Hope Reese | Longreads | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,468 words)

On April 19, 1943, the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann ingested a quarter milligram of LSD to confirm that it had caused the oddly fantastical journey he had experienced the day before. To his surprise and delight, he was not mistaken –– the drug opened up a new window of consciousness. The discovery caught the attention of other researchers, and by the 1950s, psychedelic testing was in full bloom, yielding promising results for people suffering from neurosis, schizophrenia, and psychopathy.

But as counter-cultural experimentation progressed and the drugs were taken out of the lab and into the wild –– think of Tim Leary, dubbed “the most dangerous man in America” by Nixon, and his controversial LSD experiments –– there was a backlash. According to the writer Michael Pollan, society “turned on a dime” against psychedelics. “You’d have to go back to the Inquisition and Galileo for a time when scientific inquiry was stigmatized quite the way this was,” he tells me. “And it’s a measure of how powerful that backlash was and how threatened powerful interests felt about what psychedelics were doing to society.”

Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, takes a holistic approach to the study of psychedelics, exploring it from a historical, scientific, and even personal perspective. Pollan, best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), is the author of four bestsellers, several on the topic of food. He approaches How to Change Your Mind with the same intellectual vigor and open-mindedness evident in his earlier work, and the result is both informative and inspiring.

I spoke to Pollan on the phone while he was at home in Berkeley preparing for his book tour. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese: After your own experiments with psychedelics, you have said that one of the most powerful feelings was the dissolution of your ego. Can you talk about what that was like?

Michael Pollan: It’s the reason that ineffability is one of the hallmarks of mystical experience, according to William James. I had two experiences in ego dissolution: one was wonderful, and the other was horrible and terrifying. I had a fairly high-dose psilocybin trip and had the remarkable experience of feeling my sense of self kind of crumble into little slips of paper, like little Post-its, you know, just blown to the wind.

But, oddly enough, I was still experiencing the scene. I could see it happening. And I didn’t have any panic, and I had no desire to take all of those little pieces of paper and pile them back together again. I mean, it was sort of a Humpty Dumpty moment, but without any kind of anxiety. Then, it morphed into a scene where I could see myself, and I know how paradoxical this sounds –– because who is the “I”? –– but I could see myself spread out over the landscape like a coat of paint or butter. And I beheld this scene, I was conscious of it, even though I was not in here, I was out there. But I still had access to a perspective on it. But it wasn’t my normal ego perspective, because it was completely unperturbed by this cataclysm. And just kind of took it in objectively, dispassionately. It was fine, from the perspective that I had.

And its value or power for me was the idea that I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case. And that, you know, your ego is this interesting character. I mean, it really is a character. It’s a projection of someone who sort of stands for you and looks out for you and patrols the borders between you and others, and the border between you and your subconscious, and has all these defenses that are supposedly there to help you. From an evolutionary point of view, it’s very adaptive. You know, my ego got this book written, so I don’t want to denigrate him.

But on the other hand, our egos torment us in various ways and they close us to all sorts of mental information, whether it’s emotions or the interests of others. They tend to objectify everything but the one subject that is you. So putting aside your ego for a period of time is a really interesting –– and I think a potentially therapeutic –– experience.

Since then, I do feel I have a slightly different relationship to that character. I kind of know when he’s up to his old tricks, and can quiet his voice, which is kind of neurotic, more reliably than I used to. I suppose people who’ve had 10 years of psychotherapy learn something similar. But I got it in, like, four hours on a Tuesday afternoon.

I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case.

You were born in 1955, and were a little too young to take part in what was going on around you with Woodstock and all the experimentation happening at the time. And most of your life you were a little bit afraid to experiment with drugs. How did that background, and your scientific approach, influence your experience of psychedelics?

Because I had a lot of trepidation and hadn’t had a lot of useful experience with psychedelics –– I mean, virtually none –– I approached it with a lot more care and caution than I might have. I was really nervous. So I was very careful about getting the right set and setting, as they say, and finding a guide who I could really feel comfortable entrusting with my mind, which I felt I was putting into play.

I feel, as a writer, there’s a virtue in describing experiences for the first time –– in that it’s a very precious resource we have. Had I been “experienced” in the Jimi Hendrix sense, I wouldn’t have been able to write about the experience with the kind of first sight, you know, the wonder, that you only get once. That’s a hallmark of my writing. I usually find a way to participate in the stories I write about, whether I’m building a house, or owning a steer to understand the meat industry, or apprenticing myself to a great baker to learn how to bake. I’m not going to become an expert. I start off as a naif. I like writing as a naive person. But you have this sense of wonder, and you see things in a way that more experienced people, more expert people, can’t. Not to mention that you see things that people who aren’t going to try the experience can’t.

