Author Michael Pollan had always been curious about psychoactive plants, but his interest skyrocketed when he heard about a research study in which people with terminal cancer were given a psychedelic called psilocybin — the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms" — to help them deal with their distress.
"This seemed like such a crazy idea that I began looking into it," Pollan says. "Why should a drug from a mushroom help people deal with their mortality?"
Pollan, whose previous books include The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense Of Food, started researching different experimental therapeutic uses of psychedelics, and found that the drugs were being used to treat depression, addiction and the fear of death.
Then he decided to go one step further: A self-described "reluctant psychonaut," Pollan enlisted guides to help him experiment with LSD, psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT, a substance in the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad.
Each of Pollan's experiences with psychedelics was preceded by worry and self-doubt. But, he says, "I realized later that was my ego trying to convince me not to do this thing that was going to challenge my ego."
Pollan's new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, recounts his experiences with the drugs and also examines the history of psychedelics as well as their possible therapeutic uses.
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Interview Highlights On how the psychedelic psilocybin is administered in therapy for depression
The way [psilocybin is] being used is in a very controlled or guided setting. ... They don't just give you a pill and send you home; you're in a room. You're with two guides, one male, one female. You're lying down on a comfortable couch. You're wearing headphones listening to a really carefully curated playlist of music — instrumental compositions for the most part — and you're wearing eyeshades, all of which is to encourage a very inward journey.
Someone is kind of looking out for you, and they prepare you very carefully in advance. They give you a set of "flight instructions," as they call them, which is what to do if you get really scared or you're beginning to have a bad trip. If you see a monster, for example, don't try to run away. Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, "What do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?" And if you do that, according to the flight instructions, your fear will morph into something much more positive very quickly.
On how psychedelics can help change the stories we tell about ourselves
The drugs foster new perspectives on old problems. One of the things our mind does is tell stories about ourselves. If you're depressed, you're being told a story perhaps that you're worthless, that no one could possibly love you, you're not worthy of love, that life will not get better. And these stories — which are enforced by our egos really — trap us in these ruminative loops that are very hard to get out of. They're very destructive patterns of thought.
What the drugs appear to do is disable for a period of time the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. It's called the default mode network, and it's a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex — the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain — to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside. And it's a very important hub in the brain and lots of important things happen there: self-reflection and rumination, time travel. It's where we go to think about the future or the past, and theory of mind, the ability to imagine the mental states of other beings and, I think, most importantly, the autobiographical self. It's the part of the brain, it appears, where we incorporate things that happen to us, new information, with a sense of who we are, who we were and who we want to be. And that's where these stories get generated. And these stories can be really destructive, they trap us. ...
This network is downregulated [with psychedelics], it sort of goes offline for a period of time. And that's why you experience this dissolution of self or ego, which can be a terrifying or liberating thing, depending on your mindset. This is what allows people, I think, to have those new perspectives on themselves, to realize that they needn't be trapped in those stories and they might actually be able to write some new stories about themselves. That's what's liberating, I think, about the experience when it works.
On how psychedelics can help dying people face their deaths Prozac doesn't help when you're confronting your mortality. But here we have something that occasions an experience in people — a mystical experience — that somehow makes it easier to let go. And I think some of it has to do with the fact that you do experience the "extinction" of yourself and it's kind of a rehearsal for death. And I think that may be part of what helps people, that they expand their sense of what is your self-interest and your self-interest is something larger than what is contained by your skin. And when you have that recognition, I think dying becomes a little easier. ...
There's no way to prove this, obviously, and it's a question that really troubled me as an old-fashioned materialist skeptical journalist. It's like, "What if these drugs are inducing an illusion in people?" I got a variety of answers to that question from the researchers. One was, "Who cares if it helps them?" And I can see the point of that. The other was, "Hey, this is beyond my pay grade; none of us know what happens after we die." And others say, "Well, this is an open frontier." ...
The experiences that people have are very real to them — they're psychological facts. And one of the really interesting qualities of psychedelic experience is that the insights you have on them have a durability ... This isn't just an opinion, this is revealed truth, so the confidence people have is hard to shake, actually.
On a Johns Hopkins study on the use of psilocybin to help people quit smoking
Smoking is a very hard addiction to break. It's one of the hardest addictions to break. [I wanted to understand] how, after a single psilocybin trip, they could decide "I'm never going to smoke again" based on the perspective they had achieved. And they would say things like, "Well, I had this amazing experience. I died three times. I sprouted wings. I flew through European histories. I beheld all these wonders. I saw my body on a funeral pyre on the Ganges. And I realized, the universe is so amazing and there's so much to do in it that killing myself seemed really stupid." And that was the insight. Yes, killing yourself is really stupid — but it had an authority it had never had. And that, I think, is the gift of these psychedelics.
On his own experience tripping on mushrooms
I had an experience that was by turns frightening and ecstatic and weird. ... I found myself in this place where I could no longer control my perceptions at all, and I felt my sense of self scatter to the wind — almost as if a pile of post-its had been released to the wind — but I was fine with it. I didn't feel any desire to pile the papers back together into my customary self ...
Then I looked out and saw myself spread over the landscape like a coat of paint or butter. I was outside myself, beside myself, literally, and the consciousness that beheld this ... was not my normal consciousness, it was completely unperturbed. It was dispassionate. It was content, as I watched myself dissolve over the landscape.
What I brought back from that experience was that I'm not identical to my ego, that there is another ground on which to plant our feet and that our ego is kind of this character that is chattering neurotically in our minds. And it's good for lots of things. I mean, the ego got the book written, but it also can be very harsh, and it's liberating to have some distance on it. And that was a great gift, I think.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it for the Web. Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.