Michael Pollan on the Science and Sublimity of Psychedelics (Ep. 47)
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Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.
He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most important of all — whether it’s any fun.
Plus his latest thoughts on feeding the world, GMOs, and writing well.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with Michael Pollan at UC Berkeley. Michael is, most recently, the author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Every word in that subtitle is indeed important. This is a broad book, a very important book. It has skyrocketed to being a number-one best seller.
Michael has many other achievements. He is one of our very best and most widely read food writers. He is faculty at Berkeley and Harvard and has written books on building, gardening, and many other topics.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Tyler. Good to be here.
COWEN: My first question. Your book considers psychedelics and the benefits we m ight reap from psychedelics. If people have a status quo bias that they’re not so willing to try new things, what other kind of free-lunch changes should we make with our minds? Or do you think it’s just this one, psychedelics?
POLLAN: I don’t know what you mean by free-lunch changes.
COWEN: Things we could do that would be as simple as taking a micro-dose, say, that would make us much more open, or smarter, or less depressed, that would cost almost nothing.
POLLAN: Meditation. Meditation is a very important thing that’s available to everybody. You can download an app to learn how to do it. It’s been shown to reduce blood pressure. I’ve found in my own practice, it’s a good way to reduce stress. That’s pretty free lunch. That’s about as free lunch as it gets. You just need 20 minutes. You have to invest time, which is actually hard for people.
COWEN: So it’s meditation and psychedelics, but otherwise, we’re . . .
POLLAN: I’m sure, given some time, I could come up with other things. Eating differently is a free-lunch change. It’s a lunch change.
If we’re talking about people’s emotional well-being or psychological well-being, one of the areas that we have much to learn about is the links between mood and food and that the kind of junk-food diet, this energy-dense food that we’re eating, lots of carbohydrates, puts people on an emotional roller coaster.
I’m sure it’s tied to their insulin levels and things like that, and that a healthy diet tends to make people feel better. I don’t know that this has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of a social scientist yet, but I do think that there are enormous gains. Exercise is another one. God, there’s a whole list.
COWEN: As good social scientists, we want to look for the cross-sectional variation. I once remarked that John Lennon benefited from psychedelics more than Paul McCartney did.
COWEN: Paul McCartney was into studio expertise. Lennon needed a certain kind of creativity.
What do you think are the cross-sectional claims about who benefits most? Is it the complacent or the young, who are already creative and looking to take some more chances?
POLLAN: That’s a good question. I think it’s people struggling with certain kinds of mental illness, too, benefit the most. Demonstrating creativity is very difficult. First, I don’t know that we have a good definition of creativity. There have been efforts to study the impact of psychedelics on creativity.
There’s lots of anecdotal evidence. Steve Jobs famously reported it had an influence on him. Stewart Brand. There’s a whole lot of engineers in Silicon Valley. There are a lot of artists. There are theoretical physicists who have reported that it helped them with their work. Biologists — Kary Mullis famously said he saw the structure . . . He had the insight that allowed him to come up with PCR, the method for polymerase chain reaction reproducing DNA, during an LSD experience.
This is all anecdotal. It’d be interesting to figure out how to study it. I tend to think that it makes sense that there would be an effect, in that psychedelics disrupt the grooves of habit and habitual thought.
If creativity somehow involves reaching for non-obvious, so-called hotter searches, to use an AI term, ones further out in the space of possibility which have a lesser chance of being successful but sometimes include the most radical new solutions to problems, it appears that psychedelics encourage the brain in that direction.
I would say in terms of those who stand to gain the most [from psychedelics], it’s people struggling with habit: negative habits, habits of thought, habits of behavior. Whether it’s addiction or a depressive mode of thinking, obsession, things like eating disorders, I would bet will yield to this. It’s people on this end of the mental spectrum, where they’re overly rigid in their thinking.
POLLAN: Grateful Dead.
COWEN: Grateful Dead. I find it harder to find examples from the history of painting. It even seems to me psychedelics might make bad poets worse. Do you agree?
POLLAN: [laughs] I think it makes bad painters worse. I can say that with some confidence. In general, if you just search psychedelic art online, you’ll see some real crap. [laughs] I don’t know why. I think it’s very hard to do.
In terms of poets, that’s a good question. A lot of it depends on your opinion of Allen Ginsberg.
COWEN: Sure. That’s what I was referring to.
POLLAN: [laughs] OK. He wrote some really terrible poetry. He wrote a couple of great poems. If you picked one of his poems at random . . . [laughs] Can we blame that all on psychedelics? He may have been writing bad poetry before psychedelics.
COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.
Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .
POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.
One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.
One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.
The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.
Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.
COWEN: You mention the Bach Cello Suites in your work. One way you might try to get a more profound understanding of them is to listen to them with a score. You could buy many recordings of them, try to hear them in concert. You could try to learn to play them yourself. I’ve done that with two of them for guitar. At the end of that experience, I felt I have a more profound understanding of them.
Or you could listen to them under the influence of psychedelics. But in the latter case, are you actually coming away with a better understanding of the Bach Cello Suites?
POLLAN: Yes and no. What you’re getting at is that it feels to us — descendants of Puritans — that it’s cheating to use a pill to achieve any kind of important mental effect. That’s a point of view. It’s a point of view. There is a sense in which using drugs to achieve any of this stuff is a shortcut.
