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Michael Pollan on Drugs, Ego Death, and the Healing Power of Plants

GQ spoke with the author about his new book, This is Your Mind on Plants, and the rapidly evolving cultural status of mind-altering substances.
Plant growing from brain
Getty Images; Photo Illustration by C.J. Robinson

On the first page of his new book, This is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan poses a seemingly simple question: what exactly is a drug?

“All who try to construct a sturdy definition of drugs eventually run aground,” he continues, a few sentences later. “Is chicken soup a drug? What about sugar? Artificial sweeteners? Chamomile tea? How about a placebo? If we define a drug simply as a substance we ingest that changes us in some way, whether in body or in mind (or both), then all those substances surely qualify.”

Maybe this sounds like arguing semantics. But consider just how much our cultural understanding of drugs has shifted in the last several years, especially with regards to psychedelics. Studies of substances like MDMA (ecstasy) and psilocybin (mushrooms), long vilified and criminalized, are showing to have tremendous therapeutic benefits for the treatment of mental illnesses like PTSD and depression. (In May, The New York Times reported that MDMA is suspected to be granted FDA approval for therapeutic use by 2023, “followed by psilocybin a year or two later.”)

Of course, social norms and public acceptance often lag far behind scientific breakthroughs. That hallucinogens have also been culturally destigmatized is due, in gigantic part, to Pollan.

His 2018 bestselling book How to Change Your Mind—and the 2015 story from The New Yorker it grew out of—documented the promising research about the healing benefits of these substances. It was the canary in the acid-soaked coal mine, creating a new wave of interest in the “psychedelic revolution.”

This is Your Mind on Plants follows naturally in the wake of How to Change Your Mind. It’s a collection of three stories, about three different mind-changing substances: a piece about the dangers of growing opium-producing poppies in his garden that he wrote in 1996, near the peak of America’s drug war; an exploration of caffeine (surely our most widely-used psychoactive compound), including some rather alarming information you should probably know about how it’s affecting your sleep (I stopped drinking coffee for a week after I read it—I have since relapsed); and a new essay he wrote during the pandemic, about the Indigenous plant medicine mescaline. (Yes, he tries it.) As he puts it in the book, it’s an exploration of “the downer (opium); the upper (caffeine); and what I think of as the outer (mescaline).”

As is usually the case in Pollan’s work, his interest extends beyond these substances, into the complex relationship humans have with them, a web of taboos and norms that reveals more far more about us than it does about the plants. (How, for instance, the caffeine in coffee and tea helped us shake us out of a collective alcoholic daze, and the stimulant became inextricably bound with notions of time and productivity—even capitalism.) As Pollan writes, “in a society’s choice of psychoactive substances we can read a great deal about that society’s fears and its desires.”

At a time when our society is reevaluating a number of substances—and the fears and desires attached to them—GQ called up Pollan to ask what he learned during the pandemic, how we should talk to kids about drugs, and the pros and cons of ego death. 

GQ: One of the things you’re getting at in the mescaline chapter is how Indigenous people have a very different cultural understanding of plants than we do. As a lifelong gardener, what about their relationship to plants has changed how you think about your garden or your relationship to the earth?

Michael Pollan: Well, Indigenous people haven’t lost their link to nature in the way we have. Our relationship with plants has really been attenuated by technology. Indigenous people are still very connected to plants. Plants are still their main medicine in many cases. They don’t see plants as objects. In the West, we’re the only thinking, acting subject. Everything else is an object that we work on.

But if you talk to Indigenous people, plants have their own agency and subjectivity. And I believe that, that they have their own interests, their own agency, they act on us even as we act on them. Not with the consciousness we have, but with an innate intelligence. Although I part ways at a certain point—with people who talk about the evil spirits of plants, or give them more agency than I think they have.

Indigenous people also have a lot to teach us on how to use drugs, as we call them, or plant medicines, as they would call them, in a constructive and safe way. They’ve been doing it for a long time. All we’ve had is the drug war, which is a very simplistic way of understanding these plants. One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Native American Church is it provides this very moral and conservative approach to drug use, which is anathema in the West. Most people see drug use as a moral problem and a failing. That’s only one way to look at it.

We think of drugs as disruptive to the community. You have a breakdown when people are using drugs, and drug use in our civilization is very individualistic. But then you realize it doesn’t have to be that way. You have this culture for whom drug use helps cohere the community, helps bind it together, and they don’t use these drugs alone. That’s really significant.

If you were raising kids now, how would you talk to them about drug use? How should we change our cultural conversation around this?

That’s really a tricky area. You have the ideal situation where parents can talk to their kids about drugs if they want. And you have the legal situation where you talk to your kids about drugs in a certain way and share drugs with them, the state will take your kids away. [laughs]

It’s really complex. With alcohol, we basically urge them to wait until they’ve reached a certain age. There is some virtue in that. Before the brain and the ego are completely formed, it may be wise to stay away from psychoactives.

