Michael Pollan has done maybe more than any other writer to change the way we eat, the way we think about food and the way we think full-stop.Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world, something that seems entirely just when you consider the deep and far-reaching consequences of his research and writing on the way we live (‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants’ is Pollan at his most typically succinct).
With previous books, In Defence of Food, and Food Rules, he cut through the intense and damaging din around eating, diets and the various ‘meanings’ of food. With How to Change Your Mind, he challenged the conversation on the use of psychedelics in therapy and science but also culture.
His latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants, is a close look at three ‘mind-changing molecules’: morphine, caffeine and mescaline; a sedative, a stimulant and a hallucinogen respectively – three substances which are right now in a fascinating state of social flux around their status, possibilities and legalities.
There are meditations on each substance, the role they play and have played in Pollan’s life, and in society.
Over Zoom – Pollan is in California, where he lives with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer – I spot something. Is that a large cup of coffee? (As part of his research into This is Your Mind… he stopped drinking coffee). “Of course,” he laughs. “It’s not quite as big as it looks, it’s only 12oz but it’s insulated so it looks bigger… honest.”
So he’s back drinking coffee daily? “Yes, very happily. I don’t have any problem with drinking coffee. I don’t see any strong reason not to unless you’re a jittery, anxious person or you have trouble sleeping. I really got off it just to see what it would be like, and fully intending to get back on. But I did want to hold on to this power I was reacquainted with after the coffee fast.”
Pollan discovered, via his ‘detox’, the astonishing power of caffeine: “Most of us take a maintenance dose every day. But if there’s no caffeine in your system, it’s so powerful. I was shocked; it’s like taking MDMA or something.”
So, why this book, I ask? “I’ve always been curious about this human desire to use plants and fungi to change consciousness. That’s always struck me as something very curious about us, and very revealing.”
“I had already written about opium,” he says, “and had always wanted to republish that piece.” The opium chapter is built around an essay originally written for Harper’s Magazine 25 years ago at the height of the US ‘war’ on drugs. Back then, spooked by the far-reaching ferocity of this ‘war’, Pollan ended by removing his instructions on how to make opium tea from the poppies in his back garden, and the effects of drinking this, from the piece.
“Now the parts that I had self-censored back in 1997 are back and I go deeper into understanding opium and the opioid crisis. I had written that piece before there was such a thing as the opiate crisis.”
He makes the point that at the very moment he was growing poppies in his back garden and agonising over the possibly dire legal consequences of making tea from them, about 100km down the road “a little-known pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma… had begun marketing a new, slow-release opiate called OxyContin”. This, we now know, is heavily implicated in the US’s opioid crisis.
Journalism now, he says, “is not just the first draft of history, it’s sometimes not the right narrative. It takes time to see what was really going on. While we’re living through a period we have no idea.”
“This book is very much about looking ahead towards the end of the drug war. I realise it’s not quite as close to ending in the UK [and Ireland] as it is here but I think it’s really going to start rolling soon all over the world. I think we’re just beginning to glimpse what an insane project that was and that the opioid crisis, which is largely the product of legal opiates – at least that’s where it starts for most people – takes the legs out from under the whole idea that illicit drugs were the problem,” he says.
“There were only 5,000 opiate addicts in 1996 and now we’re in the hundreds of thousands. And that’s the result of legal opiates.”
So, he says, “I wanted to take a good hard look at the drug war as I think it is nearing its end, and then beginning the conversation: what does the peace look like?”
In doing this – looking at the peace – he considers caffeine, “the most popular psychoactive on the planet,” and our largely functional relationship with it: “Caffeine supports the highly work-centric, compulsive, acquisitive culture of late capitalism so the government has no trouble with caffeine.”
Then he looks at mescaline, a hallucinogenic produced by the peyote and San Pedro cactuses. And this, for me, is where the book becomes especially fascinating. This, he says, “suggested another model of drug use, which is the way Indigenous peoples have used drugs for thousands and thousands of years. Psychedelic medicine, psychedelic science, is really founded on this body of Indigenous knowledge.
