very nutritionally beneficial.
Tim Ferriss: I want to take a second just to get into the some of the logistics of ESPD 55. As a sidebar, I’ll just say, the box set of books for ESPD 50, you can find online, you can find them on Amazon. They’re beautifully done. I have them on my bookshelf. Absolutely a joy to read.
For ESPD 55, people can find that at ESPD55.com. I’ll put that in show notes. People can either attend in person in the UK, May 23 to 26, this is 2022, or they can attend online. Are those the two primary options that are available for folks?
Dennis McKenna: Yes, that’s right. Less and less in-person because it’s rapidly filling up basically, the in person, but we tend to live stream it. When we did the ESPD 50, at times, we had 75,000 people participating and we hope to meet or exceed that benchmark this time.
There will be another book. There’ll be a book that comes out of it. Only one this time, but it’ll be also high quality and it will match the design and everything to the previous one. It’ll look good on your shelf. The person that provided the art that amazing, lovely watercolors that were incorporated into the design, there’s a link to her website. She’s selling prints, essentially, print sets of about, I think, about 100 of her illustrations that people could order, if they wish.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing.
Dennis McKenna: They’re beautiful.
Tim Ferriss: Dennis, one thing I’d like to do to sell this event, if it’s okay with you, and we can cut this out if it ends up being more than you’d like to reveal, but I just want to give some teasers for folks. I’m not going to give away too much or I won’t give a lot of the specifics, but let me just give some other samples of sessions. Is that okay with you, Dennis?
Dennis McKenna: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: There’s a session on kratom. A lot of people have questions about kratom, Mitragyna speciosa, if I’m pronouncing that correctly, mitragynine, fascinating, fascinating plant. I’m going to put this in the little gingerbread trail. I’m not going to fill in all the gaps, but a road map for sustainable development of ayahuasca production in the Amazon lowlands. Great interest to me.
Psychedelic fauna, to be distinguished from flora, I’ll leave that alone. I won’t go into that too much. Here’s another, “History of Psychoactive Plants and Fungi in Chinese Medicine,” something you do not hear in, at least much that I have at all, in mainstream conversations.
You mentioned marine sponges, “Yield-Enhancing Lessons from Psilocin,” which is what psilocybin is quickly metabolized into in the human body. I guess that’s probably what maybe first-pass metabolism through the liver. We’ve got “Hunting Medicines among the Matsigenka, The Harpy’s Gift and the Jaguar’s Curse,” great title.
Huachuma, phytochemical profiling, huachuma. Some people might know that as San Pedro cactus, also very interesting to me personally from a conservation and sustainability perspective because it grows so much faster than, say, peyote.
Dennis McKenna: Which is endangered.
Tim Ferriss: Severely endangered. Very endangered. Anadenanthera, I’m going to leave that alone but if people have never heard that word, A, it’s a lot of syllables, B, fascinating history. I mean, there is contemporary use, but that’s kind of beyond the scope of what we’re talking about right this second. Establishing collections of sacred psychoactive medicinal plants at Wasiwaska, that’s in Floripa.
You have some amazing speakers. I can just say not as the leading expert in this field, but as someone who is certainly an avid consumer and spectator/tourist do read a lot. You have an outstanding roster of speakers. Here’s one you don’t see every day, “Chemically-Induced Otherworldly Experiences of Zoroastrians in Iran.” I mean, yes, please. Would love to be a part of that. Incredible. Where else are you going to find that? Answer is probably nowhere. It just goes on and on and on. I’ll leave it at that. I didn’t even cover 50 percent of it.
There’s a lot here. There are many documentaries. You have people who are very well known. We didn’t get into his resume at all, but Wade Davis, certainly, who’s known for his books.
Dennis McKenna: Paul Stamets.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Stamets.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, I mean, the whole idea of ESPD conferences is that they’re out of the box in a certain way. It’s not just the same stuff. I mean, I’m happy that there are all these virtual meetings about the therapeutic uses of psilocybin in PTSD and addiction. I mean, that’s important stuff. But there’s a lot of duplication in some of these things. We want to kind of stake out an area, look into the obscure corners, but still important and kind of highlight the work that remains to be done.
For example, the huachuma project is very interesting. I can claim a little bit of credit for it. The person that’s going to present there, primarily, is a student of Wade Davis’s actually at UBC. She’s in the PhD program. Then, her partner and colleague, a Peruvian gentleman, Josip. I forget his last name, sorry, but they’ve collaborated on this. When I was asked to be on Laurel Sugden, is her name, asked to be on her committee. I asked them if they — I asked her if she was interested in the chemistry side of this, the ethnopharmacology side of it, not just the ethnography. She indicated that she was, that this was interesting to her.
