And then they thought, well, we could use it to have foreign leaders. We could dose them, and they would do embarrassing things. That might work. I don’t know. And we don’t know how far they got with it.
And then the other one was in mind control, that you could use this drug to control people’s minds. As far as we know, that didn’t work either, but we don’t know for sure. And we shouldn’t put too much by them. So I think it all depends on your therapist and how the situation is. People don’t generally go have violent episodes after psychedelics. In general, the experience tends to be one where you discover that love is the most important thing in the universe, and this Hallmark card platitude suddenly becomes this profundity. And it is a profundity, but we’ve heard it so many times that it’s banal.
There’s an interesting line between the banal and the profound, and psychedelics definitely works on that line. So I think we should be mindful of that possibility, but I don’t think — we certainly haven’t seen anything like that. There have been 1,000 dosings of volunteers since this new wave of research, and there has not been a single adverse event. No psychotic breaks, no jumping out of windows, but there is no question that people can do stupid things on psychedelics, as they can on alcohol and any number of other drugs. So thanks for your question.
AUDIENCE: Do you have any theories of why our brains are wired to react to things from plants and fungi? And are there any things from the animal kingdom that do the same thing?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, animals do like plant drugs, also. We have many cases of — I mean, if you’ve had a cat, never give them catnip.
AUDIENCE: No, I mean like any venoms that —
MICHAEL POLLAN: Oh, yes. Well, one of those psychedelics I experimented with is something called 5-MeO-DMT. This is a pretty obscure psychedelic. I see a couple of nods in the crowd. Actually only one — that is the smoked venom of the Sonoran desert toad. Somebody figured that out, right? I mean, what a species, huh?
But why are we wired for this is a really interesting question. So the way the drugs appear to work in the mind is that they bind to your serotonin—one particular serotonin receptor that’s very common in the cortex, and they start a cascade of effects. That’s what neuroscientists say when they really don’t know what’s happening for a while. But that in turn eventually down regulates something called the default mode network. I’ll tell you what that is because it’s very important, actually, and it explains a lot.
So when they first started doing fMRI imaging of people’s brains on psychedelics, they would basically inject you with psilocybin and slide you into the MRI machine, and you’d have what could be a very scary experience. And then they took these pictures, and they expected to see lots of extra activity because they’re such fireworks in the experience, but they were very surprised to find that, in fact, this particular network went quiet. And this is a network that’s very active when you’re not on task. It’s in a seesaw relationship with the attentional networks when you’re working or something like that, but when you’re asked to just lie back in an MRI machine, and they’re trying to get a baseline, this lights up. And they were like, why is that? What is it doing?
Well, this appears to be the part of your brain that is active when you’re mind wandering, when you’re ruminating, or worrying, or reflecting on yourself. It’s a center of self-reflection. It’s also involved in time travel, the ability to think about the future or the past. And it’s involved in theory of mind. This is the term for the ability to think about the mental states of other people — central to compassion, and imagination, and things like that.
And lastly, it’s involved in something called the narrative self or experiential self, and this is kind of where you knit together what happens to you at any given moment with the story of who you are based on who you’ve been and who you want to be. And it’s kind of where we sustain that story that our sense of self depends on. And so this network — so if the ego has an address, it’s in the default mode network. This is what the research shows.
It’s really interesting that this is what gets down regulated during the experience, and it chimes with the experience of ego dissolution people report on a high dose experience. I had an experience on a guided psilocybin trip where I felt my sense of self scattered to the wind like a blizzard of post-its. And then I looked out, and I don’t know. Who’s the I who’s looking out at this? I mean, there was a split in consciousness where I could watch myself then get spread over the landscape like a coat of paint out there, and I was fine with it. This other self was fine with it. And it was this kind of very imperturbable consciousness that could behold this thing, and I realized I’m not identical to my ego. And that’s a very important insight to acquire, I think, and very useful.
But what was going on in my brain was the default mode network was going offline for a period of time. The sense of self dissolves, and then something else happens, which is other networks in the brain which normally would only communicate through this hub start talking directly to each other. And there’s a map in the book of the brain on a placebo and the brain on psilocybin.
And one looks like the route map of American Airlines, and the other looks like the route map of some little commuter line that only goes to 10 places. And so new connections form, and what are those new connections? I mean, that’s the interesting question. Is that, say, your hippocampus talking to your visual cortex, and so you start having images of things that you fear or desire? Is it the basis of hallucination, or is it perhaps the basis of a new metaphor, or a new insight, or new meme? We don’t know yet. That’s the next step — is to really understand that. So these are temporary changes in the brain.