Michael Pollan: How To Change Your Mind | E158 | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Michael Pollan: How To Change Your Mind | E158".
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Depression, anxiety, addiction, mental disorders that involve a rigidity of thought. What psychedelics appear to do is break those habits of thought. What is the cost of this though? It's a great question. One of the 100 most influential people in the world. Please welcome Michael Pollan. You've written six New York Times bacellas and they're on such a diverse range of topics. Two of the topics I've worked on have turned into movements. I was writing a piece on the meat industry and how fucked up it is. And it led to this movement to try to reform agriculture. Then I got into psychedelics. They're much better than the results for antidepressants when they came on the scene. And we're talking about potential cures, not simply symptoms. There are risks with this and we don't talk about them nearly enough. And people are going to get hurt. One of the immersive journalistic pursuits you embarked on was this topic of caffeine. It allows us to function better. It allows us to work harder, longer. You're feeling the clearing of the mental fog. I can tell you the cost of doing heroin every day. But no one can seem to tell me the cost of having three cups of coffee a day. If you really want to understand your relationship to this drug, you have to go. So without further ado, I'm Steven Bartlett and this is the DiR of a CEO USA edition. I hope nobody's listening. But if you are, then please keep this yourself. Michael, I have to say it's a real, a huge honor to speak to you. When I departed from my company and I started investigating what I was interested in, one of the things alongside DJing and this podcast and many others was psychedelics. I was so compelled by this apparent, so I didn't have confirmation. This apparent increase in mental health disorders in my country. In the UK, as I know you've talked about many times, it's the suicide. It's the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. And I thought that the most fulfilling thing I could do with the next chapter of my life was start a company in that space. That's how I came to the psychedelics industry.
Discussion On Various Topics
Finding the right topics and structuring them correctly (02:07)
That's how I came to actually work in the psychedelics industry. And when I arrived in that industry, people said your name over and over and over again. And they told me, and I'm not blowing smoke up your ass, they told me that I had to. It was like I wasn't allowed in the industry until I'd read your book, right? How to change your mind? It was that much of a pivotal book for my colleagues at the time. You've written six New York Times bestsellers and they're on such a diverse a range of topics. To be so successful in such a diverse range of topics in writing, my first question to you that I wanted to ask is, as you look back on your life and your career, why were you successful? What was it about you that made you successful? I think finding the right topics. I had a nose for topics that most people weren't paying attention to. I felt very lucky. I was writing in these uncompetitive spaces. Nobody was writing about psychedelics, except the small handful of people within the psychedelic community who write these books for one another that nobody else reads. So I remember thinking the whole time I was writing that book, I was like, where is everybody? Am I making a mistake here, investing so much in this? No one else is writing about it. And the same was true with food. When I started writing about food and agriculture, very little being written. So a willingness to go into places that other people weren't working in. I don't like writing in competitive environments. I'm not fast enough. So that was one thing. I think there's something about the way I structure stories. So I don't start on page one with all the answers. And if you read the first page of anything I've written, I'm kind of an idiot on page one. I've got questions. I don't have answers. And so my books are kind of detective stories, or I just tell about the process of my figuring things out, and going to this person and learning this, and having this experience and learning that. And I think that readers don't like to be lectured at. And I don't do that. I take them along on the journey. When I think about starting a business, one of the pieces of advice that I would, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs would give a young aspiring entrepreneur, is to not pursue something that you're not genuinely interested about. Because oh yeah, without question, I mean that I write about things that I'm passionate about. Curiosity is the driver. And cultivating curiosity doesn't necessarily come naturally to everybody. It's a muscle you have to cultivate, and you have to see the world in terms of questions rather than answers. Because questions are always more interesting than answers. So I do cultivate that when I see something happening. I remember when I first read a little article in the New York Times saying they were giving psilocybin to cancer patients to help them deal with their fear of death. I'm like, what's that about? Why would you do that? Why would you ever want to take a trip when you got a terminal diagnosis? I don't think I would want to do that. You know, I just had all these questions. And the only way to answer them was to do reporting, was to go interview the patients and interview the doctors, and satisfy my curiosity. So without question, I can't write about things I'm not interested in. I mean, I get, you know, as you can imagine, editors are always coming to me. We would like an article on this or a book on this, and I'm like, I don't feel it. Yeah, so you do have to care about it. I mean, writing a book is such a long journey with so many twists and turns. And so if you don't have some deep-seated drive to understand something, to tell a story, you're going to, good chance you're going to sink along the way. And you really do go all the way. That's something that you're... Well, immersion is a big part of my work. And I think, and I think that's another, that's been another key thing. You know, I've been thinking about this a lot recently, but I can trace the moment where I was first exposed to the kind of journalism that I think of myself as doing. And that was when I was 13. My parents gave me a book called Paper Lion. So a book of sports writing was about football by a writer named George Plimpton. He was a literary person, but a sports writer too, and love sports writing. And he was kind of bored with how sports writing was done then, which is, you know, it's that cynical cigar-chomping guy on the sidelines with the hat. He'd just been there, done that, seen it all, has no sense of wonder or excitement anymore. And he thought there's a way to reinvent this form. And what he did was he persuaded the Detroit Lions, American football team, to let him train with them over the summer, summer training camp, and then start in an exhibition game at the beginning of the season as quarterback. So this guy had never played professional sports at all, was not an athlete, and there he was, facing this line of giant guys coming at him. And he could write about football in a way that no sports writer could, but neither any football player could, because they had been doing it since they were 10 or six, and they no longer saw it freshly. It was a job, but he had this incredible sense of wonder and humor, because he's a fish out of water, and it opened up all these funny narrative possibilities. And I realized that book just sat with me. I love that book. So when I started writing, I forget which book it was in. I think it was my second book, it was a book about architecture, and then I realized I couldn't write this book unless I built something myself. And so finding the way to put myself in the story is been key for me.
