How Michael Pollan pivoted from agriculture to acid in new book

12:00 a.m. Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 Insight and Books
Michael Pollan’s new book is about a surprising subject: psychedelics. He’ll be in Austin on Feb. 2 to talk about his career and interest in the intersection of human culture and nature. Contributed by the Long Center

Michael Pollan knows you’re probably a little surprised to hear about his next book.

The author known for the seminal book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” has been labeled a food writer, but he prefers thinking about himself as a nature writer.

Through that best-selling book and several others, including “Cooked” and “The Botany of Desire,” Pollan uses food, cooking, plants and agriculture as vehicles to dig into our relationship with nature, as well as the human psyche, culture and spirituality.

His new book does just that, but with a new lens: psychedelic drugs.

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” doesn’t come out until May, but he’ll be in Austin this week for an event at the Long Center. He’ll chat with the Austin-based food activist Raj Patel about his path as a food writer and social activist and why he picked LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as his latest subjects.

This isn’t the first time Pollan has looked inquisitively into our connection with altered states. A chapter in “Cooked” is about fermentation, which includes booze, and why even animals get inebriated. In “The Botany of Desire,” he looked at marijuana through the lens of an evolutionary botanist and social historian.

It is with that same sense of curiosity that he approaches a substance known as lysergic acid diethylamide, which Timothy Leary famously championed in the 1960s as a chemical that could treat mental illness and lead to higher consciousness.

President Richard “Nixon had the sense that LSD was fueling the energies of the counterculture, and he was probably right,” Pollan said in a recent interview for “I Love You So Much: The Austin360 Podcast.” “You had a generation that was refusing to obey authority and go to war. He felt like the chemical bore some of that responsibility.”

The research support fell out for decades. But the question of whether psychedelics might be able to improve the lives of everyday people lingers, and only recently have U.S. researchers started to try to answer it. In England, researchers are already studying the effects of microdosing, when people take even smaller quantities to treat depression and anxiety and for end-of-life care.

One study that stuck with Pollan was conducted at Johns Hopkins, where they were giving psilocybin — the mushroom that has a similar effect as LSD but is shorter acting — to people who had life-changing diagnoses and who were struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The report said a great percentage of them felt that their fear of death had been substantially diminished, (but when one of the participants was asked directly) she corrected them: ‘My fear of death has not been diminished. My fear of death was eliminated.’”

When Pollan realized that someone’s total perspective on death could be reset during such a critical time in life, he knew the subject was worth pursuing. “There’s a powerful placebo or expectancy effect. If you think you’re going to have a bad trip, you probably will,” he says. “If you think it’s going to make you more creative, it probably will.”

As a proponent of immersing himself in his subject matter, Pollan says he took several guided psychedelic journeys, and he stresses the importance of a guide. “Every journey was different. I had one that was absolutely terrifying and would never want to repeat. I had others that were extended meditations about people in my life and helped me understand my parents and sisters in a way I hadn’t before.

“The most striking thing was to, for the first time, experiencing the complete dissolution of your sense of self or ego. Most of us think that we are the same as the ‘I’ chattering in our heads all the time, but it goes away in a high-dose psychedelic experience,” he says. “You kind of watch it vanish, and that can be very scary or it can be very liberating.”

With that distance, he gained a new perspective that sticks with him to this day. “Make no mistake — people do get into trouble taking these drugs, and they have terrifying experiences or accidents because they are not in control,” he says. “I feel a sense of responsibility when I talk about it to tell people about the risks involved, as well as the rewards.”