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Home / Science / Fresh Air: Michael Pollan Explains the "New Science of Psychedelics": Shots

Fresh Air: Michael Pollan Explains the "New Science of Psychedelics": Shots

  Michael Pollan publishes a new book on the science behind psychedelics

Images Etc Ltd / Getty Images

  Michael Pollan is on the road with a new book about the science behind psychedelics.

Images Etc Ltd / Getty Images

The author Michael Pollan has always been curious about psychoactive plants, but his interest exploded when he learned of a research study in which people with end-stage cancer were given a psychedelic called psilocybin – the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms" [19659006] "It seemed such a crazy idea that I took care of it," says Pollan. "Why should a mushroomed drug help people deal with their mortality?"

Pollan, whose earlier books include The Omnivore Dilemma and Food Defense, began exploring various experimental therapeutic applications of psychedelics, noting that the drugs were used to treat depression, addiction and dread.

Then he decided to go One step further: Pollan, a self-described "reluctant psychonaut", volunteered with his guides to experiment with LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT, a substance in the venom of the Sonoran toad.

Each of Pollan's experiences with psychedelics was based on concerns and self-doubts. But, he says, "I realized later that my ego was trying to convince me not to do this thing that would challenge my ego."

Pollan's New Book, How to Change His Opinion: What the New Science of Psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression and transcendence tells of his experience with the drugs and also examines the history of Psychedelics and their possible therapeutic benefits.

Highlights in interview [19659006] About the use of psychedelic psilocybin in depression therapy

The Path [psilocybin is] is used in a very controlled or guided environment. … they not only give you a pill and send you home; You are in a room. You are with two leaders, one man, one woman. You are lying on a comfortable couch. You wear headphones, listen to a carefully maintained playlist of music – mostly instrumental compositions – and wear eyeshades, all designed to promote a very inner journey.

Someone is paying attention to something you, and they prepare you very carefully in advance. They give you a series of "flying instructions" as they call them, what to do if you are really scared or you start to have a bad trip. For example, if you see a monster, try not to run away. Go right there, plant your feet and say, "What do you have to teach me, what are you doing in my head?" And if you do that, your fear of flying directions will quickly turn into something much more positive.

How psychedelics can help to change the stories about ourselves

The drugs promote new perspectives on old problems. One of our things is to tell stories about ourselves. If you are depressed, you may be told a story that you are worthless, that no one could love you, you are not worthy of love, that life does not get better. And those stories – which are really enforced by our egos – catch us in those thoughtful loops that are hard to come by. They are very destructive patterns of thinking.

What the drugs seem to do is to temporarily disable the part of the brain where the self speaks to itself. It's the standard mode network, and it's a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex – the evolutionary last part of the brain – to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside. And it is a very important node in the brain and many important things happen there: self-reflection and rumination, time travel. It is the place where we reflect on the future or the past, the theory of the mind, the ability to imagine the mental states of other beings, and above all the autobiographical self. It is the part of the brain into which we insert things that happen to us, new information, with a sense of who we are, who we are and who we want to be. And here these stories are generated. And those stories can be really destructive, they catch us. …

This network is down-regulated [with psychedelics] it goes offline for a while. And so you experience this dissolution of self or ego, which can be a scary or liberating thing depending on your attitude. That's what makes it possible for people to have these new perspectives on themselves, to realize that they do not need to be trapped in those stories and that they are actually capable of writing new stories about themselves. That's what liberating, I think of the experience, if it works.

How psychedelics can help dying people face death

Prozac does not help when faced with your mortality. But here we have something that evokes an experience in humans – a mystical experience – that somehow makes it easier to let go. And I think that some of this has to do with the fact that you're experiencing the "extinction" of yourself and it's a kind of test for death. And I think that may be part of what helps people expand their sense of interest, and that your self-interest is something greater than what your skin contains. And if you have that recognition, I think dying will be a little easier. …

There is obviously no way to prove it, and it's a question that really bothered me as an old-fashioned materialistic skeptic journalist. It's like, "What if these drugs trigger an illusion in people?" I have received a variety of answers to this question from the researchers. One was, "Who cares if it helps them?" And I can see the meaning of it. The other was, "Hey, that's beyond my salary level, none of us knows what happens when we die." And others say, "Well, that's an open limit." …

The experiences that people have are very real to them – they are psychological facts. And one of the really interesting qualities of the psychedelic experience is that the insights you have on it have a durability … That's not just an opinion, it's revealed truth, so people's trust is hard to shake. 19659006] On a Johns Hopkins study on the use of psilocybin for smoking cessation

Smoking is a very serious addiction to breaking. It is one of the hardest addictions to break. [I wanted to understand] How they could decide after a single psilocybin journey, "I'll never smoke again," based on the perspective they've achieved. And they said things like, "Well, I had this amazing experience, I died three times, I sprouted wings, I flew through European stories, I saw all these wonders, I saw my body on a pyre on the Ganges, and I realized that the universe is so great and that there is so much to do that killing itself seemed very stupid. "And that was the insight. Yes, suicide is really stupid – but it had an authority that never had. And that, I think, is the gift of this psychedelic.

On his own experience one stumbles upon mushrooms

I had an experience that was alternately scary and ecstatic and funny. … I was in this place where I could not control my perception at all, and I felt my sense of self dissipate into the wind – almost as if a pile of post-it had been blown off into the wind – but I was fine. I did not feel the need to put the papers back into my usual self …

Then I looked out and saw myself spread over the landscape like a coat of paint or butter. I was literally out of myself, except myself, and the consciousness that saw this … was not my normal consciousness, it was unimpressed. It was dispassionate. It was pleased when I saw how I broke up over the landscape.

What I brought back from this experience was that I'm not identical to my ego, that there's another reason to plant our feet, and that our ego is kind of that character that chirps neurotically in our heads. And it is good for many things. I mean, the ego wrote the book, but it can be very hard too, and it's liberating to be aloof. And that was a great gift, I think.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Scott Hensley adapted it for the Web.

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