The Cows of Power Steer (07:58)
And with agriculture, I bought a cow and followed them through the food system. You bought a cow. I did. I was writing a piece that became a chapter in the omnivores dilemma on the meat industry and how fucked up it is, and feed lots and the drugs they give the animals. And that was my assignment from the New York Times. And I found this, and I was going to do the piece in terms of, I was going to follow one animal through the whole system from insemination to slaughter. And this was a piece called Power Steer that was published in the New York Times. And it's on my website, if you want to check it out for free. But along the way, one of the ranchers said, if you really want to understand our business, you should buy one of these animals. And I thought immediately, this is a great idea. Because it's going to do two things. It's going to give me a character, even though it's an animal, which having an animal hero and a piece is always a good thing. And it's going to give me a different kind of access when I get to the feed lot and the slaughterhouse, because I own this animal. I'm not just a journalist. And so I picked out this animal, number 534, and I followed him. And I met him on the ranch where he was born, and then I had a reunion with him in the feed lot, where he ended up several months later. I'm super intrigued by what happened to this cow. Were you emotionally attached to it at all when it reached its end of its days? I was a little. Something happened. So I had to publish the piece before he was slaughtered. They wanted to publish the piece. I handed it in in February. They wanted to publish it in March, and he wasn't going to get slaughtered till June. I wanted to wait because I still had very good access because nobody knew I was writing an expose on the meat industry. I was just some goofball following the life of this cow. But when the piece came out, the slaughterhouses were not doing business in pollen anymore. And so I was hoping to retrieve the steaks and eat them or try to eat them and see what I thought about it. But they wouldn't play anymore. And it's interesting when this piece came out, there was a whole explosion in the American media of people who wanted to save the cow because they knew he hadn't been killed yet. And I had people, I had someone in, write me, a movie producer in Beverly Hills wrote and say, "I want to buy your 534." And I said, "What are you going to do with it? I'm going to put it on my front lawn." And I was like, saving one animal is not going to fix the food system. And everybody thought that way. There was even a telethon on a vegan radio station in New Jersey. They were raising money and they would pay me anything I wanted for this animal. And I'm like, "This is not how you change the meat system by having this poster boy steer." And they actually likened it to the Underground Railroad that saving one slave was worth it. I was like, "That's interesting." And so I did not sell it. And it went through the process and somebody ate it, but it wasn't me. There's something sort of telling about that about the human condition where we believe that one sort of surface level act of apparent, it's probably virtue signaling, but apparent goodness is enough. We don't really care about the systemic resolution. Systems are hard to deal with. We evolved to deal with individuals and stories of individuals. And that's why this story was powerful because it was about an individual cow. But what matters is the system. I chose it because it was representative of the system. It was a very typical animal going through a typical start out on grass, kind of idyllic situation in South Dakota, move on to this horrible feedlot where they stand in their own manure all day and eat corn, which makes them sick and they have to take drugs. And then they go through this slaughterhouse process, which I described even though I didn't get to witness. But I think we have trouble dealing with systems. And so we always have the poster child. I mean, look at all the nonprofits, how they advertise. There's one animal or there's one child that you're going to save with your donation. And I just think it's a limitation of our imagination. That's what I was thinking of a very recent example of that, which is the tragic death of George Floyd and how that sparked people around the world, specifically on Instagram posting a black tile. As a black male, I looked at that and thought, this is like the easy thing to do, right? But it doesn't solve the systemic issues of race and race relations and discrimination. But we can all do the live virtue signaling, socially, hashtag whatever, black tile. But again, the complexity of the system below it, that might be the cause of some of these things. Does anybody really care to deal with that? I think it's just overwhelming to people. I mean, it is virtue signaling. All over Berkeley, where I live, people still have Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, you know, everywhere. Like, when are they going to take them down? Are they ever going to take them down? I understand the value of expressing that point of view, but there's so much more that needs to be done. What does need to be done when we're thinking about sort of rewiring systems? Is it education? Is it political? Is it? I tend to think it's about law. I think you can't legislate morality, but you can change laws and make certain kinds of activity discrimination illegal. You know, we're approaching it in America at the level of everyone's soul. We're trying to reform everyone's soul with anti-racism campaigns and things