“We can all think of world leaders who would benefit from the ideas that these drugs inspire”

Writer and activist Michael Pollan has spent years researching psychedelic substances, their history, and their use in treatment of addiction and mental health issues, culminating in his acclaimed book 'How to Change Your Mind'. He spoke to Hay Festival-goers about why psychedelics are back in discussion, and where that discussion could lead us.

The history of psychedelics is a highly politicized one, Pollan explained: in the mid-20th century, the CIA had various plans to weaponize it, including use as a truth drug or mind control, none of which worked out. There were medical experiments happening in the 1940s too, some of which were seeing interesting results.

Around this time, psychedelics ‘escaped the lab’: they ended up being a strong part of 1960s counterculture, embraced by hippie culture with global effects. “The Beatles certainly got a lot better after LSD, Pollan joked.

President Nixon even blamed LSD for the anti-war movement, though perhaps not without cause, Pollan suggested. Psychedelics can make you think for yourself, to want to circumvent violent, institutional, and authoritarian power structures: that’s destabilizing for regimes like the USA.

Nixon and his moral panic lead to the criminalization of LSD, along with cannabis, meaning that medical research largely stopped and funding sources dried up.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that momentum was regained – and a buried body of knowledge was rediscovered. It is now being taken to some of the most important medical centers in the world – from Johns Hopkins in the USA to Oxford University.

Focus is now moving back toward the treatment of addiction and mental health issues, and the move is timely, Pollan asserted.  

“If you compare treatment of mental health with any other area of medicine, all have achieved huge progress in the last 20 years, but mental health continues without progress. It’s a crisis and the toolbox is bare.”

Unlike most drugs, psychedelics are non-toxic: there’s no lethal dose, and they aren’t addictive or habit-forming. If you put cocaine in a rat trial, they will return to it until they die, if you put psychedelics in place, they will do it once, and never again, Pollan explained.

He delved into some of the science of the psychedelic experience: scans show that a particular brain network is suppressed during LSD usage - the part which controls the wandering mind, when we are often unhappy, critical, obsessive, and circling around past and future. This is the seat of the self, of the ego.”

When that part goes offline, other parts start to communicate in new ways – the brain is temporarily rewired, and it appears to have a lasting effect. Trial members report a sense of transcendence of time, a sense of connectedness, and ego-dissolution. In the majority, trial subjects report these experiences as among the most important experiences of their lives.

“Think of the mind as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts are like sledges – over time, certain grooves deepen and sledges are forced to follow the same paths. Psychedelics are like a fresh snowfall.”

After experimentation, they report higher scores for personality traits like openness and connection with nature, and lower scores for authoritarianism.

Pollan himself has experimented with various psychedelic substances in the last few years of research, crediting them with huge importance in his emotional life.

He said that, in the wake of his experiments, he found himself present, patient, and connected, particularly around the time of the death of his father, during which time he was able to support and communicate much more strongly than he otherwise would have been able to.

He spoke rousingly about the crises facing mankind, and how psychedelic experiences can help us counter the mentalities which cause them.

“The environmental crisis and our crisis of tribalism are the same crisis: that of seeing the other as an object and ourselves as the world’s sole subject. This is a mentality that these drugs educate away from: oneness.”

Though the drugs have a clear medical use, Pollan explained the great frontier is the ‘betterment of well people’ – the availability of these experiences for those who are not ill, but could benefit from the self-exploration they enable.

“What I’ve learnt is that that spiritual means powerful connection and walls of ego coming down – great currents of love and fellow feeling for each other and other species. We can all think of world leaders who would benefit from the ideas that these drugs inspire.”

HAY PLAYER: Listen to Michael Pollan in conversation with Rosie Boycott