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Michael Pollan – Psychedelics and How to Change Your Mind | Bioneers

Michael Pollan – Psychedelics and How to Change Your Mind | Bioneers


LSD does cause psychosis in the people who
don’t take it. [LAUGHTER] So said Timothy Leary at
the height of the ‘60s after acid had escaped
from medical labs and gone wild
in the streets. It was as though the counterculture
had moved from Kansas to Oz. By 1966,
LSD was illegal, tragically shutting down
and stigmatizing highly promising medical
experiments for decades to come. The experiments ranged from the
sublime to the ridiculous. LSD showed such promise
in treating alcoholism that Alcoholics Anonymous
founder Bill Wilson considered including it
in his program. In Britain, the military
gave it to soldiers. Fifty minutes after
taking the drug, radio communication had
become impossible, with one soldier climbing
a tree to feed the birds. [LAUGHTER] The troop commander
finally gave up, admitting he could no longer
control his troops or himself, whereupon he lapsed into
uncontrollable laughter. [LAUGHTER] So much for
military use. [LAUGHTER] Leading medical researcher,
Stanislav Grof, who worked with LSD while
it was legal in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Prague and in Maryland at the US National
Institute of Mental Health says this: The cartography that emerged
out of this work was a vast expansion beyond
what we currently have in psychiatry and psychology. You can map different
layers of the psyche, a kind of
chemical archaeology. It opened up a vast domain that we now
call transpersonal experiences. The other major discovery was the self-
healing potential of the psyche. When you change consciousness,
it activates your self-healing potential. The fact that we have such narrow and
superficial psychiatry means that we diagnose
as psychotic certain states which could potentially
be transformative, healing, even
evolutionary. Today, the popular use of psychedelics is
as big as it was in the heyday of the ‘60s. And over the
past decade plus, there’s been a quiet renaissance
of serious medical research. Michael Pollan calls it
white coat shamanism. [LAUGHTER] In his new best seller,
How To Change Your Mind, he documents how psychedelics
are helping with everything from overcoming addiction
and depression, to easing the existential terror
of the terminally ill. There couldn’t be a more perfect messenger to bring this taboo subject into the light. Michael is level-headed
and lucid, a rigorous reporter,
a congenital skeptic, a superb translator of science
into comprehensible language, and a spellbinding
storyteller, but what makes him letter
perfect for this mission improbable is that his brand is
immersive journalism. In other words,
he samples his subject. [LAUGHTER] In doing so, he makes
the ineffable, effable. As one medical
researcher told him, you go deep enough and
far enough in consciousness, and you will bump
into the sacred. In his many groundbreaking and highly
influential books and articles, Michael has almost single-handedly shifted the
national conversation on issues central of
the human existence – our relationship to food
with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and to cultivar plants
with The Botany of Desire. Now he’s done
it again. How to Change Your Mind
is the authoritative, up-to-date analysis of
everything science has learned, and all the mysteries
yet to be explored. If anyone can open
people’s minds to this uniquely impressive
curative abilities that these substances have
demonstrated, it’s Michael. Human consciousness is one
of the greatest mysteries of existence. As Tom Bissell wrote in
The New York Times Book Review, Pollan has predictably— Pollan predictably
does the impossible. He makes losing your mind sound like the
sanest thing a person could do. [LAUGHTER]
[APPLAUSE] Please join me in welcoming
the white rabbit of immersive journalism, who’s losing his mind
and proud of it, Michael Pollan. [APPLAUSE] Oh thank you
so much. Thank you. And thank you, Kenny,
for that hilarious introduction. [LAUGHTER] Before I start, I just want
to say a word about Bioneers. This is either my fourth
or fifth time on this stage, and the reason I’m here— one of the reasons I’m here is to express
my gratitude to Kenny and Nina for all that this community
has contributed to my work. I was going through the list with Kenny
about people I met or saw on this stage that became very influential
in my own work. It was through Kenny
I met Joel Salatin, the farmer who’s at the
center of Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was through Bioneers that I was first
exposed to Paul Stamets, the mycologist, the visionary mycologist,
who’s very much a part of this book. Heritage Seeds was an idea that Kenny introduced
me to when he was working on that. So I just—time after time,
there has been key moments, and I have this sense my next book
is like somebody out here. I just have to
find them. [LAUGHTER] So this is— I’m doing a very
personal talk right now, and it’s a talk I