like that. We'll see if it works. I tend to think it doesn't work. And one of the things that I've been very discouraged by is the collapse and support for Black Lives Matter, which had majority support after that George Floyd summer. And now it doesn't. It's been politicized, right? Yeah, and it's been fought against by Republicans. But I also think shaming people is not the way to get them to change men. And there was a lot of that. And I see a lot of this on college campuses. I see a lot of this throughout the culture. I understand the instinct, but I think you invite a backlash. That's not the best way to get people to change. And I think, in fact, it can have the opposite effect. I think from what I've observed specifically around the issue of Black Lives Matter, that shame that I saw in the wake of George Floyd's death only resulted in this kind of like apparent social compliance. Not change. Like, okay, now I have to pretend to be this person. And that like compliance, again, is not what we're looking for. I did a big tweet throughout about how I felt white people were being shamed into either speaking out, saying something profound or other when really, for me, it was actually the least natural reaction to the scenes that I saw in that video of George Floyd's death would be doing a tweet or posting. Even I spent weeks processing it. And then I was being shamed. Steve, why aren't you speaking up with Black people? And I just thought, you know, like, and all of that, again, it made me, it didn't bring me closer to waving the flags. It just made me feel like, I don't know, kind of disillusioned by it all. So you're right, shamed. Yeah, there was a lot of pressure to immediately express your solidarity. Yeah. The Black Lives Matter. And if you didn't, there was something wrong. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I definitely saw a lot of that. I don't know. I just think our politics has to be organized around more positive emotions. I mean, make people feel really good about social change, about. And I think, you know, really concrete. I think the way we hire people needs to change. I think the way we promote people needs to change. I think that there's still certain kinds of discrimination that have to be outlawed. I mean, the biggest thing going on at the same time of Black Lives Matter is taking away the ability of African Americans to vote. Voter suppression. That is so concrete. And you need those votes in order to change things. And so while we're working on our souls, we're losing the franchise, which the civil rights movement has fought long and hard. We're going backwards.
Politics and Race Relations in America (16:56)
So I think we should consider whether this politics is working or not. And I would suggest it might not be. I would agree.
Immersive journalism on caffeine (17:09)
We started talking about the topic of like immersive journalism. One of the sort of a massive journalistic pursuits you embarked on was this topic of caffeine, which I found really, really interesting because I believe there's a cost to everything in life just generally. And the cost is always harder to see. And with caffeine in the culture, specifically in business, and even I could see it sort of taking hold in my own life, this topic of caffeine, I'm like, people never talk about the cost of it. As if it's the superdrug, we take it, it just sends us out. There's no free list. Exactly, right? So I and I started thinking with anxiety on the rise, is there a risk that this sort of tampering with our emotional state is going to ruin the system that regulates us naturally and make us go up. Okay, fine. When we take caffeine, but then the down, like every other drug like heroin and cocaine is going to be equally destructive. Yeah, I mean, you're talking about the law of compensation, I think is what Ralph Waldo Emerson called it. I love that. And there's always some compensating thing. There is no free lunch. And that was a real issue as people were trying to understand how caffeine worked, because it seemed to be a free lunch. Here was something with zero calories that gave you more energy. Caffeine works by blocking the action of a neurotransmitter, a neuromodulator, technically, called adenosine. It's a chemical that we all have in our bodies that, over the course of the day, the levels rise. And it plugs into a certain receptor in the brain that's all over the brain. I think it's other parts of the body too. And adenosine is your body's signal to slow down, get ready for sleep. It builds sleep pressure. And what caffeine does is it fits exactly in the same receptor and hijacks it, basically blocks the adenosine from getting to that receptor. So the adenosine is still in your body, but it's not acting on your brain because it can't get into those receptors. When the caffeine leaves your system, which takes a while to do, all that adenosine that's been building up, comes in. And so you're more tired than you were before. So you have this kind of rebound exhaustion. So you're really borrowing that energy from the future rather than creating new energy out of nothing. It's still very useful under certain circumstances. I'm not a critic of caffeine. It might be my favorite drug. And I've tried a whole bunch. And it was a immersive journalism in that, in this case, I had to stop doing something rather than doing something. So in how to change your mind, I tried LSD and psilocybin and 5-meo-dmt and all these things that were really scary and hard for me, but this was harder. Giving up caffeine for three months really was a stretch. But it was a really interesting experiment. And it taught me that there's a great value in giving things up temporarily just to understand your relationship to them, understand your dependence on them. What was hardest about it? Well, there was the withdrawal, which took a few days and was very unpleasant. I felt like kind of muzzy-headed. I felt like this veil had fallen between me and reality. Things seemed less fresh, less immediate. I didn't have the headaches that some people report. And I didn't have the flu-like symptoms, but I didn't feel myself. And I was sluggish. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't write for the first week. I just, I said in the book, I felt like an unsharpened pencil. I just didn't have it. You know, it takes a certain amount of ego strength to launch into a writing project or to launch into it every day. And I just didn't have it. And so I was like, I don't know if I can do this for three months. After the first week or so, I found my way back that I could work, but I still didn't feel myself. And it began to occur to me that how curious is that? Because what does that say if I feel more normal on this drug than off this drug? Because I'm through the withdrawal period. But I came to see that my normal default consciousness was caffeinated consciousness, as it is for a great many of us. I mean, 90% of people on earth have a daily relationship with caffeine, whether it's in tea, coffee, soda, chocolate. It's in a lot of things. You know, you meet people who say, I can't talk to you until I've had a cup of coffee. I, you know, I'm not civil. I can only read the paper. You know, people who just don't enter into social relations till they have a cup of coffee. The reason is they're going through a withdrawal and they're cranky and they know it. The amount of people probably in this room now, there's probably even 12 people in this building. And of them, I think probably 12 of them have had that drug today.
The cost of caffeine (22:13)
With the society, as you've said, people saying, I can't function, I can't have a conversation until I've had a cup. What is the cost of this though? Because I can tell you the cost of doing heroin every day. Or pretty much, yeah, this is subtler. Even sugar, I can tell you the cost of doing, you know, huge amounts of sugar every day. But no one can seem to tell me the cost of having three cups of coffee a day. Yeah. Well, the costs, I mean, if it depends on how I agrees with you, I mean, for some people on three cups a day, they get pretty jittery. And it passes over from this very positive feeling to this nervous feeling. And that's, that's a cost. I think the larger cost is to our identity as animals. We were designed, I think, to have rhythms as animals do that, you know, you wake up when the sun comes up and you start going to sleep when it gets dark. And that we were tied into these natural cycles dictated by the light. And it broke that connection. It broke that temporal connection. And so there may be some cost as species. And we struggle with sleep and sleep is a huge deal. And sleep is a, you know, you need sleep to be healthy and sane. You need it for your mental health. And coffee does damage your sleep. Now, I put a little asterisk next to that because if you can stop drinking it after that morning cup, you're going to have very little in your system when you go to sleep. But a cup of coffee, you drink it noon, a quarter of that caffeine will still be circulating at midnight. So it takes a while to get out of your system. Most of the caffeine researchers I interviewed do not drink coffee or tea.
The benefits of quitting coffee (23:50)
Interesting. I mean, these are people who understand sleep and the importance of sleep. And one of the benefits, I didn't mention one of the benefits of being off coffee. I slept like a teenager. It was fantastic. I had some great sleeps. My sort of logical mind when it, when it understands how are the drugs impact us and the withdrawals and how they impact our rhythms, our natural rhythms, even think like testosterone, if you take too much of it, your body stops producing it. If you do, if you have too many sleeping pills, your body struggles to sleep without them. So I reflect on coffee and go, surely, I'm an idiot. So don't take this as truth. Surely, if I have coffee every day, I'm going to struggle to like self regulate my ups and downs. And if I'm forcing my body to go up, then my body will come down even further than it would ordinarily. Where it'll take something else to make it come down. Yes. And then I'll have to take a sleeping pill. Alcohol. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So no, people do get into these cycles of coffee and alcohol or tea and alcohol. So yeah, there, I think there's always a cost. But I would say, historically, there have been the benefits of outweighed the costs of, I mean, compared to other drugs. I think that we've gained a lot. And there's the whole social aspect of coffee. I mean, the coffee house scene in London was just so vibrant. And, you know, the, the, the insurance in Lloyd's of London began in a coffee house and the London Stock Exchange began in a coffee house. And, you know, English literature was changed by the rhythms of conversation in the coffee house. And it was this place where the classes could mix in a way they couldn't in the tavern or anywhere else. And, you know, you can make a case. And I try to in the book that the Enlightenment and the age of reason owed a lot to caffeine. So I think it had really positive effect in that it got people who were anebriated on alcohol all the time to think clearly. And