For decades, psychedelics have evoked a freewheeling past, calling to mind images of hippie counterculture and swirly neon patterns. Recently, however, psychedelics have become synonymous with serious, forward-looking science. Researchers at renowned institutions are researching the mental-health effects of pairing psychedelics with psychotherapy, and with the promising research has come a surge of investment in new psychedelic start-up companies.
Few people have done more to return psychedelics to the popular imagination—while lending them a dose of credibility—than author Michael Pollan. In his bestselling 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Pollan introduced a wide audience to the scientific promise of psychedelic drugs. He also described his own life-changing experiences with the drugs. Since then, Pollan has become one of the world’s most prominent advocates for expanding research into psychedelic drugs, and he co-founded the new UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, which launched in 2020. Now, Pollan has partnered with Netflix to adapt his book into a four-part docuseries called How to Change Your Mind, which premiered 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 drugs’ renaissance.
TIME: Your book introduced a lot of people to psychedelics. Were you surprised by the influence that it’s had? How have you felt about the way it’s changed how people think about psychedelics over the last few years?
Michael Pollan: From what I hear from other people, it has had a tremendous impact—and one that, to me, is completely surprising. This was kind of a fringe subject in 2018, when the book was published. There was not a lot of attention being given to psychedelics; there were a handful of trials underway. And in the years since, we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of research, the number of companies, and the amount of press coverage. The other day, I met somebody who was involved with a trial at UCSF for a coffee, and she said, “Do you realize that in the research community, we talk about ‘pre-Pollan’ and ‘post-Pollan?’” “Pre-Pollan” was a time when it was very hard to get funding, very hard to get approvals, very hard to get taken seriously. And now that’s all changed. It’s legitimate research; there’s no stigma attached to it.
Lots of people who were reluctant to do research because of that stigma are eagerly jumping in. I remember a prominent researcher—a psychologist. When I asked why he wasn’t studying psychedelics, he said he’d love to, but it would be the kiss of death for his graduate students. That was only in 2017. And now that researcher is actively participating in psychedelic research, as are his graduate students. That’s been very gratifying.
A lot has changed from when you wrote the book until now, with the release of your Netflix series. The last few years have seen multiple advances in the psychedelic space. What has inspired or interested you the most?
There are a lot of exciting developments. I’m still following the field pretty closely, partly because of the Netflix film. [When I wrote the book,] the research to use psilocybin to treat depression hadn’t really gotten underway. I’m very excited about the addiction work going on both at Johns Hopkins, to treat smoking addiction, and at NYU, treating alcohol addiction. There is also a trial at Yale going on to treat OCD. In the Netflix series, in the episode on psilocybin, there’s a remarkable sequence with a 30-something young man whose life had been paralyzed by his obsessive-compulsive disorder, and after a single experience with psilocybin, he let that ball and chain go. And his exuberance at this is just wonderful to behold.
Robin Carhart-Harris, who is a character in How to Change Your Mind [the book and docuseries], has published some really interesting papers trying to make sense of how psychedelics allow people to change in such dramatic ways.
I’m a little less excited about the gold rush as capital floods into the space. There are now, at last count, 350 [psychedelic-related] companies. It seems to me there is more capital than there are good ideas—and there are some really bad ideas. There are attempts to grab territory, with the patent law. There’s psychedelic tourism; lots of retreat centers are getting established in the Caribbean and Central America. Capitalism is doing its thing with psychedelics, and that we’ll have to see how that shakes out.
One of the takeaways from your book is that psychedelics are extremely powerful, and they need to be approached with caution. Do you worry that psychedelics might grow too rapidly?
Yeah, I do. I think if I were writing it now, I would pay more attention to risks of several kinds. One is the risk of a bad trip. People do have terrifying, excruciating experiences. In the right context, those can be very valuable—if you’re with a well-trained guide to help you understand that experience or get out of it. But people are using psychedelics without guides at high doses, and some of them are getting into trouble.
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We’ve had a couple cases of therapist abuse, and I think I would have talked more about that possibility. Abusive things happen in lots of kinds of therapy, but I think the problem is exacerbated when the patient is taking a substance that not only renders their judgments nonfunctional, but it also—in the case of MDMA—fosters a fearlessness and attitude of trust that an unscrupulous guide can take advantage of.
When I was writing the book, I was pressing against a flood of negative publicity around psychedelics that had killed off research for 30 years, so I think my depiction was in reaction to that. I was focused on positive developments in science and therapy. But I think I would pay more attention to what can go wrong, if I were doing it now. Irrational exuberance has always been a hazard in the psychedelic realm, and it needs to be checked.
In the real world, psychedelics aren’t always used under the same conditions as they are in scientific experiments. Do you feel that psychedelics can be used safely?
Without question, they can be used safely. But the experience has to be carefully arranged and supervised with attention to set 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 accompanies the drug. 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 just how important the role of the guide is. If you are taking a large dose, I think it’s essential that somebody who is not taking the dose be with you—and ideally someone who has the training. In my most recent book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, I looked at peyote [a cactus that contains mescaline]. There is highly ritualized use among Native Americans. There’s always an elder, somebody who knows the territory. It’s never done casually— It’s always done with a clear sense of purpose, of intention. It’s not perfect, but there is some protection in those rituals. Cultural work that needs to be done before we legalize these substances.
In both the book and the new show, you talk about the role psychedelics have played in your own life. Are you grateful that you had those experiences?
They’re some of the most meaningful experiences in my life, which is a strange thing to say about a drug experience. I’ve learned things about myself and the natural world that have stayed with me.
As adults, we get locked into certain habits of thought and behavior. The older we get, the deeper those grooves get. And to make the mind more plastic, as psychedelics can do, is a great blessing—especially as you get older, that you can step outside yourself, look at those habits with a fresh eye, and dissolve some of them.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the arrival of psychedelics created this great cultural blossoming. Now that psychedelics are kind of returning to the mainstream, could we see culture change in new and interesting ways?
I think it’s starting to. I follow the art world, because my wife is a painter. I’m seeing more art that is either inspired by or concerned with psychedelic experience. There is music being composed right now for psychedelic experience. It’s in television; there are references on all sorts of shows to psychedelics. It’s becoming more acceptable.
I think the imagery will be different, because you’ll have—for one thing—older people making these cultural products. But I believe that the human imagination has a natural history, and one of the factors in that natural history has been psychoactive substances: everything from coffee to LSD. In This is Your Mind on Plants, I write on the influence of the introduction of caffeine to Europe on the Enlightenment. The history of culture and the history of psychoactive substances is deeply interwoven.
Is it too much to hope that psychedelics could help reduce the partisanship in American culture?
My naive self sees reason to hope. I think it’s very interesting that preliminary studies suggest psychedelics appear to address two of the biggest problems we face as a civilization. One is our disconnection from nature, and the other is our tolerance of authoritarianism. But it’s important to remember that these are small trials, and that the people who are willing to participate in a psychedelic experiment or even survey are probably not typical of the whole population—it’s a self-selected bunch, who were probably already inclined in that direction.
My worry is that psychedelics may intensify attitudes that were already present in some germinal form. People are always saying, “Can’t we just give Donald Trump LSD?” I think that’d be very risky until we do more research. He could get more Trumpy than ever. That’s one of the things we want to study at the Berkeley Center: belief change. We want to actually look at it in a representative population.
We’re really at the beginning of something, and there’s a lot more we have to learn. There really is a great need for more research. In general, I’m very hopeful; I’ve been gratified to see how rapid change has come to this space, in terms of acceptance.
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Contributor: Tara Law