Berkeley Talks transcript: Michael Pollan with Dacher Keltner on the new science of psychedelics

Jeff MacKie-Mason: It’s great to see such a crowd here. Thank you all for being here. I’m Jeff MacKie-Mason. I’m the university librarian at Berkeley. Thank you for coming to our library book talk. It’s a delightful, cheerful California day out there, and I can see why you’re all inside. I’m gonna be very brief, because of course, you’re here to hear Dacher and Michael, not me.

Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at Berkeley. He’s the founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. His research focuses on the biological and evolutionary origins of human feelings and behaviors that don’t immediately serve obvious evolutionary purposes, things like compassion, awe, love, beauty. Think about that for a minute and try to tell yourself an evolutionary story about that, and then read Dacher’s work, which includes over 190 published scientific articles and five books. An interesting fact I learned about Dacher is that he was raised in Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s, which I think is a topic for yet another presentation. I’m sure there are a few stories there, a few stories there.

Michael Pollan is one of the best known writers and activists on food and diet in America, and that’s saying a lot when we’re sitting at the alma mater and the home base of Alice Waters. Michael, there’s no way to summarize his work and his accomplishments briefly, so I’m just going to mention a couple of tidbits. His book Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. There have been three documentaries made based on his books that have been shown on Netflix and PBS. He was awarded the LennonOno Grand Prize for Peace by Yoko Ono in 2010, and as if it weren’t impressive enough to be a journalism professor at Berkeley, he is simultaneously a professor at Harvard. Try to duplicate that one. Today, together, they’re going to be discussing Michael’s most recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which is actually not quite about food, but about mind-altering substances that you might ingest such as magic mushrooms and LSD. Dacher and Michael, thank you.

Michael Pollan: Thank you. Thank you very much, very good to be here on home ground, and with Dacher, who is a close friend as well as an interlocutor, and this is I think the third or fourth time we’ve sat down to talk about this book. So he’s been very patient.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, no, and it’s, we were laughing about how, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Michael for quite some time, and when you go visit a restaurant with Michael Pollan, the sous chef comes out with a tattered copy like, would you sign this, and there’s cranberry sauce all over it, and after this book, people come up to Michael like, hey. So, I hope you’re not doing that tonight. And that was my daughter who was here, and I’m glad she was kicked out of here, ’cause I, anyways. So what we thought we would do is take about 35 minutes, and I have some questions for Michael. I have selected a few different passages that I think it’d be really good for Michael to read. I know this being Berkeley, it’s gonna be a very, how many of you have read the book? Amazing, so you’re gonna have a lot of questions, so, and then, we’ll have 20, 25 minutes of your questions and your observations and hopefully not too many experiences in that realm. Oh, okay. Yeah, of course you can. And then Michael will be signing books over there. I guess I wanted to start with the beginning, and a lot of people go out and take psychedelics and then start writing and think they’re onto something really big, and you had a lot of hesitation about this book and trepidation and took a lot to dive into this topic. I’m just curious.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, I was really not experienced when I undertook this. My first big psychedelic experience, I was in my late 50s already I think. I didn’t do psychedelics at the age-appropriate time, for a couple of reasons. I was afraid of them. You know, I was born in 1955, and by the time it was something I would seriously consider, by the time I was in my late teens, the moral panic against psychedelics was in full flower, and you were hearing these terrifying stories about, you know, the trip from which someone never came back and kids staring at the sun ’til they went blind on LSD. So it sounded really scary, and I also didn’t feel psychologically sturdy enough to withstand the kind of assault on the ego that was in store.

So it took me a long time. And even as an elder psychonaut, I was a very reluctant one, and you know, I did seven trips for this book, I would say, and the night before every one was kind of a sleepless night of ping-ponging arguments back and forth. Are you crazy? You’re gonna go up on this mountain with this guy you barely know who doesn’t even have a telephone, and you’re gonna take LSD? You could have a heart attack. Is he gonna call 911? He can’t even call 911. And then on the other hand, the other side is, wow, but it could be so interesting, and you do have a book write. So I realized later that the voice arguing caution and summoning all these rational arguments was my ego trying to defend itself from what I had planned for it. But in each case, I managed to get over my reluctance and surrender to the experience, which is really what it takes. So, yeah, it didn’t come easy, and I felt obligated to do it at a certain point. Yes, I was curious, but I also felt I couldn’t write a book on the subject without having experienced it and written about it from inside.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Michael Pollan: So there was no question when I started out that I would be doing it.

Dacher Keltner: 2006, an important year in sort of the renaissance and getting you into this. What’s happening, and who are some of the characters that kind of brought you into this?

Michael Pollan: Well, there is this modern renaissance going on that I think people are now aware of, but it really starts in 1999 when Johns Hopkins starts their mystical experience study. That’s when Johns Hopkins University, you know, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the world, does this kind of whacked study, like, seeing of psilocybin can occasion mystical experiences in healthy, normal people. No medical application, and so that study, when it’s published in 2006, was a big deal.

