FFor many decades, the psychedelics are associated with an unrestrained past. This brings to mind hippie counterculture images and neon-colored swirls. However, the term psychedelics has become synonymous with forward-looking, serious science. Research at world-renowned universities is looking into the effects on mental health of psychedelics and psychotherapy. There has been a boom in investment in new companies that specialize in psychedelic technology.
Few people have done more to return psychedelics to the popular imagination—while lending them a dose of credibility—than author Michael Pollan. His 2018 bestseller, How to change your mind: The new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. Pollan presented the scientific promise and benefits of psychedelic drug use to a large audience. The author also spoke about his life-changing experiences using the drugs. Since then, Pollan has become one of the world’s most prominent advocates for expanding research into psychedelic drugs, and he co-founded the new UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, which launched in 2020. Pollan has now teamed up with Netflix to make his book available as a docuseries. The Secret to Changing Your MindThe premiered July 12.
In the following interview—edited for length and clarity—TIME spoke with Pollan about the changing world of psychedelics and his own role in the drugs’ renaissance.
TIME: You introduced many people to psychedelics through your book. Were you surprised by the influence that it’s had? How have you felt about the way it’s changed how people think about psychedelics over the last few years?
Michael Pollan: From what I hear from other people, it has had a tremendous impact—and one that, to me, is completely surprising. When the book was first published in 2018, this was a relatively marginal topic. There weren’t many trials being conducted with psychedelics, so not much was known about them. And in the years since, we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of research, the number of companies, and the amount of press coverage. The other day, I met somebody who was involved with a trial at UCSF for a coffee, and she said, “Do you realize that in the research community, we talk about ‘pre-Pollan’ and ‘post-Pollan?’” “Pre-Pollan” was a time when it was very hard to get funding, very hard to get approvals, very hard to get taken seriously. And now that’s all changed. It’s legitimate research; there’s no stigma attached to it.
People who are hesitant to participate in research due to stigmatization are jumping at the chance. I remember a prominent researcher—a psychologist. When I asked why he wasn’t studying psychedelics, he said he’d love to, but it would be the kiss of death for his graduate students. This was in 2017. Now, the researcher and his graduate students are actively involved in psychedelic studies. That’s been very gratifying.
Since you first published the book, a lot has happened. Now it’s time to release your Netflix series. In the world of psychedelics, there have been many advances over the past few years. Which of these has been most inspiring or interesting to you?
Many exciting developments are taking place. I’m still following the field pretty closely, partly because of the Netflix film. [When I wrote the book,] the research to use psilocybin to treat depression hadn’t really gotten underway. I’m very excited about the addiction work going on both at Johns Hopkins, to treat smoking addiction, and at NYU, treating alcohol addiction. Yale is currently testing OCD treatment. In the Netflix series, in the episode on psilocybin, there’s a remarkable sequence with a 30-something young man whose life had been paralyzed by his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and after a single experience with psilocybin, he let that ball and chain go. His enthusiasm at the moment is amazing to see.
Robin Carhart Harris, who plays a key role in the story. How to change your mind [the book and docuseries], Some really fascinating papers have been published by the author to explain how psychedelics enable people to experience dramatic changes.
I’m a little less excited about the gold rush as capital floods into the space. As of last count 350 [psychedelic-related] companies. It seems to me there is more capital than there are good ideas—and there are some really bad ideas. With the patent law, there are many attempts to seize territory. There’s psychedelic tourism; lots of retreat centers are getting established in the Caribbean and Central America. Capitalism is doing its thing with psychedelics, and that we’ll have to see how that shakes out.
Your book teaches us that psychedelics can be very powerful and should not be taken lightly. Are you concerned that the effects of psychedelics could grow too quickly?
Yes, it is. It would be a better idea to pay closer attention to risk of multiple types if you were writing the document now. The risk of having a bad experience on a trip is one. Some people have terrible, painful experiences. In the right context, those can be very valuable—if you’re with a well-trained guide to help you understand that experience or get out of it. Some people use psychedelics at very high levels without guidance, which can lead to serious problems.
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We’ve had a couple cases of therapist abuse, and I think I would have talked more about that possibility. Abusive things happen in lots of kinds of therapy, but I think the problem is exacerbated when the patient is taking a substance that not only renders their judgments nonfunctional, but it also—in the case of MDMA—fosters a fearlessness and attitude of trust that an unscrupulous guide can take advantage of.
While writing my book, I was trying to counter negative press about psychedelics. It had decimated research for over 30 years. I focused my attention on scientific and therapeutic advances. However, I believe I would be more attentive to the potential for problems if it were happening now. It has been an issue in the psychedelic world for a long time.
In the real world, psychedelics aren’t always used under the same conditions as they are in scientific experiments. Is it possible to safely use psychedelics?
They can, without question, be safely used. They can be safely used, but it is important to plan and supervise the event with great care. [a person’s mindset and environment]You need experienced, well-trained guides.
I’m sure there will be pressure to reduce the amount of psychotherapy that accompanies the drug. It would be a huge mistake. This is not a drug that you can just get from CVS.
I think people don’t realize just how important the role of the guide is. If you are taking a large dose, I think it’s essential that somebody who is not taking the dose be with you—and ideally someone who has the training. My most recent book is here. The Mind of a Plant Expert, I was intrigued by peyote [a cactus that contains mescaline]. Native Americans practice rituals. There’s always an elder, somebody who knows the territory. It’s never done casually— It’s always done with a clear sense of purpose, of intention. It’s not perfect, but there is some protection in those rituals. Before we can legalize these substances, there is cultural work to do.
Both in the book as well as the show, you discuss the impact psychedelics had on your life. Are those memories something you are grateful for?
They’re some of the most meaningful experiences in my life, which is a strange thing to say about a drug experience. I’ve learned things about myself and the natural world that have stayed with me.
Adults can become enslaved to certain patterns of thinking and behaviour. As we age, these grooves are more prevalent. And to make the mind more plastic, as psychedelics can do, is a great blessing—especially as you get older, that you can step outside yourself, look at those habits with a fresh eye, and dissolve some of them.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the arrival of psychedelics created this great cultural blossoming. Is it possible to see culture changing in interesting and new ways now that psychedelics have returned to the mainstream?
I think it’s starting to. My wife is a painter and I keep up with the art scene. I’m seeing more art that is either inspired by or concerned with psychedelic experience. Music is being created right now to support psychedelic experiences. It’s in television; there are references on all sorts of shows to psychedelics. It’s becoming more acceptable.
I think the imagery will be different, because you’ll have—for one thing—older people making these cultural products. My belief is that imagination can have a natural story. Psychoactive substances, including everything from LSD and coffee, are one factor. I This is Your Mind about Plants. This article focuses on how the Enlightenment introduced caffeine to Europe. Both the history and history of psychoactive drugs are deeply intertwined.
Do you think it is too optimistic to imagine psychedelics helping reduce partisanship in American culture and society?
In my naivety, I see reason for hope. I think it’s very interesting that preliminary studies suggest psychedelics appear to address two of the biggest problems we face as a civilization. Our disconnection from the natural world and our tolerance of authoritarianism are two major problems we face as a civilization. But it’s important to remember that these are small trials, and that the people who are willing to participate in a psychedelic experiment or even survey are probably not typical of the whole population—it’s a self-selected bunch, who were probably already inclined in that direction.
I worry that psychoedelics could intensify some attitudes already in germinal forms. People are always saying, “Can’t we just give Donald Trump LSD?” I think that’d be very risky until we do more research. Trump could become more Trumpy than ever. That’s one of the things we want to study at the Berkeley Center: belief change. This will allow us to examine it from the perspective of a representative sample.
We’re really at the beginning of something, and there’s a lot more we have to learn. It is clear that there is an urgent need to do more research. In general, I’m very hopeful; I’ve been gratified to see how rapid change has come to this space, in terms of acceptance.
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