We hooked up with an investigator at the Albany College of Pharmacy who’s developed an innovative way, a non-invasive way to sample plants and do phytochemical fingerprints, essentially. A quick way to look at the variation in the different varieties and species of this cactus. Then, using mass spectrometry and other fancy tools, actually do a phytochemical fingerprint of these different varieties and so on. It’s going to be a very interesting presentation that combines ethnography, chemistry, and pharmacology.
Yeah, and there’s others like them. Michael is going to talk about his work with the cultural keystone species, Michael Coe and then as you mentioned, the people from ISERS. We’ve got to two people from ISERS that are talking about the whole issues related to the unintended consequences of ayahuasca tourism, basically, depletion of the species and all of that, and how do we address that? I think it’s going to be a stimulating conference. It’s going to be long.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you, this might seem like a strange turn but I want to ask you about life and death for a second because you cracked a joke earlier, I’m not sure if it was totally in jest or serious, but you said, “I don’t know if I’ll be around here in 10 years, so we’re going to do the fifth year, new edition.”
If you’re open to talking about it, I mean, how do you relate to death and mortality? How do you think about that or relate to it in any way you’d like to take a stab at that?
Dennis McKenna: Well, I relate to it in the sense that everybody has to die sooner or later, everybody crosses that threshold sooner or later. A lot of religious traditions and philosophical traditions and everything have to do with a focus on what happens after you die or when you die. But from a scientific perspective, I think the only answer, the only honest answers nobody knows what happens when you die, when you really die.
There’s lots of studies about the near death experience and all the changes that happens during the near death experience, but the fact is, that’s not death. That is maybe a reflection of the stuff that happens to your brain while you’re in the process of dying, but it is not in fact, dying. Is there anything that persists after death? The honest answer, I feel, is I just don’t know. I’m open to the possibility. I hope there is, but maybe not. It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, right?
I mean, like Shakespeare said, “In that sleep of death, what dreams may come,” hopefully they’ll be pleasant, if there is something or hopefully, if there is something after death, hopefully there will be something worthwhile experiencing and not just terrible or if there’s nothing after death, if there’s just oblivion, well, I won’t be around to worry about it.
Either way, I’m okay. I don’t plan to check out soon. I hope not. I want to be around for ESPD 60 and 65 and 70 but let’s face it, I’m no spring chicken. I’m getting up there. I’m 71. I’ll be 72 later this year. Not real old, but not really young, either.
So what I do is, I think that, I kind of take a leaf from the people, for example, that get psilocybin for end of life therapy. Very often, the insight that they get from that is, “Well, yes, I’m dying, but I’m alive now.” That’s where I’m at. I mean, we’re all dying, Tim, slowly, fast, whatever. Important thing is, we’re alive now. Make the most of it. That’s what I think.
Tim Ferriss: You certainly seem to be making the most of it. What are you most excited about right now? While you are alive, which you are, what is giving you the most joy and aliveness these days? It could be anything.
Dennis McKenna: I think a lot of us are really concerned with things that are happening. The future looks pretty grim in a lot of ways, but you do what you can. I think that giving into despair is not a solution for anything and it’s tempting. I mean, you could just say things are so bad that there is no hope, but then, if you come to that point, then there really isn’t any hope. You just keep plugging. To the degree that I can, I keep plugging. I’ve got many people who feel the same way.
Does any of it make any difference? I don’t know. But the BioGnosis Project is a good example. If we can slow down this disappearance of knowledge and the disappearance of the habitats, and the loss of species and all that, just a little bit, I mean, compared to what other groups and organizations are doing, probably BioGnosis is a small thing but it’s our thing. It’s what we’re doing. I think maybe it’ll make a little difference, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Let me spell that for people, BioGnosis, just so we all have the spelling, it’s B-I-O-G-N-O-S-I-S, which —
Dennis McKenna: A made up word: bio, life and gnosis, knowledge —
Tim Ferriss: Knowledge. Right.
