Following is the full transcript of American author Michael Pollan’s talk titled “How to Change Your Mind” @ Talks at Google conference. This event occurred on May 22, 2018.
MICHAEL POLLAN – AUTHOR
Thank you, David. Thanks very much. Can everybody hear me in the back? So I get to talk about my trips, but you don’t? It doesn’t seem fair.
So I’m just going to talk for about 10 minutes and just tell you a little bit about what this book’s about, and then I’d love to take your questions and let your interest dictate the path that we take this afternoon.
First, thanks. Thank you very much for coming. This book is a real departure for me. Those of you who know me as someone who writes about food might think it’s a little weird that I’m turning to psychedelics, but in my head there is some continuity, as well as change. And the continuity is that I see my writing about food as part of a larger interest in writing about nature, and the way we eat affects nature dramatically – more than anything else we do, actually, in terms of changing the landscape of the planet and the atmosphere. And I mean, it’s your most powerful engagement with the natural world.
And I’ve always been interested in that engagement. And we use nature and plants, especially, for many things. Food is an obvious one. Beauty is another, but something we almost all use plants for that I’ve always been kind of curious about is to change consciousness. Most of us today probably used a plant to change the contents of your mind, or at least the feeling tone in your mind, whether it was coffee, or tea, or a cigarette, or cannabis, or whatever it is.
I mean, this is something we do, and every culture on earth does it with the one exception that proves the rule. The Inuit do not have any plant drugs, but it’s only because none of them grow where they live. As soon as they go somewhere else, they get with the program.
So it’s been a long standing interest, and to me, it’s all part of that story about this fascinating engagement we have with other species that defines us and reveals a lot about us.
And I wrote a little bit about cannabis and botany of desire, and I wrote a long piece about growing opium in my garden back in the ’90s. And I’ve written about medical marijuana, so I had this interest.
And then along comes this new research, which I began reading about. In 2010, I read about a really interesting odd study where researchers at NYU and Johns Hopkins were giving psilocybin — this is the ingredient in magic mushrooms. They were synthesizing it — to people who had cancer diagnoses, people very sick, many of them terminal, in the hopes that they would have what they call the mystical experience, a powerful spiritual experience that would change their attitude toward their death and help them essentially to die with more peace.
These were all patients who were struggling with depression, anxiety, and fear — profound fear. And the stories — so I started writing about that, because it seemed like the last thing I would want to do is trip when I was facing a terminal diagnosis — to lose control like that, and you would presumably have a very dark experience.
So I started interviewing these people for a piece I did in “The New Yorker” in 2015, and just to give you one example to give you the flavor of it, I remember talking to this woman. She was a figure skating instructor in New York in Manhattan. She was about 60. She was not a psychonaut. She had never used psychedelics before, and she had ovarian cancer. And her cancer had been treated successfully, but she was paralyzed by the fear of recurrence. She just couldn’t function because she thought any day now this could be back.
So she entered into this trial at NYU and had a high dose psilocybin experience. And I should explain how this is done, because the image you may have in your head of taking psychedelics, taking a handful of mushrooms and going to a concert or something, this is not how it is used in a clinical setting. It’s a very controlled experience. It’s guided.
So you work with two guides, a man and a woman. They prepare you over a course of several sessions as to what to expect. So they’ll talk to you what to do if the experience becomes frightening, which it often does, and how to navigate that. They call it the flight instructions, and their main advice is, if you see a staircase, go up it. If you see a door, open it. If you see a monster, don’t run away. Just step right up to it and say, what are you doing in my head? What do you have to teach me?
In other words, surrender to the experience. Trust. They quote John Lennon. Relax the mind and float downstream. And that’s very important advice, and it’s often the difference between a good trip and a bad trip. A bad trip is essentially a panic reaction against what’s happening in your head, which is very heavy. I mean, you’re experiencing your ego dissolving, in fact, in front of you.
And then they sit with you for the whole experience, and they give you a helping hand if you’re getting upset or struggling, and they take you to the bathroom and give you a glass of water. And then afterwards is a really key moment called the integration session, where they sit with you. You tell the story of your trip, and it usually is this narrative. It’s almost like this intra-psychic movie where you go different places. And you try to make sense of it and apply the lessons to your life.
So in the case of this woman — her name is Dina Bazer — she had this trip, and there are many elements I won’t go into. It was like six hours. And she went into her body imaginatively, and she saw this black mass under her rib cage, and that was her fear. It wasn’t her cancer, because that wasn’t in the right place, but she saw what she realized was her fear. And she screamed at her fear. And you have to see this woman. She’s a very timid, small woman, and she said, get the fuck out of my body. And it did. It disappeared. The black mass was gone.
And afterwards, she said, I realized during that experience that I can’t control my cancer, but I can control my fear, and that distinction meant everything to her. And one of the hallmarks of the psychedelic experience is that whatever insights you have during it have a force the likes of which you’ve never experienced. These are not just opinions or insights. They’re revealed truths. This is something William James a long time ago writing about the mystical experience called the noetic sense. It’s a very uncanny thing, and it’s what allows people to change that, if they think — say they’re trying to quit smoking and they have some epiphany that, gee, my breath is really precious. I should not ruin it by smoking. Suddenly that will be so strongly held as a belief that they can actually stop smoking.
So anyway, so that’s the kind of experience that I was learning about, and I became fascinated to understand the neuroscience behind it, what’s going on in the brain when people are taking one of these trips. And we now know some interesting things about that. If you’re interested, I can talk about that and also the history of it.