that was a big deal. I don't think people realize how much alcohol people drank prior to 1650. It was the safest thing you could drink because the water was contaminated with disease and people understood that. That's how you got plague was, you know, using the wrong water pump and things like that. Alcohol, the fermentation process and the alcohol itself disinfected water to some extent, but not as effectively as boiling it. And coffee and tea the first time we boiled water to drink. So the, the, the countries that embraced coffee and tea, suddenly their public health was much improved. They had much lower rates of disease. So that was also a boon. So there are a lot of positives. You talk about the reason why, why coffee is addictive anyway from a pollination perspective, which I found really no tell us like that before. Yeah. So that was one of the interesting bits of research that I came across. So like a lot of drugs that plants produce, it begins its life as a pesticide. Most of these alkaloids that we think are so great, whether it's cocaine or caffeine or, oh, God, there's so many of them. They're not creating me right now. Plants evolve these as chemicals that would kill insects or discourage insects from eating them. And then we found that they had interesting effects on our brains if you got the dose right. And so caffeine was designed, it kills insects at high doses. It also stops other plants from germinating nearby. So you get more habitat if you, if you, if your leaves contain caffeine and, and they drop. But the cleverness of plants is such that some of them figured out that a really low dose of caffeine in their nectar would attract bees. And the, the, the, the citrus family does this reliably. So they've repurposed this pesticide as an attractant because you don't put pesticide in your nectar. That's where you attract insects. And it turns out bees really like caffeine. And they will go preferentially to flowers that offer them caffeine. We don't know if they get a buzz, but they do prefer it. And it does for them what it does for us. It improves their memory. They're more likely to go back to the flower that gave them caffeine than any other flower. And remember where it was. They will also work harder as, so they become better workers, basically. So the plants are manipulating the bees to do their bidding. We knew that, but in a much deeper way than we understood by essentially, you know, drugging them. And then humans came along and just. And then humans. Yeah. Yeah. But, but the curious thing is why should a pesticide have these mental effects for us? And the theory I advance in the book is that if you're a plant and you're, and you're bothered by pests, the best strategy is not to kill the pest. Because if you do that, if you just put out a lethal chemical, you're going to kill a bunch of the pests, but the resistant members, and there are always some mutations that give resistance, they're going to explode. Their population will explode and your tool will be gone. It won't work anymore. But if you merely discombobulate your predator, your pest, confuse it, which psychedelics and other drugs do, make it lose its appetite, which most drugs do, you're much better off. Because it won't, it won't have this kind of selective pressure. So I got this insight from my cat Frank, who had a real issue with catnip. I had a catnip plant in my garden, and my garden was fenced. And every night when I was going out to the garden to pick something for dinner, Frank would follow me and look up at me. And he wanted to be shown where the catnip was, and I would show him to the catnip. And he would roll in it and get really stoned. And then forget where he had seen the catnip. And he had to be reminded every single day, this is an intelligent cat. Like where was that plant? The plant had drugged him so that he would lose track of where it was. Oh, wow. So I thought that was a pretty clever plant, certainly more clever than Frank was. Speaking of clever plants, then. Transition, yes. That wasn't bad, was it? On the topic of psychedelics, which is I referenced it at the start, when I first heard about the concept of psychedelics, I like you because I've heard you talk about your initial sort of perception of them was terrified by the thought of losing my consciousness. I also thought, as you talked about cancer anxiety in your writing and how patients with suffering with cancer, I think the last thing I'd want to do is trypify had cancer. But also another point that you made in a talk you gave was I saw myself as a very logical scientific physical person.
The unexpected benefit of taking psychedelics (30:49)
And I thought that I couldn't be that and spiritual or however you want to describe it, or really anything I couldn't think or feel. Tell me about your journey then from going from that place to psychedelics. I know it's well documented in the journey you've taken, but I really want to understand how your perception shifted and where it sits today as a spiritual individual. So I did see myself as a very materialist in my philosophy. I thought that the laws of nature we knew explained everything and anything else was supernatural. And I talked to a lot of people who done psychedelics and had this big spiritual experience. And so I was curious about it because I said somewhere that I thought I was spiritually retarded. It was a part of myself I hadn't developed. But I did have this misconception that to be spiritual is to believe in supernatural things. And that's kind of a scientific view. It's in a, you know, scientists assume this about spiritual people.