Dennis McKenna: — a coined word, really, but that’s the idea. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: People can find more about BioGnosis: Bridges to Ancestral Wisdom at biognosis.mckenna.academy, and we’ll link to that in the show notes as well. Let me come back to a second for, kind of slowing down the degradation and depletion of our natural habitat, this sort of greenish blue marble that is spinning through space with a bunch of monkeys on it —
Dennis McKenna: Busy destroying it. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — who are making a whole mess of things. Busy making a whole mess of it. What is your current perspective on, say, synthetic options for psychedelic compounds in the sense that I found an older interview where you were interviewed by NAILED Magazine, and there was a bit of a discussion about synthetic/freeze-dried ayahuasca and you mentioned how, and feel free to revise this, but how you felt that it may be psychedelic, but it’s not ayahuasca because the ayahuasca experience begins when you taste it, and the purging is potentially a feature and not a bug.
I’d just be curious to know, let’s say in the case of ayahuasca, what do you think some of the most viable solutions might be to avoiding overharvesting and endangering these various plant species? Is the synthetic route creating pharmahuasca alternatives viable, attractive, unappealing, ill-fated? What’s your perspective?
Dennis McKenna: I think we have to look at all viable solutions. For example, psilocybin. Psilocybin mushrooms don’t really have that issue. I mean, they’re not in danger. They can be grown by — make a ton. We’re not going to run out of psilocybin. And maybe, if we want to go with natural psychedelics, maybe we should emphasize those. There is a lot of global interest in psilocybin, and ayahuasca is endangered and peyote certainly is endangered and things like iboga are endangered.
Tim Ferriss: They’re on the verge of extinction. Yeah.
Dennis McKenna: It’s on the verge of extinction. I think part of the solution is, number one, I think the community, the psychedelic community, to the degree that there is one, really has to step up and be responsible. I think that the community should seek consensus.
For example, peyote is a good example. The community, like these decrim movements that are happening across the country and in other countries and so on, in general, I’m in favor of them. But the indigenous people have asked, “Don’t decriminalize peyote. Let it be our thing.”
Well, I disagree with not decriminalizing that, because fundamentally, I think no plant, no organism should be criminalized. I think the very idea is repulsive to me. But that said, the community can say, “Let’s not criminalize it, but let’s protect it,” and let’s develop a community consensus that, okay, we’ll just put peyote behind the fence. We’ll say, “It’s the indigenous people’s thing. We will not encourage on that. We’ll respect that and we’ll avoid using peyote.”
Some of these other things, huachuma, for example, huachuma is a good source. It’s not endangered, yet. It’s much more abundant. It’s easier to grow. That’s a good alternative. We’re at a point with huachuma where we can use it responsibly. If we don’t, then it too may become endangered eventually.
Ayahuasca is a very tricky one. I think that pharmahuasca is fine, but it’s not ayahuasca. It may have uses. It’s a different drug. It’s completely different. I have nothing against synthetics. I think synthetics have their place. Like I like to tell people synthetics are made by all-natural organic chemists, right? They come from nature, ultimately.
But what I would like to see happen, if it could, is developing a, overtime developing relationships with indigenous communities to produce medicines like ayahuasca but not encourage people to go to South America to take ayahuasca. Encourage these communities to produce them and take the medicine to the people, rather than people to the medicine. Develop ways that are legal to export them to North America, Europe, and so on.
Through decrim established centers where people can come and have these psychedelic experiences that are legal and safe and well-structured and all that and give benefits back to the people who produce it, who grow it economically, but kind of avoid the disruption of the culture that happens when all these rich gringos come down there to take ayahuasca.
I mean, I’m guilty. I’ve organized lots of ayahuasca retreats. I’m not sure that, I mean, I’ve seen tremendous benefits for people that come to those retreats, but I’ve kind of evolved in my view of it, whether that is actually a good thing. It is and it isn’t, and that’s why decrim is important, but I think decrim has got to be very thoughtful and clear in its approach to this.
We’re not going to encroach on things like iboga and ayahuasca or do it in this way, bring the medicines north, rather than the people south. That would transform communities as well, in both places. That’s kind of, this is not something that’s going to happen next week or next year. This will take a decade or more, and that depends on how the laws can be changed.
Tim Ferriss: There’s nothing simple. There’s nothing simple. I want to ask you a number of questions about the psychedelic community, as it were, with “community” in quotation marks, perhaps, but before I get to that, I want to take maybe not exactly a counterpoint, but just to add my perspective on peyote for a moment, which is I believe that it’s effectively inevitable that peyote is going to go extinct, even with current demand by members of the Native American Church, and very constrained production and distribution and also a lot of poaching.
