Michael Pollan on Netflix documentary and new hallucinations
For decades, the psychedelic conjures up a liberating past, reminiscent of hippie counterculture images and swirling neon patterns. Recently, however, hallucinations have become synonymous with Serious science, looking to the future. Researchers at prominent institutions are studying the mental health effects of pairing hallucinations with psychotherapyand with promising research, has spawned a wave of investments in new psychedelic startups.
Few people have done more to return hallucinations to the popular imagination — while giving them a dose of credibility — than the author. Michael Pollan. In his 2018 bestseller, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Psychedelic Science Teaches Us About Consciousness, Death, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Pollan introduced many audiences to the scientific promise of hallucinogenic drugs. He also describes his own life-changing experiences with drugs. Since then, Pollan has become one of the world’s most prominent advocates of expanding research into hallucinogenic drugs, and he is the co-founder UC Berkeley Center for Psychedelic Sciencelaunched in 2020. Now, Pollan has partnered with Netflix to adapt her book into a four-part documentary called How to change your mind, premiered on July 12.
In the following interview — edited for length and clarity — TIME spoke with Pollan about the changing world of psychedelics and his own role in the drug renaissance.
TIME: Your book has introduced many people to hallucinations. Are you surprised by its impact? How do you feel about how it changed the way people think about hallucinations over the past few years?
Michael Pollan: From what I’ve heard from others, it’s had a huge impact — and one that, to me, is completely surprising. This was a confusing topic in 2018, when the book was published. Not much attention is given to hallucinations; There have been several tests conducted. And in the years since, we’ve seen an explosion in research, companies, and press coverage. One day, I met a participant in a coffee-drinking experiment at UCSF, and she said, “Did you realize that in the research community we talk about ‘pre-Pollan’ and ‘post-Pollan’? ?’ ‘”Pre-Pollan” is a period when it is very difficult to apply for funding, very difficult to get approved, very difficult to be taken seriously. And now all has changed. It’s legitimate research; there is no stigma attached to it.
Many people who are reluctant to do research because of that stigma are actively participating. I remember a famous researcher — a psychologist. When I asked him why he didn’t study psychedelics, he said he enjoyed it, but it would be the kiss of death for his graduates. That was only in 2017. And now that researcher is actively involved in psychedelic research, as are his graduate students. That is very satisfying.
A lot has changed from when you wrote the book to now, with the release of your Netflix series. The last few years have seen many advances in the psychedelic space. What inspires or interests you the most?
There are many interesting developments. I’m still following the field pretty closely, in part because of the Netflix series. [When I wrote the book,] study to use psilocybin to treat depression was not actually carried out. I’m excited about the detox work going on both at Johns Hopkins, to treat tobacco addiction, and at NYU, to treat alcoholism. There is also a trial at Yale going on to treat OCD. In the Netflix series, in the episode about psilocybin, there is a remarkable scene with a 30-year-old man whose life is crippled by his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and after an experience with psilocybin, he let that ball and chain go. And his brilliance at this is amazing to behold.
Robin Carhart-Harrisa character in How to change your mind [the book and docuseries], published some really interesting articles trying to figure out how hallucinations allow people to change in such amazing ways.
I’m a little less excited about the gold rush as capital spills into space. Currently, at the last count, 350 [psychedelic-related] companies. It seems to me more capital than good ideas — and some really bad ideas. There are attempts to grab territory, with patent law. There is psychedelic tourism; Many retreat centers are being established in the Caribbean and Central America. Capitalism is doing its thing with illusions, and we’ll have to see how that plays out.
One of the takeaways from your book is that hallucinations are extremely powerful and they need to be approached with caution. Are you worried that hallucinations may develop too quickly?
Yeah I do. I think if I wrote it now, I would pay more attention to the risks of some sort. One is the risk of a bad trip. Everyone has horrible and painful experiences. In the right context, those can be very valuable—If you have a well-trained guide to help you understand the experience or get out of it. But people are using hallucinogens without guidance at high doses, and some of them are in trouble.
