Bestselling author Michael Pollan wishes he did more LSD
Pollan, who has written five New York Times bestsellers, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, is a self-proclaimed “reluctant psychonaut.” Aside from growing a couple of cannabis plants and eating just enough mushrooms to make him giggle, Pollan was a psychedelic rookie when he recently began his own experimental journey with his new bestselling book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Born on Long Island in 1955, Pollan was just young enough to miss out on the Summer of Love and Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Mostly thanks to the period of drug paranoia that followed the counterculture era, Pollan says that the wild tales about the dangers of LSD (it’ll make you blind or crazy, probably both) were enough to make him steer clear. But when he actually took LSD for the first time at age 60, he was nervous about his heart—having experienced an AFib the night before—and decided to lower the dosage just in case.
“Had I been sufficiently relaxed to take a bigger dose, I think I would have learned more,” he says.
Having written about food and agriculture for the last 30 years, How to Change Your Mind is a somewhat risky departure for Pollan. After writing a piece for the New Yorker on the successes of psychedelics research in 2015, his interest in psychedelics mushroomed.
It’s a controversial topic, and it’s Pollan’s own experiences that bring the book to life. He lays it all out there, confronting mortality and ego, the very inner workings and meanings of his own trips and thoughts. Besides a new perspective and another best-selling book, Pollan also earned himself a new label, courtesy of the New York Times: a “giant square.”
“Well, that I object to,” he says with a laugh. “I guess if you are a reluctant psychonaut, that equals complete square—or partial square, perhaps.”
Pollan isn’t exactly an obvious candidate to write about psychedelics, so how did he go from writing about diet, agriculture, and the world’s most delicious backyard barbecue, to tripping? He says it’s all relative. It’s not that he’s only interested in food and nutrition, but rather wellness and nature in general—and he sees psychedelics as a part of that.
How to Change Your Mind delves into the world of psychedelics as healers of anxiety, depression and addiction by, among other things, silencing the ego. Through the scope of Western medicine, he explores the science behind the experimental renaissance of LSD, psilocybin (the active hallucinogenic ingredient in mushrooms) and MDMA. Pollan recites the lengthy and tumultuous history of LSD, mistakenly invented by Albert Hofmann in 1938, and profiles some colorful characters who are willing to risk everything to support and prove the therapeutic usage of psychedelics—including a Bavarian revolutionist LSD guide and a Lorax-like mushroom forager.
“What you are doing in a high-dose psilocybin or LSD trip is allowing your ego to dissolve, which means you are putting down your usual defenses,” Pollan explains. “These defenses are important to our survival—they give us a sense of security in the world. So to relax those or put them down entirely is an incredible act of surrender and trust.”
Trust was a big factor for Pollan. After all, while his mind wandered, he was leaving his body in someone’s care—someone that didn’t want to get in trouble with the law if anything were to go awry. Pollan wanted to make sure that if something did go wrong, the guide wouldn’t just “bury him with all of the other dead people” (a quote directly from a guide he interviewed, no less).
Pollan ended up with a few pre-vetted guides to help manage his larger doses and conscious reconciliation, and worked his way through LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and “the toad” (scientifically 5-MeO-DMT, the smoked venom of a Sonoran desert toad) during his experimental phase—not bad for a middle-age rookie.
“Change in the adult mind does not come easy,” Pollan says. “Psychologists will say that personality is really set by your early 20s, and doesn’t change very much. But there is some evidence that on psychedelics it can change, especially around the personality trait of openness.”
Aside from challenging his ego and mental state, Pollan says his experiences were particularly difficult to recount. He found himself up against an ineffable wall—how do you explain something that doesn’t have tangible existence?
“As a journalist, we are really boxed in by reality. We want to tell cool stories, but they have to also be true, and sometimes the facts screw up the narrative,” Pollan says. “So here I was writing about this imaginative space that was in my head and I had a lot more freedom than I normally do. No one is going to fact check a trip report—if you thought it happened, it happened.”
Despite his innate scientific approach, Pollan is remarkably aloof about it all. Since his trips, he has talked openly with his 25-year-old son about his psychedelic use, and is more patient and attentive, particularly with regard to the recent death of his father, according to his wife Judith.
“I really do feel that talking about it in a matter-of-fact way is the beginning of having a more productive conversation about this,” Pollan says. “It gets us out of the usual frame of the drug war of the ’60s.”
Though he is clear that he is not an advocate for widespread use of psychedelics, he proves that in the medicinal usage of psychedelics, there’s much more than bright colors and wonky lines.
But Pollan is a “healthy normal”—an able-bodied individual not facing any immediate life threats—and although he is interested in how psychedelics can help people like him, too, he places particular emphasis on those who face terminal illness, clinical depression and addiction. New York University, Johns Hopkins, UCLA and Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) are at the forefront of this research and experimentation into illicit drug benefits, picking up where Timothy Leary left off.
Pollan says he was particularly taken by the amount of stories and personal experiences people were willing to share with him. In fact, so many people wanted to tell their stories, Pollan created a submission database with the help of Medium. So, if you have a pretty trippy story to tell, they are taking submissions.
“I realized that a lot of people have a story to tell, and they haven’t felt comfortable telling it for one reason or another, partly because there is such a stigma,” Pollan says. “Here I come talking about psychedelic trips in mainstream media and it licenses people to take these trips out of the box that they have been keeping in the attic for a very long time.”
In Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he coined the instruction to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Though, as he admitted to NPR’s Terry Gross a few weeks ago, some have amended the phrase to “Do drugs. Not too much. Mostly psychedelics.” He’s quick to explain that he’s not particularly thrilled about that rendition.
“Many people have a set view that psychedelics can make you crazy, and I am encouraging people to see that, yes, there are psychological risks, but these are drugs that can make you more sane,” Pollan says. “That will take a change in mind in the culture, but I think that we are well on our way down that path. “
Michael Pollan is coming to Santa Cruz to talk about ‘How to Change Your Mind’ on Tuesday, June 5. 7 p.m. Peace United Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. Ticket packages are $33 and include one copy of ‘How to Change Your Mind.’ For more information about the event, visit bookshopsantacruz.com.