How Michael Pollan Made Us Re-Think Psychedelics As Therapy
The author and journalist Michael Pollan has become renowned for writing on the subject of food and agriculture, in books like The Botany of Desire (2001), The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008), Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009), and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013).
So when he published a book on psychedelics, this was considered a huge deviation in his interests, although he was in a sense still writing about what we consume: the plants and mushrooms that alter our consciousness.
This book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (2018), became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller. Pollan’s book has also been credited with helping to mainstream and destigmatize psychedelics as therapy. But while he highlights the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy, he is certainly not an evangelist. Instead, he is honest about the downsides, too.
Pollan went on to write another book on psychedelics, This is Your Mind on Plants (2021), which looks at the cultural history of three naturally occurring drugs: opium, caffeine, and mescaline, and — like in his 2018 book — he documents his personal experimentation with the drugs as well.
Here we are going to focus on How to Change Your Mind and all the work Pollan has done connected to psychedelic therapy.
As we will see, Pollan has been, is, and will continue to be an important figure in changing the conversation surrounding psychedelics, helping to increase acceptance of them as a legitimate therapeutic option.
The Stigma Surrounding Psychedelics
Despite the “psychedelic renaissance” we’ve been living through, the fertile period of psychedelic research in the past decade, these compounds still carry a lot of cultural baggage. Psychedelics have long held a unique stigma in terms of illicit drugs.
This began in the 1960s when the recreational use of psychedelics (mainly LSD) exploded. Their use was wrapped up with the hippie scene, the New Left, and the anti-war movement.
The media also published many sensational pieces about the dangers of psychedelics. The result was that the public started to associate the use of these substances with insanity, self-harm, delinquency, and rebellious attitudes against war and police.
Urban myths about LSD also increased people’s fear surrounding the drug. An ordinary person may think if you take acid you’ll jump out of a window thinking you can fly, stare at the sun and go blind, or make you legally insane (if you take it seven times).
While attitudes have certainly changed, thanks in large part to trials on psychedelic therapy and positive reporting from the mainstream media, still the stigma remains. People who use psychedelics may still be seen as a “certain type of person”. This could be someone who is reckless, irresponsible, unhinged, likely to believe in some weird ideas, or a New Age hippie.
How Michael Pollan Has Helped To Destigmatize Psychedelics
Pollan has helped to play a crucial role in challenging the negative perceptions of psychedelics.
Pollan Was Already Trusted As A Legitimate Source Of Information
First, it’s worth noting that Pollan was already a well-established journalist and author before using and writing about psychedelics. Well, he did experiment with psychedelics in his 20s. But it wasn’t until his early 60s that he decided to seriously explore the psychedelic experience.
Furthermore, it’s not as if he jumped into the experience throwing caution to the wind. As he said, “I was a very reluctant psychonaut.”
Pollan’s role as a legitimate, trusted, popular, and much-loved writer allowed many people to take him seriously when he turned to the subject of psychedelics. He took the same approach he did as when writing his other books: in-depth research combined with first-hand experience.
How to Change Your Mind includes up-to-date scientific research on the therapeutic use of psychedelics and honest accounts of his experiences, some of which were deeply meaningful and transformative.
Therefore, the book might have encouraged some readers to challenge their suspicion of people who use psychedelics and instead see them as a promising option for people who are suffering, or who lack a spiritual dimension in their life.
In-Depth Research On Psychedelics
Following on the last point, Pollan’s work has made many people realize that psychedelics can be highly effective in the treatment of a range of conditions. He describes the growing pool of research suggesting that psychedelics may be a useful tool in the treatment of cancer-related anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and smoking addiction.
Millions of people worldwide struggle with these conditions. The problem with current treatments is that they often don’t work for people. People with terminal illnesses don’t find the relief from anxiety they’re looking for.
A lot of depression is treatment-resistant, meaning that traditional approaches have not helped. Struggling alcoholics may get sober, only to relapse later on. And a smoking habit can be especially hard to kick.
However, Pollan highlights research showing impressive improvements in symptoms and recovery rates following psychedelic therapy, as well as sustained changes.
Moreover, these results come from reputable, placebo-controlled trials, with participants not suffering any adverse long-term effects from the treatment. This helps people to see that psychedelic therapy is not a highly risky option with limited benefits.
Apart from his book, Pollan has published information on his website about the risks of psychedelics. His aspects include the following.