Ditto with meditation. Meditation is really hard work to get to a kind of consciousness that you can get to pretty quickly with psychedelics. Does that make meditation better? Most of us feel instinctively it does.
All I’m saying is we should question the assumptions behind that. I’m not sure either way. The fact is, any big experience, mental experience, is mediated by chemicals. Is the distinction between the endogenous and the exogenous ones — should that be so important? I’m not sure of the answer.
I think you would have a more lasting appreciation of what’s going on . . . Just like you read a poem five times, you’re going to understand it in a different way. It’s going to be somewhat more intellectual, perhaps, and a little less emotional.
There’s a kind of understanding that I had of Bach. I’m incapable of reading sheet music. I can’t play an instrument. I could go to a lot of concerts. I was disappointed to learn I’m going to miss . . . Yo-Yo Ma is going to be performing them right here in Berkeley at the end of the month, and I’m going to be out of town.
The powerful emotional connection to that music — and I can’t even use the word “connection” because I was identical to it in this experience — that kind of listening, I don’t know that that’s available any other way.
COWEN: Feel free to pass on this one. Timothy Leary once wrote that sex was the major advantage or revelation from taking LSD. Do you have an opinion on this as a scientist?
POLLAN: [laughs] I know that quote, and it’s always surprised me. There’s something asexual about the experience, I think. Sex was very important to Leary, whether it involved anything: talk, LSD, alcohol. He was a highly sexualized person. The LSD experience is highly constructed, so maybe for him, it was.
My sense and the sense of other people is that that’s not what you’re thinking about. Afterwards, you’re a little too tired to think about. [laughs] I’d be curious what other people think. It’s not something I’ve run into, nor have I found an erotic charge.
I was interviewing somebody recently who was a rabbi who had a profound mystical experience on psychedelics. There’s a really interesting study going on at Hopkins and NYU now, where they’re giving psilocybin to religious professionals.
It’s a little vague on exactly why. I think they’re curious to know whether they’ll find evidence of a perennial philosophy, some kind of common core of religious experience, which is an interesting idea. It was Aldous Huxley’s idea.
Also, maybe it would help them with burnout. There are lots of religious people who get so absorbed in the work of running an organization and ministering to people that the spiritual dimension diminishes. That, at least, I think is their assumption.
This woman talked about having an encounter with the divine, her idea of God, and this merging with it. Someone else who’d interviewed many of these volunteers had said that many people described being ravished by the divine, which I thought, that’s a pretty erotic term.
I asked her if, in her case, there was any kind of erotic charge. It was a funny question to ask a rabbi about their psilocybin experience. She said, “No, not at all. It wasn’t like that at all.” So it’s something that I’m alert to. My guess is Leary is unique in that, fairly unique.
On whether psychedelics are fun
COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?
For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.
If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?
POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.
But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”
COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?
POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.
But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.
I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.
In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.
COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?
POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?
COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.
POLLAN: I think it’s the lightness of the word fun that I object to.
COWEN: Deep fun. Pleasure.
POLLAN: There was pleasure. There were moments of great pleasure, of just being overwhelmed by the beauty of things. You mention that my engagement with that Bach unaccompanied cello suites. It wasn’t fun. It was bigger than that. But it was deeply pleasurable. It was ecstatic in a sense. So there are moments of ecstasy.
COWEN: So ecstatic, you don’t want to do it again. It’s almost like the sublime in 18th century aesthetics — gorgeous but too terrible.
POLLAN: It is beautiful and terrible at the same time. The sublime is a very good frame to understand it. It’s a kind of awe that can be overwhelming. We do seek out awesome experience. But if you did it every day, it wouldn’t be awesome.
It is beautiful and terrible at the same time. The sublime is a very good frame to understand it. It’s a kind of awe that can be overwhelming. We do seek out awesome experience. But if you did it every day, it wouldn’t be awesome.
COWEN: The issue of personality change — there’s evidence it may help people with depression. Scott Alexander cites a study. He interprets it as some psychedelics increase your openness in terms of five-factor personality theory, up to about half a standard deviation, which is a large effect because people’s personalities don’t change much after a certain age.
POLLAN: Very rare.
COWEN: Do you agree with this evidence?
POLLAN: I can’t agree or disagree. The study in question hasn’t been reproduced. I have an open mind about that. There was another study recently done in England that looked at personality change and found some changes on other metrics, too, including neuroticism.
COWEN: Going up or down?
POLLAN: Up. I think it was up. [This recent UK study to which Pollan might be referring found neuroticism went down, among other things -Ed.]
COWEN: The sublime ought to do that to you, right?
POLLAN: [laughs] No. And it also found some evidence of openness. But it’s a very small sample. I didn’t look at the statistical analysis very closely. It’s interesting. It coincides with what people report. But whether that’s a strong enough study to hang our hats on, I’m not sure.
On personality changes
COWEN: Let’s say I had this fear. Five-factor personality theory only captures a small amount of what people are, like any theory. We don’t know, but it’s at least possible one part of your personality changes. There are many other parts of your personality we don’t measure, we can’t measure.
It would seem weird if only one part of you changed. Quite possibly three, four other, more parts of you are changing. You don’t know what it’s going to be. If you like how you are and you’re risk averse, why go down this path?
POLLAN: I think that you have to be open to the idea that you could be better. Certainly on the dimension of openness, I think most of us could stand to be somewhat more open. As we age, I think we tend to get stuck in grooves and ideologies and get less good at considering other points of view.
