When writing about architecture, Michael Pollan built a small hut in the woods behind his house in Connecticut.
When his focus turned to cooking, he apprenticed himself to a cadre of culinary experts.
So when it came time to write a book about psychedelics, Pollan knew exactly what he needed to do.
“It was clear to me that I couldn’t really describe this experience to people without having had it myself,” he said in a recent phone interview.
And that’s just what he did.
Pollan is best known for writing about food. But for his latest book, he traded porcinis for psilocybin, arugula for ayahuasca, and lentils for LSD. (He also tried 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful mind-altering substance that comes from — what else? — the smoked venom of a Sonoran Desert toad.)
“I like putting myself in the story in a way that gives the reader a perspective they couldn’t obtain any other way,” he said.
Pollan, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, funneled the experiences of these trips, along with mounds of reporting and research, into 2018’s How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The book explores psychedelics — their heyday in the ’60s, their movement underground, and the recent research into their potential to heal conditions from addiction to end-of-life anxiety.
Pollan will share insights from his book — his research and his personal experiences — during a talk March 5 in Morrison Library with Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center.
“Libraries are about creating space for the exchange of ideas — a free space, open to all,” said Susan Edwards, the head of the Library’s Social Sciences Division, who organized the event and is a fan of both Pollan and Keltner. “Book talks in the Library provide a unique opportunity for everyone in the community to be included in the conversation about work done at Berkeley.”
Talking with Pollan on the phone, it quickly becomes clear that he’s steeped in the subject of psychedelics. Not only has he written a 400-and-change-page book on the subject (and a New Yorker article before that), he has traversed the country on a book tour and chatted about psychoactive substances with everyone from Stephen Colbert to Terry Gross to Joe Rogan.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before starting the book, Pollan had only had a couple of minor experiences with psilocybin mushrooms but otherwise hadn’t scratched the surface of psychedelic exploration. He was a preteen during the Summer of Love — too young to partake during the drug-drenched zenith of the ’60s. It wasn’t until he was about to enter his sixth decade that, with the help of underground guides, he took the plunge.
Listen to the conversation with Pollan on the Berkeley Talks podcast. Subscribe to the podcast, and learn more.
While it doesn’t seem difficult for him to describe them now, his psychedelic sojourns weren’t always easy to put into words. Somewhere between the blotter paper and the written page, the ineffable nature of a trip can get lost.
“Writing about it was definitely the most interesting literary challenge I’ve faced as a writer,” he said. “But it also turned out to be great fun.
“It’s rare as a journalist you get to write about the pure products of your imagination.”
In the book, Pollan chronicles a journey across space and time — and deep into his mind — from an acid trip in a yurt in the mountains of the American West to an experience with psilocybin mushrooms in a loft on the Eastern Seaboard to a mushroom-hunting mission in the Pacific Northwest.
A quick aside about searching for mushrooms: In early 2015, after the publication of his New Yorker article on psilocybin (the naturally occurring compound that puts the “magic” in “magic mushrooms”), Pollan was eating at the now-closed Bistro Liaison, on the corner of Hearst and Shattuck in Berkeley, when his server came up to him and told him about the Psilocybes growing in the woodchips on the Berkeley campus. “I have definitely kept my eyes peeled when I’m walking around campus, but I have yet to find them,” Pollan said on the phone. (Careful: Don’t go mushroom hunting without an expert. Magic mushrooms, it turns out, have some lethal lookalikes.)
In Conversation: Michael Pollan on the New Science of Psychedelics
Where: Morrison Library (101 Doe Library)
When: 5-6 p.m., March 5
Cost: Free. (Seated tickets are booked, but a limited number of people without tickets
will be able to attend on a first-come, first-served basis.)
But perhaps the most powerful part of Pollan’s book is its exploration of the recent psychedelic renaissance, led by a wave of scientists working to uncover the substances’ therapeutic potential to help people cope with anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Of the stories of patients who benefitted from psychedelics, a couple of them stand out to Pollan. One is the case of Dinah Bazer, an NYU cancer patient. After being treated successfully for ovarian cancer, Bazer was plagued by a crippling fear of its recurrence. During a controlled psychedelic session, she saw a black mass underneath her rib cage. But it wasn’t cancer, she realized: It was her fear. She screamed at it, telling it to get out of her body. It vanished — and, along with it, her existential dread. And it hasn’t come back.
“She told me later, … ‘I realized during that session that I couldn’t control the cancer, but I could control the fear,’” Pollan recounted. “And that insight changed everything for her.”
As its lengthy subtitle would suggest, Pollan’s book not only dives into psychedelic substances themselves, but also what they can teach us about the mind, and the nature of consciousness itself. Pollan describes his own guided, ego-dissolving experience with psilocybin mushrooms, where he saw himself as a sheaf of papers blowing in the wind, and then as a paintlike substance spread thinly across a landscape. But the most striking part of the experience? Pollan was witnessing the events unfold through a different lens, free from fear or desire. A new layer of awareness had opened up — one that bore little resemblance to his familiar sense of self.
“That was definitely one of (my) top five life experiences,” he said. “It was very profound and memorable. And it’s indelible.”
Since he finished the book, Pollan hasn’t experimented further with psychedelics. He takes their illegal status seriously, he said. But if they became legal, he could envision using them on occasion, as a tool to reflect on the past and to look ahead at what he wants to accomplish in the future.
“I wish they were available legally to me and others,” he said. “If they were, I could imagine doing it … not often, but maybe once a year, on my birthday.”
Michael Pollan photo: Alia Malley