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An Interview with Michael Pollan

[Writer]
by Prashanth Ramakrishna
February 5th, 2019

We want to get out of ourselves as much as we’re obsessed with ourselves.”

Psychedelics:
Dissolve your ego
Bring you closer to the scientific world
Could (theoretically) be a tool to enforce conformity

 

 

Michael Pollan’s ongoing project is to narrow the ever-growing chasm between man and nature. In pursuit of this, Pollan has wrangled cattle, constructed from start to finish his own Thoreauvian cabin, and prepared a meal only from livestock he reared, and ingredients he hunted and gathered. However grand these undertakings may appear, they’re framed by a perspective that is anything but. 

In his last book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us, Pollan sets upon traveling to a mystical world that reflects our material one. He canvases the neuroscience of consciousness, history of spirituality, and potential for psychedelics to revolutionize mental healthcare. How to Change Your Mind not only trespasses taboo, but makes a reasoned case against the taboo it trespasses. Psychedelics offer a temporary ability to exist without the constraints of ego and pretense, and to observe, as Polan puts it, our fundamental connectedness. The book asserts that psychedelics have real potential to serve as conduit between us and our environment.

I met Mr. Pollan at the Hourly Oyster House on Harvard Square, in Cambridge. On our table were curried mussels, baguettes, and an illustrious Banker’s Lunch. 

— Prashanth Ramakrishna

I. Dissolving The Ego

THE BELIEVER: I’ll begin where we ended off record: is it possible to untangle the language of mysticism and the supernatural from the transcendent experiences that psychedelics induce?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, if you look at the definition of mystical experience that scientists use—a list of characteristics that I don’t have at my fingertips, but includes ego-dissolution, transcendence of space and time, and the authority of the experience—you can depict it as purely a psychological phenomenon: a feeling of transcendence of time, not a fact of transcendence of time. Even the sense of the sacred you can interpret as merely a sense of meaning in various phenomena. You can secularize that idea, if you want. Many of the scientists do just that when they’re working with it.

But we’re talking about words. In England, the researchers don’t talk about mystical experience. America is a much more religious culture than England. The researchers in England talk about ego-dissolution. They’re very comfortable using essentially a Freudian vocabulary: “Ego.” They’re describing the same thing that’s being described by religious American language, though. There’s also another frame for the same concept that has been used by the researcher Peter Hendricks: the experience of awe, which is a fundamental human emotion in which we feel very small before a large-scale experience or sight. It is that sense of the shrinking self. If I asked you to draw a picture of yourself on a piece of paper and I showed you some awesome imagery like Half Dome at Yosemite or an old growth forest, and then I asked you to draw yourself again, you would draw yourself much smaller. So, awe contributes to the feeling of a small self. Again, a very similar idea: that the proportion of the self to the world or to the universe changes in the psychedelic experience.

When I started the project, I thought of myself as a pretty staunch materialist and didn’t have a lot of patience for spiritual questions. I didn’t even think I had ever had a spiritual experience. My experience with psychedelics changed my understanding of what spirituality is.

BLVR: Has the transformation of your understanding of spirituality merely been one of transition from one conception of it to another, or has it been one that has taken you from believing that such a dimension of human experience doesn’t exist to believing one does?   

MP: Well, I’ll tell you what the transition was: I really thought that the opposite of material was spiritual, or that the opposite of spiritual was material, that these things were in conflict. But I came to see that that’s the wrong term, and the opposite of spiritual is egotistical. Our ego and everything that goes with it—the defenses that are its tools—essentially close us off from connection, whether it’s to nature or other people.

The essence of spiritual experience to me is a powerful sense of connection, an opening to nature and what nature can teach us—the emotional valences of nature and other people. It’s the ego that defends us against that overwhelming experience of the everyday, what’s right around us. I learned that when psychedelics dissolve your ego, you’re left undefended and suddenly what rushes in are these powerful feelings about nature, other people, and the universe. It’s not supernatural at all; it’s just the fact that we are connected. Humans can’t survive alone. We’re part of a web in nature. We’re social creatures. You can’t imagine a human outside of the fabric we’re a part of. But you don’t feel it day to day; we feel we’re very separate.

BLVR: Ego-dissolution is almost impossible to conceptualize without having experienced it (I think the word you use in your book is “ineffable”). Words just aren’t enough, and certainly one of the challenges is to develop a vocabulary for this type of experience. The more immediate challenge in conceptualizing it, though, is understanding how one can “experience” anything at all without the self. You mention “feelings about the universe” that rush in during a psychedelic experience. But usually we think of feelings as received or generated by the self.

