Berkeley Talks transcript: Michael Pollan on science, psychedelics and the human mind

Ed Wasserman: Welcome to On Mic, Conversations from North Gate hall, home of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. I’m Ed Wasserman, dean of the school. As one of the nation’s top journalism programs, we regularly invite the world’s best reporters, writers and documentarians to talk about the stories behind their stories.

This week, journalist Michael Pollan. Michael Pollan holds the John S. And James L. Knight Chair in Science Journalism at the school and he’s author of a number of best sellers, including the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In today’s episode Lecturer Deirdre English sits down with Pollan to discuss his latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.

Michael Pollan: That you can really sink down into your own thing and not worry about anybody else, not worry about your body, not worry about the, you know, the doorbell ringing. You know, to use the lingo of the time, they create a safe space and you need a safe space. If you’re going to put down all your normal defenses.

Ed Wasserman: It’s On Mic, Deirdre English and conversation with Michael Pollan.

Dierdre English: I’ve been off reading this book and I will tell you I just finished it and your book is a trip.

Michael Pollan: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Dierdre English: Super trippy experience to read it. Um, and I really applaud you for many things. We’ll be covering them, but, you know, first for your courage because you had to overcome some fears.

Michael Pollan: I did. I wasn’t a natural psychonaut, you know, I’m not somebody. I’m more a product of the moral panic against psychedelics than I am of the psychedelic sixties. I was a little young at peak. You know, I was 12 during the summer of love. So I wasn’t, by the time the idea of taking psychedelics entered my conscious awareness, they were really scary.

There were horror stories in the media. There was a moral panic about it. And so I was too terrified to indulge. I remember being in a high school in 10th grade and writing a short story for an English class that consisted essentially of the worst trip I could imagine that ended with this poor schmuck slitting his wrists out with a piece of a shard of glass. I mean, that’s like, that’s what psychedelics were to me. And so to delve into this world now I had to overcome a lot of reluctance, of many different kinds. The reluctance of the drugs and the scariness of the experience.

Dierdre English: So you, so you had never done it?

Michael Pollan: That’s not quite true. I had had a couple experiences with magic mushrooms in my late twenties. A friend had given us a jar of them. And I remember two experiences in particular. One very pleasant in the country with my wife, Judith, in the woods by a pond. And then another really kind of uncomfortable one in Riverside Park in Manhattan on a Saturday where we spent my whole time wondering if other people could tell I was high, so it was kind of a paranoid experience.

But in retrospect, having had a, for the book, a kind of very high dose ego dissolving experience, those were, those were what aficionados would call aesthetic experiences, you know, where everything was kind of lit up a little bit. Reality was italicized but it wasn’t fundamentally altered. So no, I hadn’t had a big trip until, you know, my late fifties.

So I came late to it. But I had other forms of reluctance to. There was the reluctance of like this community and the whole new agey-ness of it and the kind of lingo people used and the kind of music they played. This was all like, eww, you know, I wasn’t comfortable with that either. And so there were a lot of things to get over to do this.

On the other hand, I kinda think there are advantages to having waited this long. As a journalist, I think there’s a great value in doing things for the first time that you can describe them with a kind of sense of wonder and notice things that someone who had done it many, many times, no longer notices.

Dierdre English: That’s interesting because maybe that, you know, you’d had honed your skills as an observer, as a compiler of data and as a describer that allows you to be so descriptive and articulate about these, these trips, you know, there’s a tremendous effort in this book to render in words

Dierdre English: Yeah, that was the big literary challenge is could, you know, this is supposedly ineffable. So how the hell do you effab? I worked very hard on that.

Dierdre English: Yeah, you did. And you, you really, you really get there. I’m going to ask you to read a fairly long section that I think very beautifully describes your magic mushrooms in the country at your old cabin. In a little while, we’ll do that. But I take your point that perhaps you had developed a certain, can we call it an ego strength? That would allow you to do what you do in this book, which is to go back and forth, back and forth between dissolving the ego and asserting, if not the ego, asserting the cerebral powers of investigation and description.

Michael Pollan: Well, there are many narrative modes in this book and I really liked that one. I’m writing a nonfiction book. The thing that turns me off to a lot of nonfiction is it’s written in the same kind of, you know, mode. It kind of finds its place — is it investigative, is it memoiristic, whatever. And it sticks to that and it can get a little monotonous. And I really like nonfiction that varies the focal length and also the lens.

So in this book there’s, you know, there’s memoir, but that’s only part of it. And then there’s journalism and then there’s history and then there’s neuroscience, science writing. And then case studies. And so I really like having different modes in a book of nonfiction. Basically. I mean, partly because it’s boring not to, but also because I don’t think any one lens has a lock, has a monopoly on the truth. Like I don’t think the scientific view necessarily tells us everything we need to know about psychedelics.