haven’t done before. So I have to tell you a few things about
myself to make sense of it, but I also have to ask
a few things of you. So let’s begin. Would you close your eyes
and raise your hand if you’ve had a
psychedelic experience? Whoa. [LAUGHTER] And then raise your hand if
you had a ego-dissolving, self-destroying kind
of psychedelic experience. Oh man. Okay, well… many of you could be
on this stage with me. Many of you have much
more experience than I do. The things I want to tell you
about myself in starting is that I was a very
reluctant psychonaut. I had very
little experience. I kind of got into it when I
was about to turn 60, which is I know not
age appropriate. [LAUGHTER] And the reasons for that
were that I was— I was afraid. I was a little late
to the ‘60s party, and by the time it kind
of swam into my awareness, all you heard were
terrifying stories about people jumping
out of windows and staring at the sun
until they went blind, and scrambled your
chromosomes, and all that kept
me away. And I just didn’t— I also thought I was psychologically
too fragile, I think, that this assault
on my psyche, I might not be
able to withstand. So I kind of, with the
exception of a couple of low dose psilocybin
experiments in my late 20s, I really had nothing
to do with it. So I bring not
a long history, but the power of first
sight to this subject. The other thing you need
to know about me is that I never thought of
myself as a very spiritual person. In fact, I thought of myself
as kind of spiritually retarded. And the most spiritual thing I did, really,
was come to Bioneers once a year, [LAUGHTER] and I always felt a little
bit a fish out of water. My perspective has always been that
of the philosophical materialist, who believes that nature
is all that there is, and that the laws of nature
can explain everything, and so I tended to see
spirituality as a contradiction, that the opposite of
spiritual was material, and I was kind of more
on the material side of things. Now as I’ll get to, this was
fundamentally a misunderstanding. But I want to tell you
how I came to have what I realize now was a powerful spiritual
experience on psychedelics, and how that experience changed
my understanding of what spiritual is. So I got into psychedelics
as a journalist. It was a journalistic quest
that gradually evolved, actually very quickly evolved
into a spiritual quest, into a personal quest. And that was— I had read about these studies
that Kenny alluded to of terminal cancer patients
being given psilocybin, the active ingredient
in magic mushrooms – I usually have to say that;
I don’t have to say that in this room. [LAUGHTER] But just in case, there’s
some young people here. [LAUGHTER] To help them with
their existential terror. Now to me, when I first heard about it,
this seemed like a really bad idea. The last thing I would want
if I was facing right up against my mortality was
to lose my mind. And so this
was going on. This is not
underground work. This was going on at
NYU and at Johns Hopkins, two of the leading medical
institutions in the country. So I got on an assignment
to write about it for the New Yorker, and it resulted in a piece called The Trip Treatment,
which you can read online, and I started interviewing
these cancer patients. The background to this story,
which I didn’t realize until much later, was that my father had
a terminal cancer diagnosis around the same time. He just died
in January. And he was in his late 80s,
and he never wanted to talk about it. He never wanted to talk about
how was he thinking about death; how was he processing
this cataclysm. And either he was processing it
internally or he was in denial. I never sort of
figured it out. So I had this intense curiosity
to engage in these conversations with people who were
confronting their mortality, and were trying
to deal with it. And they were the most amazing people
and the most amazing conversations. People would have experiences
in which they went into their body and confronted
their cancer, in which they
met God – these are high-dose
experiences – in which they
felt themselves, their sense of self
completely dissolve, and followed by emerging
into some larger entity. Some of them I remember
beheld this great plane of consciousness that they understood their
own consciousness would join when their
bodies died. And they emerged from
these experiences, about two-thirds
of them – all the ones who had
powerful mystical experiences – with a completely
new understanding of where they were and
what was happening to them. Many of them lost
their fear of dying. It was the most
incredible thing, and very hard for me to
understand from outside. I remember talking— There was
one woman I interviewed who had had
ovarian cancer. It was in remission, but she still
had this terror of recurrence. This is a woman in
her early 60s, and a fairly
timid woman, figure skating instructor
in Manhattan. And she went into her body
on her experience and she saw this black mass
underneath her rib cage. And she realized that wasn’t her cancer
because it was in the wrong place. It was her fear. And she did something