Plus, points of view come up that didn’t exist when our personalities were formed. New information, our environment changes. Being open . . . I think we all have room for improvement on that dimension. Lowering neuroticism, if indeed that is the case, that seems like a positive.
I like myself, too. I was pretty satisfied with who I was. But I had some problems with being so satisfied with who I was. [laughs] So I was open. I had a lot of curiosity. I guess I didn’t set out to change myself. I set out to learn about myself.
COWEN: So it was a kind of aspiration. You didn’t know what would be at the end of the path, but you felt you wanted to be at a somewhat different point.
POLLAN: It was several things. It was journalistic curiosity, very important driver of this whole project. That curiosity is not necessarily about personal change. It’s just how we think.
It was also realizing that there was something perhaps missing in my life that these people I was interviewing had, which was a much stronger sense of spiritual experience, spirituality than I had. I really saw that as an undeveloped dimension of my character and a rejected dimension of my character.
I was very suspicious of spirituality. I’m very materialist in my outlook, I realized. I saw spiritual as a synonym for supernatural, and I don’t accept anything supernatural.
COWEN: Even now, you don’t believe in God.
POLLAN: As defined how? I don’t believe there’s a being in the sky.
COWEN: There’s a betting market on Intrade: “Does God exist?”
POLLAN: How’s that going?
COWEN: No, I’m joking. I guess I give 1 in 20 odds that God exists.
POLLAN: That’s very high. What about for an afterlife?
COWEN: Lower, I think.
POLLAN: Sounds like a Jewish God.
On gurus and dogmatism
COWEN: Are you worried about dogmatism? Some people, after psychedelics, you get the feeling they say, “I’ve seen how things really are.” That makes me suspicious. Maybe we’re measuring openness incorrectly, that some forms of their openness go up, but other forms go down. With respect to their own psychedelic experience, they’re more dogmatic. What’s your view?
POLLAN: Yeah, a related paradox is ego dissolution versus ego inflation. People have an experience of ego dissolution on high-dose psychedelic experience, which can be quite profound. It was for me.
Many people — I don’t know what percentage — emerge from the experience with a subsequent sense of ego inflation, which is weird. You have these gurus emerging from this ego-destroying experience. Leary is a great example. He was a complete egomaniac. Yet, he’d had repeated experiences of losing his ego.
What happens? This is, I guess, the dogmatism point. You’ve had such a profound experience that you think you found a key to reality. You feel very special because you hold this key to reality. I think that’s a very dangerous thing. I don’t know that what you experience is absolute reality in any sense.
The experience to come out of it with confidence that you’ve solved some riddle of the universe, that’s always a dangerous thing. And that does lead to dogmatism. It leads to the guru complex. We’ve seen that, too.
The people who come out of the experience deciding they’re gurus and they’re dogmatic about it, they tend to hold the cultural microphone longer than the people who just went off to their corner and enjoyed what they learned and shared it with their friends and didn’t get dogmatic. But certainly, it is an occupational hazard of messing around with psychedelics, that kind of dogmatism.
COWEN: LSD and some other psychedelics — they do seem, as you mentioned, correlated with the phenomenon of gurus. Do you think that’s deeply structural? If we had what (in your view) would be a more rational set of policies toward some psychedelics, that the guru would persist? Or is that an artifact of illegality or it being underground?
POLLAN: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s probably both. William James spoke of the noetic quality of the mystical experience. To the extent that people have mystical experiences on psychedelics . . . What he meant is the authority of the ideas, the insights, the opinions that occur to you during a mystical experience is very special.
It doesn’t seem subjective to you. It seems like an objective truth of the universe. That’s always a dangerous way to think. And that is a quality that people have. It may have to do with the dissolving of subjectivity. The subject-object distinction goes away for a period of time, so everything seems objective, or whatever is subjective is objective. That’s built in, I think, to the mystical experience.
Will you restate your question again?
COWEN: The fact that gurus seem closely connected to some psychedelics — is that structural or just temporary contingency?
POLLAN: Yeah, illegality. Partly structural. But what if these drugs were routinely used in psychiatric care? I think you’d see less of it because now the persecution complex that goes with the guru complex — they’re related.
Leary thought he was a guru, and he loved the persecution because it enhanced his sense that he was special, he was a prophet, he was dangerous, he was a threat to the system. Yes, I think the illegality . . .
COWEN: Psychiatrists are not that different from gurus, right?
COWEN: They’re more institutionalized, but in the broader scheme of things…
POLLAN: On a smaller scale. Nobody beyond their patient group feels that, but Leary’s on television, on college campuses. He’s speaking before giant crowds, doing his guru thing. But I think psychiatrists have a certain guru aspect. Whether it’s imputed to them or they feel it, I don’t know.
COWEN: Would you feel better if psychedelics were maybe packaged with a ceremonial/religious experience or packaged with big agriculture? Could be a large commercial corporation, like the Facebook of LSD?
POLLAN: Cargill? [laughs]
COWEN: And the guru would be taken away. The power and status of LSD, if the positive claims are correct, it’s going to lie somewhere. Where do you want to put it — with religion, with psychiatrists, with the military, the CIA, big companies? You have a lot of choices. What do you see as the best way this could work out?
POLLAN: I don’t think there’s one choice to be made. I think it has a role to play. I say this assuming that the Phase 3 trials have the kinds of results we’ve seen on the smaller studies.