You need the phenomenology, the felt experience also really to understand anything having to do with consciousness and science can’t penetrate it. And you have, and history is always, I mean any journalist learns pretty quickly that history is a great illuminator of whatever you want to understand.

So I’m, I’m really a believer in layering perspectives to tell a story rather than, “Okay, I’m a science writer and that’s, that’s the way we tell the story.” It just, I just don’t think anyone is adequate when you have a complex subject like psychedelics.

Dierdre English: Well indeed that’s what you do with this book. You layer all of these different perspectives. And at the same time you tell the story, there’s a spine to the book, which is the spine of your own experiments. So you experiment a little, before you experiment, you worry about it, you think about it, you have doubts about why you’re going to do it. You meet the important characters that brought us to this point, you know, and putting it into historical context and then you do it and then you, you know, and then you react to what you did and grow from it…

Michael Pollan: And try to figure out what was going on in my brain when it happened. That’s what motivates me to look at the neuroscience. So yeah, so it is, it’s a personal exploration. I mean using my curiosity and my interest and my sense that there was, after talking to all these people who had these big experiences in the sanction clinical trials at NYU and Hopkins, this sense that they knew something I wanted to know. Or they had, had a kind of experience that I became intensely interested in having.

Dierdre English: And this just comes to one other thing that you sort of said that you had gotten a little stale in life, a little bored with yourself.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, I mean there’s a, you know, as you, as we get older we get a little more stuck and we have our, you know, mental algorithms and they’re very good for like dealing whatever comes at us. We have our predictable reactions. We have a box, we can put any experience in. We’re seldom surprised. I was feeling that as I was approaching my 60th birthday.

And I had never really had what I thought of as a spiritual experience. I wasn’t sure what one was. And time was getting short. So it began as journalistic curiosity. What is this all about? Why are these people having these experiences that completely alter their perception of their mortality or their addiction or whatever it is. But then that morphed into a more personal curiosity about a quest.

Dierdre English: So you said I’d never had a spiritual experience, but at the same time you were not a spiritually inclined person. You talk about this. And then you’re, you’re not religious, right? No, I know. I was bar mitzvahed against my will.

No, and I, you know, it’s funny, some people who’ve read my work think I am spiritual, especially Botany of Desire, which is, which is a book in which the plants have a kind of active role that I give deference to their subjectivity in their agency in nature. But it was an intellectual conceit for me. I didn’t, I didn’t really believe the plants were talking to me or working on me. And so I think some people thought of me that way, but I didn’t think of myself that way. I mean, I’m very much a materialist.

Dierdre English: Are you agnostic? An atheist?

Michael Pollan: I think I’m agnostic. Yeah.

Dierdre English: Which is the big, “I don’t know.”

Michael Pollan: Yeah, right. It’s the big, “I don’t know,” but I haven’t tried very hard to find out either.

Dierdre English: Not interested?

Michael Pollan: I just don’t have the tools to penetrate that mystery.

Dierdre English: But this was an attempt to penetrate…

Michael Pollan: Well, it was, it was. This is the closest I got. And one of the things I was really struck by in the people I talked to is that their kind of materialistic, their philosophical materialism, was overturned in some cases, that they came out of the experience with different ideas of what consciousness was.

So for example, it’s very common amongst psychonauts — people who have a lot of experience with psychedelics — to conclude that consciousness may not be a product of our brains. It may exist out there as a property of the universe. Now, this sounds crazy at first, but there is a serious scientific and philosophical theory of this and that essentially that the brain is a, is we should think of it as a radio receiver.

It’s tuning in consciousness rather than generating it. And so as one of these psychologists who works with psychedelics legally told me if you wanna, if you want to meet the blonde giving the news on tv, you don’t look inside the TV set. You go somewhere else and look inside the brain. Yeah. And, and so they had these kind of a odd ideas of consciousness or, or, you know, ideas that are not common. I mean, the general assumption of science is that consciousness is a product of brains. It only exists in our heads. Now. It’s remarkable how little evidence there is for that. But that’s, that’s the operating assumption. It’s considered the more parsimonious theory, but not everybody buys it. Some people think consciousness may be like energy or electromagnetic waves, you know, it’s just, it’s, it’s something out there that we somehow make…

Dierdre English: But there’s no strong evidence for that either.

Michael Pollan: No, no. Anything you hear about consciousness, it’s guesswork. That’s one of my takeaways.

Dierdre English: So that’s why it’s called the hard problem in science, right?

Michael Pollan: Exactly.