that her guides— Now when you do one of these guided experiences,
there are two people with you, a man and a woman,
the whole time; you’re wearing eye shades and listening to
music, a playlist on headphones, and all of a sudden she
screams at the black mass, although they
don’t know this: Get the fuck out
of my body! [LAUGHTER] And with that,
her fear just puff! disappeared. And I wrote in the article,
in the draft, that— and her fear was
substantially diminished, something safe that would get past the
New Yorker fact checkers. [LAUGHTER] But when they called
her to read this, and they said, well, is it true that your fear
was substantially diminished? Fear of death? She said, No, he got that wrong.
That’s completely wrong. My fear was
eliminated. [LAUGHTER] So these stories made me
intensely curious to understand what this experience
was from the inside. I wrote that article not thinking I would
ever try psilocybin or have a high-dose
experience, but I decided I
now had to. For that reason, curiosity,
but also it is, as Kenny said, it’s the kind of
journalism I do. When I wrote about the cattle industry,
I bought a cow. [LAUGHTER] So my readers
expect no less. [LAUGHTER] But I have to say
I was terrified. I had a sleepless
night before. I had several guided
experiences on several, and unguided experiences
on several different medicines, and every night there would
be this ping pong match of: Are you crazy? You could have
a heart attack. You’re going to go into the middle of
nowhere with this guy, and is he going to call
911 if something happens? And then this other
voice was like: Aren’t you really curious to
know what would happen? And I realized the first voice
was my ego defending itself, because it knew what was coming,
an assault on it. [LAUGHTER] And the problem with your ego
is it has command of your rational faculties, so it makes really
good arguments that are hard
to ignore. But in every case,
I was able to ignore it. But you have to realize too,
when you start late, like I had to call my
cardiologist before I did this. [LAUGHTER] When you’re 60, it’s… So he was cool with
everything except MDMA. And he may have been wrong
about that, I don’t know. [LAUGHTER] So I want to tell you about
two of the experiences I had. One briefly, and then— I’m bringing up this one
because it really connects to what Monica was
talking about earlier, which was as many
of you know, I’ve written a lot
about plants, and it’s really my first love as a
writer and as a gardener, and I’ve always— In Botany of Desire I talked about the fact
that we’re not the only subject in nature, that the plants have a
point of view too. The subtitle of that book was
A Plant’s Eye View of the World. But this was an intellectual conceit
until I used psychedelics. [LAUGHTER] So I had a— without a guide, I had a fairly high-dose
experience in my garden, and I had a very strong
sense of the plant— that consciousness was spread
more equally over the natural world than I had ever
thought before, and that as I was gazing at these leaves,
these leaves were gazing back at me, with incredible
benign affect. But that everything was much more
alive than it had ever been. And so what had been
this intellectual conceit became this felt truth,
this conviction. And I think that’s one of
the things psychedelics do is that they put
flesh on ideas, ideas that I
already had. So I want to read
you a brief passage. It’s the only thing I’m going to read,
for reasons of time, from what it was like to
walk through my garden toward the end of
this experience. And picture a summer
day in New England, very hot summer day with
lots of things flitting around. My walk back to the house,
was, I think, the peak of the experience. It comes back to me now in
the colors and tones of a dream. There was again this sense
of pushing my body through a mass of air
that had been sweetened by phlox and was teeming almost
frenetic with activity. The dragonflies,
big as birds, were now out in force,
touching down just long enough to kiss the phlox blossoms
and then lift off before madly criss-crossing
the garden path. There were more dragonflies
than I had ever seen in one place, so many in fact that I wasn’t completely
sure if they were real. Judith, my wife, later confirmed the sighting
when I got her to come outside. And as they executed
their flight patterns, they left behind them contrails
that persisted in the air, or so at least
it appeared. Dusk now approaching,
the air traffic in the garden had built to a
riotous crescendo, the pollinators making their
last rounds of the day, the plants still signifying to
them with their flowers – me! me! me! In one way I knew
this scene well – the garden coming briefly to life
after the heat of a summer day had relented, but never had I felt
so integral to it. I was no longer the
alienated human observer gazing at the garden from a distance,
whether literal or figural, but rather felt part and parcel
of all that was transpiring here. So the flowers were addressing
me as much as the pollinators, and perhaps because the very air that