- General safety
- Emergency room visits
- Toxicity and overdose
- Physical harms caused by changes in perception/judgment
- Serious mental health issues
- Bad trips
- So-called “flashbacks” (now known as Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, or HPPD).
Based on the overall picture of the data, the risk of suffering any serious or long-term negative effects from psychedelics is low. This is especially true in comparison with other drugs.
The most common adverse reaction to psychedelics is a bad trip. But studies have still shown that a large percentage of people find these experiences meaningful and spiritually significant.
Sharing Positive Experiences
Michael Pollan appeared on a number of popular podcasts, such as The Tim Ferriss Show, The Kevin Rose Show, and The Joe Rogan Experience, as well as mainstream shows like ITV News and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
During these interviews, he didn’t just talk about psychedelic research. He also shared his personal experiences with compounds like psilocybin, LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT. For his trips, he had underground psychedelic guides or therapists present with him.
When appearing on The Late Show, Pollan said the following about a powerful trip he had with psilocybin mushrooms:
“I had this experience of ego dissolution. My sense of self fell apart. It was like a bunch of post-its being blown in the wind. And then I saw myself out on the landscape like paint. But I was still seeing it. I was experiencing it from a new vantage that wasn’t my usual self… We assume we’re identical to our ego, this chattering voice in our heads… it defends us against fresh experience, against emotion, against other people… That dissolved in such a way that I felt like, oh, I’m not identical to my ego. There’s another ground on which to stand.
… It’s really the idea that these defenses you’ve built up over your whole life, you don’t need them… you can lower them and not face complete annihilation.”
Michael Pollan’s Experience With Ego Dissolution
This experience of ego dissolution was positive for Pollan, as it ultimately tends to be for patients undergoing psychedelic therapy. Some people might think it’s scary to lose their sense of self — and it certainly can be. But many researchers believe this kind of experience is partly what is driving the benefits of treatment.
Michael Pollan has described listening to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor during a psilocybin experience. He has done so before many times, mostly at funerals.
But in his altered state, he remarks that this piece of music “had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death — to the deaths of the people now present to me, Bob’s and Ruthellen’s and Roy’s, Judith’s father’s, and so many others, but also to the deaths to come and to my own, no longer so far off.”
This echoes research showing that psychedelics — and the music you listen to while on them — can have profound effects. This is why set and setting is so important.
Michael Pollan Is Honest About The Downsides Of Psychedelics
The issue of psychedelic stigma does need to be addressed, but there’s a danger in going to the other extreme. This includes only looking at the positives of psychedelic therapy, and none of the potential downsides or risks.
Not all of Michael Pollan’s psychedelic journeys were wholly positive.
After smoking 5-MeO-DMT, which comes from the dry venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, Pollan reports feeling terror, as if a violent storm blasts him away. He watched reality collapse around him, leaving him in an unfamiliar and horrible nothingness. Eventually, reality and his sense of self returned. When the experience was over, he felt immense relief.
It’s important that Pollan is willing to speak about the negative and overwhelming side of psychedelics as well. People should avoid thinking that psychedelic therapy is going to be easy, calm, and full of joy and euphoria throughout.
When using potent psychedelics like 5-MeO-DMT and DMT (which may have therapeutic applications), as well as psilocybin and ayahuasca, people should know that the experiences may be challenging, at least during part of them.
Mental Health Issues That Don’t Mix Well With Psychedelics
It’s important to avoid thinking that psychedelic therapy is a mental health panacea, as these substances may worsen some mental health issues.
As Pollan has stated, “If you are at risk of schizophrenia or it’s in your family or [you] have some kind of personality disorder, they will not let you in a drug trial. They screen pretty carefully.”
In rare instances, a psychedelic trip can set off a psychotic break.
The UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship
Michael Pollan teamed up with podcaster and author Tim Ferriss to launch the UC Berkeley Psychedelic Journalism Fellowship.
Per Psychedelics Spotlight, the program is “designed for early and mid-career journalists reporting on the science, business, policy, and culture of psychedelics for mainstream print and audio news outlets.” This fellowship will assist journalists in reporting on psychedelics with credibility and accuracy.
Through his involvement with the fellowship, Michael Pollan is further helping ensure that the public has access to reliable information about psychedelic therapy. This will go a long way in changing how many view these compounds.