Dierdre English: Consciousness is the hard problem. We don’t know what it is and we don’t know whether it’s intrinsic to the brain. It comes out of, you know, mental mechanisms, chemical mechanisms.

Michael Pollan: Or it may be an emergent property of any sufficiently complex system including a computer. I mean, I don’t, I don’t find that credible, but that’s, that’s a belief that’s out there.

Dierdre English: Well, that’s, and that’s different from what you just said about that it may be a property of the universe, right, and that our brains may be, and plants may be all receiving emanations from, from some larger consciousness. Universal cosmic consciousness.

Michael Pollan: That’s what Aldous Huxley believed. And he came out of this, you know, thinking that’s what was going on mind at large.

Dierdre English: So at the beginning of these adventures of yours, you didn’t know the answer to this because nobody does. And at the, at the end of it you still would say that you don’t know.

Michael Pollan: But I think that the shift from being certain that the material explanation for consciousness and everything else too, wondering if that’s really true and maybe things are more complicated than I thought is a big shift even if it wasn’t to a whole new belief system, but I’m much more open.

Dierdre English: You encountered what’s called a mysterious tremendum The idea that there is a tremendous mystery that we encounter and can only experience but cannot explain.

Michael Pollan: Our brains are limited and you know, we’re trying to comprehend something that’s bigger and more complicated than the tool we have to comprehend it with.

Dierdre English: Yeah. So Michael, I’d like to talk about mushrooms…

Michael Pollan: This is a crossover of course, between my food work and my psychedelic work is mushrooms.

Dierdre English: Yeah. Because they feed your mind.

Michael Pollan: Feed your mind, feed your body. Yeah.

Dierdre English: They do. Could you please tell us all what mycelium is all about. What is it, mycelium? I didn’t even know I’d seen it until I read your book, but now I know I have.

Michael Pollan: Mushrooms are amazing. They’re the most under appreciated kingdom of life on Earth. I got a great education in mycology. The study of mushrooms from Paul Stamets.

Dierdre English: Yeah. And you do a whole profile of here, by the way, in your book, there are numerous short profiles of great figures in Psychedelia and this is one. He’s one of them.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. Paul Stamets, he’s technically an amateur mycologist. He doesn’t have a graduate degree, but he’s revered among professional mycologists for his visionary understanding of mushrooms. And his discovery of several species, including a philosophy, a psilocybin species, and also for extracting mushroom compounds that have proved really effective as drugs as a antivirals and antibiotics.

Michael Pollan: Remember, penicillin is a mushroom. It’s a fungus. And mushrooms are interesting too because they’re more like us than plants. Both of us depend on plants to collect solar energy and turn it into forms of carbon we can make use of in our bodies. So we have this kinship with mushrooms and obviously there’s a lot of strong feelings about mushrooms because some of them are poisonous and kill you. And the world is basically divided into mycophiles, lovers of mushrooms, and microphobes, fears of mushrooms in general.

You know, different cultures tend to veer one way or the other. And we’re pretty mycophobic in America. As people are in England, the Slavs are very mycophilic. The Russians love mushrooms and you can go around the world and like divide countries according to that distinction. When you see a mushroom, you are seeing the equivalent of the fruit.

It’s like seeing the apple on a tree. You have to infer the tree because the tree is underground and the mushroom itself is called the fruiting body. And so there’s this whole underground network of mycelium, as you said, which is one-cell wide strings that go out into the soil and surround the roots of trees and penetrate the roots of trees. So when you scoop up a scoop of dirt, it’s full of mycelium and you can’t always see it. The white threads are mycelium.

Dierdre English: I’ve always looked at them and kind of thought are these roots, what are these?

Michael Pollan: Yeah, they’re mushrooms. And you see it, especially in a forest. A handful of forest soil brings up all these white threads. They’re very hard to study because they break as soon as you remove them.

So it’s one of the reasons we don’t know as much about mushrooms as we might and they don’t put out that that fruiting body until either their habitat is in trouble and they need to move somewhere else and their spores get picked up on the wind. Like, like right now, a friend of mine was just in Yosemite, searching for morels and he found all these morels where there had been fires last summer. And so when the forest dies is when the morels who’ve been living underground in relationship to these trees very happily without putting up any fruiting bodies, they’re like, oh, you know, our food sources in trouble and we have to go somewhere else. So it may be and we don’t know for sure, but it may be this crisis and then they kind of put spores in the air.

Dierdre English: It’s how they move their community.

Michael Pollan: Basically, yeah, they’re moving to a new place. They’re refugees. They stay underground. Yeah, I mean they must reproduce somehow. So there must be a certain number of them, but that, that flush of like lots of them in the case of fire morels means that their habitat has been destroyed. You know, since Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been really interested mushrooms and that’s when I learned about Paul Stamets and Paul is also very interested in psilocybin and he had an important role in the history of psilocybin when these are the magic mushrooms.

