When most people turn 60, they decide to take up a new hobby. That wasn’t the case for acclaimed writer, journalist and essayist Michael Pollan. Last night I had the opportunity to watch the author of six New York Times best sellers speak at the Sydney Opera House on his experience taking Psychedelic drugs in his late 50’s. His in depth exploration on the taboo topic revealed what they have taught him about his own mind, and the very nature of consciousness itself.
For many years now, the field of mental health has been largely barren of meaningful treatment advances. But now after a long period of stagnation, scientists have new hope in the least likely of places: psychedelic drugs. Recent research has suggested that certain psychedelic substances can help relieve anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction and the fear surrounding a terminal diagnosis.
Yesterday evening, Michael Pollan spoke on the topic so clinically and professionally it was hard to believe that the compounds which he was describing have been found in party drugs for the better half of the twenty-first century. “The biggest misconception people have about psychedelics is that these are drugs that make you crazy” said Pollan, as he described the fact that there is in fact no toxic limit – psychedelic drugs can never kill you in an overdose. “We now have evidence that it can make you crazy sometimes — but in many more cases, these are drugs that can make you sane.”
When it came time to tell us exactly what psychedelics do to the brain, Michael Pollan stated very proudly that he didn’t really know. He highlighted that at this stage researchers are just at the beginning of exploring that frontier. Yet he noted that psychedelics did appear to diminish activity in one very important brain network called the “default mode network”. He went on to explain that that network is very involved with functions having to do with our sense of self: how we integrate and merge what’s happening to us in any given moment, with our abiding sense of who we are.
The most interesting thing that he mentioned about psychedelics, both LSD and psilocybin (the ingredient in magic mushrooms) is that they turn this “default mode network” to offline. When that happens, Pollan explains that you have this sensation of ego-dissolution: that your self is evaporating or dissolving. And that seems to lead to new connections in the brain temporarily forming. Your emotional centre starts talking directly to your visual centre and you see things that you’re hoping or fearing. New connections are made that could produce new insights, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world.
And why do we need this? Pollan explains that the feeling among the scientists is that these chemicals allow us to essentially reboot the brain. If the brain is stuck in these narrow grooves of thought- whether it’s an obsession ,or a fear, or the story you tell yourself, all those ideas that lock us into patterns of unhealthy thought and behaviour are dissolved and temporarily suspended in a way that allows us to break those patterns.
He also spoke candidly about the risks associated with the use of the drug, and touched on the backlash that came alongside the research of Timothy Leary. At the core of this backlash? The belief that Leary and Alpert’s reckless approach to psychedelic research, and Leary’s declaration of war on consensus reality, is what provoked the past half century’s allergic reaction to mind-expanding medicines. More than anything else, nobody who cares about normalising psychedelics wants to risk the slightest chance of messing it up again, now that the opportunity is back.
More so, the result of this backlash was a full-scale moral panic against the drugs. President Nixon said Timothy Leary was the most dangerous man in America, which is pretty amazing for a washed-up psychology professor. But before that, there had been more than a decade of very promising research using these drugs in a therapeutic context in a very responsible way.
It was a mind blowing and insightful experience to listen to him talk and shone a light on a potential new form of therapeutic treatment. And the two biggest take aways for me?
- In an FMRI scan, babies brains look the same as a person under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Therefore babies could be perpetually tripping.
- There is evidence to suggest that lots of holy scriptures may have been written by people under the influence of psychedelic drugs. They smoked bushes and subsequently wrote, they couldn’t differentiate between what was really happening and what was just a trip. Defining the “age of miracles”.
So even if the society-wide moral panic over LSD in the 1960s is something to lament, we can now consider the movement’s shell shock something of a mixed blessing. Decades of stigma and criminalisation have forced us to tamp down the needlessly inflammatory messaging, hopefully giving us a chance to reinvent the psychedelic conversation for a new age.