And a couple things happened in 2006. There was also a Supreme Court decision that the ayahuasca churches, the UDV could, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, could use ayahuasca as a sacrament in the United States. And the third thing that happens there is the hundredth birthday of Albert Hofmann, the inventor and discoverer of LSD. It’s very rare that at the centennial of someone’s birth, that person is there speaking, and he was. He lived to be 102, allegedly taking microdoses of LSD to the end, but I haven’t confirmed that. And standing on his head every day, that was another thing he did. So, if you want the prescription for long life, there we have it.

And that became a kind of gathering of the tribe, and the energy to kind of bring back this research really surfaces in 2006. I don’t hear about this, though, ’til 2013 or so, when I hear about a study going on at NYU and Johns Hopkins that builds on that 2016 study that found that indeed, in two-thirds of the cases, a high dose of psilocybin will occasion a mystical experience characterized by ego dissolution and a sense of meaning and all this kind of thing, and that that experience has such positive effects on people’s psychology that they tried administering it to people with cancer diagnoses, many of them terminal, to see if this would help relieve their fear and anxiety. And in, again, in two-thirds of the cases, when people had that big, mystical experience, it did completely change their attitudes towards their death. I interviewed people who’d had this, almost a conversion experience, and a lot of spiritual overtones, but people who completely lost their fear of death, based on one experience. And figuring out what that was about was something that drove me to wanna try the drugs as well.

Dacher Keltner: I wanna ask you later and get your reflections on it, because it’s both at the heart of the book, and we’re gonna launch into a few of your personal experiences and have you read, but how did you approach it as a writer? I mean, you’re heading into these, for you personally, untraveled areas of your mind. These are experiences that, by definition, may not be amenable to language.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, no, I mean, I was very nervous. That was the other thing I was nervous about, was the writing of it. Here were these experiences that, you know, William James had told us were ineffable, and I was gonna try to eff them. And how do you do that?

Dacher Keltner: Did you take notes as you went through?

Michael Pollan: No. I tried, one time I tried taking notes. It just doesn’t work. I told my guides, so, it’s very important to understand that with one exception, the experiences that I had were substantially different than what maybe in people’s head is a psychedelic experience, which is unsupervised, on your own, out in nature. These are guided psychedelic experiences. I was trying to the extent I could to simulate what was going on in these trials, these drug trials that they had at Hopkins and NYU and UCLA.

So in all those cases, there are two guides or therapists who prepare you very carefully for the experience in advance, qualify you for it, make sure you don’t have predilection to psychosis and things like that, personality disorder. And they give you some very good advice on how to deal with difficulties that might arise. If you see something terrifying, don’t try to get away from it, go toward it, surrender. Whatever’s happening, if you feel yourself going crazy or dying or your ego dissolving, go with it. And surrender is a very important premise, ’cause you can’t resist what’s going on in your mind anyway. But if you do surrender, it tends to break through that darkness to a much more potentially ecstatic place.

So they give you this preparation, and then they sit with you during the whole experience. They say very little; they’re just available to you. You’re wearing eyeshades and listening to music, and that seems weird to people who have psychedelic experience, ’cause you’re blocking out a lot of sensory information. And the thinking there is that it should be internal, that this is a psychological treatment and that you should go deep into your own history and not be dazzled and distracted by the fireworks going on, which, as soon as you take them off, fireworks do happen. And that’s very interesting, ’cause when you take one sense offline, the brain fills that vacuum with all sorts of interesting things. And the music too is very important, synesthesia. The experience of music is like nothing I’d ever had. And then after the experience, and they’re there to just kind of like, if you get hungry or need to go to the bathroom, but there very non-interventionist. So I did ask my guides to take notes on anything I said, which was completely useful, like, wow. Spectacular. And there were a couple gnomic utterances.

Dacher Keltner: I think you pulled off in the beginning, there was a note.

Michael Pollan: Yes, and I also, another one I said is, I don’t wanna be so stingy with my feelings, or something like that.

Dacher Keltner: You got a reaction over there.

Michael Pollan: So there were a couple lines that actually didn’t make it into the book, but basically, the way I recorded the experiences, the night after, it’s very chaotic. It’s very inchoate, and so, making sense of it, I would first tell the narrative to my wife, to Judith, over dinner, and then I would sit down and write everything I could remember, and it would be this 25-page single-spaced thing.

Dacher Keltner: Wow, wow.

Michael Pollan: That’s what I would work with when I sat down to write. Unfortunately, when I looked at that when I sat down to write, it was crazy and not of any literary quality at all. Anyway, and then the last thing the guides do, just to fill in the picture of the guided experience, is they help you integrate the experience. You sit with them, talk about what happened, ’cause they don’t know, and see if there aren’t any lessons or ideas you can apply to the conduct of your life. And that integration is very, very important, ’cause many people have had psychedelic experience, especially as kids, that they just dismiss as, oh, that was the LSD. But of course it’s not the LSD. Everything is a product of your mind.

Dacher Keltner: It’s your mind and your life.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, I mean, there’s no consistency across these experiences. It’s not like the phenomenology of cocaine or the opiates, which is very consistent across the population. This is, as one psychiatrist put it, an unspecific mental amplifier. So it does bear scrutiny, but that didn’t always happen. So that’s very useful. Anyway, long answer to your question.