COWEN: Assuming the positive scenario works out.
POLLAN: Yeah, let’s assume that. I think there is a place in medicine for this, in psychotherapy, and that that is one cultural container that seems like the most likely.
I also see it having a role in religion. It does already. The Native American Church uses peyote in their ceremonies in San Pedro. It’s allowed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They’ve gained the right to do that. There are two ayahuasca churches that have the right. And I could see more of that. I think it does have a sacramental role for people who believe. So that’s another.
I would hope that there’s another cultural container for the rest of us who are not part of a religion, who are not by the DSM diagnoses mentally ill, but are struggling with things they don’t like about themselves, with a sense that they’re dealing with death and they want to think about their mortality, who are intellectually curious, who are creatively curious.
I would hope that there’s another cultural container for the rest of us who are not part of a religion, who are not by the DSM diagnoses mentally ill, but are struggling with things they don’t like about themselves, with a sense that they’re dealing with death and they want to think about their mortality, who are intellectually curious, who are creatively curious.
How do you deal with that? What one of my sources, one of the researchers, called “the betterment of well people.” I love that phrase. These drugs seem to offer something to those people.
I also don’t think they should be simply and completely legalized and deregulated, just because of their power and some of the risks, and that people do get into trouble with them. I don’t know what that container is. I think it’s a really interesting cultural project to develop what that would be.
Lots of people go to psychotherapists without being mentally ill. People go because they’re unhappy, they’re in the midst of a divorce, they don’t know how to deal with their kids — all the different reasons. These people benefit. It’s not mental illness treatment. It’s something else.
You could imagine a situation where institutions would be built, mental health spas, for example, where there is a doctor involved in some way. They’re ascribing to some set of protocols, guided trips with people who’ve been trained, some guarantees of the purity of the drug, all this kind of stuff.
Maybe that is it. It’s going to take the work of designers, therapists — a whole lot — architects to create this other container. I don’t have an outline for it, but I’d like to see it.
On drug safety
COWEN: Do you think LSD, in particular, could pass current FDA guidelines that you have to show a drug is both safe and effective? Or are those guidelines too strict?
POLLAN: No, I don’t think they’re too strict in this case. Let’s talk about psilocybin, though, because it’s a very similar drug. The duration of action is much longer with LSD. It’s about twice as long. That’s one of the reasons it’s not used in the current research.
The other is it has much more political baggage. It’s much more radioactive in Congress, and the kinds of people who might shut it down know about LSD. They don’t know about psilocybin.
I think that efficacy will be demonstrated for certain indications. We’ve seen already that it can reduce anxiety and depression in people who have a cancer diagnosis. We’ve seen some promising evidence in smaller studies that it’s helpful with addiction.
I think there’s a very good chance we’ll find efficacy. If we get half the treatment effect we’ve seen in the cancer-anxiety study, it would be better than a lot of things out there.
Safety — I don’t think it’s that hard. One of the striking things about these drugs . . . When I say these drugs, I don’t mean everything people are calling psychedelics. I wouldn’t put MDMA under this umbrella, or cannabis.
The so-called classic psychedelics, like psilocybin, DMT, LSD, have remarkably low toxicity compared to drugs we take routinely, compared to over-the-counter drugs, compared to Tylenol. There doesn’t appear to be a lethal dose, which is one measure of toxicity in a drug. So I don’t think they’re going to have too much trouble with that.
COWEN: As for safety, there’s something, as you know, called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder that some percentage of people — they take psychedelics, possibly LSD, and then for years afterwards, they have distortions in their field of vision, almost like minitrips, ongoing. What’s your view on that evidence?
POLLAN: I couldn’t find a lot of good research on so-called acid flashbacks. I went looking for it, and it actually hasn’t been studied. You know that giving a name to something happens in the DSM.
COWEN: And it may not mean anything.
POLLAN: Right. Five years later, they take it out or they change it. As authoritative as that sounds, it isn’t clear exactly what that phenomenon is. There does seem to be some phenomenon.
Anecdotally, I hear about it. Sometimes people describe it as a state they will themselves into, or that they use meditation because they want to get back to that. Other people say it’s this unbidden sense of defamiliarization that happens.
But it’s not like you’re driving the car, and you go into a full-blown hallucination. There’re not accounts of that that I’ve been able to find. So I don’t know how real acid flashbacks are. It’s a really interesting question and why there hasn’t been more research on it. I don’t know that, in the trials, they’ve found it with psilocybin.
Is it specific to LSD? LSD persists in the receptors for a remarkably long time, but whether it would be months seems hard to believe. There’s something about the LSD molecule that gets caught under this little hood on the receptor and sticks around even longer than serotonin. I don’t know what to say about that.
I think the real risks are to people who are at risk of psychosis, whether they have schizophrenia in their genes, in their family background, or personality disorders of various kinds, bipolar. People in that category of mental illness, these drugs can have very negative effects on. Some people will have psychotic breaks. That’s a serious risk, and a lot of work is done to screen those people out of the university trials.
Other people, though, using drugs outside of a supervised clinical situation simply do stupid things because they’re debilitated. They walk into traffic because maybe they’re having a hallucination. They do jump out of buildings. There are occasional suicides on LSD. It becomes a very big story because it fits into a narrative of this incredibly dangerous drug.