afternoon was such a felt presence, it was so humid, one’s usual sense of oneself as a subject
observing objects in space, objects that have been
thrown into relief and rendered discreet by the
apparent void that surrounds them, gave way to a sense
of being deep inside and fully implicated
in the scene. One more being in the relation
to the myriad other beings, and to the whole. Everything is interaction
and reciprocal, wrote Alexander Von Humboldt,
the great 18th century naturalist, and that felt very
much the case. And so for the first
time did this, that he also said, I myself
am identical with nature. [APPLAUSE] So that was— Thank you. [APPLAUSE] That was a very
profound experience, and I would describe
that as spiritual, and I’ll tell you what I mean
after I give you this experience, this other one, where I,
thus emboldened, I went further
and much deeper. So I arranged to
have a high dose, kind of matching the doses
in these NYU and Hopkins studies, 25 mg of psilocybin, although I had mushrooms and
not the chemical, which has been isolated. I was working with a guide,
somewhere on the East Coast, very experienced, a woman
who was a wonderful guide, and I felt very safe
in her space, and that is critically important if
you’re willing to have your ego dissolve. [LAUGHTER] You do need
to feel safe. And the trip didn’t start
out that well. I’m going to just walk you through this trip,
and then tell you what I think it means. She put on some— I had a problem with some
of the underground guides. This was not a— This was obviously an underground
illegal experience, not a… I couldn’t get into the trials at Hopkins or NYU
because I didn’t have a cancer diagnosis, or any of the other diagnoses
they were working with. But some of the underground guides
play music that I didn’t really like. They have a weakness for
new age music of the ‘80s variety, [LAUGHTER] and she put on
this guy named— Well, I’m not going to give his name.
I don’t want to embarrass him. But when I looked him
up later on iTunes, he had been thrice nominated
in the category of best chill/groove music. [LAUGHTER] And it sounded like
electronica to me, and it conjured— One of the things that
happens on psychedelics is you can see music, and what I saw was a computer-generated
black and white landscape that was
not my thing. I don’t like video games.
It’s not the space I wanted to be in. I wanted natural imagery. And it went on
and on and on, and I started to feel
kind of claustrophobic. And we argued about the music,
and I had her change it, but I was stuck
in computer world. And finally, I had to pee,
and I took off the eye shades, and what the amazing thing
is you can kind of like come back into reality
when you need to for a little while, and she kind of helped me
get to the bathroom. And I was very careful
not to look in the mirror. [LAUGHTER] You don’t want
to do that. I said this to an audience in England,
of very experienced people, and they were like,
Oh yes, trip face. [LAUGHTER] So I didn’t do that. And I produced this
spectacular crop of diamonds. [LAUGHTER] And then made my way back
to the futon where I was. And Mary asked me if I
wanted a little more, a booster dose, and I was in for
the whole thing, so I said yes. And then this really weird thing happens,
and she’s kneeling by my side. I’m in this futon,
and I look at her and she’s normally kind of
Scandinavian looking with long blonde hair and
high cheekbones, and she suddenly had black hair
and weathered brown skin, and I knew exactly who
she had turned into – Maria Sabina, who some of you
will know is the— was the Mazatec woman from
Huautla de Jimenez in Mexico who actually gave the first
white man from the West psilocybin in the 1950s, so key figure in the
history of psychedelics. And she had turned. And I didn’t think I
should tell Mary what had happened to her. [LAUGHTER] So I took the additional dose
and I put on the eye shades again, and then the most
spooky thing happened. I’m out of computer world now,
and I suddenly— and the pronouns are
going to sound weird – I see myself burst into just
this cloud of little Post-It notes, little— I’d been blasted
to bits. But I was watching
the scene. There was another perspective
that had opened up. And I watched. And then I looked out
and I had turned— I’d been liquefied. I had turned into
paint or butter, just kind of coating
the landscape. But I was fine with it,
this other I had emerged. It was like, That’s what happens,
you turn into paint. [LAUGHTER] And it was the
most amazing thing. I didn’t have a self, but this other
perspective had arisen that had this
perfect equanimity. Whatever happened
is fine. It wasn’t exactly me, and
I don’t know what it was. Aldous Huxley would say it
was the mind at large, it was some kind of
universal consciousness. But I realized it was precisely the consciousness that those cancer patients had described to me, the one that made the
death of their bodily selves and their egos
bearable. It was— And when that happens,
when your self falls apart, if you feel safe— Because if you fight this,
it’s—that’s a bad trip. If you feel safe, without