When he went to college, he went to Evergreen State and that became this hub of mushroom research. He and a couple other guys in this professor of theirs, Michael Buke, you know, were determined to like learn what they could about psilocybin. They were all like into it and people had thought it was from Central America, you had to go to Southern Mexico to get mushrooms, but they started looking around the Pacific Northwest and they found all these other species of psilocybin.

Dierdre English: Well, maybe they had all been brought here by hippies.

Michael Pollan: It may be that there wasn’t a hippie trail. But they probably had been here for a long time.

Dierdre English: And no one had noticed?

Michael Pollan: Yeah, no one had noticed. They’re really inconspicuous. They’re what is called in the mycology world “LBM:” little brown mushrooms.

Dierdre English: They look like other mushrooms…

Michael Pollan: They look like other mushrooms, which is a good argument for not picking them yourself because some of them look like mushrooms that are fatal. Gallerina is one that leads to a brutal death.

Dierdre English: Kids don’t do this. We are here at the University of California at Berkeley. Undergraduates, graduate students.

Michael Pollan: And there are psilocybin mushrooms that grow on this campus. Don’t be out there picking them. I went mushroom hunting with Stamats to a place he asked me not to disclose, but it’s at the mouth of the Columbia River.

And when we were looking for a kind of psilocybe that he had actually identified and named called psilocybe azurescens. And it’s apparently the most powerful psilocybin mushroom there is. It was only discovered in the last couple of decades. It only has been found in this one location. And so we had this wonderful couple of days, you know, staying in this yurt and hunting for these mushrooms. And I was really struck by the fact that we found most of them right near the yurts in this park rather than out in the wild.

And Paul said at some point, he’s a very serious person, but he said one of the indicator species for psilocybe azurescens are winnebagos. In other words, they like people. And like a lot of weedy species, they follow us around because we drop their spores wherever we go. This trail of pixie dust that any mushroom hunter is leaving behind him. That’s one of the reasons you find mushrooms, some commonly on college campuses and in front of police stations.

Dierdre English: We’re going to move along with the story though. And there you are, out in the yurt and you collect, you do find these super potent magic mushrooms. Very special.

Michael Pollan: Which I was kind of afraid to take because Paul, apropos of once we’d found them, we were sitting around, we were drying them on the heater in the yurt. He said, “Well, there’s a side effect that people don’t like.” I said, “Oh yeah. What’s that?” “Paralysis. Well, it’s temporary, but you know, some people if they take a lot of them, they just can’t move for awhile and that could be really bad if you’re outside and the weather’s bad.” So I was, I mean this is one of the many trepidations I had. So I started well like with these.

Dierdre English: So you didn’t take them right then and there. Under difficult potentially different, different difficult weather circumstances. I’d like to pause for a moment to just talk about this issue of safety. Actually, you know, I did magic mushrooms myself. Actually in anticipation. I knew you were working on this book and publishing it soon and we’d be talking and I thought, well I’ll just, it’s been a long time. I’ll get to do some magic mushrooms.

Michael Pollan: I hope all my interviewers get this idea anyway.

Dierdre English: And many years ago I had some great LSD trips and so, so a few months ago I did shrooms. It was a great experience. It wasn’t a really high dose. Um, I’d like to go back now I want to do a higher dose, but I did it up in the Santa Cruz mountains until I was just blotto, out of it for hours, having a wonderful time, a lot of visual effects and a lot of deep thoughts outside, inside and outside. I was also indoors in a you know, it’s a perfect situation with a window looking out at nature and a fireplace and a good person to be with. And all these things were just perfect. So it was great. But the next morning, as I drove into town, I saw these signs up going maximum fire danger, maximum fire, dangerous.

This is, you know, not far from the time when we had these huge wildfires in California will, we’d been up in a little wooden cabin, very high up in the mountains at the top of a very torturous trail. And I realized, Oh, well, holy, you know, if I had known that we were in, of course the drought conditions, everything very dry. So if I’d known that there were, I was in a place and time, whereas a high degree of risk of a wildfire, I don’t think it would’ve been such a good idea and I probably would have been going, oh wow, look at those beautiful flames. And so it did make me think a lot about this issue of making sure that you’re safe. I’d love you to address that a little bit.

Michael Pollan: I mean, look, I mean these are very powerful drugs and people do get into trouble and they debilitate you, you know, from dealing with crises and, and things like, well, wildfires or any number of other things and people do stupid things on mushrooms or LSD. They walk into traffic. They will, they drive cars, which is absolutely nuts.