MP: Yes, but that may be an illusion. They may just bubble up. If you’re a meditator, you know that things pass into consciousness and things pass out of consciousness without being willed. And, what we’re learning from behavioral economics and depth psychology is that all this is unbidden, and the self is just the little tip of an iceberg. You think you’ve made a decision, but really it was made for you before you actually thought about it as a decision. So, we’re learning—and when I say we I mean both scientists and the various religious traditions—that the self may be illusory. We give it a lot of credit by flattering ourselves and suggesting that we’re in charge. But we’re not. You still have feelings without a self. And that was the big news for me. The big surprise was: “Oh! No ego, but I’m still here!”

BLVR: It’s interesting that Freudian vocabulary is being revived as scientific language only to make the point that the ego is much less relevant than we thought it was.

MP: Freud can be ambivalent on the ego, though. He suggests that the ego can become a destructive force, that we turn on ourselves and can divide. He had the sense that there was a kind of multiplicity to the ego: there was a super ego, too, that was a conscience for him. But he thought, “Yes, you need a strong ego”. And, they’re definitely useful. I don’t mean to suggest they’re without value; an ego got the book written. Egos get a lot of things done, but they can also become deranged.

To have an experience where you realize there’s another ground on which to stand besides your ego, which we normally think we’re identical to – it’s like, “well maybe you’re not identical to it.” The ego is one character in your head, but there are others. That’s liberating. To the extent that the ego is quieted, you hear other things. For me, a lot of what I heard was nature. I had this powerful experience of the plants in my garden and the trees on my property. Suddenly they were a lot more alive.

Our ability to objectify others, whether the “other” is other people or nature—that’s one of the things the ego gives us. It’s so self-obsessed that it can’t imagine something else has standing equal to it, or feelings equal to it, or consciousness equal to it. And, so, when the ego is quieted, the consciousness of animals, for example, suddenly becomes much louder. For me, it was the consciousness of plants. Using the word “consciousness” about plants is stretching it a bit, but they do have agency, awareness, interests, a point of view. Ego stands in the way of realizing that. That’s one of the reasons psychedelics are so interesting and of interest right now: because two of the biggest problems we deal with in the world, tribalism and the environmental crisis are both based on disconnecting and objectifying the other.

BLVR: To objectify the perceived world is necessarily to distinguish yourself from the objects you’re perceiving.

MP: And distinguishing yourself becomes less important on psychedelics. You’re happy to merge. And that’s good practice. It’s good practice for recognizing how embedded you are in something bigger than yourself—which is a scientific fact that we don’t feel. In one way, psychedelics don’t take you further away from the scientific world view but bring you closer to it.

II. The Conductor Has Left The Stage

BLVR: It’s also true that when your neurochemistry isn’t being toyed with, it’s possible to experience this sort of merging with other subjects. Marriage, I think, is probably as good an example as any. I’d imagine that after decades with a person, you really are content to just merge at a certain level, at certain times, in a way that you can’t with other subjects – that is to say, subjects that are still objects to you.

MP: Yes, without question there are other ways of achieving similar states of consciousness. Meditation is one, certain yogic breathing practices are another, sensory deprivation is another, starvation is another.

PR: These all crop up around the world in practices developed in pursuit of the same type of enterprise.

MP: They do! One of the reasons I got into this topic is I’ve always been interested in the fact that humans have this desire to change consciousness. That seems maladaptive because you’re vulnerable when your consciousness changes profoundly. Some lion can come over and eat you, or you could be sexually assaulted. Yet, we seek out these experiences, and not just out of boredom, I think. We have a basic interest in transcendence no matter how it’s achieved. We want to get out of ourselves as much as we’re obsessed with ourselves.

PR: Can psychedelics teach us anything, in a general naturalistic sense, about consciousness? Or can they only teach us about our own consciousness? I suppose learning about our own consciousness must at the very least imply something about what other people are and are not experiencing, as well.

MP: You can’t study consciousness without anecdote because science can’t penetrate the subjective feeling of being you. We depend on what people tell us. It’s not satisfying to some or as objective as other types of data, but we’re stuck with it until we come up with new tools. There are a lot of scientists who say that subjectivity will never be accessible to the tools of science. I don’t know if that’s true, but objectively, I think we’re learning some interesting things.

BLVR: For example?

MP: For example, one of the more interesting findings was the quieting of the default mode network. This is striking because people assumed psychedelics would lead to this excitation of the brain rather than a down-regulation of mental activity in this extremely important network.