Michael's Psilocybin Experiences (32:00)
I had a couple big experiences on psilocybin as I was researching the book, more immersive journalism. And I know I did feel I was curious to try these things, but I also felt compelled. I think my readers expect me to do stuff that I'm writing about and not just be on the sidelines. And so I did feel some real pressure to do it. But I did these conversations with volunteers and these studies and individuals who had amazing experiences that completely changed their attitude toward death. I mean, people who lost their fear of death after one four hour experience on psilocybin. I mean, how does that happen? You have to be curious about that. - Psilocybin being the active ingredient in magic. - In magic mushrooms. Yeah. But in these trials, they get it in a pill form. It's kind of purified, but it's the same drug, exactly. So I had a couple really interesting experiences that reset my understanding of what spiritual meant. And my experiences had to do with powerful connection to something bigger than me that I felt. Specifically for me, it was the plants in my garden that I'm a gardener. I've been running about plants one way or another for a long time. And I've always admired plants. And I think, as we were talking about the citrus plants with the caffeine, I think they're really intelligent in a very different way than we are. But that was kind of an intellectual conceit. I didn't feel them as conscious beings. And during this trip, I did. I was in my garden and all the plants were like talking to me. I mean, not literally talking to me, but they were returning my gaze. They were present. They had sentience. And they were very benign. They liked me. I took care of them. I fertilized them. But it was a very powerful connection to nature that I hadn't felt before. Most of us, when we walk through the natural world, we sort of feel we're sort of part of nature, but we're sort of not part of nature. We're all alienated from nature. That's our human thing. And it's our human arrogance, actually. But it's also a failure of imagination to see ourselves as animals. But that's what we are. We're a little different. And in their ways in which we have transcended nature or think we have. But anyway, I felt more one creature among many than I had ever felt in my life. I was just another creature in the garden. And it was kind of liberating. It was this wonderful feeling. It was a great moment. So I had that experience. And then I had another experience of what people call ego death, of total ego dissolution on a high dose psilocybin, a guided psilocybin trip. It's not something you want to try on your own. And I saw myself kind of explode in a cloud of Post-it notes, blue Post-it notes. And then they fell to the ground. And there I was, this pool of paint on the ground. And that was me, but I was observing it from this new perspective that was completely untroubled by what should have been a catastrophe. And it was fine. This is how things are. And then having no ego anymore, I had no walls. And I just merged into this piece of music that the guide was playing, this Bach unaccompanied cello suite that was undescribably beautiful. But there was no subject object relationship. I just became the music. I just joined it. It was the most profound experience listening to music I'd ever had. So I came out of these experiences like rethinking what a spiritual mean. And I came to understand it. It means having a profound connection with something larger than you. It's a kind of love. It's, it could, you know, some people have it with the universe. I had it with the plants in my garden and this piece of music. And that, that sense of profound connection, that's what I think of as spiritual now. And there's nothing, there's nothing supernatural about it. You could say, well, your plants weren't really conscious. But they are sentient beings. And we're the first culture in history that's forgotten that, you know, our scientific worldview has given us this incredible blind spot about the sentience all around us, you know, going back to Descartes, who, you know, thought that we were the only thinking creature and no other creature felt pain or had consciousness. And most of us still sort of believe that, I think, even though we're learning that sentience goes way down. And that, I just read a paper saying that insects may have consciousness. Wrap your head around that. Well, there are a lot of ethical, there are a lot of ethical implications. So, so my point is, though, that the perception that you're surrounded by sentient beings is not supernatural. We are. And what the psychedelics are removing is this is this filter that's allowed us to see things in this very narrow material, a scientific worldview. Paper was published just this week by the group at Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffith was the author. He's the guy I was just telling you about, who studies both caffeine and psilocybin. And they did a big observational study of people who've had a psychedelic experience to see if their, how their beliefs changed. And they, and the thing they looked at was really interesting. They looked at attribution of consciousness to other beings. And it went up dramatically. So people who, I think normally 13% of people think plants have some consciousness, it went up to like 58%. And that was the most dramatic gain. But everything did. I mean, people attributing consciousness to animals, to cats and dogs, to insects. It all went up. Now, you might think, okay, psychedelics increases your magical thinking. But they also checked, did you believe in the Loch Ness Monster and a bunch of other kind of magical nature things? And they didn't. There was no change there. But this attribution of consciousness went way up across the board. And so what does that tell us? Well, every traditional culture has believed that there are many species that are conscious, that are sentient. And that this is something we've unlearned. And I think one way to interpret is psychedelics, you know, unlearns the unlearning, basically, and allows us to see something that all children see.
Ego Dissolution on Psilocybin (38:45)
And most traditional people see, which is the fact that we're not the only thinking being. So that's a spiritual question too. I, my first real experience with a psychedelic was San Pedro. Yeah, I have. Really interesting experience. So I drunk this drink with my partner. Where were you? Prue. Okay. I don't think it grows that well in England. You can grow it out here.
Michael's First Psychedelic Experience (39:31)
Yeah, well, yeah, I've heard. But it was a really interesting experience. I first took two, three hours. The shaman takes it to a cave because it's raining and nothing. I'm sat there for three hours, nothing. I leave the cave and I go back out into the hills, the beautiful sort of grassy hills with trees and everything. And the minute I got outside, I think within two minutes, I was convinced. I've said it to my team before. I was convinced that me and the plants were the same thing. And really that they were like, they were like looking at me. I was looking at them and they were like looking at me. It was the first time I felt like I had, as you describe it, a almost human relationship, even with the grassy hills. But it was really these plants in front of me.