So there, I think, you know, people, it wasn’t just urban legends that people got into trouble on psychedelics in the sixties and ended up in emergency rooms. Some people have psychotic breaks on these drugs. Would they without them? Maybe. I mean, they were probably people predisposed to schizophrenia and this was a trigger that can happen and people can have terrifying experiences, so-called bad trips made worse by the environment they’re in, that there’s nobody to help them, that they’re in a public place and feeling incredibly paranoid. I mean, there’s so many rabbit holes you can go down that are really negative. And so one of the things I discovered in this book is that, especially as you’re older, when you’re a little more risk averse than the 20-year-old who thinks he’s immortal, that doing these drugs, if you are going to do them in a very controlled, regulated environment such as with a guide.

In the clinical trials, there are always two people with you. You’re very carefully prepared in advance. They give you what they call flight instructions to tell you how to deal with negative things that come up. They encourage you never to try to turn your back on something scary that you see. It’s sort of like seeing a mountain lion, you know, you’re not supposed to run because it’ll chase you, you’re supposed to stand your ground, look big and try to scare it. And if you see a monster on a psychedelic trip, you should walk right up to it and say, “What are you doing in my mind and what do you have to teach me?” And if you do that rather than turning and trying to get away from it, it will morph into something much more positive. And that seems to happen. Or the general advice to surrender to whatever’s happening. Don’t fight it. And as you feel your ego kind of being reduced to confetti, don’t try to put it back together.

Dierdre English: But how can people find a guide? What are you going to do?

Michael Pollan: Well, I’m not gonna, I can’t be a, you know, a broker for guidance obviously. And the guides I work with, I’m, you know, taking enormous precautions to protect and I would, by introducing people to them that I didn’t know, would be doing the opposite. You know, I think you have to ask around in your community, I’ll give you a couple ideas. There are psychedelic societies now in 100 cities. They popped up in the last three or four years, almost like mushrooms, I mean all of a sudden. And these are not drug exchanges. People go there to talk about psychedelic experience, not to have them, and they have guests and events and things like that. They’re like clubs and they’re, actually, I’m listing all hundred of them and contact names on my website when I relaunch it under a resources page so you can go there and I’ve never been to a psychedelic society, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you found people there who could introduce you to guides.

So that’s one. Another thing people can do is there’s a nonpharmacological psychedelic experience called holotropic breath work. This is a breathing technique that was developed by Stanislav Grof, who was an important LSD psychiatrist, but when it was still legal and after it was made illegal, he developed drawing on yoga traditions and Native American traditions came up with this breathing exercise that in more than half of people who try it will induce a trance-like experience. It’s very psychedelic. And I did it and it’s kind of remarkable. I mean, talk about having another mode of consciousness just right over there, accessible strictly through a breathing pattern of breath.

The kind of people involved with holotropic breathwork workshops know psychedelic guides. There’s a lot of overlap in those communities. So if you’re intrepid, you will find people and your own path.

Dierdre English: Don’t go to Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan: No, please don’t go to me. Please don’t come to me. I can’t do that.

Dierdre English: We are talking about an illegal activity too. Do you worry that um, you know, you’re now really out there with breaking the law.

Michael Pollan: Well, yeah, I mean, you know, in this book I described several experiences I had, I’m pretty vague about where they took place and when they took place. So I don’t think that they’re very usable as, as evidence.

Dierdre English: They arrested Timothy Leary. Maybe they’ll come for you. Do you think about that?

Michael Pollan: I don’t think that that’s realistic. I mean, Timothy Leary really became an obsession of Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon called him the most dangerous man in America.

Dierdre English: Maybe now you’ll be the most dangerous.

Michael Pollan: Uh, look at me.

Dierdre English: You’re not an evangelist. Well, maybe you are an evangelist.

Michael Pollan: I’m not an evangelist. Actually. I’m an evangelist for the research. I think it’s really important and needs to happen. But in terms of advocacy, you know, I mean, with food work, I became an advocate over time, it became almost disingenuous to pretend I didn’t have strong feelings about where the food system should go even though I began as a journalist and I’m still at that point on the learning curve here where I don’t feel confident advocating for the legalization of these drugs or the only thing I feel confident about is that this research is very promising. It’s yielding really important new therapies and important insights into the mind. And it would be a shame if we stop that research as we did back in the sixties and seventies when there was this backlash. I mean, look, prohibition makes people do, you know, unusual things. Doesn’t ultimately work very well.

Right now we have very little evidence that this is on their radar. They’ve got much bigger drug problems to deal with a opiate addiction.

Dierdre English: Right, and this may help with opiate addiction.