There are a lot of suicides on SSRIs. It’s a recognized side effect. The number of drugs we administer to people for which suicide is a side effect listed is remarkable. Some people blame the increase in suicides in recent years to prescription drugs that have that as a risk factor.
So it’s a risk factor for LSD, also. As I say, it becomes a huge story when it happens.
The number of drugs we administer to people for which suicide is a side effect listed is remarkable. Some people blame the increase in suicides in recent years to prescription drugs that have that as a risk factor.
On psychology and psychedelics
COWEN: Many psychedelics operate through the serotonin system. If I have a serotonin imbalance, am I at some kind of special risk? Or do we not even know?
POLLAN: We do not even know. One thing, though, people who are on an SSRI to raise their serotonin levels — although actually, we don’t even know that SSRIs do that, believe it or not; it’s incredible what we don’t know about them — but they do occupy the same receptor sites.
People on an SSRI will not be admitted to these trials. The reason is not that there’s a counter-indication that it would make you sick or do something bad to you, but it won’t work. The psychedelic often won’t work if you’re on an SSRI. So people who want to take them would need to taper off them. But that carries its own risks, of course, of suicide. In general, they want you not to be on an SSRI for that reason.
COWEN: You cite the work of psychologist Alison Gopnik, who compares being on LSD to the consciousness of children. Do you agree with her view? If you do, how does it fit into there being this not-so-fun, sublime yet somewhat terrible aspect of psychedelics?
POLLAN: I found her argument compelling. I thought it was a good way to understand what’s happening. She doesn’t use a loaded word like regression.
Other psychedelic researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris says that we regress to what Freud called a primary consciousness, which is less sophisticated, has more magical thinking — and kids certainly have more magical thinking than adults do.
Her distinction between spotlight consciousness and lantern consciousness, with adults having this amazing ability to train their attention on something and block out everything else and get a lot of stuff done, versus the kid who doesn’t really stay focused, partly because he or she is taking in information from all directions and is not prioritizing, and there is a strength and a weakness in that.
My own gut is there is something childlike about the consciousness at certain stages in the trip. Just judging from the experience of having had a kid, that there are levels of sensitivity to environment that children have that we lose as adults because of our desire to focus. We shut things out.
Also, I’m sure there are physiological reasons that kids taste with a lot more and smell with a lot more acuity. You recover some of that sometimes. You recover some of that sensory sensitivity. I think so much of growing up is about blocking out too much sensory information so we can focus and we can use our intellects. We pay less attention to the physical senses than kids do. So yeah, I find her argument compelling.
COWEN: Gopnik says it’s like having tea with a four-year-old. I have a sense that a tea party with a four-year-old, the four-year-old will insist on all kinds of rules. The four-year-old will be a quicker learner than the adult. It seems fundamentally like a very different thing to me.
POLLAN: I think in some dimensions, it’s similar. Probably in other dimensions, it’s not. I know about that rule-based kid, but I also know the kid you sit down with, the four-year-old who spins out some imaginative tale of such implausibility and beauty. It’s crazy talk, but it’s incredibly charming. There’s that four-year-old, too. Maybe we shouldn’t be generalizing about four-year-olds.
COWEN: You’ve written that you tried some things earlier in your life. In Botany of Desire, you write about psychedelics. You sound actually somewhat negative. You’ve come to the point you’re at now, which is quite different.
What is it you think you learned in between, putting aside anything having to do with actual experience? Intellectually, what is it that got you from one point of view to the other?
POLLAN: I don’t know that I was anti psychedelic. First of all, the chapter in Botany of Desire you’re referencing, I think, is mostly about cannabis, even though I quote Huxley.
POLLAN: This idea of a reducing valve, this idea that consciousness is about eliminating material rather than letting it in, all that I found very compelling — and the importance of wonder. One of the things drugs can do is give you that, to go back to the sublime idea.
But I have to say I was just afraid of them. I was afraid of a big psychedelic experience. I didn’t think I was mentally sturdy enough to endure it. So when I used mushrooms in my late 20s, it was pretty low dose. I wasn’t taking enough to really have an ego-dissolving experience. I was afraid to do that.
What changed is a couple things. One is getting older and that feeling like there was some work that could be done on my personality or my attitude toward things and an openness to trying and the confidence I got learning about these studies. You have to remember I did a lot of research before I decided to try them myself.
You know. You meet someone. You have some confidence that they have integrity. They’re honest. They’re good scientists. I was learning that it was not exactly what I thought. There was a kind of seriousness to the whole process that I wasn’t aware of. I think I gained a certain confidence from them and their work and their papers.
Then there was this: We haven’t really distinguished between a psychedelic trip and a guided psychedelic trip. They’re substantially different experiences.
When you are with a guide who’s preparing you very carefully, telling you what to do if things get frightening, is sitting with you during the entire duration, and then is helping you make sense of what you learned in an integration session — if you’re nervous about these drugs, as I was, that gives you a great deal of confidence. You’re not going to be alone. There’s someone who really knows the territory well. If you do freak out, they know what to tell you, and they know how to get you through that.
The psychedelic experience available to me in my 20s and the one available to me in my 50s and 60s was substantially different. Even though it’s the same molecule, I can’t emphasize enough what a fundamentally different experience it is.
COWEN: Do you think psychoactive drugs affect people’s political views? Timothy Leary seemed to think they did. Nixon himself thought it made people into Commies or somehow not American. They ought to be drinking instead. That would make them more conservative.
COWEN: What is your opinion?
