Michael Pollan is the author of seven books, including The New York Times bestsellers In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan focuses on the intersection between nature and culture, be it on our plates or in our farms and gardens. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Pollan’s most recent book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence explores how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are used in therapy for conditions ranging from depression to addiction to anxiety. In an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show that Ferriss said might be the most important podcast he’s put out in the past couple years, the two talked about these applications as well as the reemerging field of psychedelic research. Below is an excerpt of the discussion, edited by Outside.
Ferriss: For people who have heard the terms psychedelic or psychedelics, but are unclear on exactly what they refer to, can you define them? What are psychedelics?
Pollan: At first, psychedelics were called psychotomimetics in the early fifties, soon after LSD was made available to researchers. And psychotomimetic meant that it was a psychoactive drug that mimicked psychosis. Other people called it a psycholytic, which means mind loosening. And they were using them in your typical talk-therapy session as a way to loosen people’s defenses and allow them to get in touch with subconscious thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic, as a term, was coined in 1957 by a key figure named Humphrey Osmond. It means mind manifesting—that these are compounds that help the mind manifest its deepest qualities. And it caught on.
I tend to not think of MDMA or cannabis as psychedelics, even though some people do. But the group of chemicals that includes mescaline, DMT, psilocybin, magic mushrooms, and LSD, that are unified by the fact that they work on similar receptor networks in the brain and have similar effects—when I talk about psychedelics, that’s what I’ve got in mind.
What new insights or theories on psychedelics have caught your attention in the scientific realm?
The neuroscience is absolutely fascinating. But that said, the brain is still very poorly understood. So it’s important to understand that everything I’m about to tell you is hypothesis. We know LSD or psilocybin links to a certain kind of brain receptor, the H25AR receptor, which is the same one that SSRIs, a class of antidepressant drugs, engage with. But what happens downstream of that, we don’t have a clue.
One of the most interesting clues has come from imaging the brains of people on psychedelics. The biggest takeaway from that work is that the brain was actually depressed by psychedelics, particularly in the default-mode network, called that because this is where the brain goes when it’s not busy. It’s where you go to ruminate, worry, daydream. And how interesting that this particular network, important as it is, goes off-line or at least is activity diminished by psychedelics. When it does, other parts of the brain that don’t ordinarily talk to each other strike up conversations. And so you have, for example, a motion center talking directly to your visual cortex, which, low and behold, could allow you to see things you’re feeling. It could result in hallucinations.
Also, when researchers at Yale started scanning the brains of really experienced meditators, their scans look very similar to the people on psychedelics. Meditation is another way to quiet the default-mode network, and my guess is there are several others, too, like fasting or when you go into sensory deprivation. My guess is that all of these powerful experiences may well involve alternate modalities for shutting off or quieting the default-mode network.
Those new connections may manifest as new perspectives, new ideas, new means, new metaphors. And that’s what we need to get into right now. What happens with those new connections? Do they endure or not? And are there ways to help them endure longer?
Which studies of psychedelics have shocked you or surprised you the most?
Well, the first one is a 2006 study. It was an attempt to see if psilocybin could be used to occasion profound, mystical experiences in people. In a way, this was the predicate of all of the research to come since, because, first, they proved that you could safely administer these drugs in this environment. And second, with a very high percentage, you could induce an experience that people would report as one of the most meaningful experiences in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. The fact that you could induce such an experience in a laboratory reliably, with a mushroom, that kind of blew my mind.
In a follow-up, they discovered that a statistically significant percentage of people who had had these psilocybin experiences actually had changes in their personality that were enduring. Openness, which correlates with tolerance for other people’s points of view, the ability to take in lots of surprising information, and creativity, actually, were increased. And it’s very rare that personality changes in adults at all.
Now, this has yet to be reproduced, this particular result. But whether there are lasting changes in personality of people who take psychedelics, I think, is a really rich topic to explore and definitely deserves more work.
What are the risks of these compounds?
There’s no known lethal dose of psilocybin or LSD. If it kills you, it’s not going to be because it’s toxic. I think that the risks are more psychological in origin. They are incredibly disruptive. They disarm your usual defenses, and defenses can be very helpful as well as hurtful. Some people, without their defenses, get into real trouble. And then there is a small subgroup of people at risk for serious mental illness, things like schizophrenia, for whom psychedelics can be the trigger and push people into that first psychotic break.
So I think that there are people who should not take these drugs, and it’s people at some psychological risk. That said, you’ve got to compare it with other drugs, and they all have risks. The risks, in this case, at the biological level, are minor compared to drugs we take routinely—even over-the-counter drugs that are more toxic than psychedelics, as far as we know. So I think that’s definitely worth keeping in mind.