There really are only a handful of licensed peyoteros. We can distribute and there are abuses of the system, even within these various kind of distribution channels. I really do feel strongly that this is one of the last shreds of, let’s just call it cultural, though it’s not true that peyote was widely distributed prior to Quanah Parker and other figures and initiatives.
It is so important to so many North American indigenous people, and also I’m guilty in the sense that like I have had experiences with peyote. I’ve been invited by the people who are traveling through the proper channels and nonetheless, spending time with a little bit of time, not a ton, but a little bit of time with the board of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative.
It’s a sad picture, when you really look at it, and you consider that these indigenous groups generally are not going to want to consume peyote that is cultivated in greenhouses. They’re almost certainly not going to be open to synthetic mescaline or San Pedro and just let them have it is my feeling.
If a way to hedge against sort of bad or chaotic communal behavior is by leaving that one regulated in the way that it’s regulated, I’m okay with that just because there are alternatives for people who are seeking some type of mescaline or mescaline.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, but that said, Tim, I agree with all that. What is really wrong with cultivated peyote? Why can’t they see that as a viable part of the solution, not the whole solution? It doesn’t have to be wild. You know?
I mean, the reasons that they’re prejudiced against it, or that they don’t want to use it is, they’re spiritual reasons. They’re not scientific or cultural reasons. They could adapt. They could adapt to cultivated greenhouse, even tissue culture, these kinds of things. They could adapt to it, but there has to be a little bit of give of both sides for this solution.
Tim Ferriss: I hear you. I guess, I’ll just, and again, certainly, I wish we had some sort of indigenous representation here to hear their perspective. It is, as far as I understand, largely a spiritual matter, sort of a cosmovision facet of the belief system and if it’s not coming out of the ground, there are ramifications and that peyote derived from the greenhouse is not the same, et cetera. I guess my perspective is, there are so many battles to be fought. This one’s a pretty easy give.
Dennis McKenna: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Just let them have it. Just let them have it. If you live in Venice and you do, you’re like into the yogahuasca scene, and you have your green juice and you want to experience mescaline, don’t do peyote. Just use something else.
Dennis McKenna: Let them have it. I’m all for it. But even if you let them have it —
Tim Ferriss: It’s still on the way out.
Dennis McKenna: They’ll still have the problem of the poachers.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. They do. It’s a mess. It’s a mess.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah. It’s really a mess and it’s a shame because it doesn’t have to happen.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ve spent time with a few, I don’t know if they’d be considered botanists, but certainly scientists. God, I wish I could remember one. He was a fascinating character.
He lives in Alpine, Texas. He spent decades studying Lophophora williamsii, I guess it is, and knows just the ins and outs of cultivation also, but even if you were to have greenhouses, how long does it take to cultivate, even if you have the most advanced hydroponics or whatever you might use to accelerate the growth process, what are we talking, 10 years to grow a mature button?
Dennis McKenna: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, and in some cases, 15, 20? I mean, even with greenhouses, you’re facing incredible constraints on volume. There is that. Let’s talk about this, if you’re open to it, if you want to add something, please jump in.
Dennis McKenna: It’s tough. I mean, there’s just no optimal solution for peyote. We’re very impatient. We’re very impatient species. I mean, would the indigenous people have the insight or the patience to say, “Let’s just leave, let’s just stop for 10 years and work on developing the wild populations.” I mean, and who’s going to administer that and who’s going to make those decisions? It’s just one of those things where it’s hard to find consensus. Everybody’s got a different idea and we have a hard time listening to each other.
Tim Ferriss: I wanted to, I mean, this is maybe a better conversation for a few glasses of wine or a few bottles of wine, but let me throw this out there, the psychedelic “community,” and I put it in quotation marks earlier, maybe I’m just cantankerous and didn’t get enough sleep last night, but the psychedelic community, or many components of it, drive me absolutely fucking bananas. I feel like it should be called the psychedelic infighting Olympics because if you want proof that psychedelics do not automatically create a kumbaya world peace, world of collaboration, you need not look very far.
You just look at all of the infighting and kind of mutual crippling in this space and it is astonishing. It is just astonishing to see and part of the reason this comes up for me, A, because I’m kind of immersed in it as many people are, as you are and it’s so bad that I’m thinking about taking a little hiatus myself because it’s so demoralizing for me to see.
The just absolute lack, and this is not across the board. There are many great people. There are many people who are clear, ethical, effective, but then they’re surrounded for every one of those, I feel like there are just 10 idiots running around like chickens with their heads cut off, swinging machetes at everybody. This relates to a section in The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. Let me read something and maybe we can, I’ll let you grab the baton. Here it goes.
