Psychedelics are having a renaissance. Largely discounted by researchers after the “turn on, tune in, drop out” era of the 1960s, they’re being taken seriously once again. New studies seem to arrive every day, showing that psychedelics radically change the way you see yourself, that LSD can open up a higher state of consciousness, and that psilocybin—the active chemical in “magic mushrooms”—may help people get sober. It also shows the potential to “reset” the brains of depressed people and help cancer patients let go of distress. Psychedelic research is revealing not just how the mind and brain work, but how they might become valuable tools for promoting mental health.
Science writer Michael Pollan came to psychedelics later in life. He was a little too young to have to have experienced psychedelics as part of the counterculture, and for most of his life he’d believed the worst. After some limited experimentation as a risk-taking youth, he’d basically put away psychedelics as a young person’s game. Only later, cresting middle age, did he start hearing about scientists reviving the drugs for research—while his dinner companions were casually mentioning taking psychedelic trips to boost their creativity.
He began a deep dive into the psychedelic renaissance. The resulting book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence is part science journalism, part historical survey, and part trip journal. Pollan surveys the landscape to answer how psychedelics went underground, and how they were championed by a dedicated group of scientists who’ve brought them back into the light. And he takes us inside his own trips, reporting from inside his psychedelic experience.
In this wide-ranging interview, he talked with Tonic about why psychedelics can teach us so much about our mental life, the shadow underground of therapists who’ve spent decades treating people with them, and how they might become valuable rites of passage for explorers who want to better understand themselves.
I just want to start by saying “what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence”—that’s a bold title. What convinced you that this was such a potent area of research?
Well, let me go back and just say something about that title. The reason I included all those things in it—depression, dying, and consciousness—was to give a sense of the range, but also make clear that to me, the book is not exactly about psychedelics. You know, those chemicals, fine; really interesting molecules. But it's really about what psychedelics teach us. And that psychedelics are a tool for understanding the mind. The book is really a book about the mind. I mean the mind and my mind, and psychedelics is the way in, it's the door. So that's why it was very important that the subtitle not just be about psychedelics, but would be about all the things that psychedelics illuminate.
Which is a lot. It did that for me personally and it did that for me in terms of my understanding of brain science and psychology. For me, my interest in it, I think, was a function of reaching a certain age. You know, the fact that I was approaching 50: my life had fallen into some pretty well-worn grooves that were perfectly fine and adapting and adaptive. I could get a lot done. I was reasonably happy.
But I also had this feeling that when you're on tracks like that, that you're missing out. That those mental algorithms that get you through the day also close you off from all kinds of experience—something we all understand when we travel: As soon as you go to a new country, your senses come alive. Your sense of wonder is back, perhaps your sense of awe. You’re open to surprise. You're open to new experience.
I had been talking to volunteers in these psilocybin trials who described a kind of freshening of perspective that I became really jealous of and I wanted to see whether I could have that myself.
I also was talking to people who'd had these big spiritual experiences and I didn't think I'd ever had one. And I was kind of like, "Well, time is running short." So I wanted to see what that was all about. There was definitely journalistic curiosity: What is this experience like? Then there was a more personal quest to see if I couldn't renovate my perception at this point in life.
Did you know right from the beginning that this was something you wanted to undergo for yourself, or was there a certain point when you said, "Okay, I need to do this"?
No, it came later. I wrote a long piece for The New Yorker about psilocybin research, the study where it was given to people who were dying or had received a cancer diagnosis. It was published in early 2015; I wrote most of it and researched in 2014. That was a pretty straight-ahead piece of science journalism where I interviewed the scientists, I interviewed the volunteers, I interviewed the critics, and put together a story. It was an amazing story, but I didn't have a place in it. It wasn't a first-person story.
But over the course of that research, I started learning about the underground. You know, that there's this shadow world where someone like me might actually have a similar experience to the volunteers in the above-ground study. I found that door and I got more and more curious about testing what I was hearing from my sources on myself.
It wasn't until I finished that story that I said to myself, “I really want to go further and deeper.” You know, as a journalist, there are two kinds of stories: the ones you finish and you’re happy to be done—you’re sick of the topic. And then there are the stories that you realize you just scratched the surface. This was so clearly the latter kind of story that I had to go back in. I could see how I could go so much deeper by, you know, putting my mind on the line.
You mentioned that shadow underground—I don’t think it’s quite what people imagine. Can you describe it a little more?
Yeah, it wasn't what imagined either. But there is in this country today a fairly expansive and thriving underground consisting of serious professionals, many of them trained therapists in one modality or another, who are administering psychedelics to people in a very controlled environment. You wouldn't call this recreational use: These are guided journeys, by people who really know the territory. What they're doing is they're risking their freedom every time they do this, but there's so convinced of the value of this that they do it anyway.