What does the default mode network do? Well, we had some clues: the people whose scans showed the most striking reduction of activity in the default mode network were the people who experienced the most complete ego-dissolution. We learn that ego consciousness appears to be centered in this particular network, which is also involved in self-reflection, time travel, autobiographical memory. The experiments gave us more knowledge about what the default mode networks is up to, and what happens when it goes offline, which is that all these other networks suddenly start talking to each other.

One of the scientists I interviewed put it like this: “the orchestra conductor has left the stage,”—the default mode network, the self, the ego, is gone and suddenly everyone else is doing their own thing, which can be very chaotic, or liberating.

BLVR: So, all these avenues through which we pursue ego-dissolution—are they all affecting the brain in similar ways?

MP: We don’t know. The only one we’ve looked at is meditation. In meditation they’ve done similar scans and discovered that, in fact, the same brain networks are quieted in meditation, when you’re a very experienced meditator, as are when you’re on a psychedelic trip. Those scans look remarkably similar.

BLVR: Can changes to the brain be made permanent or semi-permanent? For example, with very experienced meditators—is it also true that when they’re not meditating, their brains are quieted in the same way?

MP: I don’t know if we’ve looked at that. It’s a good question. I think they can quiet it at will. They have more control over their minds. They can attend to what they want to attend to without being as easily distracted as most of us. It’d be interested to see the before and after of people who’ve done an extensive course in meditation, to see if their brains are wired any differently. My guess is they are at some level because “learning” is rewiring, right? That’s what we mean when we say we learn something. They’ve learned certain techniques of mental management that the rest of us don’t have. My guess is that you would find they’re wired a little differently and the practice of meditation is a process for achieving that rewiring. There are some efforts to look at the before and after with psychedelics, but I think they’re too short term to have lasting changes.

There’s a scene in the book where I go to this guy’s lab at UMass. He has me put on a helmet so he can measure my default mode network. It turns out that merely by remembering an image from an Ayahuasca trip, I can suppress my default mode network. Memory often causes the brain to go through a process as if it’s actually seeing what you’re remembering. The visual cortex lights up. And, if you’re describing a sensory experience, the parts of your brain involved with physical senses like smell or taste all light up. That’s not trivial. It suggests that if you have powerful imagery from your psychedelic experience and remember it regularly, you’re creating pathways that may persist. Those are subtleties of measurement that haven’t been performed yet. But it seems totally plausible.

Our tools are all still very crude. Brain imaging is very crude. You’re only looking at blood flow, which is a proxy for activity, and it’s not very precise in time. The other problem with scans is that for those beautiful images to be made, a lot of software is required. There are a lot of arguments about the validity of that software, and about whether it might be overdramatizing effects. There’s something rhetorical about an FMRI image. My guess is that it exaggerates effects. But, it’s interesting: there are two kinds of brain scientists. One is the kind that works on humans, and they think brain scans are great and the best tool we have. And the other is the kind that works on animals, and they think, “This is a joke! You gotta actually, you know, put probes in people’s brains to learn anything.” We can’t! They won’t let you! So, you don’t want to overstate the validity of brain scans.

BLVR: Why do you think scientists have been so attracted to psychedelics? That seems to me a puzzle. Scientists are, on the whole, reserved.

MP: Remember, in the 40s and 50s, and way before, it was routine to test drugs on yourself. Scientists did it all the time. It was considered the responsible thing to do rather than give it to some innocent guinea pig who didn’t know what was going to happen. So, there was this whole tradition, especially with psychoactives that, “Before I give it to anyone else, I gotta try it.”

BLVR: Much of psychedelic culture, then is simply an accident of the right work being done under sufficiently lax experimental standards?

MP: Yes, an accident of the manners that existed at that time. Now, scientists would never try a drug. The research norms have changed. And, scientists can’t admit they’ve ever used the drugs they’re producing. But, in many cases, they have. They’ll never say that on the record, though. That’s part of it. But also, if you’re interested in the mind, it’s a fascinating experience because you learn things about the mind. Timothy Leary said, after his first psilocybin trip, which he had in 1960 by the pool in Cuernavaca, “I learned more in four hours about the human mind than I did in all my years of graduate school or practice as a psychologist.” And, he wasn’t kidding.

It’s a heuristic. It’s a tool. If you’re a neuroscientist or a psychologist, it’s hard not to be fascinated by seeing what your mind is capable of that you didn’t suspect. It would be the same way if suddenly dreams were discovered, and no one knew how to remember a dream, but there was a new technology that recorded your dreams. Every scientist—brain scientist—in the world would be fascinated. It’s amazing how many people I have met who were inspired to go into psychology or psychiatry or meditation because of psychedelics. I met a guy last night who’s the head of psychology at Tufts. I had interviewed him for the book and he said his intellectual development was powerfully shaped by an LSD trip he had had when he was eighteen. My guess is that the drugs have already produced a few hundred neuroscientists, and they’re about to produce a lot more.