Michael Pollan: It’s possible. That’s kind of one of the exciting things — that some psychedelics do appear to help with opiate addiction and it seems like counterintuitive that you would use a drug to treat a drug addiction. But in fact, one of the earliest applications of LSD and psilocybin in the fifties was to treat alcohol addiction and the results were good. And there’s a big study going on now to study psilocybin and alcohol addiction. People have these narratives about themselves. They get stuck in that “I’m not worthy of love” that, you know, “I’m a bad person.” All the kinds of negative narratives. Or “I can’t live without the bottle or this drug.” All those narratives, you get to see afresh and realize, oh, they’re just narratives. I mean, there’s a distancing on the scene of your own life that happens or can happen in a well-guided trip that allows you to break through.

Dierdre English: Well, I, in the time that we have left, I would really love to spend it delving into your actual personal, mystical experiences. What you really experienced yourself, and you know, as you said, your book is very layered and you go back and forth between this very analytical mode that, you know, we’ve been in that a lot, but at other times you just surrendered to experience. So when you went with your wife back to a writing cabin that you used to spend a lot of time in.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. That I built. It was the subject of my second book. Yeah. Very important space to me.

Dierdre English: Right. And what a setting, right? Yeah. And in a garden that you had built as well. That was still in some sense thriving. I would love if you would read at some length some passages from your chapter on mushrooms. This is when you took those very mushrooms that you’ve done with Stamets. And that you didn’t take at the time you collected them, but you let them dry and you took them to this cabin with your wife and took them there.

Michael Pollan: Okay. I haven’t read this aloud before. So here goes. When at last I arrived at the writing house, I stretched out on the day bed, something I hardly ever took the time to do in all the years when I was working here. So industriously I wrote like three of my books here. The bookshelves had been emptied and the place felt abandoned. It was a little sad. From where I lay I could see over my toes to the window screen and beyond that to the grid of Ann Arbor that was now densely woven with the twining vines of what had become a venerable old climbing hydrangea, a petiolaris. I had planted the hydrangea decades ago in hopes of creating just this sort of intricately tangled prospect backlit by the late afternoon sunlight streaming in its neat round leaves completely filled the window, which meant you gazed out at the world through the fresh green scrim that they formed.

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 and what I was certain was an attitude of utter benevolence toward me and my kind.

Dierdre English: You know, there are so many beautiful descriptions of mystical moments that you experience in your number of trips that you take during the book. I think I love that one so much. It’s also the first description and it’s very beautifully written, but also because it reminded me of the best mystical experience that I ever had on LSD years ago when I fell in love with a tree and the tree fell in love with me and we kind of committed to each other for eternal love and poured kind of an incredible kind of reaction to the sun pouring through the lit green leaves. And for me, it was kind of a happy experience because it was so reproducible. And your book really brought it back for me reading your book itself. You can get high reading your book and I did.

And you can be reminded and mystical experiences like this can be retriggered. So for me it’s always been a kind of a great thing that my great kind of peak mystical experience was merging with a tree because there’s always a tree around, you know, and if I have a little bit of time and it’s a sunny day, I can often sniff it again, sense it again. I feel exactly that way and remembering it and thinking about it as I’ve been doing in the past couple of months, especially after I took the magic mushrooms in anticipation of reading your book. And then reading your book, which is, I keep saying it was trippy in itself a safe, a safe trip. It did also not only make me remember it and take it out of the box, but kind of recall the sense of integration that I had for a while afterwards and bring that back and think about it more in terms of how did that change me and do I want to keep with me from how I think it did change me.

Michael Pollan: Remembering these things or how we exercise those neurocircuits that were created during the experience and the more you remember it, the firmer it becomes.

Dierdre English: It was a, I would say, it was a deeply reassuring experience that made me feel much more at peace. So, let’s just again, I think it’s important to just describe to the listeners what you took. So you, you started out with these magic, these special magic mushrooms.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, that’s the first experience I had with the unguided experience with my wife and then I had a series of guided experiences, the first one with LSD, with a male guide who was this wonderful man and I felt very comfortable with him but for various reasons, didn’t have a full dose.

Dierdre English: I have to say, and you know, you’ve touched on this, but that you, it was a relief to you to work with a guide because you didn’t feel you had to be responsible for anything anymore, but you know, like perhaps worrying about your wife or…

Michael Pollan: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that this first experience that I just read from was, you know, my wife was on a slightly different page for part of the experience and she got a little bit freaked out. We were, after we drank the tea that we’d made, we walked down this dirt road near our house and, and she, the drug came on very fast for her and she was like, I gotta get home. And she got very nervous about running into a neighbor or something like that. She wanted to be indoors and yeah.

