Tom Hodgkinson meets the psychedelics guru who advocates hallucinogenics as therapy.
Books about drugs can be deadly dull. They tend to be either tediously technical or horribly shamanic and humourless. Michael Pollan’s new book, the brilliantly titled How to Change Your Mind, is neither. It is a very readable and funny account of a 60 year-old man’s experiments with magic mushrooms, LSD and the fabled venom of the toad, and is a worthy successor to Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception.
Tom Hodgkinson: How did you come to write this book?
Michael Pollan: You should know that I started out terrified of psychedelics.
I am a child of the moral panic against them. I was 14 during Woodstock and 12 in the Summer of Love. I remember terrible stories of people ending up in emergency rooms, going blind, jumping out of windows, and even cutting their wrists on acid trips.
So that is where I start from. But I was intensely curious to conduct this expedition into a foreign and somewhat scary world. I am thought of as a food journalist: actually my work is all about the human relationship with natural world.
I learned that the desire to use fungi and psychedelics is universal: there is only one culture in the world without psychoactive plants, and that is the Inuits, because nothing psychoactive grows where they live.
I talked to a physicist who said that it was an LSD trip at 15 that opened him to the bizarre idea that particles don’t exist until they are perceived, implausible as that may seem. The world we see is the not the only world or even the most faithful transcription of reality, and that set him on the path of examining these other realities.
TH: Did you come across Terence McKenna [ethnobotanist, profiled in Idler issue 1, died April 2000]?
MP: Yes and his hypothesis is that magic mushrooms wrought changes in our hominid ancestors and shaped our biological evolution. Enough mushrooms put selective pressure on the species, and language appeared, which is a variety of synaesthesia. Animals can hear colours and see sounds, while language is a special case where you connect meaningless sounds to concepts.
TH: You say that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been used in medical contexts?
MP: There were two studies in 2016, at NYU and John Hopkins, giving psilocybin to patients who had had terminal cancer diagnoses and were dealing with existential distress, anxiety, fear and depression. The results were quite striking – 80% of them had reductions in their anxiety and depression that lasted at least six months.
Many of them came back with a conviction that consciousness could survive death. Some of them – not all – experienced the death of the ego and that has big implications. It may have served as a death rehearsal. It makes you realise what makes death so terrifying: it is that this separate entity is going to be extinguished. But if you define your first person as embracing community and nature and something beyond the I, then your personal extinction can seem less tragic.
The full interview appears in Idler 61, available to buy in selected Smiths, indie bookshops or direct from us. Michael Pollan’s book is symptomatic of a wider renaissance in psychedelic research. Find out why doctors are saying LSD and magic mushrooms are good for you at the Idler Festival, where Dr Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial will be talking about his psychedelic research on Sunday 15 July. Buy tickets here.