Trying to figure out what to put in our bodies to make them healthier is a full-fledged American pastime, which is why writer and journalist Michael Pollan has emerged as a beloved nutritional explorer. Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, offers attractive, common-sense guidelines like “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” as he has explored and demythologized the country’s chaotic food culture. His latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, out this week, digs into the world of psychedelic substances, offering a reevaluation of psychoactive compounds like psilocybin (found in mushrooms) and LSD.
The book provides a firsthand account of meeting with the psychedelic movement’s players and trying some of its most potent substances, and highlights new research suggesting that these compounds could offer invaluable comfort to people who need it. Pollan doesn’t emerge from his experiences as a full-throated advocate for universal tripping, but he debunks alarmist misinformation surrounding the compounds without veering into psychonaut babble, offering an entertaining and clear-headed history of how these substances lost their good names, and how they might be saved. The Ringer spoke to Pollan about how this latest book came to fruition, and where he sees psychedelic research going in the future.
You’ve established yourself as an expert thinker in the world of nutrition—why and how we eat the things that we eat. I’m curious whether you see How to Change Your Mind as a departure from the rest of your work or as a continuation of it?
It’s actually both. It’s a departure as it seems on its face, going from talking about food and agriculture to psychedelics, but there are some common threads with past work. The big one is that my big subject as a writer has been human engagement with nature—what nature does for us, what we do for it. And so I’ve actually had a long interest in the fact that one of the things we use plants and fungi for is to change consciousness. That changing consciousness seems to be a universal human desire that plants gratify, and I’ve written about that several times in the past. In [Pollan’s 2001 book] The Botany of Desire, there’s a chapter on cannabis, and I wrote a piece on opium called “Opium Made Easy” about growing opium in my garden, and so that’s a longstanding fascination. The other continuity is my work on food is very much about health, health of the body, health of the eater, but also health of the land. This work is about health, too—it’s about mental health. That’s another continuity, but it sure feels different.
How much did the project change over the course of researching and writing it?
It’s a lot more personal than I expected. If you’re going to talk about your psychedelic experiences, it’s going to get pretty intimate. You’re talking about your subconscious. I felt a greater sense of exposure writing about these issues than I had before writing about food. And so I realized if I was going to be honest in describing these experiences, I was going to have to be more revealing than I normally am. I usually write in the first person, but you actually don’t learn that much about me. The first person is kind of a narrative device as much as anything. But here, there was no way to do it without disclosing more about me than I have before. So in that sense, it evolved to be different than I thought. I knew when I started I was going to have experiences and use them in some way. I had no idea what role they would play or how big they would be in the book until I had them, and realized they were fascinating to have, and also fascinating to write about. I had a lot of trepidation about describing a psychedelic trip on paper. I thought it was gonna be like telling people your dreams, which is the most boring thing in the world. But in fact, to my surprise, writing about psychedelic experiences was really interesting. And I leave it to the reader if it’s interesting to read, too, but I think it is.
Are there any misconceptions about psychedelics that you hope your book will correct?
I think one is that they’re a ’60s phenomenon. Most of what people know when they hear the word psychedelic is the psychedelic ’60s—Timothy Leary acid tests and the summer of love and Ken Kesey. That’s really a very small chapter in a much longer and richer history, and it distorts our sense of what psychedelics are. There was really promising and productive research going on long before Timothy Leary had his first psychedelic experience, and it continued long after he was tossed out of Harvard. So that’s one misconception. Another is that these drugs are uniquely dangerous, which is also an inheritance of the ’60s—that people jump out of windows and stare at the sun till they go blind and end up in the emergency room. It’s not to say that never happened, but in fact, the drugs, compared to other drugs we don’t think twice about, are relatively nontoxic and nonaddictive. Yes, there are psychological risks, without doubt, when they’re used carelessly, especially, but there are a lot of urban legends about psychedelics that I’m hoping to correct in this book.
Then there’s the more general point that people think these are drugs that make you go crazy. What the research suggests is that these are drugs that under the right circumstance, with the right support, can make you go sane.
One of the most fascinating things that I learned from reading the book is: I didn’t know that founder of AA had been interested in using psychedelics to treat people with alcohol-use issues.
Yeah, I didn’t either.
You wrote about current research on using them in that capacity in How to Change Your Mind. I’m worried that there’ll be conflict if those treatments go mainstream, since the idea of treating one substance with another can be controversial.