III. Stick It In The Water

BLVR: The process of ego dissolution changes your mind—literally, but also metaphorically. In particular, it produces a long-lasting orientation, as you say, towards openness. Trait openness is much more prominent in people with liberal political dispositions. I’m curious about whether people who take psychedelics experience a political shift that accompanies their personality shift.

MP: It’s a really interesting question. There is some evidence that there is a political valence to the experience. There have been measurements looking at people’s tolerance for authority, and, according to some researchers, there is an anti-authoritarian bias to the experience, to the person’s attitude after having the experience. They’re less tolerant of authority. That may be openness. Tolerance of authority is a way to shut things down: “Somebody else is going to tell me what to think.” One researcher, Robert Carhart Harris, has speculated in my interviews that what the drug is doing in the brain, which is upsetting hierarchies—dethroning the default mode network, dethroning the self, and allowing the grassroots, if you will, to bubble up—is an analog for a certain kind of politics: bottom up, less authoritarian, less hierarchical. That would be correlated with more liberal and less conservative. But that’s speculative.

These drugs, in one way, are just powerful placebos. People have the kind of experience they expect to have, and if your guide believes what I just said, the patient is much more likely to have an anti-authoritarian experience. We have to control much more carefully for that.

Another interesting political implication is the idea of nature connectedness, which is another psychological scale: how much do you feel like you’re a part of nature or that you stand out from it? That changes after a psychedelic experience. People feel more connected.

BLVR: In your book there are some characters who believe that psychedelics are the answer to the two great challenges of modernity, namely, environmental stability, and personal isolation.

MP: “Mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism,” that’s what Rick Doblin says. And, maybe? But what are the implications of that? How do you persuade Donald Trump to take it?

BLVR: Stick it in the water.

MP: Like fluoride. But Donald Trump would have to want to take it. His super power is objectifying the other. Why would he give that up? Why would he seek ego-dissolution? He’d have to surrender, and that’s the last thing he ever does. He punches back.

BLVR: He can’t punch if he doesn’t have a self.

MP: That’s right. It’s interesting, though: in the 60s, LSD was correlated with dropping out, questioning authority, not going to war. But one can imagine an alternate universe where psychedelics are used by conservatives to enforce conformity.

BLVR: Is the openness intrinsic to ego-dissolution malleable in that way? Can it be de-emphasized just as it can be emphasized? Could the experience be construed in such a way that it produces effects antithetical to its nature?

MP: I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility. I don’t think we know enough. But the drugs are so suggestible that if I tell you you’re going to have a certain type of experience, you’re more likely to have it than not. So, what if you put these drugs in the hands of an evil guru? One of the theories about Charles Manson is that he used LSD to keep his group enthralled to him. Who knows how he was preparing them for their trips? What he was telling them in advance and during the trip.

BLVR: How very dystopian of you, Mr. Pollan.

MP: The CIA did study LSD as a mind control agent. We assume it didn’t work. But why do we assume that? They only let out what they want. One theory is that they found better drugs for mind control. There was a drug someone was talking about that actually will, if I give it to you and tell you, “Ok, go home and get all your money and bring it to me,” make you do it. Again, though, I don’t think we know enough. They’re very weird drugs, and they can be used in many different ways. The benevolence of your guide is very important to the kind of experience you have. So, imagine another kind of guide, who could persuade you of things that maybe you don’t believe normally.

BLVR: I have several friends who are reading your book and feel you are coy about recommending psychedelics to youngsters. They wonder the following: given how formative these experiences have been for a whole variety of people in their youth, why wouldn’t you recommend them?

MP: “Recommend” is a strong word. I don’t mean to discourage anybody, but as in my food work, I don’t feel I should tell people what to do. I was putting more emphasis on the experience of psychedelics when you’re older because it was relevant to me and hadn’t been written about as much. I completely agree that lots of young people have had fantastic experiences. But they’re sometimes not as carefully processed. There’s this whole phenomenon of kids using psychedelics. Let’s say you had a psychedelic experience with friends at a concert and you thought, “I see God.” How would your friends react?

BLVR: I can’t believe you just said that. My former roommate, Russian and in love with techno music, once spent two hours telling me about his experience at a music festival on psychedelics where he thought he saw God.

MP: And what was your reaction? Respectful? Dismissive?