the walls of the ego and the self, these channels open up,
and you feel this powerful sense— What rushes in is your
sense of connection. Because there’s nothing.
You have no defenses anymore. You are wide open.
And so you merge, whether it’s with nature
or other people, and you feel this— these channels of
love opening up, and this sense of fellow
feeling with natural things, and it was— And for me, there was a moment where I
merged with a piece of music that I had persuaded her to put on, this Bach unaccompanied cello concerto,
which is an amazing sad piece. I mean, it’s all about death.
This is the Suite in G Minor. And I just became the music.
I became the cello. I felt the bow, the friction of the bow
going over my skin. It was just this
perfect merging. So it was an
ecstatic experience. And it taught
me a lot. And I think it— And many people have had
this kind of experience, but I want to just give you a sense
of what it means and what it’s good for. So, in one of these
guided trips, you come back the next day
for an integration session. And I came back, and she asked me
what had happened. I told her I’d had
this ego dissolution, and she was— She’s like, Well, that’s worth the price of
admission, don’t you think? And I said, Yeah, but it’s over.
I’m back. My ego’s back. It’s in uniform.
It’s on patrol. [LAUGHTER] My defenses are
all back. And she said, Well, you’ve
had a taste of another way to be, of a more open, less
defended way to be, and you have that memory,
and you can reconnect to it. And I asked her how, and she said
through meditation. And that is now how
I reconnect to it. I mean, I think it’s a
very logical outgrowth, because you can’t do
psychedelics every day. [LAUGHTER]
It’s a really bad idea. I don’t recommend it. But you can have that
opening that can help you. Now I want to say something
about the larger value of this experience, because I think that it has
a relevance to our situation, our socio-political and
environmental situation. I actually think the
psychedelic experience is significant because it addresses
the two biggest problems we face as a civilization, which I would list as tribalism
and the environmental crisis. They’re actually
very similar. They both involve the
objectifying of the other, whether that other is nature
or other people, people of different faiths, different races,
different political views. And what is tribalism but
a collective version of ego? Right? It’s defensive, it builds walls,
it refuses connection. So here we have a tool that
at least for the individual breaks down these
ego formations, allows us to have a deep
connection with the natural world and focus on our likeness rather than our
unlikeness with other people. That seems enormously
promising. But how do you— How do you prescribe a drug
to a whole culture? [LAUGHTER]
[AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Well, put it in the water. [LAUGHTER] The model, of course,
is fluoride. Right?
[LAUGHTER] And even that’s controversial. I don’t think
that’s the answer. I don’t think
that’s the answer. And this was a debate that
happened in the ‘60s. Timothy Leary said turn on as
many people as you possibly can. And then Aldous Huxley and
some of the academics said, No, no. Turn on the elite and
this consciousness will filter down. Turn on the
leadership. Now you’re all going to, Oh, I can think of
someone we should turn on. [LAUGHTER] But I actually don’t think that would work.
He’d have to want to do it. Right? But he knows what
his super power is – and it’s ego,
it’s walls. He’s not going
to give that up. So that’s the challenge
that faces us. We have a tool that addresses
the two biggest problems we face, and it certainly works
well on the individual, and perhaps if more individuals
could have this experience, but that is
a challenge. How do you democratize
this loss of ego? Right? Temporary loss of ego
for learning purposes. And here’s where my understanding of spirituality
changed, and I’ll leave you with this. Remember I said the
opposite of spiritual I always believed
was material, and that those two things were—
could not be reconciled. I no longer think
that’s the case. Everything I experienced can be understood
without any resort to the supernatural. Okay? Connection to other people,
connection to nature. Scientists tell us we are,
we’re social beings. We’re totally dependent
on one another and we’re completely part
and parcel of the natural world. We’re no different than
any other species, it’s just our egos,
intent on objectifying things, won’t let us see this. So really, I came
to understand I had it all wrong
about spiritual experience. The opposite of spiritual
is egotistical. And to the extent we
can work on that, and we need to work on that to
have any spiritual development. So I’ll leave you
with that thought. How do we take that
knowledge and democratize it? Give it to as many
people as possible? And use it to untie
this giant knot? So…thank you
very much. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. Thank you so much! You’re very generous. Go have some lunch. I’ll see ya later.