Experiences of psychedelics (40:10)
It was like they were an audience now. Were they the characters? No, they were just, they were just these these tall plants. And it felt like they were like looking at me and trying to tell me something. And you're right, the experience I had was I totally didn't matter in the same way that I'd mattered three hours ago. My all sort of sense of self-importance had gone. And I was just as important as this little plant. And it was, and as you describe it, it was we were the same thing. And I was in awe of that feeling. Obviously, you don't forget the feeling. You don't forget the memory, but you almost, you lose the feeling a little bit. You do. I think you do. I think you go back to baseline to some extent, not completely. I don't know. I find that I can return to some of those ways of thinking. So my involvement with psychedelics led to a meditation practice. And I think psychedelics are very good for starting a meditation practice. I could never do it. I was just a very frustrated meditator before that when I tried. But I'd had certain kind of paths of consciousness laid down during the psychedelic experience that I could get on again. Not so much the peak experience, the fireworks. And that's what people end up talking about or writing about. But a lot of the psychedelic experience is this long tail, this long dainable. As you're coming down, you're regaining control over what you're thinking about. You can direct your attention, here or there, yet you're not distractible. You are really in a zone. And that state is a meditative state. And having laid down those tracks, you can get back to them, I think, with work. And sometimes it's a matter of thinking about an image I saw on a psychedelic trip that helps me get there. So I think that's one way you keep it alive. Because psychedelics aren't a practice. You can't do it that often. You don't want to do it that often. It takes a toll. It's hard work. And that's one of the reasons I think they're not habit forming. And they're not. It's that after a big psychedelic trip, you're not saying, "When can I do it again?" You're saying, "Do I ever have to do it again?" Because it's hard work and it can be overwhelming. But there is a residue that stays with you. And some people, I've really seen their lives turned around. And they have a big... They take away a lot. For me, it's been subtler things like that. But I can use meditation to nurture that flame. One of the... You talk there about people's lives turning around after a psychedelic experience. Obviously, the studies that are being done on psilocybin and many other psychedelic compounds are pretty profound when you read about them. The impact of one dose one trip in the right set and setting on things like treatment, resistant depression are really almost hard to believe. And I think we should take them with a grain of salt. I think that one of the things to understand, they're very impressive results. They're much better than the results for antidepressants when they came on the scene. They were approved with marginal utility. I think they scored like two percentage points better than placebos. But it doesn't take a lot to get a drug approved. Here, you're seeing substantial sustained changes in people, which is great. But it's important to understand the early studies on any drug tend to be more positive than they are later. Part of the reason is that the researchers are optimizing everything. They have very well-trained guides. They can exclude anyone who's too depressed or has some other problems. They're not giving it to thousands of people. They're giving it to hundreds of people. I think we could expect as we get to phase three and then introduction that the effects won't be quite as good as they've been. But so far, they've been two-thirds of people in most of these trials, whether it's MDMA for trauma or psilocybin for depression or addiction, have lost their diagnosis. That's pretty extraordinary. We're talking about potential cures, not simply symptoms, dealing with symptoms. It's very exciting research. I think I'm a little concerned about the kind of irrational exuberance that's surrounding the space. There's all this investment money. There's more capital than there are good ideas. I would say that's my reading of the situation. People are going to get hurt. I just see a bubble here that concerns me. There is something real here. I just hope we can be careful about how we don't build up people's expectations, especially people with mental illness that they think they've got a cure. It doesn't work for everybody. Some people have really hard experiences on psychedelics. That tends to be the case with that sort of bubble that you described tends to be the case with all new industries, the internet, cryptocurrencies, psychedelics. They have this euphoria bubble, and then there's a flattening where the tree value emerges over time. Especially on Silicon Valley, which is some fashion conscious money. I've seen this having worked in the food space, agriculture. I remember this moment in 2008 or so where all the Silicon Valley people were investing in ethanol. They thought this was this green energy. This is turning corn into fuel. It was clear to anybody close to the situation that, in fact, it took more energy to make ethanol than you got out of it. It was just a way to get rid of a surplus of corn on the part of the farmers and the government. Everybody jumped in, Bill Gates, the Sandhill Road crowd, and you could watch this. Then they very quickly realized, "Oh, this isn't such a good business." Then they got into food and they got into mock meats. That's where they are now. They're in the food industry as well as psychedelics. They're going to be very disappointed at the returns in the food industry, which if you're lucky or two or three percent, it doesn't scale like software. Some of the evidence in these clinical trials does show the efficacy of the psychedelic compounds.
