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.
What happened to psychedelics in the ’60s that they became so stigmatized that research stopped? There had been a very productive period of research all through the ’50s that was yielding really promising results in the treatment of alcoholism, in dealing with people who were dying, depression, anxiety, obsession. And then after this moral panic that hits the culture around 1965, nobody studies it anymore. The funding dries up. Scientists are a little embarrassed by it, and we had an unprecedented situation where a promising line of scientific investigation was stopped. That never happens, and we lost 30, 35 years of research into psychedelics.
Thankfully, it’s resuming, and my book is very much about the renaissance, even though I go back, and look at the history, and figure out why we had this panic reaction about them, and try to look at them in a very matter of fact way as interesting tools — interesting tools for understanding the mind and for healing the mind.
Now, we haven’t proven all this. There’s still more research to be done. We’re kind of in phase two, and there are three phases to FDA drug approval, but so far the results have been remarkably encouraging. It is one of the most powerful psychiatric interventions that the researchers have ever seen, and we’re in a situation where mental health care is so broken in this country, it’s failing to reach half the people who need it.
The last major innovation were the SSRI antidepressants in the late ’80s. There really hasn’t been anything since then. And so we need some new ways of thinking, and along comes this powerful old but new innovation. And the research is — it’s being privately funded for the most part. Big pharma is not interested in this. There’s no intellectual property that you can control, but a lot of donors, many in the tech community, actually, have stepped up and are funding this research.
And I was just at a fundraiser where the last $7 million was raised, and so we will find out. We’ll get the real test, the scientific test of what are these drugs good for.
And then there’s the question of: what value might they have for the rest of us? Because they help people who have serious problems, but as one researcher put it to me, they’re very important for the betterment of well people. And I could talk a little bit about that, too. So as part of this, because it’s sort of my brand to do immersion journalism — when I wrote about the cattle industry, I bought a steer. When I wanted to learn about architecture, I built a house. So of course I had to experiment, and I found some guides underground — and there is a thriving community of underground guides in America who could give me an experience very much like the ones at NYU and Hopkins.
And they were transformative experiences, some of them, some of the most meaningful experiences in my life. And the idea that a molecule could occasion that is, to me, still kind of mind blowing. So, though I’ve given you lots of leads and things you might want to follow up on, and I’m happy to talk about anything, I advise you not to talk about your own experiences. I want to welcome the Google micro dosing club to today’s event.
Anyway, so yeah, question?
AUDIENCE: So I don’t want to be the devil’s advocate here, but — this idea that we’re going to give somebody this drug, they’re going to have this transformative experience, and then it’s going to change them, I understand. That makes sense to me, but the idea that that change would necessarily be for the better — that person coming back from a trip and decides they’re going to quit smoking. That’s great, but why doesn’t a person come back from a trip and decide they need to kill their neighbor? How do we break the symmetry there?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Set and setting. So one of the important features of psychedelics is how little the experience is foreordained or dictated by the drug itself. The drug is like an unspecific mental amplifier, and so your expectation and intention is very important to what happens. And one of the things that happens in the preparation is that the guide is helping you set an intention, like I want to quit smoking. I want to confront my mortality. And you will usually have an experience in that realm because that’s what you’ve been primed to have.
Could the drugs be used for evil? Well, we have the case of Charles Manson. Manson apparently — we don’t know all the details, but used LSD on his little posse of what would become murderers, and the drugs are incredibly suggestible. And that you could imagine a charismatic figure using them that way. Now, the CIA sought to use them that way, too.
The CIA had a very active research program in the ’50s. The same time all of this university work was going on in the ’50s to help people, the CIA was trying to weaponize LSD and psilocybin. They went through a series of different paradigms. One was you would use it as a truth serum. People could tell you the truth if you gave it to them in interrogation. People say crazy shit. It didn’t work. There was no truth in that.