“In many ways, the Diggers tried to actualize the best ideals of hippiedom. Like most utopian communities, however, they found it difficult to make reality fit with the ideal. Inevitably, they seem to founder on the recalcitrance of human nature. For every idealist who is ready to pitch in and work for the common good, there is an opportunist who wants something for nothing, or, worse, to grab power and bend it to his or her own ends.”
Then, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, “Trying to run an egalitarian community in a dense city is a challenge under the best of circumstances.” And here’s the part I highlighted for myself, “And every community that aspires to be spontaneous, to thrive without leaders or hierarchies, must confront the vacuum it creates for the power-crazed.”
Dennis McKenna: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I think that describes where we are today in so many different micro-communities within the psychedelic, larger “community.” Maybe just talk me off the ledge?
Dennis McKenna: We’re monkeys, Tim. Ultimately, we’re monkeys and monkeys squabble and monkeys look for opportunities. You could look at any spiritual practice or any church, Eastern religion, ashrams, all of that, I think any time they are dealing with a spiritually powerful technology, which psychedelics are, or other religious practices are, communion in the Catholic Church, meditation and yoga in Eastern traditions, these can also be used to control people, to control people’s behavior.
In that context, there’s always some power-mad person, almost always a male, I mean, who sees an opportunity, to seize the levers of power to their own good, and it’s usually the motivations are, I mean, so boring, and so disappointing but basically, they’re usually the same thing. It’s usually about the chicks of the money. I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s what it’s about. People are motivated by those things. This idea that —
Tim Ferriss: It’s very Scarface.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, effectively, yeah. Psychedelics are going to dissolve the ego and turn us all into Bodhisattvas and we’ll all be kind and harmonious to each other. It’s just not going to happen, I mean, it could, but we have to evolve into it, it seems like. You have to be sincere about it. There are always people who are looking for an opportunity to exercise power of one sort or another, financial, social, or otherwise. Psychedelics are not immune to this.
You and I know, I know lots of people who take lots of psychedelics. They’re still assholes and it doesn’t, it’s not a cure for that. It can help you, again, step out of your reference frame and look at your situation. You may have a revelation and say, “Oh, God, I really am an asshole. I need to change my whole behavior.”
Many people are not interested in changing, so, frankly, I don’t know what to say and what the solutions are. It all has to do with where the moral compass comes from. You have to have some kind of an ethical framework that you work out of, and that has to evolve. Empathy, I think, is a big factor and just respect for other humans. It can be, it’s rare.
I mean, and I think psychedelics can be effective tools for learning this, but if you’re a sociopath, it’s probably not going to help you. I mean, a shaman I respected very much, I asked him who would he not give ayahuasca to. He said, “Well, basically there are two kinds of people that I would never give it to. One is schizophrenics because it’s not going to help them and the other is sociopaths, because it’s not going to help them either.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, we go so far as to say you could probably make both of those worse, right? The schizophrenics certainly —
Dennis McKenna: Exactly. Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: — throw them, dash them up on the rocks of chaos. Then, the sociopath might just come back and say, “I just need to do 10 times more than of what I’m currently doing.”
Dennis McKenna: Or they come back with some messianic delusion —
Tim Ferriss: Exactly.
Dennis McKenna: — that “I have to save the world. I alone can fix it.” Something we have to evolve beyond.
I think that psychedelics are our co-evolutionary partners. I think that they help us become better people, but you have to work at it, right? Like any kind of spiritual, moral, ethical development, you’re not going to make it unless you actually try and believe in it.
Nobody succeeds 100 percent. I mean, there are plenty of bad things about me, that’s for sure, that I don’t share with everybody, but I know what they are. It’s just tough. It’s just tough to be a kind and gentle and insightful and wise person. That’s kind of what we’re here for, though, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What a world.
Dennis McKenna: It’s discouraging, right?
Tim Ferriss: Well, it’s discouraging. I mean, a part of me wonders, because I’m still, all things considered, even though I’ve been very involved for the last whatever, six to eight years, kind of publicly, new to the scene. I wonder, of the more senior guard, if you’re looking at everything that’s happening, and you’re optimistic, if you’re like it and you say, “Well, yeah, a lot of shitty stuff is happening. We’ve seen this before. It’ll shake out and hopefully,” we won’t have the executive order to put everything back on schedule one and shut everything down, which is not an impossibility.
Dennis McKenna: And nor is it a solution. That’s not a solution. I think that we get caught up in the dynamics of the moment, too. I think we have to step away, take the 30,000 foot level perspective, and realize that these things are really co-evolutionary partners, and we’ve been co-evolving with them, well pick your time, maybe for a couple million years, if we believe the Stoned Ape Theory, which I do, basically. I think it’s credible. I mean, we don’t need to get into that but for a long, long time, we have co-evolved effectively in symbiosis with these plants.
They’ve been sort of nudging us along on this very difficult path to, we’re midway between the apes and the angels right now. We haven’t reached the angelhood yet. We’re still suspended but slowly, but the thing is, these dynamics, these are really biological processes, and they play themselves out over millennia of time.
What’s going to happen in the next 10 years, the next 50 years? That’s a very small slice of time. I feel that we’re always going to have the relationship with these plants. As long as, number one, we don’t drive them into extinction. Number two, we don’t drive ourselves into extinction. All of these caveats, but hopefully, they will be around for us to learn from and boy, do we have to learn. We have a lot to learn, still. It’s a slow process.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you just a few more questions, Dennis, and then we can also cover anything you’d like to cover that I haven’t brought up but let me ask you because I don’t think I asked you last time, if you could only have two, and this may not be the right adjective, so we can change the question, but if you could only have two psychoactive plants/substances for the rest of your life, what would you choose? I’m going to make a few allowances here. Number one, you can have caffeine. Caffeine is a freebie. You get that, so you don’t have to —
Dennis McKenna: Okay. Thank God. All right. Good. Good.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You don’t have to pick that. And then for the sake of simplicity, we’ll consider common cocktails, let’s just say, like ayahuasca, we’ll consider that a single plant.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: This can include synthetics, could certainly include things from the natural kingdoms, which two would you choose?
Dennis McKenna: I only get to choose two?
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. We could start with three, if that’s easier, and then we’ll pare it down to two. I enjoy asking people this question.
Dennis McKenna: Mushrooms would definitely be one, one of those. I think cannabis would be one, which I don’t use as much now as I used to, but I do use it. I think of it as a beneficial plant ally. And, just in terms of my current state of health and all, I think those two, ayahuasca would, I’d like to also have access to ayahuasca.
Tim Ferriss: What do you find the benefits of cannabis to be for you? What are the ways in which you use it?
Dennis McKenna: I think it just reduces stress. It helps me relax. It helps me sleep and calm down. It’s good for insight. I think it’s good for writing, for example, just a general balm to the spirit, B-A-L-M, that kind of thing. A nurturing, my brother used to call cannabis “Sister Mary Redemptoris.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s great.
Dennis McKenna: It’s kind of like that, this benevolent, loving, feminine medicine.
Tim Ferriss: Do you typically smoke? Is that your preferred means of consumption?
Dennis McKenna: It has been, yeah. Yeah. I have tried vaping. I’ve tried edibles, neither one of those work for me but my cardiologist, I now have heart conditions, so they have to worry about. My cardiologist said, “Don’t smoke, whatever you do. No matter how, no matter what you’re smoking.”
I tried that for a while. Finally, I tried vaping and that was actually harder on my heart than it was smoking. What I do is I smoke tiny amounts, in one of those cigarette looking things and it seems to work. I mean, it’s sort of like I told my cardiologist I said, “Well, yeah, I can avoid all these things but you know, I have to live, right?” I mean, if I die smoking cannabis, okay, so be it. I’m at peace with it.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any preferred, I’m no cannabis expert, a preferred strain, anything along those lines?
Dennis McKenna: No, not really. I’m from an era long before any of that made sense. If it’s cannabis, if it works, I’m fine with it.
Tim Ferriss: I will say that, I’ve only in the last few years, really had proper exposure to cannabis, which it took a while to unpack. What the hell I mean by that, but, and I have a few novice takeaways are number one, I’m actually really glad I discovered it very —
Dennis McKenna: Late?
Tim Ferriss: — relatively late in life because it could have been a real problem for me, I can tell. Number two, the two aspects, no, three aspects that have most impressed me are number one, the effects on sleep. Although, it seems like you need to be careful so that you’re not eliminating your REM cycles entirely. It seems like you can certainly overdo it. But just in terms of turning down the volume and speed of mental chatter —
Dennis McKenna: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — so that I can sleep. It’s quite remarkable. The second is how intensely it seems to improve, again, who knows? If someone were observing it, they might have a different perspective, but how intensely it affects and sensitizes my perception of music and production of music, say with percussion, unlike anything else. Of course, the dose makes the poison, but at reasonable doses without the distortion that might accompany even moderate, say psilocybin use.