24 comments on “Michael Pollan – Psychedelics and How to Change Your Mind | Bioneers

  1. Yes, Michael Pollan is a remarkably lucid speaker, and forever delving into life’s most necessary & urgent topics . Grateful for his work, and Bioneers.

  2. 23:00 similar thing happened to me I was laying on sand and I became pieces of sand. Loving reading this book right now and looking back at my trip on mushrooms as a teen and the sense I had like the book references of being one with nature and part of the universe

  3. By the way ;"yes,You can look in the mirror on mushrooms" I have done it during one of my trips…I was kind of scared to do that because of stories I have heard:What if I see something horrifying??? So,very slowly and carefully I have gazed myself on the mirror and wawww ….I was soooo beautiful ;my God I didn't know how beautiful I was until then…There was nothing to be afraid of…Everything was beautiful and so did I…So I say do not condition yourself and give yourself a chance to see how beautiful You truly are…

  4. Let's not get confused. President Trump was not the one who demonized mushrooms and made them a schedule 1 drug. The shadow government and the deep state control these things. The last thing they want is for us to discover a deeper sense of our awareness. Trump signed into law the "right to try act" which helps people who are terminal the right to try experimental drugs. We are heading into the right direction.

  5. The main problem that entheogens are not widely used in pharmaceuticals is that they really do have no repeatable therefore reliable "result".
    I had the (at one with the universe experience) where my ego was revealed as "boss" that made up boundaries of illusions, in fact, society itself is huge on these boundaries that do not really exist.
    I use positive memories to make my life better than it was previous to my experiences.
    But the last time I tried my usual large dose of P.Cubensis, I had the worst experience of my life it was dowsed with dread and fear, (I would not wish that experience on my worst enemy).
    So just when you think it a reliable experience it shows it most certainly is not predictable.
    This is the reason why it's illegal and the pharmy companies and general scientific community leave the entheogens well alone.

  6. One point to add about the 'objectification of the other', it is part of the environmental crisis in that workers in general have limited autonomy and are used as objects for maintaing wealth and power of the top of social hierarchy. So, people are not only acting under another 'other's control, they are often doing something for which there is no significant personal meaning. Both worker and owner become mere objects to each other. And capitalism, as long as it presupposes capability for infinite growth, obviously accelerates risks to resources that keep us alive, paradoxical as it may be. I feel like I am stating the obvious, but it came to mind when he spoke of objectification. We kind of get into materialistic loops I think. Connection to the material world is crucial for survival of course, but I think the prevailing societal catalyst of industrial capitalism takes it to a level of excess waste, and it has proven to be too unsustainable to let it keep dominating our motivations and our social and institutional cohesion. Psychedelics I hope can help change hearts and minds. And I don't believe everyone has to take them in order for that to happen. Just passing on the idea that science, and spirituality (or you might just say 'mental health') really are both important – that we can't live purely objective lives, and that wouldn't be fulfilling – starts to open a new conversation and brings spirituality into a new light, that really does have practical value. We wouldn't have a tendency to treat mental illness, or a tendency to want happiness and fulfillment even when not mentally ill, if those feelings weren't beneficial, right?

  7. The audience are puffed up with knowledge and spiritual pride. Not healthy – the psychedelic movement has no in-crowd. It’s an all inclusive movement – covering thousands of years. Humility is needed. Great talk though – mind-blowing benefits.

  8. Like what he has to say about the topic (I'm a psychonaut myself) but disappointingly, he has Trump all wrong.

  9. Lol lol I too looked in the mirror when on mushrooms and also thought I was so so beautiful lol lol I stared there for ages it seemed untill others came into the bathroom to see themselves lol

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