“So the question becomes as we struggle with how to incorporate psychedelics within our society is there anything valuable we can learn from cultures that have been using them for a long time? And I think that there is. We tend to think of psychedelics in the West as a destructive force, highly individualistic. But that’s just a matter of context. They are being used in other cultures in a way that is very conservative, very pro-social. This gives us a moral model of drug use.”
As part of his research, Pollan tried out mescaline himself, given to him as a gift by the ‘psychedelic community’ (to be clear, mescaline is currently illegal except for certain religious groups such as the Native American Church and scientific and medical research). He carefully emphasises he did not use mescaline from the peyote cactus, which is sacred to Native Americans.
“The last thing I want to have happen is have this book create a fad for peyote. We have taken so much from Native Americans, and this one thing they have has been so important to their ability to heal the trauma they’ve suffered at our hands, that for us to diminish this by using it just seems so unfair and so wrong. It’s in short supply. It’s vitally important to these people and for us to stand in the way seems to pile one cruelty upon many others.”
He describes his experiences on mescaline in the book: “To say mescaline immersed me in the present moment doesn’t quite do it. No, I was a helpless captive of the present moment… I was firmly planted on the frontier of the present and… there was nowhere else I wanted to be or anything else I needed from life in order to be content… I had recovered some of the beauty and pleasure in living that had been lost since the pandemic.”
Does he believe there is a broad social role for psychedelics such as mescaline?
“Absolutely. I think I’m evidence of that myself, and I know many other people for whom that is true. These substances, when used with care and clear intention, have something to offer many, many people.”
It should be noted that there are of course those who disagree with him on this.
And indeed, these are not, he says, for everyone. He is suggesting their use in specific, contained therapeutic situations rather than the ‘everyone get high’ model. “There are people who shouldn’t mess around with psychedelics – people with serious conditions like schizophrenia or personality disorder – but for people who are healthy these offer us a fascinating tool to examine the contents of our own mind, to think about our relationship to the natural world.”
“Look,” he says, “we’re all on a spectrum. There are people with a clinical diagnosis of anxiety or addiction or depression but we’re all on that spectrum: we all suffer occasional depression, occasional anxiety. We’re all addicted to something whether it’s coffee or our phones. And so this idea of using them for the betterment of well people, I think, is compelling.
“The question is how are we going to shape a way in which people can use them safely? I don’t think they’re like cannabis. I think they’re much more powerful, consequential experiences which, as these Indigenous cultures have taught us, have to be used with enormous care. Ideally with some ritual.”
Anyone who has read Pollan’s last book, How to Change Your Mind, will be aware of the research around the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic context – something that is happening here in Ireland, too, with studies into psilocybin – the active ingredient found in ‘magic mushrooms’ – and ketamine under way. “We know how to do it in a medical context,” Pollan says, “but I think there is important cultural work to be done figuring out how to do it in a non-medical context. I think this is part of our future, which is kind of remarkable to think about, considering how distant that prospect seemed just a few years ago.”
But how to ensure those who shouldn’t, don’t? “The way it works now is before you are admitted to a clinical trial or to an underground guiding session you fill out a very extensive medical questionnaire. You qualify people, exactly as with other medications, and make sure they don’t have any counter-indications.” For example, anyone taking SSRIs – medicine commonly used to treat depression – is not a good candidate for psychedelics as the SSRIs block the action of the psychedelic.
But the risk of sounding like someone auditioning for the musical Hair, does he think there are ways our late-capitalist society can be improved by incorporating the wise use of psychedelics?
“I think that is to be determined,” he says, very reasonably. “It’s a very common belief in the psychedelic community that the widespread use of psychedelics would usher in changes in society and in values that would be very constructive. And there is some very preliminary research to suggest that might be true. For example, a couple of studies show that people’s openness goes up after a psilocybin experience; their openness to the points of view of other people or new experiences goes up. Certainly a more open-minded culture would be positive.
“There is also some evidence to suggest a single psilocybin experience will increase someone’s nature-connectedness score – the degree to which you feel connected to nature – and that sounds like something that would be very helpful in terms of the environment.”
But, he cautions, “these ideas really need to be tested on larger groups and with people who are not already disposed in that direction. The kinds of people who have participated in psychedelic research and who tend to use psychedelics are already thinking that way to some extent, and it may just be that the drugs intensify such beliefs rather than change them.
“Until you’re tried it on Trump supporters, or people operating coal mines and destroying the environment, I don’t think we’re going to know. That’s a hypothesis to be tested rather than a truth to be acknowledged.”
Does he himself feel different since his experiences with mescaline and other psychedelics? “Yes. Not in a profound way. More around the margins. But I do feel it has made me more open, more questioning of strongly held beliefs that I had. Somewhat more empathetic, somewhat more patient.
“Certainly in the aftermath of them I am better able to connect with difficult emotional issues. And I have a little more distance or perspective on my ego. I’m less jerked around by that voice in my head and I can recognise when he’s up to his old tricks and put him in his place just a little bit. That came out of psychedelic experiences where I experienced the complete dissolution of my ego and that was a fascinating experience.”
‘Tripping’ has always been associated, for most of us, with youth but Pollan makes the fascinating point that “I’m a strong believer that these substances are more valuable as we get older.”
Over time, he says, “you become a creature of habit, and you have your routines and your grooves, whether it’s in how you organise your day, how you organise your mind, how you navigate your social relations. Over time we develop these algorithms to get us through this stuff. And they’re really efficient. But there’s a cost, in terms of how present you are to reality. How alive you are.
“One of the things that psychedelics pretty reliably do is to throw habitual ways of thinking up in the air and make you see things fresh. The sense of wonder and awe is exactly what we trade when we develop all those habits of thought and behaviour. To recover that – I think it’s huge and much more important as you get older.”
Does he really see a future – a near future – in which we accept the opportunities presented by psychedelics?
“I think we’re moving towards that, certainly with the medical model. Cultures tends to support the drugs that support the culture.” Caffeine being the perfect example of this. “But the mental health problems of our society are becoming so severe the fact that may transform it into something regarded as socially beneficial rather than socially disruptive. I think we’re on the cusp of that change.”
Does he see a role for this in his own life? “I think that if they were legal – and I look forward to that day, or even decriminalised – I would use psychedelics this way: I would want to take a trip on my birthday every year as a way to take stock of where I am and set objectives. I think that would be a useful way to celebrate a birthday.
“Another thing I would do is, with my wife, assuming she was up for this, have a day of using MDMA once a year. I think it’s a wonderful tool for couples. It allows you to speak about very difficult issues without any kind of rancour or defensiveness.
“I know couples who use it this way and it seems to me incredibly sane. But these are illegal. So I approach this with great care. I know the government could try to make an example of someone like me who speaks in positive ways about psychedelics. But I hope we win the right to use them in a safe and legal context.”
Pollan has a phrase in This is Your Mind on Plants that really struck me: ‘psychedelics are profound teachers of the obvious’. What exactly did he mean by that?
“People often come out of a psychedelic experience with this flash of revelation, this insight, and it’s something like ‘Love is the most important thing in the world’ and that sounds like a Hallmark card – incredibly banal – but of course it’s also true. The edge between banality and profundity is very fine. Just because we’ve heard something a million times doesn’t mean it’s any less true. We need to be reminded of these truths. There’s something about an insight on psychedelics that it has incredible force.
“Not only do you cognise it but you feel it on a very deep level. That’s very useful when it comes to some of those obvious statements. Life is much emptier if you’re not made aware again of those truisms – about love, gratitude, the ephemeral nature of life, all these things. I think that’s a really salutary aspect of psychedelics. It has to go to your core.
“You have to hold that idea deeply, and most of us don’t. You can’t be thinking about this all the time. You’ve got work to do, deadlines. People annoy you. That’s life. But every now and then to be put in touch with what really matters – what could be more than that?”
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