The third is how fucking strong cannabis is now. I mean, compared it to like the few puffs I had in high school, I had two puffs with a friend recently, and I laid down on my bed, thought I was going to have to skip dinner, and had full blown visuals for a good hour. I mean, it was, I could not believe how psychedelic the experience was compared to many things that get lumped in under the umbrella of psychedelics like MDMA, which I don’t consider a psychedelic but my experience with really strong cannabis, certainly, I would say, I’d be curious to hear your perspective, would fall under the, would match, would line up nicely with some of the descriptions of psychedelic experience. How do you think about that?
Dennis McKenna: I think that, I don’t think of cannabis as a psychedelic either, really for one thing, pharmacologically, it certainly isn’t. But I think with all the super strong strains that are available, you can get there more than before. I mean, I’ve had that before they have strong cannabis, there was hashish, which was always a favorite. And you can get to some pretty psychedelic places, especially if you eat hash.
About, now people are having cannabis ceremonies, and they’re effectively psychedelic ceremonies. They’re like ayahuasca sessions. I haven’t been to any actually, but people do it and that’s kind of interesting, because here is a legal, pretty much legal medicine that people can use that way. I’m in favor of it. I think it’s beneficial, and there’s no legal risk. Yeah, these strains are out there thanks to modern genetics, mostly.
Tim Ferriss: Just a couple of things, on the legal side, definitely check your local jurisdiction, with listeners around the world. Check your local restrictions or laws around these things. I will also just add, because we’re talking about a lot of compounds, a lot of different uses, that I haven’t touched anything in at least three months, right? It’s not like I’m walking around with a fanny pack full of drugs all day hitting something every two to three hours. I haven’t touched anything, except for a few glasses of wine, in the last three months.
You should also, I would say, as not to be to pedantic and, “Yes, Dad, thanks for the advice,” but I think it is important and helpful to abstain for periods of time, for at least the purpose of proving to yourself that you can do it. I mean, that’s my perspective.
Dennis, is there anything else you’d like to mention, to comment on or add before we begin to wind down this conversation?
Dennis McKenna: A couple of things. I mean, we have pretty well covered the bases, Tim. This has been great. You’re very kind to spend so much time on this but one thing I’d like to mention, you’ve quoted a number of times from The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, people may be interested to know that there’ll be a second edition coming out toward the end of the year.
Tim Ferriss: No, kidding. I had no idea.
Dennis McKenna: Yeah, they’re going to reprint it. I’ve written a new chapter. It’ll be the old one, but I’ve written a new foreword and a new chapter for it, sort of in that sense, tried to bring it up to date because the book itself, what it actually described, ended in more or less with my brother’s death in 2000. Then, the book itself was published in 2012. Well, a lot has happened in the last 22 years. So it’s coming out. Synergetic is going to reprint it, and it will have this amended chapter to it. That’s one thing.
The other thing that we didn’t really get into, maybe if, when we talked about BioGnosis, I don’t know if people understand exactly what we’re doing, but in a nutshell, what we’re trying to do with this BioGnosis Project, which is a long-term project, and it’s actually going to cost considerable money if we do it right, basically two aspects to it in terms of this knowledge recovery, knowledge preservation, and connection into science.
One is doing this series of documentaries on Amazonian traditional medicine. The first documentary, they’ll be short documentaries, the first one will be showing at ESPD 55 and making a big pitch basically, for support to complete the series. We could see this as five to seven 30 to 40-minute documentaries that kind of is a snapshot of traditional medicine as it exists today in the 21st century in the Amazon.
That’s one aspect to it, but then linked to that is this much bigger, long-term project, has to do with the Herbarium in Iquitos, at the University in Iquitos, and digitizing the Herbarium. It’s got 100,000 specimens, only half those have actually been mounted. But what we want to do is make high resolution scans of those specimens, put them online in an accessible database that anyone can access.
We actually have an idea for creating in VR, using VR and AI technology, to build what we’re calling the Visionary Rainforest, which would be basically, these collections distributed through this virtual space and just as a way of representing it. So people, if they can’t go to the Amazon, they can immerse themselves in the Visionary Rainforest, it would actually have information.