It situates you in a really special, and, I think, privileged place. I love writing from that place. I learned it, actually, from a writer, George Plimpton, who I read when I was a teenager. Nobody seems to read him very much now, but he wrote a book called Paper Lion where he essentially reinvented sportswriting by getting on the field and participating in a scrimmage game as a quarterback. And he saw things about football that no football player had seen before, and no sportswriter on the sidelines had ever seen before. So that was a really important literary model for me. So there was no question that if I was going to write about psychedelics I would have to try it, even if I had a mix of curiosity and fear going into it.

Many people have described their experiences with psychedelics as these kinds of mystical, mind-blowing experiences. How can you begin to understand what “mystical” means from a scientific perspective?

Well, that’s an interesting question. A lot of scientists don’t want to go there. As soon as you start talking about mystical experience, there are a lot of scientists who turn away, because that seems anti-scientific by its very nature; “mystical” has “mystery” in it. But, what’s curious to me is that there are these scientists, very good, credible scientists, who are making this study of mystical experience and trying to understand what it is. I mean, they can understand it in several different terms. This goes to the point about different vocabularies.

Psychologists can understand something like that by essentially having a question, defining it, figuring out what the different qualities are, and then measuring whether people have it and what causes it. It’s not entirely satisfying. They do give us an anatomy of what it is, you know? It’s characterized by a sense of paradoxical ineffability. They have you fill out these questionnaires.

The word mystical is a word to put on what you could also describe as ego dissolution, as we were talking about earlier. When your ego dissolves, it seems to me, based on my experience and my interviews with lots of people who’ve had this experience, the border between subject and object melts away. You merge with, it could be nature. It could be other people. That feels mystical. You have a sense of oneness with all of creation. So you could look at that as, “Okay, that’s a kind of, a religious experience, or an experience of the divine,” or you could say, “No, that’s just how it feels when your ego goes away.” See what I mean? I mean, they’re both true.

I’ve been struck by the fact that American researchers report a high incidence of mystical experience and that the mystical experience seems to correlate with therapeutic success. If you ask the European researchers, they say, “We don’t see a lot of mystical experience, but we do see a lot of ego dissolution.” I think that, frankly, the English, or the European researchers, are less comfortable with the religious vocabulary than the American researchers. You know, we are a more religious culture in certain ways. It probably goes to the biographies of some of the individuals involved that Roland Griffiths got into this work, because he’d had a mystical experience.

I think that we’re talking about the same phenomenon, and we’re just using different words to describe it. But if you look at the criteria for a mystical experience, the qualities that supposedly characterize it are associated with ego dissolution, too.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

One of your experiments was with a psychedelic called the “toad.” After your trip, you were surprised, after filling out the mystical experience questionnaire, that your experience qualified.

I realized that it was kind of not a perfect net to capture such an experience. I don’t know that there is a perfect net, but it would say things like, “You experience the sense of oneness,” which, you know, has a very positive value attached to it. Sense of oneness, that’s got to be good. I had a sense of oneness, but I was one with a violent storm of primal energy that was terrifying. I didn’t want to be “one.” I wanted to be back in the cozy world of differentiation, so I was a little frustrated with those questionnaires.

But the toad –– this is the most bizarre psychedelic I know of, or that I certainly have had experience of. It is the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad. How did anyone ever figure that out, that the venom of this toad was not only psychoactive, but in fact it’s poisonous unless you smoke it, which burns off the toxins and leaves the chemical 5-MeO-DMT? The ingenuity of humankind is really on display here. They milk this toad. It doesn’t hurt the toad. It’s a big toad that lives in the Sonoran Desert, as the name suggests. You basically gently squeeze the glands that are on the side in the legs of this toad. The spray of venom you catch on a piece of glass. Overnight, it dries and crystallizes, and it looks like brown sugar. Then, you put it in a vaporizer and smoke it. It’s the most powerful and instantaneous trip you can imagine. You are basically taking one big gulp of this gas. Before you’ve exhaled, you are just lost to the world. You feel the sense, not only of your ego dissolving, but of all fixed landmarks dissolving: matter, your body, the room, any sense of place. Any orientation in space or time is gone.

When it ended, I had a sense of gratitude for the very fact of existence –– not just my existence, but the fact that anything exists, that there is anything at all and not nothing.

I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I thought, “Well, this must be what death is like in the early moments.” You know, I just felt like I was a storm of confetti. It was very hard to write about it. I reached for metaphors, but each of them didn’t quite get it. I mean, one was this storm of confetti. Another was whatever was before the big bang when there was only energy and there wasn’t yet any matter. Another was being one of those houses on Bikini Atoll, you know, where they did the first nuclear test. They erected these flimsy houses and you watched them just explode and get swept up in this category five energy hurricane, which I felt was in my head, but my head was not limited to my skull. It was just expanded and with everything.