POLLAN: I think it’s really an interesting area to explore. There’s some preliminary research that suggests that it might have a political impact. Robin Carhart-Harris, the neuroscientist at Imperial College who I profile in the book, raises the question, does LSD create hippies or do hippies create LSD? He thinks LSD might create hippies. He’s worked with it quite a bit.
The thinking is that there’s something fundamentally antihierarchical about it. It makes you question things. Since you’re having an unmediated experience of some sort of possibly divine authority or some other kind of authority, you’re very suspicious of priests of all kinds, people who mediate authority for us. This is his theory.
Leary did say the kids who take LSD aren’t going to fight your wars, and they aren’t going to join your corporations. And indeed, a lot of people who took LSD did drop out. Is that cause and effect?
COWEN: Doesn’t that also mean they’re not radical? If they’re not going to fight Nixon’s wars, maybe they’re not going to fight other wars either. They’re not going to fight civil wars. They’re not going to fight as much for social justice. Is it part of a new bread-and-circuses equilibrium?
POLLAN: It could be. “Does it depoliticize people?” would be an interesting question. You can ask that of all contemplative practice. People who meditate become Buddhists, who become so enlightened that they’re less dissatisfied with the world as it is. I think that’s a risk definitely of contemplative practices of all kinds.
But going back to the political question, too, the other issue is the attitude toward the environment. He [Carhart-Harris] has done a study — you can tell me, better than I can judge, whether it has any merit or weight — measuring something called nature relatedness, which is a scale that psychologists use. How much do you feel a part of nature or stand apart from it?
Before and after psychedelics, nature relatedness scores go up. I think what might be going on is that the kinds of powerful connections that people feel, whether to other people, love, or to nature, on psychedelics may be the result of the lowering of ego defenses that wall us off from other people.
That’s why I do think that, to the extent our big problems, in my view, are the environmental crisis and tribalism right now. Psychedelics, the experience of it, the anecdotal reports of it, and some of this light science about it suggest that they address both those things, which I think is interesting and may explain why there is such interest in it right now.
I also am very alert to the possibility that psychedelic experience is completely constructed and that in the ’60s, because of other things that were going on, it tended to increase anti-authoritarian feeling.
It’s equally plausible to me that these drugs could be brainwashing agents. That was certainly how Charlie Manson used them. He used them to keep his posse in line. I don’t know exactly how or what he told them.
The CIA thought it could be a mind-control agent for a long time. The fundamental fact that these drugs are so suggestible in their effects, that set and setting so heavily influence the experience, if you took it in the context of a cult, if you took it in the context of someone trying to change your thinking, it might work.
COWEN: So it increases the power of those who control the context and the environment perhaps.
POLLAN: Yeah. We have this interesting situation where the American researchers who tend to have a somewhat spiritual orientation — Roland Griffiths got into this work because he was a practicing Hindu and had a mystical experience — it draws people with a spiritual orientation in America, which is a more religious country than England.
In England, they don’t see so much mystical experience as they do here in their results. There’s a very strong cultural component.
There’s this phenomenon where the theoretical orientation of the therapist administering the drug is reflected in the kind of imagery people have. If a Jungian therapist gives you psychedelics, you’re going to see archetypes.
All of which is to say, I could argue both sides, that in many ways, there does seem to be certain consistency. Unless we’ve done real cross-cultural work and given LSD to people who live in a very different world or for a very different purpose than healing people . . .
Maybe the CIA found a powerful tool. They just haven’t told us. I don’t know. I have an open mind about that. I told you my openness was increased. [laughs]
COWEN: The proper balance between nature and culture — it’s a running theme in many of your books, arguably all of your books. After this most recent book, you have not explicitly re-addressed that general theme again. Is there anything you would add to your overall take on the proper balance between nature and culture now that you are more open and have learned more about psychedelics?
POLLAN: [laughs] One of the things that got me into this is this abiding interest in nature and our engagement with the natural world. Part of that engagement, for as long as we’ve been around, has been using plants and fungi to change consciousness. I’m really interested in that desire and why it should be adaptive, if indeed it is.
I’ve always played with this idea that what is this duality about? How could culture be an opposite term for nature? We are nature too, but we don’t feel like we are.
I had an experience that I describe in the book, an unguided trip, where I felt a connection with nature that I’d never felt before. And I have toyed around with the conceit that plants manipulate us even as we manipulate them.
COWEN: Plants are evil, right? They just grow. They take things over.
POLLAN: That doesn’t make them evil! [laughs]
COWEN: They’re worse than carnivores in a way. They’re more unthinking.
POLLAN: You come from the land of kudzu, don’t you? [laughs]
COWEN: I do.
POLLAN: Whatever space I felt between myself as someone operating in nature but not quite feeling of nature closed down on this experience. I had an experience of feeling like one among the plants in my garden, that I had a sense that they had a benign affect toward me, and that we were all in this garden together in this really profound way.
For me, the nature-culture divide completely closed down for a period of time. Is this illusory? What’s the status of that experience? I can’t tell you.
I’m always alert. Nature is my big subject as a writer. I’m just endlessly fascinated by it and our attitudes toward it and the complexity of this relationship that we’re in with other species.
Here was this mushroom with the power to change what was going on in my mind in a profound way, change my attitude toward it and other plants. It’s not a plant. It’s a fungi. I think that’s really interesting.