Each of the collections from the Herbarium would be assigned to a place because they were collected someplace, right? You go into this virtual environment, and there’ll be nodes that represent each collection. You can click on a node, and that will open up a whole link to many forms of information, maybe information about traditional uses, about chemistry, about genomics, about all kinds of things. Make this a dynamic, experienceable environment and make it have scientific validity as well.
This is a grand vision. And hopefully, again, it will be a resource for anyone, for scientists, especially but really anyone that wants to experience the Herbarium in Iquitos. [It’s] kind of a rundown, gradually eroding situation, but it’s a gem. It’s an important resource. All these plants are there.
Tim Ferriss: 160,000 plus specimens?
Dennis McKenna: About 100,000 specimens all together. We want to make that a real thing and turn it into a world class resource. And the whole idea of this is, I think it was Ralph Waldo Emerson is the one who said that a weed is a plant whose virtues haven’t yet been discovered. In that sense, every plant is valuable and to the extent that we can link information about these collections to them, that gives them a value. I mean, they don’t need validation. They don’t need value from us to be valuable, but it gives them a value that we recognize.
We’re going to talk about this project, and it’s going to involve working very closely with the university there, and they’re all on board for it. It’s probably going to cost several million dollars to do this but I think we can get the money. I think that people will see the value of it and step up and do it.
This is just, in the overall scheme of things, it’s just one little thing we can do to try to slow down what’s happening in the Amazon because the Amazon is on fire along with the rest of the world and it’s going to go away. It will be lost forever if we don’t do something about it in the next decade or so. By we, I mean humanity. We’re just, our little academy and our little project is a small part of it, but maybe enough of a part of it to be a catalyst in this.
That pretty much summarizes it. This BioGnosis thing, in terms of the nuts and bolts, are these two components. One is using videography to document and preserve this knowledge and make it compelling for people. We want to do a Netflix series or National Geographic, whoever will take a look at it. We want it to be something that people want to watch.
Then, this other project is obviously not separate from it but is a longer term and more ambitious thing of creating this Visionary Rainforest that will live on the web and be accessible to people and benefit the people in the Amazon and people worldwide that are interested in these Amazonian plants. That’s the basic idea.
Tim Ferriss: People can find more on BioGnosis. I will include this link along with links to everything else in the show notes for folks. BioGnosis, B-I-O-G-N-O-S-I-S.McKenna, M-C-K-E-N-N-A.Academy. I’m sure if you just search BioGnosis McKenna on Google, that it’ll pop right up.
Dennis McKenna: Yup.
Tim Ferriss: I encourage people also to check out ESPD55.com. Another link that I’ll include. If the last two volumes are any indication, and if the schedule is any indication, this should be a fantastic event and cover a lot of ground that I haven’t touched before. As a devout nerd in the space, I’m both ashamed and excited that that is true.
That’s happening in the UK, May 23rd to 26th and you can also attend the live streaming online.
Dennis McKenna: What I should mention, Tim, is one thing, we will be, we’re talking to Synergetic next week. You’ll be able to pre-order the Symposium Volume for ESPD 55 and you can still order the old one as well. They still have that. You can pre-order that there. The videos from ESPD 50 are still online, and they’re open access, and I’ll send you that link and you can post that as well, so people could go back and watch those videos.
I think we’ve pretty well covered just about everything. You’ve been incredibly generous with your time.
Tim Ferriss: Life feels short sometimes but it’s also pretty long. If I’m not going to spend time having conversations like this, am I in a rush to do go fold my socks? This is much more fun.
Dennis McKenna: Right.
Tim Ferriss: People can find you on Twitter at @DennisMcKenna4. We will link to that in the show notes as well. The website for your academy is mckenna.academy. The links to everything will be in the show notes, tim.blog/podcast. If you just search my name and Dennis McKenna, no doubt you’ll find both of our episodes. That will be very, very easy to source, at tim.blog/podcast. Dennis, it is so nice to see you again.
Dennis McKenna: It’s such a pleasure, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: It’s always fun.
Dennis McKenna: Always. This has been great fun. We just had an amazing rant here. This is lovely.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing rants. We have a number of punk rock band names, we have a partial book title for your one of your next books, The Obscure Corners, which I like a lot. I took a note on that, which was drawn from something you said earlier. All in all, just another extremely, thought-provoking, very, very enjoyable conversation. Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis McKenna: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: To everybody listening, as always, thank you for tuning in. Until next time, be just a little kinder than as necessary. Take care of yourselves. Be safe, and take care.
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