It was really terrifying. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. There was something positive about it, though, which was when it ended, I had a sense of gratitude for the very fact of existence –– not just my existence, but the fact that anything exists, that there is anything at all and not nothing. I had this profound sense of, “God, that is so great. Aren’t we lucky that we live in a world where there is a world, where there is matter, where there are bodies?” If it was worth doing, it was for that sense of gratitude. Some people do risk their lives for the sense of gratitude they get when they survive an extreme risky experience, you know, jumping out of airplanes or whatever it is. But I don’t. So, it was quite an experience.

I subsequently was talking to a group of more experienced psychonauts than I. As I told this story, this man across the table looked at me and said, “You didn’t take enough.” Had I taken more, I would’ve gotten into this kind of orbit where things would’ve been much better. He may or may not be right, but I’m not planning to find out.

Many people are afraid of these drugs, perhaps because of stories about people having bad trips. But since the ’90s, there have been 1,000 people dosed in experiments in the US, and England, and Switzerland, and not a single adverse event has been reported. Why are so many people fearful?

Now, there’s a couple reasons for that. I mean, one is that they’re screening people very carefully. Anyone at risk for serious mental illness, like schizophrenia, is excluded. If your parents have it, or you have had a psychotic episode in the past –– they’re looking for that.

Those are the people who really should stay away from these drugs. There are people at risk for schizophrenia who are usually kicked or flipped into it by a trauma of some kind. It could be the death of a parent, or graduate school actually is a common one. There are these windows when these can happen in your early 20s, in your late 20s, and a psychedelic experience is one of those, could be one of those triggers, so there’s that. The fact is that they’re screening out people who would be most likely to have an adverse reaction.

There’s also the fact that there is a profound difference –– and I can’t emphasize this enough –– between a guided psychedelic experience and putting a piece of blotter paper on your tongue or going to the beach or going to a concert, and that the guides know how to help if you do have a bad trip. They won’t even use the term “bad trip.” They’ll say “challenging trip,” because often those trips are the most productive from a therapeutic point of view, because you’re getting in touch with some, let’s say a childhood trauma that you didn’t know about, or you’re coming face-to-face with your demons in a way that, yes, it can be scary if you’re doing this recreationally, but it can be very productive if you’re with a therapist or a guide.

The whole term “bad trip” is very loaded. You know, it’s all about context. Yeah, it’s a bad trip if you’re at a Grateful Dead concert and you start, you know, thinking about a childhood trauma. But if you’re on your therapist’s couch, it’s probably exactly what the doctor ordered.

After all this, do you think it’s really only safest to do this with a guide, then?

Well, I’m a little reluctant to go that far, just because I had a very positive experience without a guide that I describe in the book, too, and certainly many people have had. I just think if you want to reduce the risk, and there is a risk, that that is a good way to do it. If someone came to me, if a loved one came to me and said, “Look, I’m really thinking about having this experience,” I would urge them to do it with a guide.

You know, 20-year-olds do crazy things, right? I mean, look at the way they drive. Look at the way they take drugs. It’s just a time in life where you think you’re immortal. So anyway, as you get a little older and the idea of taking a psychedelic just at home on a day, you know, not even going outside, you know the FedEx guy is going to knock on the door or the phone’s going to ring and it’s your mom on the phone. I mean, your life isn’t set up for this. The guide offers a safe place, as they say, to let go. I think that that’s really important. It’s harder to let go when you’re older. You have lots more mental material. You have lots more mental pain to deal with. And you’re more formed, so you’re risking the structures of your identity in a way a 20-year-old hasn’t yet constructed them.

There’s a line in the book –– it’s a joke, but it’s true in many ways –– that psychedelics are wasted on the young. I mean, they do have these wonderful fireworks experiences, and sometimes it really can be productive in a lot of ways, and I’ve met lots of people who found their vocation on a psychedelic journey. But when you’re older and you’re more stuck in your ways and you have all this mental material and all this sort of mental scar tissue built up over the decades, I think, is when it can really be — from the therapeutic point of view — the most useful.

So I’m interested in the way society has reacted to psychedelics. There was a backlash in the ’70s and then the renewed interest in the ‘90s. Are there any other parallels? Other drugs we aren’t really fully considering as well as we should?

Well the backlash is a very interesting story –– how a drug that had been regarded as so promising and the subject of so much encouraging research that the culture, almost on a dime, should turn against it, is a very interesting episode. And it happens really in the mid-’60s and culminates in the ’70s. But I don’t know of another example of where scientific research had been so lively and productive, and then for political reasons is choked off.

It’s as if the government stopped climate change research now. They definitely are not friendly to it but they have not succeeded in stopping it. It still happens, and it will still happen. But imagine if there were such a powerful reaction against this research that they actually halted it.

You’d have to go back to the Inquisition and Galileo for a time when scientific inquiry was stigmatized quite the way this was. And it’s a measure of how powerful that backlash was and how threatened powerful interests felt about what psychedelics were doing to society.