And so we were in very different spaces and so she stayed indoors and she put a cold towel over her face and she was very happy and she spent a lot of time staring at the patterns on the coffee table. And she had a very interesting visual experience. She’s an artist. And I wanted to be outside. I wanted to be communing with the plants, but I felt like, as I made this 100-yard walk out to my writing house, I kept like, I got to check on Judith, I got to go back and make sure she’s okay. And that was taking me out of the experience repeatedly and that was kind of like, “Okay, I get what this guided thing is about,” that you can really sink down into your own thing and not worry about anybody else.

Not worry about your body, not worry about the doorbell ringing. To use the lingo of the time, they create a safe space and you need a safe space if you’re gonna put down all your normal defenses, you know, you’re disarmed. So that sold me on the idea of working with guides and then I went on to do.

Dierdre English: So then you went and you did LSD.

Michael Pollan: I did LSD and holotropic breathwork with one guide, and then I did a higher dose psilocybin trip with another guide.

Dierdre English: Higher dose even though the first ones were those really special mushrooms were a higher dose also those super duper mushrooms?

Michael Pollan: No, that was on normal ones I think, but I was trying to essentially simulate the dose being used in the trials.

Dierdre English: What do you think is a good dose?

Michael Pollan: You know, it’s impossible to say with mushrooms because any given mushroom, depending on how it was grown or where it was grown, can have a different intensity by an order of magnitude.

Dierdre English: This is something that worries me.

Yeah, it is an issue. And that’s one of the reasons good guides will start. I mean, they know the strength of the mushrooms that they’re giving you because they’ve worked with them a lot. But in general, start with a little and then build up. You can every half hour take, you know, account of where you are and then take a booster instead. Don’t start with a lot. I don’t want to get too specific about doses because it’s really, with mushrooms, it’s a very messy topic because we don’t really know what’s, you know, when they’re doing the research they have, they have a synthetic version of psilocybin and they know exactly what you’re getting.

Michael Pollan: And then after that was this toad experience. 5-MeO-DMT.

Dierdre English: Toad venom. I can’t believe you did that.

Michael Pollan: I can’t either. It’s crazy. I’m not eager to do it again. So there is a psychedelic that is the smoked venom of the Sonoran desert toad. Makes you wonder, like oh the ingenuity of humankind to figure that out.

Dierdre English: Who did that first? You have to milk the venom sac.

Michael Pollan: I didn’t do this, but the person who gave it to me, they basically, it doesn’t hurt the toad, they squeezed this gland on the side of the toad and on its legs, and they collect the spray on a sheet of glass, dries overnight into this, it looks like brown sugar and then they put it in a vaporizer. And you take one puff and you are just obliterated.

Dierdre English: You gave birth to yourself.

Michael Pollan: I did a lot of things. Anyway, it was it was a terrifying experience because not only was there no ego, there was no nothing. I mean everything, material reality had been taken apart and reduced to this pure storm of energy that in my head I disappeared and I didn’t have a vantage. I had nowhere to stand. And it was just like a storm, a category five storm. I felt like I was in the middle of an atomic explosion. And it was terrifying and I kept saying to myself, “Surrender, surrender, surrender” and nothing helped. And so it was sheer terror and the best thing about this trip is it only lasts 20 minutes. And, and the second best thing about it is that as you come down, which happens very rapidly, and you feel your body reconstituting itself.

And that moment was ecstatic. I would have been happy just to have anything exist, but I’m not eager to do it again. It’s funny, I told that story in a group of people who were very experienced and there was this man at the far end of the table in his forties and he looked at me after I told the story because they’d asked me, did I have any bad experiences? As I said, yeah. And he said, I know your problem. You did not take enough.

Dierdre English: So Michael Pollan, are you a different and perhaps better person now after having gone through all of these experiences?

Michael Pollan: Well, I know things I didn’t know before about myself.

Dierdre English: But spiritually, psychologically are you different?

Michael Pollan: In this sense. I do think it’s funny, you know, you’re not the first person to ask this question and as with all important questions, I put it to Judith, my wife, to get her take. And Judith had a lot of trepidations when I started this. She was encouraging to do something, a new subject. But she was like, I was going to have a big experience that she wasn’t going to be part of. Which has seldom happened.

Dierdre English: Well, she was part of it too, to an extent.

Michael Pollan: Yes, she was. She wanted to be part of it. And that’s one of the reasons I think she did want to be part of it.

Dierdre English: And then you went to places she didn’t go. I could see that she would have some trepidations about that on many levels.

Michael Pollan: And so she, you know, I said, “What’s your worry?” And she said, “Well, my worry is you’ll change.” And what she didn’t consider is that I might change for the better. And in her view…

Dierdre English: She was afraid that you would be damaged in some way by it perhaps. Or I’d come out of it with a different set of values or interests and it could be destabilizing to a marriage if one person does something potentially transformative. So in the end, I think she was very encouraged by the kinds of changes she observed, which were, you know, subtle.

