Food writer Michael Pollan turns to psychedelic science in new book

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It could be that Michael Pollan is one of those contemporary thinkers and cultural critics who doesn’t need any introduction. But just to be sure – he is a U.S. journalist, award-winning author, and professor of writing at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010 Time magazine named him one of “the 100 people who most affect our world.”

His best-sellers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Food Rules (2009) and Cooked (2013), uncovered the ethical bonds connecting (or not) our bodies/minds, farms and food. But his general aim is to investigate human evolution in close relation to culture, consciousness and our planet. That is the setting of his latest book: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

This time Pollan takes us on a journey into the medical and social “revolution” taking place around (and thanks to) psychedelic drugs, including his first-hand experiences with these “medicines”. He describes, accessibly, how in the last few decades such scientific research has been a powerful spearhead of the current “psychedelic renaissance” (see WikiTribune feature) with promising results particularly for the advancement of mental health in the Western world.

Neuroscience and psychedelics

Mental illnesses are common, like depression and addiction, and they seem a result of our brains, driven by survival instincts to constantly seek order, being stuck in repetitive imposing patterns and excessive protection mechanism. This is where psychedelics come in. Their mind-expanding molecules, whose effect is broadly similar to serotonin, “can loosen the grip of the machinery of the mind, ‘lubricating’ cognition where before it had been rusted stuck,”‘ explains Pollan.

As he further explains in a chapter devoted to neuroscience and psychedelics (followed by another titled “The Trip Treatment”), a carefully guided trip can shake addicts out of ingrained mental patterns and provide them new inner space. This “unstuck” feature is showing a positive impact in the first clinical trials and researchers are confident it could be helpful for a broader population. Indeed, psychiatric treatments for such mental illnesses haven’t advanced greatly since the development of SSRI antidepressants in the late 1980s.

Michael Pollan talks to Bernardo Parrella at a reading in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA)

Among the many researchers he interviewed, Pollan quotes at length Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, London, explaining that psilocybin quiets activity in a part of the brain called the default-mode network. This step prevents an overbearing ego from turning on itself and controlling all and everything, as is typical in chronic and treatment-resistant depression. Indeed, in October 2017, a small study by Carhart-Harris’s team concluded that psilocybin was effective in those instances and two further studies are planned for this year.

Also highlighted are the various experiments being carried out in the United States by the Heffter Institute (with psilocybin for cancer distress and addiction) and by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), founded in 1986 and focused on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat a variety of PTSD conditions. Often quoted are experienced researchers, such as David Nutt and William Richards, along with several volunteers involved in experiments at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and at New York University, for end-of-life anxiety, alcoholism and cancer treatments.

In the account of his meeting with Paul Stamets, an authority on everything fungi, Pollan writes that they did “talk Psilocybes, eat (other kinds of) mushrooms … and ramble the surrounding woods before driving south to Oregon border Sunday morning to hunt azzies.” Overall we get a wide investigative report from which emerges a vast (under and above-ground) network of researchers, advocates, and patients pushing for a new multifaceted approach to our legal, medical, educational, and social relationship to “illicit drugs,” and particularly to psychoactive chemicals.

Promising medicines but still illicit drugs

In fact, these compounds are still classified as Schedule I substances, with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse, under the Controlled Substances Act signed into law by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1970 and then replicated across the world. A decision aimed at curtailing the anti-establishment counter-culture spread in late 1960s in the US and then in other Western countries, with the outstanding role played by Harvard psychologist turned psychedelics guru Timothy Leary.

Carefully differentiating history from mythology, Pollan outlines that a rich body of research was conducted by scientists after its discovery by Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in 1943. And even without Leary’s much-publicized excesses, acid had already “escaped the bounds of the lab.” As a long chapter on history points out, federal funding dried up for research and these substances were seen as subversive and dangerous – by the media and the public alike – despite evidence that showed otherwise.

One important objection to Leary’s behavior, shared by Pollan and others in the global psychedelic community, is his “do-it-yourself approach to the psychedelics, especially his willingness to dispense with the all important trained guide.” Indeed, the presence of experienced guides, along with an appropriate “set and setting,” remains a fundamental feature of any psychedelic experience, in the 1960s as well as today.

That’s the reason why, despite ongoing illegality, Pollan checks out various guides before actually embracing his own trip. He is not shy to do some testing on himself and tells us all about it. Chapter four is an insightful travelogue of his own trip reports, documenting and reflecting on his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, and a substance called 5-MEO-DMT, which is made from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad.

Spirituality and human consciousness

A blend of science, memoir, history, and medicine, How to Change Your Mind provides a timely backdrop for personal investigations of spirituality and consciousness. While maintaining a vein of skepticism, the author insists that: “These are experiences in your mind hat really happen. That’s what consciousness is.” So far Western science has not been able to understand the mind very well, so this is a new frontier where “the poets have much to tell us as the scientists.”

Pollan shows skepticism even about the frequent reports of “mystical” experience from luminaries that have tried psychedelics in the past, from British author Aldous Huxley to American psychologist William James – only to provide much of similar accounts about his own experiences. He says that “spiritual” will be a better connotation for such instances, but nevertheless he cannot escape their ineffability and those strong feelings of universal love and interconnectedness with all sentient beings.

Again, this is not an experience to take lightly nor is it for everybody. Psychedelic therapy requires adequate preparation, medical assistance and proper guides. There are psychological or behavioral risks to take into consideration (they are not addictive nor physiologically dangerous). But, as Pollan meticulously explains throughout his book, this medicine can really help us in exploring the nature of consciousness and the true meaning of life.

Broadening public conversation on psychedelic science

Pollan’s book has received broad media coverage in the Anglophone mediasphere and in online venues, quickly entering The New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists (as did his previous books). Excerpts and reviews have been published by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Rolling StoneThe Nation,  The Guardian and The Times, as well as the websites of Science Magazine, Spectator, and Bioneers.

He will be speaking in London at several events in June 2018.

Pollan has done many talks and presentation events in the United States, including one attended by this writer at the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, with over 400 people of every age and background. With his affable style, Pollan read a few pages from his book, about the history of initial psychedelic research and also about his own experiences as an “improbable psychonaut.” He joked about his fears and his “constant ego intrusions, which by now I learned to recognize and prevent.” Answering questions from the audience, he reiterated that caution is always necessary with these substances, but there are good signs that psychedelics are useful in the treatment of mental problems (see feature).

This book is poised to greatly broaden the public debate on psychedelics and related issues. Although psychedelics are still illegal and somewhat feared, the social climate is very different from the 1960s and their cultural stigma is gradually dissipating (as happened with cannabis). The accumulation of hard evidence, clinical trials, and other experiences showing that these drugs are both safe and helpful, along with such accomplished and exhaustive works as Pollan’s book, provide a chance to change people’s mind once and for all.

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