Dacher Keltner: Let’s turn to a few narratives as the grist for our mill and what, for those of you who haven’t read the book, what’s wonderful about the book is Michael’s typical kind of conceptual analysis, which is cultural history is blended with politics is blended with science is blended with the first-person experience, and by the time you’re having this experience, it has all these systems in play that are producing these experiences. So, maybe you can tell us just that kind of story for each of these experiences. So we’ll start with your experience with the tea with Judith.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, okay.

Dacher Keltner: And why that, and then read this passage.

Michael Pollan: Well, those of you who know my work know I’m very interested in natural history, and in Botany of Desire, I wrote a book about our engagement with plants and how they change us and we change them, and I’ve always had this sense that we’re in a dynamic relationship with other species, which people understand with animals, but less so with plants. And I started writing as a gardener, and that’s my passion. So, I wasn’t gonna look at this question without really looking at the natural history of psilocybin.

Now, it’s not a plant, it’s a fungus. But I got very curious as to why these plants produce this amazing chemical. What’s in it for them? And so, I went and I wanted to go see if I could find them. And they grow in a surprisingly wide range of places, including, I might say, on this campus. I have not found them, but after the book came out, I was eating at Bistro Liaison before they closed, and my waiter sidles up to me and says, you know, they’re all over campus. And I said, where, where? And he said, watch the wood chips. That was his wisdom. But I would discourage anyone from taking a psilocybin mushroom they found on their own, because there are lookalikes that will lead to, as the field guides say, an agonizing death. Galerina is one in particular. So don’t mess around with finding them unless you’re with somebody.

So I went and I was interviewing Paul Stamets, who’s a very prominent mycologist, and he took me to hunt for psilocybe, there are 150 different psilocybes, azurescens, which he named for his son. He found it for the first time. He named it for his son Azarius, who in turn was named Azarius because of the color of psilocybin. He’s very into psilocybin. And this mushroom has only been found at the mouth of the Columbia River, and there’s a couple state parks there, and I’m not at liberty to tell you which one where we found it. So we went hunting for a couple days in November many years ago, and we found a very small number of what he says are the most powerful psilocybin mushrooms. And I said, why aren’t they more commonly used, and he said, well, they have a side effect some people don’t like. I said, what’s that? Temporary paralysis.

So anyway, we found some, and I had an experience on them. I did not get paralyzed. And this was before I worked with any guides, and I was in my garden. We have a house in New England where we used to live, and as you know, I’ve always believed that plants have their own subjectivity. I don’t mean they have self-consciousness or anything, but they have a point of view, and coevolution takes two. There’s a kind of agency there that I’ve written about. So that was an intellectual conceit for me, very useful in writing that book, but what was amazing about this experience was how it became a felt reality. So this paragraph, I’ll read it from this copy, is toward the end of this experience, which was a very powerful experience of nature. So, I was walking around in my garden, and I was out at this little building I built a long time ago, and I’m walking back toward the end. My walk back to the house was, I think, the peak of the experience. It comes back to me now in the colors and tones of a dream. There was again the sense of pushing my body through a mass of air that had been sweetened by phlox and was teeming, almost frenetic with activity.

So it’s late August, it’s hot, the air is thick, and it’s getting near dusk. The dragonflies, big as birds, were now out in force, touching down just long enough to kiss the phlox blossoms and then lift off before madly criss-crossing the garden path. These were more dragonflies than I’d ever seen in one place, so many, in fact, that I wasn’t completely sure if they were real. Judith later confirmed the sighting when I got her to come outside, and as they executed their flight patterns, they left behind them contrails that persisted in the air, or so at least it appeared. Dusk now approaching, the air traffic in the garden had built to a riotous crescendo, the pollinators making their last rounds of the day, the plants still signifying to them with their flowers, me, me, me. In one way, I knew this scene well, the garden coming briefly back to life after the heat of a summer day has relented, but never had I felt so integral to it. I was no longer the alienated human observer gazing at the garden from a distance, whether literal or figural, but rather, felt part and parcel of all that was transpiring here.

So the flowers were addressing me as much as the pollinators, and perhaps because the very air that afternoon was such a felt presence, one’s usual sense of oneself as a subject observing objects in space, objects that have been thrown into relief and rendered discrete by the apparent void that surrounds them, gave way to a sense of being deep inside and fully implicated in the scene, one more being in relation to the myriad other beings and to the whole. Everything, this is a quote from von Humboldt, the great naturalist, 18th century naturalist. “Everything is interaction and reciprocal,” wrote von Humboldt, this felt very much the case. And so, for the first time I can remember, did this, and this is another quote from him: “I myself am identical with nature.” And I had never felt that. I’d never felt fully implicated in nature. I’d always had that human remove, and that was a thrilling moment.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, amazing. So let’s move onto LSD. Tell us about your experience there.

Michael Pollan: So there, that was the first guided experience I had, with a man that, so, there’s an underground, right? I couldn’t participate in the above-ground. They didn’t want a journalist, or I didn’t qualify. They were not treating healthy normals, which I flatter myself thinking that was my category. But they were treating smoking addicts and depressives and all sorts of people that I didn’t qualify. So, I did the next best thing, which is find my way into this underground, and it’s a surprisingly vibrant group of people. Many of them are actually trained therapists who do this because they really believe it works, at great personal risk. Some of the mare charlatans, too, so you can’t generalize entirely, and some of them are somewhere in the middle.

And I interviewed several people, and some of ’em, I just would not entrust my mind to. But I found this very unlikely guy that I did, and I say unlikely ’cause he was German-born. He was the son of a Nazi. He had a raging alcoholic father, and came here at the height of the 60s and kind of reinvented himself. He lives on a mountain entirely off the grid. The person I was describing worrying about having a heart attack on his property is him. I call him Fritz in the book. So with him, I had my first LSD experience. It was not transformative, for various reasons. It wasn’t a very high dose. It was like 150 micrograms, but it was really interesting, and it was very kind of psychoanalytic. It was just, I was lying there, and just a parade of loved ones kept coming, like one after another, reviewing all my relationships with all these people in my life, and they were very vivid to me. And the takeaway, and this is where we get into the ineffable issue, was a cliche, which was that I felt with this powerful conviction I had never had before that love is the most important thing in the universe.

Dacher Keltner: Man, that is deep. No, no.

Michael Pollan: You can look at it two ways. You can put that on a Hallmark card, it is true, but it’s also true. So how do you get that across in a piece of writing? The line between banality and profundity is quite fine. So, that was one of my struggles, and part of the way I dealt with these kind of struggles was deciding, I’m just gonna level with the reader. I’m gonna break the fourth wall and say, I’ve got this problem. I had this feeling, but I know how it sounds. And I do that repeatedly. So there’s a brief passage where I talk about love in that section. Is that the one you want me to read?

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, yeah. So I think it’s on.

Michael Pollan: What page is it?

Dacher Keltner: It’s gonna be right there.

Michael Pollan: 251. Yeah, so here’s where I have that line, I don’t wanna be so stingy with my feelings, and then another quote that he wrote down, all this time spent worrying about my heart. What about all the other hearts in my life? There’s a background to that, which is, I had had this episode of a weird hearth rhythm doing a preliminary exercise with this guy. That’s why the dose was fairly small. It embarrasses me to write these words. They sound so thin, so banal. This is a failure of my language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words. To try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is, in some fundamental way, pre- or post-linguistic, or as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and especially the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth. Love is everything.

Okay, but what else did you learn? No, you must not have heard me. It’s everything. Is a platitude so deeply felt sill just a platitude? No, I decided, a platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To resaturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is, the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths hidden in plain sight. A spiritual insight? Maybe so, or at least that’s how it appeared in the middle of my journey. Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious. You could say the medicine makes you stupid, but after my journey through what most sound like a banal and sentimental landscape, I don’t think that’s it. For what after all is the sense of banality or the ironic perspective if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed, by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world.

If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled known to be quickly shelved, with little thought to the marvels therein, and novel, to which understandably we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine one another with the light of first sight. Is this reclassification of the familiar a waste of time? If it is, then so is a lot of art. It seems to me there is great value in such renovation, the moreso as we grow older and come to think we’ve seen and felt it all before. So, that’s the line you’re walking here, and as a writer, it’s kind of challenging.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah.

Michael Pollan: So I just erred for directness and talking directly to the reader about these challenges.

Dacher Keltner: As you’re moving through these trips, what’s happening to your mind? How are you changing? How are you thinking about the contents of your mind?

Michael Pollan: Well, I’m becoming more open to weirdness than I was. I mean, I’m kind of a fervent materialist, and my outlook is shaped very much by my reading of science, and I’m not a very, or I wasn’t a very spiritual person. But here, these things are happening that are raising all sorts of very interesting questions, and the world is appearing somewhat different than I thought, and I’m not sure how much to credit it. I mean, the subjectivity of these plants that I felt, is that a data point of any value, or is that just a projection or an idea already held?

So, I’m definitely opening things up over the course of it, and then I had an experience that was transformative, and this happened on psilocybin, a high dose psilocybin with a guide on the East Coast, a woman, and this, you know, I started out as a pretty, I say a spiritually underdeveloped person in the book, and this experience kind of changed my understanding of what the word spiritual means, at least to me. This experience started out kind of badly. There was a piece of music she was playing. Because of synesthesia, music kind of creates your world, especially when you have eyeshades on.

And she put on this piece of music by a man named Thierry David who’s a New Age composer who I learned later was thrice nominated for Best Chill/Groove Album. And this music would have been fine if you were getting a message at the Claremont maybe, but exploring the depths of your soul, it was so awful. And it created a landscape in my head that was black and white and computer-generated, and it was like some video game environment, ’cause it sounded like it was electronic music. When I listened to it later, it actually wasn’t. And I was stuck in this place. I was stuck in it for a really long time. And I asked her to change the music, and I couldn’t get out of it, and finally I said, look, I need a break. I have to use the bathroom.

And so I take off my eyeshades, and wow, everything is jeweled with diamonds in this room, but I’m restored to this beautiful reality, and Mary, as I call her in the book, helps me get up, I’m a little wobbly, and get to the bathroom, and I’m very careful not to look in the mirror. Someone had warned me of that. They said, beware of tripface. Which, okay, so I didn’t look in the mirror, and I peed, and it produced this spectacular crop of diamonds. And then made my way out and back, and Mary asked, do you want a booster dose, ’cause I hadn’t taken all I was gonna take, and I was, yeah, maybe that’ll change things.

And this really weird thing happened at that moment, which is she kind of squats down next to me, I’m lying on this futon on the floor, and she’s holding out this mushroom, and I look at her, and she’s been transformed, and she’s turned into, she’s kind of blonde and Nordic with hair parted in the middle, long, blonde hair and high cheekbones, but now she had black hair, this leathery brown skin, and her hands were wrinkled, like she was this Mexican peasant. She was a Mazatec Indian, in a white dress. And I didn’t wanna tell her what had happened to her, but I knew exactly who it was. She had become Mary Sabina, who’s this legendary figure, and this indigenous American in Oaxaca who had given Gordon Wasson, the first Westerner to try psilocybin in 1956, his first trip, and he’d been searching the world for these mushroom cults and found them in the middle of nowhere.

And so she’s a very important figure, and Mary had turned into Maria Sabina. I take the extra, I take the additional mushroom and go back under, and then this incredible thing happens after about 20 minutes, and that is I kind of look up, and I see myself and my self, my ego, has kind of exploded in a little cloud of Post-It notes. Like, a cloud of a hundred Post-It notes, and I look, and that’s me. And now I look, who’s that? Well, this other perspective opened up, and I didn’t know what that was. It was completely untroubled by this catastrophe, and it was like, yes, you’re now Post-It notes. And I was calm, and it was this wonderful perspective that I’d never have, and I still don’t know what it is. Huxley would have said that was mind at large, some universal consciousness, I don’t know. And then I looked again, and I was no longer Post-It notes, but I was a coat of paint, just kind of this thin coat of paint spread over the landscape. It was the most amazing thing. And it was as things should be. I was fine with it. And with myself gone, what happens is there’s no break between subject and object.

So whatever you experience, you become. And in my case, we finally agreed on a piece of music, and she puts on this Bach unaccompanied cello suite, Number Two in D Minor if you wanna listen to it sometime. It’s an amazing piece of music. It’s the saddest piece of music I think in the repertoire. And it’s so beautiful, and I had heard it at funerals, and I merged with this piece of music. There was no difference between me and it. I could feel Yo Yo Ma’s bow going over my skin and then was inside the well of space looking out, and it was just the most profound experience of music that I’d ever had, and it was ecstatic in the sense that I was not in my body, but not happy, ’cause it was all death imagery. All the imagery was, you know, the piece was just all about death, but in a way that I felt about death the way I felt about turning into confetti. It was fine, I was reconciled. So it was an amazing experience, and I said that, rather than read, I think I’ll just talk this out.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, yeah.

Michael Pollan: I said that it changed my take on what spiritual means, at least for me, in that I realized what happens when you let go of the ego is that walls come down and you have this profound connection that your ego has been defending you against, whether that is love for members of your family or for the universe or for this piece of music. But it’s really characterized by love and connection, and that it is the ego that stands in the way. But that powerful connection, which for some people might take on the coloring of divinity or God, for me, it was music, universe, love, people in my life, that that’s what spiritual experience is, that powerful connectedness, and the ego is what walls us from that, perhaps ’cause it’s too powerful to feel all the time, but it definitely goes overboard. And so, instead of thinking the opposite term for spiritual is material, as I had assumed, I came to understand after that experience that the, and the fact that there was another ground on which to stand as a human, that you’re not identical to your ego, which I think most of us assume, that you could lose that, but you don’t die, you don’t disappear, so that the real opposite for spiritual, in my mind now, is egotistical, and that’s what we have to work on, and that’s an individual issue, and that’s a social issue right now, right? I mean, the ego objectifies the other, and that’s what’s happening now, whether the other is nature or other people. So, that’s what I came out of that experience with, and for me, that was a powerful takeaway, and I owe it to this gnarly mushroom. Isn’t that amazing?

Dacher Keltner: Yeah. I mean, it’s striking. That’s obviously the heart of mysticism, and it’s also a very present thought right now in a lot of evolutionary science, is that there are these selfless states that are genetically encoded to produce emotions like compassion, which runs throughout your book.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Dacher Keltner: Before we open it up to the audience.

Michael Pollan: Yet the ego is also adaptive in its own way, right?

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, yeah.

Michael Pollan: I mean, obviously we evolved an ego too because it helps us get shit done.

Dacher Keltner: Every now and then, yes.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, every now and then.

Dacher Keltner: We’re gonna have a microphone circulate, but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. Since you and I’ve had these conversations since May with the release of the book, I have been astonished at the liberating effect of this book, and I know you’ve been surprised. Drug books don’t sell well, for the most part. This one did really well. They often are ignored by critics. And I find, I’ve taught some of the content of this in my Human Happiness class here at Berkeley. It frees up people to tell stories that they’ve been dying to tell.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Dacher Keltner: What’s your sense of the reaction to this book as you’ve traveled around?

Michael Pollan: Well, it’s been astonishing. I really didn’t, I mean, people know how to buy a book on food, right? We’ve all done it a few times now. But how many people, general readers who aren’t psychonauts, have bought a book on psychedelics? And my publisher had worries about that, and I had worries about that. But it turns out that there’s a lot more interest than I thought, that there’s been this sub rosa conversation around psychedelics on university campuses, but not only there; in religious institutions, in psychiatry departments, and that I think in some ways, this book licensed that conversation to come out. I mean, I’ve been invited to grand rounds in medical schools and psychiatry departments, and I was telling Dacher, I’m gonna speak at the American Psychological Association in August.

I mean, these are not the people I thought would be open to this message. Some of that has to do with the fact the drug war is losing steam, I think. Some of it has to do with the fact that some of this research is really interesting that’s been published, and it’s very high quality research, and it’s showing benefits not only for the dying but people with depression, people with addiction, people with obsessive compulsive disorder. And some of it is, frankly, the desperation of the mental health community for some new tools, and that, you know, I didn’t know. I had never written about mental health and mental illness before, but it’s a mess. It’s just a mess. I mean, if you compare mental healthcare to any other branch of medicine now, they have very little to show for themselves, if you compare it to cardiology or oncology or infectious disease that have actually lengthened lifespans and reduced suffering in dramatic ways. You can’t say that about our treatment of depression or schizophrenia or anything. So, and the SSRIs that were really the last big innovation in the late 80s and early 90s are kind of losing steam and not working for lots of people.

So there’s a hunger for some new tools and an openness to look at something as out-of-the-box as psychedelics. So that’s been a real surprise to me, and then a lot of mainstream medical schools and psychiatry departments are about to start research. I mean, there’s gonna be an eight-site depression study starting this summer, and Yale’s gonna participate, and UCSF is gonna participate, and Hopkins, and NYU. Top-ranked places are taking this very seriously. So, I don’t take credit for any of this. This was on its way. Writers don’t change the zeitgeist. They kind of might speed things up a little bit. What we’re good at is journalists, if we’re good at it, is kind of like being a very short-term visionary. If you’re a long-term visionary as a journalist, you will not succeed. No one will know what you’re talking about.

So maybe we can see around one corner, and something in the air made meth that psychedelics was something to think about and work on. But yeah, I’ve been really surprised. The other thing that has surprised me, I mean, a question I was asked the other day was what it is like going from being the food guy to the psychedelic guy, and it’s a lot easier being the food guy, as you were saying. The good guy gets an extra dessert in certain restaurants. And the psychedelic guy gets hundreds of requests for referrals to psychedelic therapists. Which are not funny. They’re actually so sad and so moving, the stories of people who have a suicidal relative or an alcoholic parent and see this as a hope, and it’s not available yet. It’s a faithful step to seek help underground, and people do need to understand, we haven’t talked about the risks, but there are real risks to these drugs. And they tend to be more psychological than biological, but they’re real, and they’re not for everybody. So this unmet need for therapeutic help and people looking to change their minds is much more profound and powerful than I thought and very moving to touch that current feeling that’s out there.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, definitely has. Let’s move to some questions from all of you, or observations. So we have a microphone, and raise your hand if you have a question about how to change your mind and Michael’s book, and we’ll start with you, yes.

Audience member 1: Thank you for being here. Your book is truly very beautiful.

Michael Pollan: Thank you.

Audience member 1: I wanted to ask about if you had anxiety or you were nervous to publish about an experience that’s fundamentally illegal. Especially in such a compelling way.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, I did. I mean, I was nervous about it, and I had the book very carefully lawyered, and I was less worried about myself. I mean, maybe I was worried about some reputational harm that might come, but in terms that I would be arrested, I learned that my confessions so-called are not really admissible, because you can’t tell where I was or when this happened, which are two, if you’re ever gonna write about this, those are the two things to disguise. I was more concerned about my guides, though, that some prosecutor would decide, we have to make an example of this community of guides. So I took a lot of precautions to protect them.

The fact about their lives are true, but also where they are and their real names and when we worked together is all hidden. But I was nervous about that. I was also nervous about people who would get into trouble doing what I was describing, and I still am nervous about that, that if demand for psychedelic therapy spiked, there would be people getting into that space, calling themselves psychedelic therapists who might be frauds, and that is no doubt happening. And just to talk about risk a little bit more, there was a big survey done of people who’ve used psychedelics in all different settings, and it’s interesting to see that group. About eight percent of them sought psychiatric help as a result of a different experience on psychedelics. So that risk is real, 7.8%.

On the other hand, on balance, the people who use psychedelics had better mental health scores than the average person. Now, that could be because they were sturdy enough to do it to begin with. It could mean a lot of different things. But less suicide, less depression, that kind of stuff. But the risks are some people at risk for schizophrenia will have a psychotic break, or can have a psychotic break. Would they have had it anyway? Some people say yes, some people say no. But they’re non-addictive, and they’re less toxic than many of the drugs in your medicine cabinet that you bought over the counter, Tylenol, for example. Tylenol kills a lot of people, at pretty small doses. But the risks are psychological. So people have to, you know, it’s a big step. It’s a big step, and people shouldn’t be casual about it. And I don’t wanna create a fad for doing something that is, it’s a big life decision.

Audience member 2: Thank you, thank you, for the book, and thank you for your research over all of your career, both very inspiring. So, when you were being measured by Judson Brewer with the EEG cap, you did a couple of meditations. The second one was lovingkindness, and then the third, you recalled your experience, one of your psychedelic experiences, and ending up, I believe, kind of going way below baseline, and the question that I have for you is, have you been doing that kind of thing subsequently, and what is it like, and then the other question that I have for both of you is, and I’m thinking of Tania Singer’s work on new forms of meditation practice of mindfulness practice. How much possibility do you think there is that humanity hasn’t even yet begun to discover in this space?

Michael Pollan: Oh, God, a lot.

Dacher Keltner: Well, just to frame, I mean, it’s such an interesting question, because what we’re learning from Tania Singer in Europe and lots of neuroscientists, Robin Carhartt-Harris is the neurological underpinnings of awe, which hadn’t been studied, compassion, ecstasy, the loss of self, so I think that these are new structures that hadn’t been thought of before, and it’s a great Petri dish, if you will. You are in the Petri dish to figure this out.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, well, I think one of the interesting things about psychedelics is, okay, there’s the therapeutic, there’s a spiritual, but then there is the kind of, these are probes of consciousness, and really interesting tools, really interesting tools that I hope can be used not just in this therapeutic context but to understand the self, this construct. So, what you’re referring to, probably what he said made very little sense to those of you who hadn’t read the book. I’ll try to fill you in.

But Judson Brewer is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who works on meditation, not psychedelics, and he, when the first brain scans of people on psychedelics were published, they showed this very interesting pattern of activity, or rather, lack of activity, which is this one particular network, the default mode network, which is this midline set of tightly-linked structures that connect the cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex and deeper centers of emotion and memory, is, to their surprise, is muffled. Activity goes way down, and they expected to see activity throughout the brain going way up an psychedelics. Judson Brewer is at Yale studying meditation, and he’s also scanning the brains of people who are very experienced meditators while they’re meditating, and he’s getting the same scan. The same activities, the same parts of the brain are diminished in activity, this default mode network. So, he developed a kind of neural feedback EEG that you wear. It’s like this bathing cap that you put on. And it’s focused not on the whole default mode network, but on the posterior cingulate cortex, which is, what happens in the default mode network is a lot of what are called metacognitive processes.

It’s where self-reflection and self-criticism takes place. It’s here the narrative, the story you tell yourself about who you are is constructed and reconciled with stuff happening in your life. It’s where time travel takes place. You imagine the future and the past. So it’s very much the seat of the ego, or the self, to the extent that that has an address. So the posterior cingulate cortex is specifically involved in the narrative self. So if I say to you, here’s a list of adjectives, friendly, angry, patriotic, and I ask you to read them, it won’t light up your posterior cingulate cortex. But if I say, think about how those adjectives apply or don’t apply to you, it’ll go crazy. So it’s where you kind of connect yourself and your story.

So, I put on this thing that measures activity in this structure, the PCC, and we did these various things like meditation to see if we could diminish it, and it did, to some extent, and I’m not a very experienced meditator. But then I asked him, as an experiment, I wanna try something, I’m not gonna tell you what it is. And I went into, in my mind, one of my psychedelic experiences, and specifically dwelling on this interesting image I had had that I didn’t understand on ayahuasca. And that was that I was caged. It was kind of a dark image at first. I was wearing these very tight eyeshades, and the strings became bars, black bars, and they moved down my body, until I was trapped in this cage of black steel, a very paranoid moment. And then I looked down, and I saw a little chute, a vine, two leaves starting to grow, and then it grows up, using this cage to get higher and higher and reach the sunlight, and then it bursts out.

And I’m just like, wow, you can cage animals, but you can’t cage plants. And I kept saying that over to myself. I don’t know what it means, I still don’t. People have sent me suggestions. But I thought about that, I just focused on that, and that brought back the mental state in which I’d had it, which was a very diminished default mode network. So I thought that was really interesting. There are so many cool experiments that could be done, and I hope they happen on this campus at some point, in your department.

Dacher Keltner: Indeed. Quick followup, there was a second piece to that question, which was interesting, which is the intersection between psychedelic experiences and all the new interest in contemplative science and contemplative practice.

Michael Pollan: And awe.

Dacher Keltner: And awe, and Buddhist practice and the like.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Dacher Keltner: What do you think about that?

Michael Pollan: Well, there are interesting links. I don’t know if you realize, but if you scratch an American Buddhist now, one of the leaders of that movement, you will find a former psychonaut. It’s pretty common, the Jack Kornfields of the world and the Joan Halifaxes, and these people got into contemplative practice after having some powerful psychedelic experiences. And I can really understand this. If you wanna take the modes of consciousness you’re exploring and turn them into a practice, you’re not gonna take psychedelics every day. You’re gonna start meditating. There’s an organic flow from one to the other. And Judson Brewer, who, as I said, works on meditation, although he’s had psychedelic experience, he thinks someday we may help people begin a contemplative practice with a psychedelic experience, which is an interesting idea. I mean, that’s years away, when it’s all legal again.

Dacher Keltner: We have time for two, three more questions. Yes, standing up.

Audience member 3: Thank you. So, you did some very kind of obscure methods of psychedelic experience, obviously the rare mushroom. I believe you talked about frog venom that had DMT in it. So I was curious, how was it that you decided on which substances you were gonna use, and also, were each of the seven trips kind of planned together initially, or was it more like one just organically led to the next?

Michael Pollan: Yeah, so, yeah, it’s a really good question. Some of it was, I mean, I didn’t plan that carefully. I planned around the guides, for the most part, and they tend to have a specialty. Most of the guides don’t work with LSD, actually, ’cause I think it takes too long, it’s a long trip. But I found this one who did, and that was the medicine he liked best. So I was influenced by that. In the case of the obscure one you mentioned, 5-MeO-DMT, which is the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. Who figured that out, right? Points for our species, huh? That was just an opportunity that presented itself, you could say. Although it was not a happy experience. That was my darkest experience.

This is a very powerful, it’s not the same as DMT, even though DMT is in the name, although it’s similar in the sense that it’s very fast-acting. The best thing about this trip is it’s only 20 minutes long. But it’s just a horrifying, terrifying 20 minutes, at least it was for me. I know other people have had good experiences. And then ayahuasca was the other one that I used. I mean, I did a couple ayahuasca circles, which is a group experience, which is different, it changes things. In general, I think the psychedelics have more in common than not, with the exception of the 5-MeO-DMT. Ayahuasca does feel like a more bodily process, ’cause you feel this, you’re drinking this liquid, and it’s very thick, and it doesn’t taste good, and it’s causing upset as it goes through your stomach, and you really do feel like there’s a vine going through your body. So it’s a more physical experience than some of the others. But I think they have more in common than not. Where’s the mic?

Audience member 4: Yeah, in general, first, I just wanted to say thank you for being a very great writer.

Michael Pollan: Oh, God, thanks.

Audience Member 4: My question is, you have a note in the book talking about your experiences before engaging in this project as a whole in talking in front of large crowds of people and doing it, say, from a state of competence and confidence and the idea of going through these experiences through this book, of kind of breaking that down. So now that you’ve had these psychedelic experiences and wrote this book, how do you feel talking in front of large groups of people now? For example, right here?

Michael Pollan: Well, you know, it’s funny. I mean, you put yourself in a very vulnerable place doing these substances, and I did feel very vulnerable. And the scene you’re describing is I went. in the course of 24 hours, from giving a lecture on a stage in, I’m not gonna say the city, ’cause it would disclose where this guide lived, in front of like, 2,000 people, talking about food, and then the next day, I’m on my back tripping my brains out with this guy, and that that juxtaposition was, you know, I’ve had to get comfortable talking about it and talking about my experiences. This is a very personal book. It’s a very personal topic. I’m talking about things very close to me. So, you know, I’ve always written in the first person. I’ve written a half-dozen books in the first person. But it’s not the most confessional first-person. You don’t actually learn that much about me. I use the first person as a narrative device more than to talk about myself.

And this book, I couldn’t have written it without talking in a more personal way. So I have gotten comfortable. It’s taken me a little while, but I mean, I have spoken about this book and talked about some of my trips on much larger stages than this. And I’m getting back something that makes it doable. If I weren’t, if people were thinking, why is that maniac up there telling me about his trips, but that I’m able to connect with people, whether they’ve had this experience or not, makes me feel I can be open about it. But yeah, it’s definitely new territory for me, and that, to me, is what this whole project has been about. I mean, one of the things I love about journalism, we haven’t talked about journalism.

This is journalism, of a kind, and that’s what I teach here on campus, but that journalism allows you, as opposed to being an academic, to learn a completely new subject and get paid to do it, late in life. And so, I knew nothing about neuroscience. I knew very little about psychology. I knew very little about pharmacology, nothing. And here I was with this rich new topic that was so exciting, and I was learning not only about the brain; I was learning about my mind. I was learning about natural history of mushrooms. And that’s what I love about doing journalism, that I didn’t have to continue to write books about food, because we’re not expected to, as journalists, necessarily, we have a freedom of movement. So that was a great blessing, and to embark on a new topic, and this all started when I was approaching 60. It was so exciting to have a whole different shelf of books to read. So for me, that was the best part, was the novelty of both the experience of doing the drugs, but also the experience of researching the subject.

Dacher Keltner: So Michael, I think we’re probably at time, but I have good news for you. Michael and I, Michael will be signing books over here. You can ask him your questions.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, please bring your questions over there.

Dacher Keltner: On behalf of this audience, I wanted to just say how lucky we are to have Michael Pollan in our midst. He starts game-changing conversations about food and the psyche and the mind in this book. This book will change your mind. The greatest expression of approval came from my daughter, who stole it from me, and I was reading it. I saw her comments, and I was like, this is amazing, I want that! Dad needs more of this, right? It changed her mind, as it will change yours, so thank you so much.

Michael Pollan: Let me just say one other thing too, is that, you know, Dacher listened to me talk about this book, and we spent a lot of time hiking in Tilden Park, and he and another member of his department, Alison Gopnik, were just really key people in helping me understand the psychology of awe and emotion in general, the ego, and so one of the great things about being a journalist on a campus like this is those kind of resources. So, thank you, Dacher. Thank you very much!