Read more: Ketamine: New Hope for Depression
We’ve had a few cases of abuse therapy, and I thought I’d talk more about that possibility. Abuse occurs in many types of therapy, but I think the problem is exacerbated when a patient is taking a substance that not only invalidates their judgments, but it also – in the case of MDMA – cultivates fearlessness and an attitude of trust. an unscrupulous guide can take advantage of.
When I wrote the book, I was faced with a wave of negative publicity around the hallucinogen that has killed research for 30 years, so I think my description responds to that. I focus on positive developments in science and therapy. But I think I would pay more attention to what could go wrong, if I were doing it right now. Irrational indulgence has always been a danger in the realm of psychedelics, and it needs to be checked.
In the real world, hallucinations are not always used under the same conditions as in science experiments. Do you feel hallucinogens can be safely used?
Without question, they can be used safely. But the experience must be carefully orchestrated and monitored, with attention to setting and setting [a person’s mindset and environment] and you need well-trained, experienced guides.
I’m sure there will be pressure to reduce the amount of psychotherapy that comes with medication. And I think that would be a mistake. It will never be a drug where you just go to CVS and get a prescription.
I think people don’t realize how important the role of the instructor is. If you’re taking a large dose, I think it’s essential that someone not taking that dose is with you — and ideally someone with training. In my most recent book, Here are your thoughts on plants, I looked at peyote [a cactus that contains mescaline]. There are many rituals used among Native Americans. There is always an elder, someone who knows the territory. It is never done by accident— It is always done with a clear sense of purpose, intention. It’s not perfect, but there’s some protection in those rituals. Cultural work needs to be done before we legalize these substances.
In both the book and the new show, you talk about the role that hallucinations play in your own life. Are you grateful that you had those experiences?
It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, which is a strange thing to say about the drug experience. I learned things about myself and the natural world that stayed with me.
As adults, we become locked into certain habits of thought and behavior. The older you get, the deeper those grooves become. And to make the mind more resilient, as psychedelic methods can, is a wonderful blessing — especially as you get older, you can step outside of yourself, look at those habits with fresh eyes and erase them.
During the 1960s and ’70s, the emergence of psychedelics gave rise to this amazing cultural bloom. Now that psychedelic is back into the mainstream, could we see culture change in new and exciting ways?
I think it’s starting. I follow the art world, because my wife is a painter. I see more art inspired or related to psychedelic experiences. Music is currently being composed for the psychedelic experience. It’s in television; there are references on all kinds of programs to the illusion. It is becoming more acceptable.
I think the picture is going to be different, because you’re going to have — for one thing — older people creating these cultural products. But I believe that the human imagination has a natural history, and one of the elements in that history are psychostimulants: everything from coffee to coffee. to LSD. In This is your mind about plants, I write about the effect of the introduction of caffeine to Europe on the Enlightenment. The cultural history and the history of psychoactive substances are deeply intertwined.
Is it too much to hope that hallucinations can help reduce partisanship in American culture?
My naive self sees reason to hope. I think it’s very interesting that preliminary studies show that psychedelics seem to solve two of the biggest problems we face as a civilization. One is our disconnection from nature, and the other is our tolerance for authoritarianism. But it’s important to remember that these are small trials, and people willing to participate in a psychedelic trial or even survey may not be typical of the entire population — it’s a self-selected group. , who may have been inclined to that direction.
My concern is that hallucinations might enhance attitudes already in some germ form. People always say, “Can’t we just show Donald Trump LSD?” I think that will be very risky until we do more research. He may be getting more Trumpy than ever before. That’s one of the things we want to learn at the Berkeley Center: changing beliefs. We want to really look at it in a representative population.
We’re really at the beginning of something and we still have a lot to learn. Really need more research. All in all, I’m very hopeful; I’m pleased to see how quickly change is coming to this space, in terms of adoption.
Other must-read stories from TIME