BLVR: Well, my disposition oscillates between dismissiveness, receptiveness, and respect—but I think when it’s clear that people are talking about experiences that are very important to them, it’s necessary to be a charitable listener.

MP: I think psychedelics have a very important role to play for people of all ages. I do think, though, from talking to researchers, that there’s a greater vulnerability to young people taking them. Given how disruptive the experience can be to ego structures, you wonder about people who are still forming their ego structures. Maybe that’s not an optimal time to take it.

It depends on the individual, though: “Do you feel sturdy enough to put your ego back together?” Some people do. But you also have young men who are very comfortable with risk. And, there are risks. There’s the phenomenon of schizophrenia manifesting in your early 20s and late teens. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive about it being right for everyone. Who am I to say?

IV. Very Few Things Are Permanent

BLVR: Fascinating as this subject of psychedelics is, it’s a relatively recent obsession of yours. For most of your career you’ve written about our relationship with food.   

MP: Well, there is a link between my work on food and psychedelics. It is all about nature, and our relationship with the natural world, and how the things we take into our bodies change us and reflect a relationship. I know psychedelics seems like a departure in some ways, but there’s a real line of continuity.

BLVR: I want to discuss what you’ve written about the ethical consumption of animals. I’m almost entirely with you: this all originally evolved as a mutually beneficial relationship. Keeping domesticated cattle for later consumption improved the happiness of humans, who were given a consistent source of fertilizer, milk, and meat, as well as of animals, who were given security, higher quality of life, etc. I wonder, though, if that—what people appeal to as a “humane” model—is scalable at all, and moreover, scalable to meet the incredible consumption demands of today.

MP: Ok, demand and need are very different things, especially when it comes to meat. Americans are eating nine ounces of meat per person per day. That’s far above what the world can sustain, and it’s not even good for us. I don’t think you can replace one meat system with the other. There’s not enough arable land to do all that grazing. The reason we’re eating all this meat is because we created this industrial system that’s highly efficient, even if wasteful. The system has allowed us to drive down the cost of meat, but at a cost to the environment and the animals. That, in turn, has allowed us to drive up consumption. If we’re going to eat meat sustainably, we’ll be eating meat the way we did 150 years ago, as a special occasion.

BLVR: Do you think such a reversion is possible?

MP: Is it possible to eliminate meat consumption entirely? It’s probably more likely that we can reduce meat consumption than eliminate it. I think the challenge for activists is to raise questions about the morality and ethical fitness of eating meat, so it becomes stigmatized. And I think that’s starting to happen. It needs to be stigmatized. The way we’re eating meat is so destructive to the planet and so brutal to animals. Whether you argue for eliminating or reducing the meat economy to what a sustainable agriculture could support, there’s a similar goal in mind.

BLVR: There’s the additional argument that I’m not making, but some do, that reducing animal agriculture to something small, happy-go-lucky, and nice to look at, would drive up costs of meat, making it a luxury product only available to the rich.

MP: So it’s elitist, right. That’s a tough question. Meat is cheap and so, you could argue, democratic; it’s available to everyone. But look at the real cost of it. We pay it in climate change. If we lived in a system where we paid the real cost of meat, which is probably very expensive given the externalities, it would become a luxury again. That’s probably what it should be. I know that sounds elitist, but it was a luxury in the 1900s, when people had chicken once a week on Sundays, if they were lucky.

The populism of the current meat economy stands on a foundation of such environmental damage and brutality that it’s not real – it’s a dishonestly priced product. So yes, we’re subsidizing it. I think we should subsidize food for the poor, but I don’t think it should be meat. Even now, though, it’s still the most expensive thing you can eat. No one seems to have a problem with that. So, why incorporating the real cost into that price is so objectionable? – it seems to me just an argument: “we can attack these people as elitists, so we will.” Elitism is a real issue in the food movement, but around meat eating? That’s kind of an emergency. And what about soda taxes? It’s the same question. If I want to drink Coca-Cola, and it costs a nickel more, it’s not a problem for me, but there are people in Richmond who can’t. So, they’re drinking less soda. These are all hard issues. But the populism of McDonalds is suspect to me. And that’s what we’re talking about, the populism of McDonalds: “Look at what we can put on your plate for a buck. And, look how much soda we can feed you.”

BLVR: It takes a lot of effort for me to make time in my life to connect with nature and cultivate personal relationships with animals. One of the reasons I make such an effort, beyond the obvious personal benefits, is that I’m in constant distress about the probability that a real relationship with nature, specifically with animals other than those commonly kept as pets, has been permanently severed amongst urban populations. Do you think this distress is warranted?    

MP: Permanently severed? Very few things are permanent.

   

                 

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