I mean, she, I mean that I was a more open, less defensive. And the example she cited was, I mean, there’s a backstory to this book that has to do with the fact for much of the time I was researching it, my dad was dying of cancer. And that’s one of the reasons I got interested in these tales of people who had cancer, who had this very, had this experience that helped them to die. And I was very present during the whole period. I mean, one of the reasons we’ve been on the east coast so I could be available to him and visit more often and then I was with him and my mother the last, you know, 10 days or so, you know, in the apartment with them.

Michael Pollan: And she said, “One of the big things, our ego defends us against is death, right? It’s about self preservation and it can keep us from experiencing the death of others. It can keep us from thinking about it too much. It can keep us from being open to people who need it, need our, you know, our help. And um, she felt that I was much more open to the experience and to him and available then she thought I would have been before. Is that true or not? I don’t know. I don’t have a control, but it sounds right. It sounds right. I felt like I surprised myself a little bit that I was just kind of very present for what was happening. And it was very hard to be very present and I think, you know, that’s a kind of a lower defenses. And I think that’s one of the things, these things, these, these drugs can help people do, which is kind of get their egos a little more under control and not let them drive your reactions to everything.

Dierdre English: It’s very profound. May I ask you, did you offer any kind of drugs to your father as he faced death?

Michael Pollan: No, I thought about broaching that and for, for a whole lot of reasons it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel that I could and I didn’t know that I could assure the right kind of experience, that I didn’t know a guide where he lived. I couldn’t get him into the trials. He was too old. He was already 88. And he was losing a step cognitively in the last couple years because of all the treatments he’d been through. And I didn’t know how that would work with the experience. Somebody who, you know, whose memory was really faulty and, and I’m not sure he realized every day that he was dying. And I don’t know how he was processing the experience frankly, and one of the things that was going on was I was able to have these intense experiences, discussions about death with these volunteers in the Hopkins and NYU trials that I really couldn’t have with him because he didn’t want to there. He didn’t want to talk about it.

Dierdre English: Interesting. Because, of course ,you write about this in your book, there are people who are facing who have cancer, terminal cancer and are facing death where psilocybin or LSD has helped them enormously to overcome their fear of death.

Michael Pollan: Yes and remove their fear in many cases. Give them a sense, change their sense of what it means to die. But it was, I just don’t know that it was a process that would have worked for him given where he was. His fears that he probably has about or had about psychedelics.

Dierdre English: No, it sounds clear that it would have been the wrong thing to try to introduce something that was up in a more natural way for him.

Michael Pollan: I also didn’t get the sense that he had a great deal of fear. I don’t know exactly how he processed it, but this was, he, you know, he was very uncomfortable towards the end, but he was also incredibly loving and present to us and I don’t know that he was terrorized by what was happening. I wish I knew more. I wish I knew more. I mean everything got said but not that. He didn’t really talk about death and that was generational to some extent.

Dierdre English: But I will offer that the fact that you, yourself had some experiences that perhaps made you less fearful of death and allowed you to be more present, that that in itself was a gift.

Michael Pollan: Well, I hope you’re right. I mean, that’s, I mean, the fact that I had spent two years, you know, thinking about this a lot. I mean, the whole experience. I had a lot of my psychedelic experiences dealt with death. I mean that was a theme that kept coming up. So it was a period in my life where I was, you know, I’d moved out to California, I left everybody behind and I was kind of reconnecting with them and this, this particular, there’s a reason you pick up the subjects at a certain time and I didn’t realize until after the fact actually a friend, a close friend read the book and said, “Wow, your father’s on every page.” And I was like, “Really?”

Dierdre English: Not quite, but he’s present. And all the people you love are present and there’s a strong sense that these experiences deepened your bonds with the people that you love most.

Michael Pollan: And my sisters, too. And my son and mother and Judith. And my sisters. Yeah. So. And I did dedicate the book to my dad before I really thought about all this. I knew it was the last book I could dedicate to him and I knew it meant a lot to him and he and he saw that I had dedicated to before he died, but, but there’s no question that I would not have written the same book 10 years ago. It is a product of that period in my life.

Dierdre English: Well, it’s a very beautiful book and deeply felt and I consider it a great gift.

Michael Pollan: Oh, thank you. Thanks.

Ed Wasserman: We’ve been listening to Michael Pollan in conversation with Deirdre English. This has been On Mic, a podcast presentation of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Tactical facilities for On Mic are underwritten by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. Our producers are Lee Mengistu and Cat Schuknecht. I’m Dean Ed Wasserman. Thanks for listening and I hope you can join us next time.