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13 July 2022

How psychedelics change lives

The writer Michael Pollan on becoming a psychonaut in his fifties – and why tripping is political.

By Sophie McBain

The writer Michael Pollan says he tried psychedelics for the same reasons that people his age – he is 67 now, but became a “psychonaut” in his late fifties – might take a sabbatical or go travelling. There was nothing wrong, but equally nothing felt “fresh”. He needed to “shake the snow globe”, as a scientist once put it to him.

Pollan had also started researching psychedelics, having spotted early signs of a resurgence. There was an intriguing New York Times story in 2010 on how psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) could help cancer patients overcome a fear of death, and a few years later, at a dinner party near his home in California, a psychologist his age spoke about the professional insight she was getting from LSD. He began speaking to psychedelic researchers and spiritual guides, and soon found he envied them. “They were having these big, spiritual experiences. And I don’t think I’d ever had a spiritual experience. I was kind of jealous,” Pollan told me.

In 2018 Pollan released a bestselling book, How to Change Your Mind, exploring what psychedelics are teaching us about consciousness. He followed it up with This Is Your Mind on Plants, published last year, on the politics of our relationship to three mind-altering substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline. On 13 July he launched a four-part Netflix documentary that draws on both books and builds on the cultural shift that has taken place in recent years. The psychedelics industry is projected to grow from $4.75bn in 2020 to $10.75bn in 2027, and tripping on psilocybin has become something you can talk about on morning radio (Pollan was recently interviewed by Chris Evans), or indeed in the lobby of an old-school central London hotel.

[See also: Is reality a hallucination? The neuroscientist Anil Seth thinks so]

Pollan, a rangy figure dressed in navy, with wire-rimmed spectacles and a ready laugh, said he had one of his most meaningful trips when he took a walk in his garden, observing the plants, after drinking magic mushroom tea. “I felt their personhood in a way that I never had before,” he said. “I’d always had an abstract sense that plants are active agents in their stories. I wrote a whole book about how plants manipulate us – Botany of Desire. But it was always an intellectual conceit, I understood it in terms of Darwinian co-evolution. Here, for the first time, I felt the presence of these plants. They were more alive than they had ever been.”

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This sense of intimate connection to the natural world defines the mystical experience many encounter through psychedelics: a sense of ego dissolution, of becoming part of the whole. A recent Johns Hopkins University study found that a single psychedelic experience left people twice as likely to believe that fungi, plants or inanimate objects are conscious.

Psychedelics can also change how we understand our own minds. “There’s a sense in which consciousness is just transparent to most people. It’s like a windowpane, and it’s totally clear. But when you smudge it, as psychedelics do, suddenly you see it.”

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Hallucinogenic drugs appear to show remarkable promise for patients suffering from a range of ailments: depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, eating disorders. Research suggests that the more mystical the trip, the greater the therapeutic impact. Pollan’s documentary, How to Change Your Mind, includes poignant accounts of some of these life-changing trips. A man once incapacitated by OCD describes how after taking psilocybin he felt himself plummet off a cliff and die, as a childhood friend of his had. He felt what it was like to be dirt, then to grow into a sapling and observe his human form, and his own family, walking by. With tears on his cheeks, the man describes how he recognised the sapling, which grows near his home, and now visits the tree often, his OCD symptoms miraculously abated. It fascinates Pollan that psychedelics are merely a catalyst: the healing and terror of a chemical trip is something that emerges from your own mind.

[See also: The plants that change our consciousness]

Promising research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics began in the Fifties but was shelved and largely forgotten two decades later, amid the moral panic over long-haired youths who kept tuning in and dropping out. Only in the Nineties did a handful of researchers begin reopening lines of enquiry. In 2015 Pollan wrote his first piece on the subject, a New Yorker feature on the cancer patients who were easing their fear with psilocybin. The study had not been peer-reviewed, and just before the feature went to press, his editors got cold feet – was the piece sceptical enough? “The word that came down from the editors was: ‘find a big shot who thinks this is all bullshit’,” Pollan recalled with a laugh. Pollan contacted Thomas Insel, the psychiatrist who then headed America’s National Institute of Mental Health – about as establishment as you can get. “I asked him this leading question, hoping to get a negative quote, and he said, ‘No, I think this research is really interesting. We have to do it.’” Mainstream psychiatry is open to new approaches in part because it has made minimal progress compared to other branches of medicine: it still isn’t good at saving lives. “The mind is a far harder problem to address than the heart, or the immune system. And so the prospect that something might actually revolutionise that field is attractive to everybody, with various degrees of caution,” Pollan said.

In the US, psychedelic research enjoys unusual, cross-political support. This means, Pollan suggested, that there’s a reluctance to discuss the political consequences of a psychedelic revolution. What happens when lots of people take drugs proven to change your mindset? “One good study would be: you have all these environmental activists who are in despair, who are burned out. What would happen if you gave them a course of psychedelic therapy to kind of renew their commitment or sense of hope?” Pollan said.

Pollan’s writing has always been concerned with the politics and ethics of our relationship to the natural world. His first book was Second Nature (1991), a collection of essays about gardening. From there he expanded, writing about agriculture, food systems, how to eat well. (Readers will have encountered his aphorism: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”) He now teaches journalism, at Harvard and at the University of California Berkeley, where in 2020 he co-founded the Center for the Science of Psychedelics with the psychologist Dacher Keltner and others.

Pollan may seem like a psychedelic evangelist, but he’s open about the risks. For a minority, a bad trip can trigger psychosis. There are worries about abusive therapists, who could exploit their patients’ drug-induced vulnerability. Another concern is that recent large-scale investments by pharmaceutical giants

and Silicon Valley libertarians will create pressure to find cheaper, pared-back alternatives to current psychedelic treatments, which require intensive therapist involvement to be safe and effective. Some companies are already investigating trip-free psychedelics that could be administered like any other pill. “I think it’s very unlikely to work,” Pollan said. “It seems clear to anyone who has administered these drugs that it’s the experience people are having that brings the benefits … But we do have to test that scientifically.”

Pollan’s next book may be the most ambitious yet: an exploration of consciousness. He’s had a few “very useful” trips recently and would have psychedelic experiences more often if they were legal. “It would be something I’d do once a year, maybe on my birthday: have a big trip and use that as an opportunity to mark time and think about priorities.” He’d also take MDMA annually with his wife. “I’ve had very little experience with MDMA, but I’ve found it so conducive to breaking down conversational roadblocks in couples,” he said.

[See also: Are you mentally ill, or very unhappy? Psychiatrists can’t agree]

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant