You may know Michael Pollan from his books on our eating habits, food, public health, and the environment. Or this – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His latest book How to Change Your Mind delves into the history, science, and therapeutic uses of psychedelics. Interestingly, he also includes his own travelogue. So what insights and lessons did Michael Pollan gleam from these psychedelics? Let’s find out.
First – why this interest? Psychedelics are still illegal in the US and he had to seek out underground guides, based on his own self-directed trip advisor.
For him, “life seemed to be running along a few deep but comfortable grooves” and “I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me.”1 The research into psychedelics prompted him to wonder if and how they could be a tool to understand and even change the mind. The subtitle for his book is What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
The journalist and activist Michael Pollan wanted to see if psychedelics could open the box and expand his consciousness. He wanted to see if it’s fool’s gold or real gold people come back with from their mystical journeys.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, off grid in the mountains, Michael Pollan embarked on his first guided psychedelic experiment. With eyeshades on, he travelled in his mind, “in a fully realized forest landscape that the music had somehow summoned into being.”2 For several hours, different landscapes appeared, as he moved through the phases of his life, with his family populating his psyche.
“The flood tide of compassion overflowed its bank and leaked into some unexpected places” and “cresting over all these encounters came a cascading dam break of love.”3 What he learned – love is everything. And according to his guide, Michael Pollan verbalized these two things during his session in the yurt – “I don’t want to be so stingy with my feelings” and “all this time spent worrying about my heart. What about all the other hearts in my life?”4
While the ego did not dissolve and he did not sit in the “lap of God”, this 100 microgram LSD (with a 50 microgram booster) trip was productive and provided several insights about himself and people in his life. He also sees that we can come to see the ordinary as shiny and novel again, like children view the world before the “seen it and done that” attitude is brain-wired.
Upon returning home, Michael Pollan found himself “uncommonly appreciative”. While this feeling did not last, the LSD trip, though not transformative, gave him a taste of what it was like to be “less defended, I would say, and so more present.”5
His second personal experiment took place in a suburban loft on the east coast. Starting at the cap, and alternating bits of mushroom with chocolate, Michael Pollan consumed about five inches or 2 grams. He described it as “dry as the desert and tasted like earth-flavoured cardboard.”6 He would take two more grams, making it the equivalent of twice the dose of the LSD consumed for his first psychedelic experience.
Again with eyeshades on, he disappeared this time into a computer world. First as himself and then from a larger “I” perspective after the booster dose. Gone was the “sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries” and in its place was this “bare disembodied awareness” that was “calm, unburdened, content.” 7
When the music changed from a New Age composition – a genre he clearly does not enjoy – to Bach, he became the cello. Through Yo-Yo Ma’s playing and Bach’s music, he got to experience death in a different light, by losing himself and going beyond to where suffering did not exist.
“I” now turned into a sheaf of little papers, no bigger than Post-its, and they were being scattered to the wind. Bu the “I” taking in this seeming catastrophe had no desire to chase after the slips and pile my old self back together. no desires of any kind, in fact. Whoever I now was was fine with whatever happened.7
Again this experience, even the dissolution of the ego, did not last. His guide, however, suggested that through meditation, for example, we can practice a different way of being, of reacting or not. To move from what Michael Pollan himself saw as “first-person singular to the plural and beyond… and our interconnectedness..becomes flesh.”8
#3 5-MeO-DMT aka The Toad
5-MeO-DMT is found in the smoked venom of Incilius alvarius, the Sonoran Desert toad, also called the Colorado River toad. A controlled substance in the US since 2011, 5-MeO-DMT is used by Michael Pollan’s Mexican guide, along with iboga, to treat drug addicts.
This toxic venom is milked from glands on this sand-coloured toad which lives underground, except for the three winter months. Once dried, the venom becomes brown crystals that get vaporized in a glass pipe to remove the toxins, ready to be inhaled. So potent and fast-acting, its effects are felt before the person can even exhale.
In what Michael Pollan described as a “mental storm” and a “violent narrative arc”, all sense of “I” was annihilated. He experienced a reverse Big Bang, watching “the dimensions of reality collapse one by one”9 into nothing, only energy. This was followed by the birth of the universe and the Self, a reconstitution and his rebirth as a baby boy. A baby boy who upon a closer look was his own son. This birthing allowed him the feel the intimacy between mothers and babies. “Whatever space had ever intervened between my son and me now closed.”10
Again he felt gratitude, for his wife and son, and for being alive, which he now felt, really felt, to be a miracle.
His guide had asked him to find a peace offering, something that will be useful in his life. His epiphany was to do less, which has been the rhythm of his life. And be more. Be with stillness, people as they are, and his own self.
Michael Pollan, for his psychedelics research, had asked his friend if these are drug experiences or an actual spiritual event. His friend replied with certainty that it is irrelevant. To her, what’s important is the fruits, the revealed.
After his three psychedelic journeys, he did have a challenging time understanding his experiences, especially the last one as it was fast and furious. Michael Pollan even took the Revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30), one of the questionnaires volunteers at Hopkins and NYU studies had undertaken. His score indicated a complete mystical experience.
Now, phrases like “all is one” which had previously “left me cold” because to him, they were “utterly opaque, so much quasi-religious mumbo jumbo” 11 he could now relate. Mystical passages were no longer hyperbole and abstract. His psychedelic experiences opened him to receive a wider and more sublime perspective.
Psychedelics and Our Brain
Michael Pollan continues his book after the travelogue on studies on psychedelics to understand how they can create such shifts in consciousness. Research shows psychedelics create more entropy, which allows the loosening of the self and rigid cognitive patterns. This happened due to specialized neural networks such as the Default Mode Network (DMN) disintegrating, and the whole brain becoming more integrated. The brain undergoes a temporary rewiring, with more neural connections across different networks and areas of the brain.
The Default Mode Network
The DMN is active when we ruminate, reflect, worry, and generally not doing anything else. It is involved in the creation of mental projections, include the ego. When the ego dissolves, the energy of primary consciousness arises and we are less tied down by our preconceptions. What can psychedelics do in helping the dying, those with addictions, and depression? Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind shares some powerful testimony.
The Gold for Us
We know there are alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps you have done a shamanic journey? It’s not just our waking state, what we call the ordinary consciousness. We can access it also by other methods such as meditation and breathwork and other plant medicine.
Experiencing first-hand or even reading about it, we remember that reality is not so solid and is very subjective. Adult humans also do not hold the monopoly on the “right” kind of consciousness. While adults have a more focused awareness, children experience a more diffused attention or what is called lantern consciousness. This means they take in more of the environment than adults. Because they are still seeing things with new eyes. With more prior experience, our adult brain – an averaging and filtering machine – makes many more assumptions about our reality and shapes our more narrow filters.
Even if we do not experience these transcendent non-ordinary states of consciousness, we too can gleam wisdom here. We can do better by remembering that our reality is not the only reality. Our reality is an approximation, based on how our brain is wired, our past experiences, our beliefs, and what makes the self as an identity. It is the ego that maintains these boundaries and the illusion that we are separate. We are not. Not from each other. Not from nature.
This is some of what Michael Pollan learned from psychedelics. We can keep in mind – how do we feel less defended, more present, to be rather than do all the time, to love … Even as the ego dissolves, our consciousness still exists. We do not need to fear annihilation.
Psychedelic consciousness overturns that view [that we are the only conscious beings], by granting us a wider, more generous lens through which we can glimpse the subject-hood – the spirit! – of everything, animal, vegetable, even mineral, all of it now somehow returning our gaze. Spirits, it seems, are everywhere.12
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1 How to Change Your Mind . Michael Pollan. Penguin Press, New York. 2018. p.7.
2 Ibid. p247.
3 Ibid. p250.
4 Ibid. p251.
5 Ibid. p254.
6 Ibid. p258.
7 Ibid. p264.
8 Ibid. p271.
9 Ibid. p279.
10 Ibid. p280.
11 Ibid. p286.
12 Ibid. p413.