That said, in the Native American Church, they start giving kids small amounts of peyote even when they’re 11 or 12. And somebody I talk to in the book, [Native American Church member] Dawn Davis, said she was getting peyote when she was in the uterus, with no harm done.

But with the major psychedelics, there’s some reason for kids to wait. You don’t want to mess around with stopping or dissolving your ego until you have a fully formed ego.

It’s a complicated conversation. But we can begin to talk to children about drugs in a very different way than they’re learning in school. These are powerful tools, they need to be treated with respect—even a certain reverence—and that they need to be used in very specific ways. Not for thrills, not merely for sensation, but with some intention, and with some care. You want to guard against reckless use of drugs, which is a real thing. Drugs can get people into serious trouble if they’re used improperly.

But they’re a part of human life. All cultures, as far as we know, have used plants and fungi to change consciousness. The desire is as innate as the desire for sex or food or all the other big drives. I mean, kids do change consciousness when they’re really young. Getting dizzy, what is that all about? Kids love getting dizzy, spinning, they’ll fool around choking each other, or hugging each other so tight, they can’t breathe. They’re playing with changes of consciousness, which we all seek at some point.

You write about the type of hyper-presence mescaline brought on, before noting that “ordinary consciousness probably didn’t evolve to foster this kind of perception, focused as it is on being—contemplation—at the expense of doing.” This is something I think about a lot, specifically with regards to meditation. I’ve found that there’s a place you can get to while meditating that is that sense of being in the present moment, unburdened by worries about the past or future. That idea of ego dissolution, even if it’s on a very small scale, is tantalizing. And yet, you need your ego to get things done! So I’m curious how you think about that balance of being and doing.

One of the fruits of my experimentation with psychedelics over the last couple of years has been a commitment to meditation practice. I learned to meditate because of psychedelics. [Before that,] I really didn’t get where I was trying to go in my head when I was meditating. Psychedelics give you a taste of that immersion in the present, that ability to block out narrative, and past and future.

I interviewed somebody for How to Change Your Mind named Judson Brewer, who is a psychiatrist. I was talking about how much easier it is to meditate after you have a psychedelic trip. He said he could imagine a time where we would use psychedelics to launch a meditation practice. In other words, you would give somebody a low or medium dose and put them into that state.

Because a part of psychedelic experience that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough is the long tail of the experience. Everybody writes about or dwells on the mental fireworks at the climax—ego dissolution and visions and all this kind of stuff. That lasts a little while, and then there’s this long period of meditation, where you can once again direct your thoughts wherever you want to. You’re immersed in them in a way you seldom are, and you’re undistracted by the usual intrusions of the to-do list, recriminations, work, and all that kind of stuff. That state is really valuable, and doesn’t get nearly enough attention. It is a very good preparation for meditation.

I’ll also, sometimes in my meditation, use imagery that occurred to me during a psychedelic trip. There’s a couple visual koans I’ve never figured out, and I just replay them sometimes when I’m meditating. When I did that in Judd Brewer’s lab, he had hooked me up with one of those bathing caps with 128 electrodes. And while I was reliving the psychedelic journey in my head, it dramatically lowered activity in my default mode network, which is associated with the generation of a sense of self. It goes quiet both in a psychedelic experience and during meditation, at least for very experienced meditators. That’s another link between psychedelics and meditation.

It’s no accident that so many of the Americans who brought Buddhism here—beginning in the ’70s and ’80s from Ram Dass to Jack Kornfield—all these people started with psychedelics, and were looking for a way to bring that type of consciousness into an everyday practice. Because you can’t use psychedelics every day. They found, in Eastern religion, tools that would allow them to do that. I don’t know that we would have American Buddhism today if not for Timothy Leary and the psychedelic explosion in the ’60s.

I just struggle so hard sometimes to make small incremental gains in taking off my ego, that I then find it hard for me to put it back on, to go do work or something. You know what I mean?

[laughs] Yeah. It’s important to view the ego as one voice of many in your head, one that is dominant for a lot of the time, and certainly while we’re working. It’s very useful for getting stuff done, for fulfilling all your evolutionary needs. Presumably that’s why we evolved egos, because they make us good at surviving and reproducing and all the things.

But they get in our way too. The voice of the ego is highly critical. It tends to disconnect us, egos build walls, egos are defensive structures. So they keep us from making strong connections with the natural world and other people. They tend to objectify the world. They’re so pleased with themselves.

Putting your ego in its place and not being a slave to it is a really valuable thing to learn—or to strive to learn. I won’t say I’ve succeeded. But having had a couple ego dissolving experiences, what you take away is, when your ego dies, you don’t die. There is a kind of way of being and perceiving that continues and survives it. That’s liberating, because our ego has convinced us that without it, we’re nothing.