There are people who go further and say that these molecules are bringing us a message from nature. I think that’s fanciful notion. But the fact that these plants and fungi would fundamentally change one’s sense of the natural world . . .
To the extent we objectify nature, we can extract from it, we can exploit it, we can do lots of negative things to it. We can put animals in tiny little crates, have brutal animal agriculture because we’ve objectified it.
If you have an experience that doesn’t allow you to objectify it and suddenly you realize, “Oh my God, there are multiple subjectivities in nature. Consciousness is spread more democratically than I thought,” I think it makes it harder to do that.
COWEN: A few questions about food. Where is the second-best place to eat in Berkeley?
POLLAN: [laughs] I would recommend a place on Fourth Street called Iyasare, which is a Japanese fusion restaurant. It’s excellent. I wouldn’t overlook Chez Panisse Cafe, which is less formal, and you can choose what you want. It’s consistently very good. I would have to put that number one.
There’s a wonderful sushi restaurant called Kamado Sushi right in the Gourmet Ghetto that I highly recommend — reasonably priced, informal, and excellent for lunch or dinner. We’re blessed with many eating possibilities. Or you could come to my house.
COWEN: The world probably needs to double its production of food to feed what is still, for now, a growing population. How well do you think that process will go?
POLLAN: The feed-the-world issue is a very complicated one. Is it true we need to double production? There are other ways to address the growing need for more food, and one is to change diets.
One of the assumptions in these questions, as they’re usually framed, is we’re stuck with the Western diet, that the world wants to eat as much meat as we do. We have to assume that this is the baseline we have to deal with. How do we give a Western diet to everybody who wants it? I don’t think we’ll be able to. That’ll get messy. There’s not enough . . . We can’t provide meat to the Chinese at the rates we provide it to ourselves. Why should they not have it if we have it?
If you look at the output of food, a whole lot of it is not being eaten by people. A huge amount is being fed to animals for both milk production and meat production.
If you’re willing to address that and charge the real price for meat without all the externalities that we tolerate in meat production, if you’re willing to take some of that grain and not feed it to cars, which doesn’t make sense — ethanol is just a terrible use of grain — you don’t have to double food production.
We can’t double the land. Yes, we have to achieve more efficiency, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy the soil, which we’re in danger of doing right now.
What I’m suggesting is that this whole question is not just a matter of production. It’s a matter of distribution, and it’s a matter of what kind of food are we growing. We have this limited land base, arable soil. We can’t expand it dramatically. So what is the most efficient way to use it? Not by pounds of grain or bushels of grain but by food that humans need to eat. Frances Moore Lappè made this point back in 1970.
There’s going to be a reckoning. I don’t think it’s going to be a smooth, linear . . . Are we going to have breakthroughs in yield due to GMOs and things like that? One of the most striking things about GMOs has been how little they’ve accomplished since they were introduced in 1996.
They’re still selling herbicide-tolerant crops that don’t increase yield, that have a yield drag, and Bt crops that arguably have a slight yield gain. That was supposed to be the magic bullet for yield, and it’s just not what GMOs do.
Will CRISPR be able to do it? Maybe. The dream has been, could we increase the efficiency of photosynthesis? Very complicated problem. That might change the game. Our more efficient plants, what’s their relationship to the soil going to be? Are they going to need more nutrients? Fertilizer’s another limit. We could do a whole hour on this.
On GMOs and trade in agriculture
COWEN: Last piece of yours I read on GMOs was from 2012, New York Times. You seem to call for mandatory labeling. Where are you now on GMOs? What’s the revised Michael Pollan view, if it’s changed at all?
POLLAN: I’ve been a critic of GMOs since 1998. I think I wrote my first piece about it. My criticisms involved the environmental implications of them and the political implications, the fact that GMOs lead to control of the seed supply by a very small number of companies. They’ve led to great consolidation of the seed industry, which I think is really unfortunate.
They’ve failed in their promises. They were sold to us as a more sustainable way to grow food. As it turns out, we’ve had huge increases in application of pesticides — Roundup, glyphosate in particular — since Monsanto chose to use its technology mostly on herbicide tolerance. That’s just not the most creative use of this technology.
My basic take on GMOs is they’ve been a hype and a disappointing hype so far.
COWEN: But you think they’re safe.
POLLAN: I don’t have reason to believe they’re dangerous. It’s not quite saying the same thing. I haven’t looked at the food-safety question recently, but I don’t think that’s the primary objection I have to them. It’s not a food-safety argument. The way they were tested at the beginning was really slipshod. I think that they were given a pass on real testing and regulation.
People assume that lots of GMOs were fed to lots of rats and they were proven to be safe, but that’s not what happened. GMOs were given to cells in test tubes to see if they prompted an allergic reaction. It was a really slipshod testing process. No big problems that I’m aware of have emerged.
There are real questions about glyphosate though. You can’t just take the seed in isolation and say, “OK, the soybean produced by this GMO seed is safe.”
What about the fact that it’s got high levels of glyphosate in it now because of so much glyphosate being sprayed? Do we have to look at the food safety of that, too, when we’re talking about GMOs? It’s a package. It’s sold as a package, and it should be judged as a package.
COWEN: In the past, you’ve been critical of free trade in agriculture. Today, we live in an era of rising protectionism. Does free trade look better to you now? Or what’s your current take on free trade in agriculture?