And it sounds counterintuitive. Although we are doing that now. When people have opiate overdoses, we give them a drug that saves their lives. Also, there were drugs given to make alcoholics sick if they took a drink; there was a drug called Antabuse that they used. But the idea that one psychoactive drug would help with another does seem counterintuitive. One way to think about that is, it’s not the drug that’s having the useful effect for the addict, it’s the experience that the drug is giving them. The mystical experience or the ego-dissolving experience that allows them to kind of escape destructive narratives they’re telling about themselves. But I think it may be hard to sell to the public unless you tell the story right and explain it right.
Do you think there needs to be a new framework for how we classify these substances, other than labeling them “drugs”?
A lot of the people who work with them don’t like the word drug, because the word drug now is surrounded with all this moralism. And they’re either illicit or licit, and it’s really a freighted word now. So they often use the word medicine, but that’s freighted, too––you’re saying that this is something that’s gonna cure you. So it’s definitely tricky and sometimes I avoid ... I don’t use the word drug very often in the book. I use compound, I use medicine, I use a lot of other words, because I think people kind of stop thinking when they see the word drug.
I recently wrote a piece about the rise of CBD, and a lot of people who work with it cautioned against using the word marijuana, because marijuana has certain negative connotations. That just got me thinking about the label of “drug” more generally, because it seems to be causing more problems than it solves.
One of the things I’m trying to do in this book, where I of course am using illegal drugs and talking about them in a positive way, is trying to have a different kind of conversation about drugs that looks at them as tools with various risks and benefits rather than as these categories of: “Oh, this is an evil, illegal drug, while this one is fine because your doctor prescribed it.” The opiate crisis is in large part the result of legal drugs being prescribed by doctors, so you can get in trouble on legal drugs, as we’re learning, and you can be helped by illegal drugs. It’s much messier than people realize, and it would just be great if we could take all that moralism out of the conversation and have a different kind of conversation about drugs, so-called.
What do you think the next five years will look like for the psychedelic research community?
A lot of trials going on. There’s going to be phase-three trials for depression, for treatment-resistant depression––those are depressions that haven’t yielded to two other treatments––and for smoking addiction, alcohol addiction. Dozens of trials around the world, and we’re going to learn within the next five years whether this is as good a treatment for these conditions as it appears to be. Within five years, there’s a very good chance that people will have access to these drugs above ground. Even before the phase-three trials are complete, there are various expanded-access or compassionate-use programs at FDA where people who don’t have better treatments can have access to these treatments even though they’re not completely tested out. You’ll be hearing a lot more about psychedelic medicine and a lot more people will be able to access it without going underground. When I started this work, I thought it was going to be 15 or 20 years, and now I really think it is five years.
Even with the current administration?
It’s hard to tell what Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice will do when the FDA decides psilocybin is actually a medicine. The DEA has to reclassify it. Will that decision become politicized? I don’t know the answer. It is worth noting, though, that some of the funders of this work are people like Rebekah Mercer—the Trump funder and Breitbart founder Steve Bannon funder—so it’s not necessarily a right/left issue. I think it may scramble the usual political lines, as a medicine. And after all, we are talking about an act of deregulation. Trump loves that.
Would you consider yourself an advocate for psychedelic therapy now?
I wouldn’t count myself as an advocate for psychedelic therapy. I would count myself as an advocate for the research that’s going on. We haven’t yet proved to the satisfaction of modern standards of pharmacology that this works better than whatever else we use to treat these various conditions. There’s some very promising evidence that it does, but it’s only in phase-two trials. They really have to survive phase-three trials with similar rates of success before we can say, “Psychedelic therapy works and we should advocate for it.” I do advocate for completing that research, though, and seeing it through. I think there is very good evidence that it works. But I don’t think I know enough or they know enough to advocate for it.
Do you think the majority of people could benefit from it?
Majority is a big word. No. I think that there are many people, a great many people, who could benefit, based on what we’ve seen. I mean, people struggling with their mortality, with a life-threatening diagnosis. People who are treatment-resistant, depressives who are treatment-resistant. Various kinds of people with addictions. It’s really important to keep in mind when we’re thinking about this, is compared to what? In other words, the mental health care in this country is not working that well. We have very high rates of depression, suicide, addiction, and we don’t have a lot of good tools, and there’s been very little innovation. You have to go back to the early ’90s for an important innovation in mental health care, and that’s the introduction of the SSRI antidepressants. Those have their limitations, as we’ve discovered. So you have to look at this against the backdrop of, well, what else do we have to help these people? I think that’s one of the reasons you find such receptivity to psychedelic therapy on the part of some very established psychiatrists, is that we need some new tools, we need some innovation. These are new tools, so they deserve a really close look. We shouldn’t assume that we’ve nailed it down already, though. We’re not quite there yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.