Some of them were working above ground when it was legal, going back to the early seventies, and some were trained by those people. They just felt that this work is so useful that they are willing to take these chances. Partly because of that New Yorker piece I was able to find my way into this community and interview probably a dozen of these people.
What impressed me was how professional they were, that they had a code of conduct. They were very careful about getting medical release forms. They did intake interviews just like a therapist would. They did integration sessions.
They were more shamanic in style than the people working at Hopkins or NYU. Many of them spent time in South America or Mexico working with traditional healers. They drew on those traditions a little more than the scientists do. But this is serious work by serious people and when people hear the word “underground,” that’s not your first thought.
The word “renaissance” has been used to describe the resurgence of research interest in psychedelics, which gets at the sense that this is a return to work that, unfortunately, was halted and often forgotten, or driven underground. Did it surprise you, when you started digging into it, to find such a rich history?
Yes. And the big surprise was, like most people I thought the '60s was the history of psychedelics. End of story. Timothy Leary, counterculture, acid test, Ken Kesey—that was the history of psychedelics.
But what I learned as I dug in—and I spent a lot of time researching the history—is that that was one brief chapter in a much longer and much more interesting story. It was kind of an anomalous chapter.
The history of these drugs, first of all, goes back thousands of years. Not LSD, obviously, but other psychoactive plants and fungi have been used by cultures for a very long time in their healing, in their divination, and as a sacrament.
Then in the modern Western history, which really begins in the '40s and '50s, with discovery of LSD and the discovery of psilocybin by westerners, there was this very rich period of research and inquiry. A lot of it was going on in Canada, interestingly enough, and it was producing some very promising indications that these drugs could help people in profound ways—and possibly even help society in profound ways.
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And this work was going on fairly quietly, without controversy until really 1963 or so when you have the scandal erupt at Harvard over Timothy Leary's project and the fact that they were giving the drugs (psilocybin and LSD) to undergraduates, which they had promised not to do. Because the drugs were legal then, it’s important to remember—it wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.
This begins the period of backlash against psychedelics, the counterculture, with Timothy Leary's help, embraces the drugs. They have an impact on the rise of that counterculture and help shape its styles, mores, and attitudes in ways that straight culture found very disturbing and threatening. The point I make in the book is that it was a very unusual time in that, because these drugs were so new, the people taking them we're having an experience that the rest of the culture couldn't really understand—especially adult culture.
So you have this very unusual time when the young were having the rite of passage that was completely foreign to the elders. Normally rites of passage are organized by the elders to bring adolescence into adult culture, whether you’re talking about a bar mitzvah or a vision quest or whatever.
But here that rite of passage was landing people in a country of the mind but was completely weird and foreign and disturbing to the adult culture. And that led to the backlash. The scientists, who were never really forbidden from doing this work, nevertheless many of them, stopped doing it because it was too controversial and scientists don't like controversy. Gradually the funding dried up, and the interest of doing it dried up and you basically had this promising line of scientific inquiry stopped.
As Roland Griffiths, the scientist at NYU said, at what other time have we done this, stopped learning about something so important just because it became politically controversial? You have go back to Galileo and the effort to suppress his science, or maybe climate change science now. It was a very strange and unfortunate episode.
Fortunately it only lasted a few decades, because by the '90s this intrepid band of researchers and aspiring researchers that I profiled in the book, worked very hard against long odds to bring back the research.
It also seems that, in addition to the pure novelty of LSD itself, Western culture doesn’t have many rites of passage that involve arduous mental re-structuring. There’s not really an analogous experience to the psychedelic trip.
Yes and no. People are trying to bring those rites of passage back. My son went to a high school where the kids did a vision quest before they before they graduated. He was dropped in the middle of Death Valley for three days during which he fasted and had a pretty intense experience. And I think these things are great and we need more of them.
But I think you're right, we regard them as primitive and risky. Even what my son did, in retrospect, sounds crazy by contemporary standards where everybody’s gotta be in a certain space. He was in a very unsafe space but he learned a lot from it. It's one of the formative experiences of his life.
So yeah, I think as a society we need to get better about organizing powerful rites of passage. Who knows, maybe someday that will be one of the applications of psychedelic. We arrange an occasion where people have their first experience in a setting that’s deliberately organized with an elder who knows the territory. I think that's a really intriguing idea that could do a lot of good for both the individual and the society.
We know how important mindset and setting are to psychedelics. I thought it was really fascinating that European researchers didn't see the same amount or degree of mysticism, by people who are undergoing these experiences.