POLLAN: The question is not free trade or not free trade. It’s really, was it really free trade when we were dumping heavily subsidized crops on Mexico and other countries? Is that free trade when it’s subsidized? I don’t know. Is it? You know better than I. You’re an economist.
COWEN: Most of the subsidies go to just a few crops, right?
COWEN: Some of those are price supports rather than dumping.
POLLAN: Yes. Now, crop insurance is the way we subsidize most of it. We’ve changed it. We’re cutting less checks directly to farmers per bushel of corn and soy, and we’re giving crop insurance favorably to certain crops.
But the net result is that Americans can sell at various times — not all the time — can sell corn and soy overseas for a price lower than the actual cost of production. If it’s free trade, it’s unfair trade.
On second books
COWEN: In your second book, called A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams, you argue that a writer’s second book is the key to understanding that writer.
COWEN: Given where you now are today, do you still think that’s true? How would you explain yourself in terms of your second book?
POLLAN: Yeah, I do think it’s true. My first book was all about nature, and I used what was happening in my garden as a place to explore these nature-culture questions we were just talking about. Then I thought, “Well, I’m done with that. I’m a writer. What am I interested in now? Maybe I’ll look at architecture. Maybe at some point, I’ll look at computers, I don’t know, technology.” I was just a freelance writer.
In the course of writing that second book, which I thought was such a departure, I kept veering back to the nature questions in architecture. To what extent does nature dictate the way we build? Or should it dictate the way we build? What about the wood? What about these materials? What about this relationship to the earth and the foundation?
I was really torn because I thought, “God, are you repeating yourself? Why are you going back to these nature questions?” Then at a certain point, I realized those are just my questions. Every writer has a set of final questions that all their work, if you keep going, will come back to that.
Every writer has a set of final questions that all their work, if you keep going, will come back to.
It might be Michael Lewis, he’s really interested in success. Some people are interested in love. Some people are interested in power and money. They’re these big, big topics.
That’s when you discover your final questions, in the second book — the struggles, the horrors of trying to complete a second book. Then you let go. You realize, “OK, I’m interested in nature and God.” I still am. Nature’s a big element in how to change your mind.
On the Michael Pollan production function
COWEN: Last barrage of questions are about what I call the Michael Pollan production function.
COWEN: You’ve been highly productive. Are there things you think you know about productivity that maybe other people undervalue that you could instruct us with?
POLLAN: I thank you for thinking I’m so productive, but my last book was five years ago. Other people can produce a book every year or two. I don’t know if I’m that productive.
COWEN: Per copy sold and per thought stimulated, you’re highly productive.
COWEN: Both metrics, I should add, are important.
POLLAN: I’ve been very fortunate in my writing career on many dimensions. One is the editing I’ve gotten. I don’t write in isolation. I have a brilliant book editor, both in New York and in my house.
My wife reads every sentence before it leaves the house. Not my emails and stuff, God forbid, but any kind of book or thing for publication. Not only is she a really good reader, she doesn’t read a lot of nonfiction. She reads fiction, so she’s used to a higher prose quality than your average nonfiction writer. She edits everything, but she also keeps me from publishing really stupid things.
Then I have a wonderful book editor in New York, Ann Godoff, who has been really supportive, even when I’ve changed direction. To me, writing’s a very isolating, solitary pursuit, but if you’ve got a really good sounding board, you’re not going to go as deep down those unproductive rabbit holes as you might otherwise. I’ve been saved from that at various key moments.
The other is just routine.
COWEN: You have a routine.
POLLAN: I have a routine.
COWEN: And you stick to it.
POLLAN: I do, and that these mornings I write, and I write from this time to that time. Even if it’s hard, I don’t give up. I’ll produce some crap that day, but I’m going to sit there and do it till lunchtime. I just stick to my routine. Then I print out the pages I wrote that day — I waste a lot of paper, unfortunately — and I begin my day editing what I wrote the day before. I’m editing constantly.
I started as an editor and became a writer, so I have very much of an editor’s perspective. I spend more time probably editing than I do writing.
Mornings I write, and I write from this time to that time. Even if it’s hard, I don’t give up. I’ll produce some crap that day, but I’m going to sit there and do it till lunchtime. I just stick to my routine. Then I print out the pages I wrote that day — I waste a lot of paper, unfortunately — and I begin my day editing what I wrote the day before.
COWEN: Final question. Let’s say a young person comes to you and says, “I want to be the next Michael Pollan, not exactly a duplicate of what you do but some version of what that will be 30 years from now.” Other than marry well, have great editors, and have a routine . . .
POLLAN: [laughs] Be lucky.
COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?
POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.
When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.
Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.
COWEN: Very last question. Recommend a novel to us, maybe your favorite, but just something people ought to read.
POLLAN: I just finished a wonderful book called Go, Went, Gone by a German writer named Jenny Erpenbeck. I hope I’m pronouncing that correctly.
POLLAN: It’s about the refugee crisis. It’s a very contemporary book, set in Germany since Angela Merkel has let in lots of refugees, and the culture’s struggling with that. I think she does a beautiful job reminding us who’s behind these statistics and these strangers in our town squares.
That’s really how the book begins, a retired professor trying to come to terms with who are these people. He gets deeper and deeper into that world. Beautifully written, very well controlled writer, and it does what fiction should do, which is expand the circle of your sympathy and empathy.
COWEN: Michael Pollan, thank you very much.
POLLAN: Thank you, Tyler. It was a great pleasure.