I had this experience of complete ego dissolution, followed by this merging, and I was like, “Oh, here’s awareness without ego.” It was a very calm and appealing state. It wasn’t necessarily ecstatic or anything. It was just like, “This is how things are.” I was completely reconciled to it.

This is the goal of a lot of psychotherapy, to put your ego in a proper place, and not let it get the upper hand. Either quieting its voice, when its voice is destructive or enforcing bad habits, or amplifying its voice, in the case of people whose sense of self-worth is weak. Psychedelics do that work too, sometimes a lot more quickly than psychotherapy.

I wanted to ask you about something you write about in How to Change Your Mind, and again here. The idea of predictive coding: how our brains use the minimum amount of information in order to generate a picture of what’s happening around us—basically “a kind of controlled hallucination” as you write in How to Change Your Mind—as opposed to giving a 100% accurate recreation of objective reality. How has knowing about predictive coding changed the everyday goings on of your life?

I think about it a lot. It’s a very powerful idea. One of the big mysteries is, what is this self, this sense of a first person? That too may be a prediction, that we project, we generate the sense of a self from imagined things. But it’s very useful because it coheres lots of information flows, it gives them a place to go. It’s not understood at all, but I think predictive coding may help us understand consciousness eventually. Are you familiar with the rubber hand illusion?

No, I don’t think so.

I don’t know exactly how it works. But if you put your hand under a table and then you have a rubber hand above where your hand would be, taking its place as it were, your mind will adopt that as your hand. If somebody brushes it, you will feel it. So this is the body predicting sensation, and actually having it as a result. That may suggest a way to understand the sense of self we have. It may be completely our predictions and imagination. So it’s made me realize that imagination is much more central to consciousness than we know.

But in my everyday life? I was walking on a trail the other day, and out of the side of my eye, I thought I saw a snake. What it really was, was a stick bent in a certain shape. You’re on a trail, it is where you encounter snakes, I’ve encountered snakes before. My brain insisted that there was a snake there and there wasn’t.

One way you can be aware of [predictive coding] is just to pay attention to errors you make in your peripheral vision. Those are often predictions that have gotten very quickly corrected. Because although consciousness is a kind of controlled hallucination, we shouldn’t overlook the control part. It’s corrected all the time by sensory information. The error correction is very powerful. And may be what goes wrong—or right—on psychedelics. You’re not getting all that feedback, so that the predictions run wild.

I’ve had the exact same experience—mistaking a snake on a trail—and what’s so spooky to me is that not only did it trick my mind, but my body reacted, too. So even after I noticed it was a stick, my heart is still racing. My body had already started its autonomic nervous response, based on what wasn’t actually there.

The amount of processing your brain is doing without your awareness—I think we’re coming to the realization that consciousness is probably 2% or 3% of what goes on in a brain. It’s really the tip of the iceberg.

I was interviewing a neuroscientist who studies the flow of thoughts. She works with meditators, very experienced meditators, and asks them to hit a button when a thought arises. These are people who have cleared their mind effectively. And to her amazement, she found that four seconds before the thought arises, it’s generated in the hippocampus.

Wow.

Four seconds! That’s a lifetime in the neuronal world. And so what we’re aware of, and what’s going on in the brain—they have a pretty tenuous relationship.

The pandemic has unsettled a lot of people’s long held notions about things. What’s something you changed your mind about in the last year and a half, as all of this has been going on?

Well, the scars are all over the book. It was a real challenge writing about mescaline in the midst of a pandemic, and figuring out how to make it work for the book, rather than get in the way. A lot of us had to learn how to make lemonade out of lemons. And of course, that’s what we do as journalists all the time, because the world is never as neat as the stories we want to tell.

So that was a very conscious effort. I saw the pandemic blowing up this project, where I was going to go to Texas and be in a peyote ceremony and interview all these people on their reservations. I had to do it all by Zoom. But then I realized too, when our world was shrunken by the pandemic, it was actually a very good time to work on expanding your mental world. And there’s that line of Hamlet’s, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” You can enlarge your world through imagination, through meditation and through psychedelics, even when it’s constrained.

A lot of us lived more in our heads in various ways. There was some satisfaction to that. I worked my meditation practice a lot more deliberately, and spent more time on it and got more out of it during the pandemic than I might have.

I was very fortunate. I didn’t have young children—my friends with young children really suffered. It was tough. And having them at home all the time, trying to get them to watch their classes, was really challenging. I felt very fortunate. I was in a good situation. I live in California. I had access to the outdoors.

But I think it was a great reminder of the fact that nature always gets the last word and has the upper hand. As much as we think we’ve insulated ourselves from microbes and other species, they can have their way with us—and will again. [We] overstate our power, and that we are vulnerable to nature, always.

People who get a cancer diagnosis understand this suddenly. But here, the whole species became vulnerable, at a stroke. Whether that’ll make us a little more humble? I hope, but doubt. The ego will find a way to process it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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