Many drugs go in and out of fashion, obviously. Think of the SSRIs. Antidepressants were wonder drugs in the ’90s when they were introduced and now we’re looking at them and saying, “Oh, they’re not so great. They don’t work much better than placebos. They have lots of side effects, and their effectiveness seems to fade over time.”

But psychedelics have had this very interesting history where they went completely out of respectability and now are just coming back into it. I can’t think of another case like that.

The whole term ‘bad trip’ is very loaded… It’s a bad trip if you’re at a Grateful Dead concert and you start, you know, thinking about a childhood trauma. But if you’re on your therapist’s couch, it’s probably exactly what the doctor ordered.

You’ve written that just some of the effects that they can have — in terms of helping with anxiety, depression, but also really lasting changes in personality — are very hard to come by. Do you know of any other examples of ways that people can achieve these same results?

Not without enormous amounts of agony. Think of addicts who’ve gotten clean, or alcoholics who have gone through really what is a conversion experience. My own father was an alcoholic until his 40s, and when he got sober and joined AA — and I’m sharing all this ’cause he’s no longer alive — he changed. And he underwent a conversion experience. And I think people who are born again have a change of personality sometimes in the religious sense.

There are these catastrophes that sometimes lead people to personality change, and there’re negative ones, too. Think of PTSD. That changes people’s personalities. A real quantum change based on a trauma. So this is a lot gentler compared to that, obviously.

But the research on personality change is very interesting. I don’t think it’s been reproduced, but it was a notable finding from the Johns Hopkins team that people [who took psychedelics] have this enduring change in the personality domain of openness, which is a good one to change because most of us are not as open as we’d like to be.

Being open to new ideas seems like an all-around good quality for our society.

Yeah, and I think it is connected to ego, ’cause I think it’s ego that closes us very often. Ego protects us from ideas, from strange ideas, from foreign ideas. And so, if you diminish the power of your ego or learn how to put it aside temporarily, my guess is you’ll be more open, you’ll let more information in. And that’s what openness is.

The US is currently suffering from a huge opioid epidemic –– which is not at all related to psychedelics, but I wonder: do you think that people sometimes lump drugs together?

Without question. I mean, look, our thinking about drugs in this country is really irrational. And we tend to lump all illegal drugs together as “if you use them, it’s a moral failure.” Whereas legal drugs, like everything from alcohol and tobacco to caffeine and amphetamines for ADD and SSRIs— I mean, the percentage of people who are on some psychoactive drug is well over the majority. And only a percentage of them get addicted.

Opiates are very different from psychedelics –– they’re joined only in the fact that they’re illegal. Although psychedelics are more illegal than opiates in that doctors can prescribe opiates. They’re Schedule 2, not Schedule 1. Psychedelics are on Schedule 1, which means that they have no accepted medical use, even though we’re discovering they do have a medical use. It’s just not accepted quite yet. But it will be.

But just to go over some of the differences. Psychedelics are non-addictive. There’s no lethal dose of a psychedelic. They’re not toxic enough to kill you. In fact, they’re not very toxic at all compared to many legal drugs, including alcohol. So I mean, if you look at it objectively and look at it in terms of risk, their safety profile is actually pretty impressive compared to other psychoactive drugs. You also don’t have to take them every day. You’d be crazy if you did. And you’d have no desire to.

If you put the rats in the cage and you give them the lever with opium or opiates and food, they’ll keep pressing the lever for the opiates until they die. If you then change it out and have LSD on the lever — you get LSD if you press the lever — the animals will try it once and never again. So these drugs really are not habit-forming.

So it’s not to say they’re without risks. They have psychological risks. But I think we have to look at drugs individually and leave aside their illegality. I mean, look, cannabis is now legal in my state. It’s the same drug, but now you can go into the store and buy it. And there’s so many arbitrary categories here. So yeah, there’s room for a lot of rethinking of drugs and removing the moral and political coloration that we bring to them and look at them case by case. Some are very useful tools and some are less useful tools. And some are purely destructive.

Many people who have taken psychedelics report that these experiences were some of the most significant –– or even the most significant –– moments in their life …

Over the birth of a child and the death of a parent in some cases. I know. I had the same reaction. It was kind of what made me want to explore this. How could that be that a chemical would give you one of the most meaningful experiences of your life? Or give you a spiritually significant experience? It just seemed so implausible and far-fetched. But I came to understand and to believe these people that it had been. In a way, the death of a parent or the birth of a child really marks a right-angle change in the course of your life. And for many people, a psychedelic experience can do that –– they go into it as one person and then they come out as another.

When you read that, it’s like, “Really?” But I’ve talked to lots of those people. I’ve interviewed them. Their stories are in the book. They’re not making it up –– and they’re not exaggerating.

* * *

Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky