July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
It seemed to me these were the most beautiful leaves I had ever seen. It was as if they were emitting their own soft, green glow. And it felt like a kind of privilege to gaze out at the world through their eyes, as it were. As the leaves drank up the last drafts of sunlight transforming those photons into new matter. A plant’s eye view of the world. It was that and for real. But the leaves were also looking back at me fixing me with this utterly benign gaze. I could feel their curiosity in what I was certain was an attitude of utter benevolence toward me and my kind.
Do I need to say that I know how crazy this sounds? I do.
Dacher Keltner: That was Michael Pollan, reading from his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome Michael today as our guest on The Science of Happiness.
Michael Pollan: Good to be here, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner: And we’re going to do something a little bit unusual today for our science of happiness which is, but also very fitting with the spirit of what we’re trying to achieve. This is in the context of Michael’s new book, which is really an exploration of the new science of psychedelics. So I want to dive straight into the science and in a way you didn’t expect to take this journey. You get an email from a fellow named Bob Jesse, who sends you a paper.
Michael Pollan: Yeah this goes back to 2006. I don’t remember the exact title but it was how you can reliably occasion a mystical experience in people using psilocybin, the chemical ingredient of magic mushrooms, that has sustained and significant personal meaning. But it wasn’t just the words psilocybin in a scientific paper that caught my attention, but it was sustained meaning, mystical experience. This is what scientists do? Well Roland Griffith is a scientist, who apparently does do that. At the time I didn’t know what I had. I had this little nugget of gold. But I wasn’t ready to open it up and deal with it. And that took a few more years when I started reading about the another study in Roland’s lab, where they were giving psilocybin to cancer patients. People really up against their mortality and finding that they indeed had the kind of mystical experiences described in the first paper, and that those experiences reset their thinking about their mortality, their sense of self, in a way that turned out to be profoundly helpful. And then thanks in part to you, I met Bob Jesse and embarked on this journey that led first to a piece in The New Yorker about the cancer anxiety studies, and then to this book which is a much deeper dive into the whole subject of what psychedelics has to teach us about the mind.
Dacher Keltner: So you follow up on some of the participants in Roland Griffith’s work and interview them and what did you find?
Michael Pollan: I talked to dozens of people and they were they had incredible stories to tell. I mean these really were one of the top three or five most significant experiences of their lives, and they compared it to the death of a parent or the birth of a child. And their stories were pretty wild. Many of them had journeys. I mean he metaphor of the trip is a very good one because there is this kind of intra-psychic movie that has a narrative arc to it, and especially the ones who are trying to solve a specific problem, there was a pilot study seeing if psilocybin could help people break a smoking habit, which is one of the hardest habits to break. I remember this one woman telling me, “Well I had this amazing experience I sprouted wings and I flew through all of European history and I witnessed Shakespeare, and the witch trials, and then I died three times and I saw my body on a funeral pyre in the Ganges turn to smoke, and you know, I just realized the universe is so amazing and there’s so many incredible things to do that killing yourself with cigarettes seem kind of stupid.” During the psychedelic experience it takes on a force of revealed truth that actually allows people to act on it. And after that trip she never smoked again. I felt like to really get inside the nature of this experience I would have to do it myself. I had a lot of trepidations but there was no other way to explain what I was hearing from people than to immerse myself.
Dacher Keltner: I was really struck to learn that this was nearing mainstream therapeutic approaches in Canada and Los Angeles and in Maryland in other you know, trying to help people with alcoholism and the like.
Michael Pollan: There had been 10 years of really productive research, people trying to figure out what LSD might be good for and psilocybin, therapeutically and getting good results. They were finding that it could be very helpful in essentially creating the sort of conversion experience that would allow someone to quit drinking. It was helpful to people who were struggling with depression. It was helpful to people who had obsessive disorders of various kinds. Basically the kinds of mental problems that involve getting stuck, you know loops of rumination, repetitive behavior. I mean all that kind of you know those stories we tell ourselves that we get stuck in that you know we can’t get through the next hour without a drink or whatever it is. And that it seemed to offer a softening of those patterns, sufficient that people could actually step out of them. And then there’s this backlash in the 60s that’s caused, you know, by the fact that the drugs had escaped the lab ended up in the counterculture.
Dacher Keltner: I just want to get a little bit of the neurochemistry kind of straight for our listeners. So these psilocybins, psychedelics are triptomemes. Do we know where it’s operating?
Michael Pollan: So this has come out of research done first in England, although it’s been duplicated around the world of imaging the brains of people having a trip, either on psilocybin or LSD, using FMRI and MEG. And that has found, to the surprise of the researchers, that instead of getting this kind of generalized explosion of brain activity, as you might guess from the fireworks people report.
Dacher Keltner: Yes, I was expecting bright psychedelic colors all over the brain.
Michael Pollan: This one particular network goes very quiet and that is the default mode network. The default mode network is a very interesting set of structures in the brain that links parts of the cortex including the prefrontal cortex, where our executive function is to deeper older areas of memory and emotion. And it’s actually only been on anybody’s radar for about 15, 20 years. It was identified by a guy at Washington University named Marcus Raychelle.
Dacher Keltner: Classic paper.
Michael Pollan: What he was looking at is whenever you’re doing an FMRI you need a baseline. And so he was like “okay don’t do anything you’re sitting in the machine just think, you know, don’t do anything, don’t have a task”. And then this area got very active and suddenly you think oh there’s something going on in this area. If it’s active when the intentional networks are going quiet. What it appears to be involved with, based on imaging and other modes of analysis, is essentially a lot several functions having to do with the sense of self. Self-reflection seems to take place here, time travel, theory of mind, the ability to impute mental states to others, and the so-called autobiographical self. It seems to be where we take information that’s coming in and hook it up to the stories we tell ourselves to give us a consistent sense of self. So if there is a self and it may be an illusion or an ego, it’s a projection that appears to be formed here.
Dacher Keltner: It’s right in a default mode network. I mean that’s pretty stunning isn’t it?
Michael : Yeah if the ego has an address, that’s it’s address.
Dacher Keltner: But I love the attributes of the default mode network too, which is you’re telling stories and has this sense of achieving goals in the present moment and all this stuff that kind of nags at you.
Michael Pollan: And also worrying. It’s that chattering voice in your head telling you, you know you didn’t do that right or, you know, the perfectionist voice, or the addictive voice that’s telling you you need to you need this behavior will soothe you. And it’s where we talk to ourselves, and it’s where we go to mind wander and, you know a wandering mind is an unhappy mind and that people who dwell too much on themselves get into these loops. They can have a lot of recrimination, a lot of regret. So it’s not necessarily a happy place. And lo and behold psychedelic seems to turn it off or turn it way down, down-regulate it. And Robin Corhart Harris, the researcher in England who did this work, and I think a brilliant neuroscientist. He noticed that when people describe a full-blown sense of ego dissolution, that they are scattered to the winds, the default mode network is gone offline. That’s very exciting.
Dacher Keltner: It is exciting.
Michael Pollan: And it suggests that the therapeutic effect that these drugs may have, may have to do with relieving us of the burdens of ego, because the ego can be very destructive.
Dacher Keltner: Especially in extreme degrees.
Michael Pollan: Yeah it can get you know it can become hyperactive and really get in our way. I mean now we have to give some credit to the ego. It gets books written. It gets podcasts made.
Dacher Keltner: Make it on time.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, so you know, it obviously is an adaptive thing or illusion, whatever it is. But it also is the source of a great deal of suffering and getting and having a treatment that actually can disable it for a period of time represents a fascinating development. There’s three steps. They prepare you for the journey, they tell you what to expect, and they tell you what to do if you get into trouble. The main advice is surrender to whatever happens because if you fight it, if you feel your ego dissolving and you start to fight that death, because it is a death, you’ll be miserable and you’ll get crazy and have a panic attack. They have all these little mantras they give you and they’ll ask you to set an intention. You know do you want to confront your mortality? Do you want to deal with your smoking habit? You want to just learn more about your mind, you know and you sort of articulate that or even internally. And then during the experience, they’re kind of standing by. They say very little. They really feel that the mind will go where it needs to go to heal itself. And that’s a real conviction of this work.
Dacher Keltner: It’s a striking commitment to the mind.
Michael Pollan: It is. And it’s, I mean, it’s based on our understanding of the body. I mean the body has amazing abilities to heal itself. And they believe the mind does too given the right situation. And then after the experience is over you come back and they do what is called the integration session which is essentially trying to make sense. It’s the most conventional psychotherapy of the whole thing and you tell the story of what happened, and try to make sense of it and apply it to your life.
Dacher Keltner: What we love to do on the show is and yet people’s first person accounts of what it’s like to try one of these practices and these are you know experimentation, systematic experimentation with psychedelics.You go on to draw these analogies, and this happens in several of your experiences. Your kind of identities start to emerge right? You know, your parents feel like these trees.
Michael Pollan: Yeah later in that I looked at them and I realized oh my god those trees are my parents. And what does that mean exactly. Well it was impossible to think about them without thinking about my parents and the White Oak was my mother and the ash, the more beat up ash, was my dad, who had been through, you know, courses of chemo and had been, you know, sick by the time I wrote this. And they infused those trees in the most remarkable way and still do for me. And yeah I think that that that’s the kind of connection that we were talking about earlier that that happens that our disconnection from nature from other people is challenged by these drugs and they do tend to kind of make us feel these links. And love is often the word people use for it. I mean amazed how often people describe their big epiphany is that love is the substance of the world, love is consciousness, Love is everything. And it sounds it sounds so banal and it’s very hard to fill those words with any kind of sense of meaning until you’ve had this experience when it seems like, oh yeah, of course. And that’s you know that’s the challenge of writing about is that you’re having these experiences that you know sound crazy but they’re real psychological facts to you.
Dacher Keltner: You head into these guide-lead trips or experiences with LSD and Psilocybin and we’ve talked about that and I know you entered into it with a lot of trepidation, right? There were…
Michael Pollan: Oh yeah! I was a very reluctant psychonaut. I was really afraid, every time. The night before every one of these experiences was a sleepless night of a pingpong argument going on in my head. Like you know, “Are you crazy? Why are you doing this? You could have a heart attack up on that hill vs. Aren’t you curious?” In the end I realized it was my ego that was trying to stop this assault on my ego because our egos are very clever. They have command of the rational faculties.
Dacher Keltner: And they know what’s coming.
Michael Pollan: And they know they know exactly what’s coming because I’ve done a lot of research on it. Ego dissolution? Egos don’t like that. I had I had a lot of trepidations about it. You know, I’m a bit of a control freak and you have to be willing to surrender control and trust someone that you don’t know that well with your well-being, with your sanity.
Here’s what I could learn about the risk profile. On the physiological risk, it’s remarkable, the risk profile is remarkably positive. These are relatively non-toxic substances. For the classic psychedelics, we have not found a lethal dose. They’re not toxic to the body. As far as we can tell. At the same time they’re non-addictive. They can be very productive in the same way you bring a nightmare to your shrink. You can do something with it. And they often resolve themselves into much more positive trips if you know to surrender and you follow the flight instructions that your guide gives you. But there are people at risk for serious mental illness. People at risk for schizophrenia who should not go near these drugs. I mean if they have it in their family history. Lots of panic reactions, lots of terrifying days. And so people have to understand that. Guides I think minimize that risk. But it’s always there. It’s always there.
Psychologically there are risks. it’s a disruptive psychic experience. And some people often because of problems with set and setting have what are called bad trips. The guides don’t like the term bad trip because they feel even if you have a lot of negative stuff coming up, and I certainly had many death scenes and you know things that you would call a bad trip.
I remember feeling my thighs and realize oh my god I have a body. How great to have a body. Talk about gratitude. And then I had this expanding. I felt blissful that it was over. I mean the surcease of pain is a great pleasure, and I thought to myself not only am I grateful to be alive. And that’s a gratitude most of us have experienced. I was grateful that there was something rather than nothing because there could be nothing. And that felt fantastic. But I wouldn’t do it again.
Dacher Keltner: Not quite on the mysticism scale Michael. Grateful there’s more than nothing. It’s interesting that not only do the psychedelics produce this attenuation of default mode network activation but so do spiritual experiences, so does prayer, so does…
Michael Pollan: Meditation.
Dacher Keltner: So does meditation and mindfulness. So are you on board that there is this kind of consciousness that all these practices move towards?
Michael Pollan: Yeah I think that’s what we will discover. I think that we will discover that powerful experiences of awe down regulate the default mode network and fasting. There’s something called holatropic breath work,it’s a yoga breathing technique that puts you into a trance. Vision quest, sensory deprivation. There are many ways to open that door. Drugs are just one. Drugs are a bit of a shortcut. I think whether we call it mystical experience, or ego dissolution, or come up with yet another term for it. It is what happens when your ego is not kind of patrolling the borders of consciousness.
I have no doubt that meditation will take you there too. And some of these other methods. but now that we can induce it experimentally using drugs and perhaps using other techniques too. This opens up a really rich field for science. And it also closes down some of the distance between science and spirituality that, you know, everybody talks about all the time and you realize you know that’s actually a red herring. And that you can you can you can study spiritual experience scientifically. And there is on the other hand there’s insights from spiritual experience for science and that there’s a there’s potentially a very productive dialogue there.
Dacher Keltner: Mind and spirit are very much closer than we imagined. The concerns about these treatments that we’ve talked about and the risks and also granted that this has to be carefully done, you know, with set and setting and guides and so forth.
Michael Pollan: And it is illegal. It’s important for people to realize outside of the context of these clinical trials. This is illegal so far and that everyone should be mindful. The background to this we have to keep in mind is how few tools we have to help people who are suffering from mental illness. And the last major innovations was the SSRIs in the late 80s. And they’re not working very well for a lot of people they are. And so that there is a lot of suffering out there. I’m really struck by that and here comes a tool that’s showing some potential to help. And I just can’t imagine turning away from it because of that.
Dacher Keltner: Well Michael, you end your book by talking about how much there is to learn about the mind and how this opened you up and gave you a sense of wonder of what the mind can do. And I wanted to thank you for writing this book. It was a mind-opening experience for me and my family and I suspect for a lot of other people so thank you for the honor.
Michael Pollan: Oh thanks Dacher. What a pleasure to talk to you about this.
Dacher Keltner: Michael Pollan acted in many ways is his own guinea pig in his journey that produced the book How to Change Your Mind. And like a lot of people he was skeptical about this particular practice, which is experiencing psychedelics which are a lot of worries around and like a lot of people who turn to us he was really convinced by the science, and we’re learning that very careful use of psychedelics in controlled settings for clinical uses is really good for depression, and anxiety, and addiction, and facing terminal disease, really impressive. One of my favorite studies in this literature is actually one of the first studies of its kind in that kind of the renaissance of psychedelic research was done by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins and what he did is he had people who volunteered to go through an experiment with psilocybin. First they met with this guide for eight to ten hours just to sort of develop a mental set towards the experience, know what they’re in for. And then they took this this agent and it turned out to be psilocybin, and what Roland did is he measured “does this experience produce a mystical experience, where you really feel like you’ve learned something fundamental about life, you’ve moved beyond your ego, you feel connected in deep ways to things around you”. So he measured mysticism, and then he was really interested in whether this psilocybin experience changes this particular personality trait that we call openness, and openness is where you’re curious about the world, you’re empathetic towards other people’s emotions, you’re interested in ideas and art, you’re really searching for meaning, you’re open to new ideas. Here’s what Griffiths found which is really interesting which is the experience of psilocybin one day leads to increases in your sense of openness over the course of a year. And that’s one of the only studies you’ll ever find that shows one experience can really change your personality structure. And then he also found the more that people really felt like this was a mystical experience that they had learned something fundamental about their lives, that they encountered some truth, that they felt selfless. The more they felt mystical in this experience, the greater the changes and openness over the course of a year. So that’s impressive data showing careful, clinically oriented uses of psychedelics really opened people up to new truths about the world.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness. Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRI, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio.
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Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.Our original music is by David Michelle Reddy.
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