I thought that was really interesting. The American researchers talk a lot about mystical experience. And when the psychedelic dose is high enough and people feel safe enough, they will often have this powerful mystical experience. Which is defined by this sense of merging with a larger entity than yourself, with a sense of ecstasy or awe. There's a poetic sense (related to the inner experience) that what you're perceiving is real and objectively true, the sense of time opening up and having access to Eternity—there're all these qualities that go with the mystical experience.
But in England, they don't find that happening as often. And I think that's really a function of just the vocabulary that the two cultures use. Our culture’s much more religious, and the people who started the research in this country had a spiritual orientation—people like Roland Griffiths and Bob Jesse.
You mentioned that setting, and I think that if your therapist or your clinician thinks that this is going to be a spiritual experience, you are more likely to have one. You're very suggestible under the influence of these drugs. Whereas in England, where they’re less religious in their orientation, at least the people who are doing this research—I mean one of the prominent researchers is a Freudian, who is not from what I can tell particularly religious or spiritual—and they don't have it.
But I think it's the same experience. I think the Brits would use the term “ego dissolution” as the key driver of the productive psychedelic experience, whereas the Americans say “mystical experience.” But the way I described mystical experiences as this merging of the self into something larger—that is the dissolution of ego that allows all of this to happen. And I think all of the qualities that philosopher William James Lee put under his rubric of mystical experience could be explained by dissolution of the ego. So you could look at it in a spiritual vocabulary or a psychodynamic vocabulary.
I wonder if a change in our vocabulary and understanding of general mental health has helped bring psychedelics back into the mainstream, as well.
I think the receptivity to this work—which kind of surprised me, frankly; I thought the psychiatric establishment would be up in arms about this work. But in fact, when I called around, people were like, “This is interesting research. We should look at this, it could be something valuable.” This very reasoned response: not exuberant or anything, but very reasoned and curious.
I think that owes to the fact that mental health treatment in this country is really badly broken. We have a very little to offer people struggling with depression or anxiety or addiction, and our rates of success with these people is not very impressive.
One of the kind of establishment psychiatrists mentioned in explaining to me: you know, you compare mental health treatment to any other branch of medicine and it's accomplished very little. Think about oncology or cardiology or infectious diseases. In all these cases, we've extended people's life spans, come up with a really important new treatments—even cures.
You can't say that about depression or addiction. It's a much harder problem, I would argue. But there’s been very little Innovation in mental health treatment since the '90’s, and that's when we brought in the SSRI antidepressants, like Prozac and Zoloft. After that, what do you have? Not that much. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an important addition to the tools that people have, but in terms of psychopharmacology, it’s pretty pretty slim pickings.
Which makes it understandable that researchers might reinvestigate some of the psychedelics that were originally thought to have so much therapeutic potential. So just to wrap up, what did you take away from your psychedelic experiences? You did psilocybin, LSD, 5-MeO-DMT (found in the Sonora Desert toad), and ayahuasca.
I did these experiences that for me were really out of my comfort zone. I hadn't had a lot of experience as a younger person. I was reluctant and afraid of many of these drugs and, you know, when you're my age letting go is becomes more difficult. People in their twenties are risk takers in a way that people in their fifties are not. I had to overcome a lot of reluctance. And also my ego, telling me, “Don’t. Don’t do this. Don't threaten me.”
I had to overcome that, but I'm very happy I did it because I had some powerful and fascinating experiences that have had a enduring effect on me and on the way I look at things. Whether it's the way I look at other species—I had an experience that made me more aware than I've ever been that we're not the only perceiving or acting subject receiving the world: plants are too. This is something I've always believed in an intellectual way—that plants act on us as well as we act on them—but I felt it for the first time. I really felt it.
I had an experience of ego dissolution that I think put me in a slightly different relationship to my ego. It made me realize I wasn't identical to my ego and I didn't have to necessarily follow its dictates all the time. I had a little more distance on it and became better at quieting the chatter of that neurotic that accompanies us whenever we’re awake.
You can get there in other ways obviously: Meditation and psychoanalysis can give you some distance on your sense of self and make you question its reality or power over you. But I got there in an afternoon. That was pretty remarkable.
I also had a terrifying experience. They weren't all sweetness and light. There were episodes of terror in all of them, but there was a particularly terrifying one, and that was the 5-MeO-DMT. That is kind of an overwhelming experience—not only does the ego dissolve, but everything dissolves—all matter dissolves into pure energy, at least in my experience. And that was terrifying.
The best thing about that trip is it only lasted 15 or 20 minutes. And this: When it was over, I had a feeling of gratitude that I’ve never had. Gratitude not just to be alive, but that there is life. That there is anything seemed like a gift—because there could be nothing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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