Can psychedelics cure depression? (46:24)
One of the questions I had, and I know that you've done a huge amount of research on this, is if psychedelics are effective, even in some cases, what does that say about the causes of these? Great question. The honest, complete answer is we don't know, but the best theory that I've come across is that if you look at the different disorders that psychedelics appears to be effective in treating, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, addiction, all of these are mental disorders that involve a kind of rigidity of thought. People stuck in loops of rumination, inflexible thinking, "They need this drug to get through the day." They have this narrative in their head that they're a bad person, that nothing is working in their life, or they have anxiety, and they replay loops about what makes them anxious. What psychedelics appear to do, what psilocybin appears to do, is break those habits of thought. It's kind of a solvent, and so that it shakes things up in a way that makes the brain more plastic, more able to learn new patterns, because this is essentially people stuck in old patterns. I think that this is probably its contribution. The most beautiful metaphor of this that I heard from a neuroscientist, he said, "I think of your mind as a hill covered in snow," and it would have been a mountain, except he was from Holland, and they don't have mountains. Your thoughts are sleds going down the hill. After a while, your thoughts are going to keep getting drawn like attractors into the same grooves, and it's going to be very hard to get down the hill without falling into those grooves. Think of the psychedelic experiences in fresh snowfall, filling the grooves, allowing you to take any path you want down the hill. I think it has to do with habitual thinking. Rigid brains, stuck brains, brains that have too much order, and need to be disordered a bit. This all remains to be proven. There's actually a group at Mass General at Harvard that is looking at the whole question of rumination in psychedelics, and seeing if that is indeed the common denominator. We think of all these diagnoses as actual real things, but they're really conventions of the psychiatry industry. And if you read the DSM, the whole encyclopedia of diagnoses, every five years they throw out a bunch, they had a bunch, they don't really know what they're doing. I remember asking a psychiatrist who said, "Isn't it a little weird that this same drug works on these five different things, addiction and obsession?" And he said, "Well, how do you know they're different things?" Maybe they're all different symptoms of the same brain, same kind of brain. If you think about it, anxiety is worry about the future. Depression is really being a victim of the past, but it's a similar mental construct, and psychedelics appears to weaken it. I'd read that analogy of the hill, and it really stayed with me if that hill would the snow, this idea that our trauma or whatever it might be, our past experiences, have created these groups, which we just slide down every single day and over and over again, and you talked about previously how that's why there might be a case for doing psychedelics later in your life.
Psychedelics And Mindfulness
Learn to be more present without Psychedelics (49:48)
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah, I do feel, as life goes on, we become more creatures of habit. It's just a given. It's about learning. We learn what works. We learn the algorithms that get us through the day, get us through a fight with our spouse, get us through negotiating with our children, whatever it is. We have these algorithms, they're handy, they work, they save us time, and we are efficient creatures. But habits blind you to reality. You're one step removed from experience. You're saying, "Okay, that's this situation. I'm going to play this tape." You lose your sense of wonder, and that's so important. I was one of the most important emotions. As we get older, kids have this awe experience every day, every minute. It could be a cookie. It could be walked down the street. It's just incredible, and the reason is that it's all new to them, and they haven't formed these habits. As we get older, I think that's where the value of psychedelics is really important, because they are reliable awe-inducers, and that they make you see things freshly. I talk in the book about this very common psychedelic insight that love is the most important thing in the world. We laugh, and it sounds like a hallmark card and such a cliche, but what is a cliche? It's a truth that's been overused. We protect ourselves with the sense of irony and banality, but love is the most important thing in the world. There's truth to that, and that the line between banality and profundity is very fine. You're always hearing people who have psychedelic experiences, and they come to you with this revelation of the obvious, but we need to be reminded of the obvious. Do you think there's another way to remain fresh in the mind other than meeting to do a psychedelic trip? I'm 29, but I relate to me getting stuck in the same patterns of thought, which can divulge into a bitterness, or some of my patterns and habits result in happiness and fulfillment and feelings and contentment. None of the others can result in bitterness and resentment and other negative things. I'd love to be able to do a fresh fall of snow on some of those. Yes, I know. Without using psychedelics, learning something new, doing something new is incredibly revitalizing. Travel is. Think of how when you travel somewhere, you're in a new country. You've never been there. All your algorithms fail. The menu has full of unexpected things. Walking down the street, you don't see the same brand names you see everywhere. So your senses are really working hard because you're taking in lots of new information. That's why it's so exhausting, but it's so wonderful too. So I think travel is one thing. I think learning a new skill. For me, that's really important. It's what I love about journalism. I get paid as an adult to learn whole new fields. I'm getting paid now to learn about neuroscience and consciousness. It's so great. Some jobs don't allow you to do that. That is in the nature of journalism. It's in the nature of what you do. You get to talk to anybody you want. So before I get asked the question, I was thinking, if I was to answer myself, it's this. Because when I walk away from these conversations, it's almost like sometimes a psychedelic trip, or just a real shaking of what I thought to be true. Oh, I get that after I do an interview. I came from an interview with this neuroscientist, and it was so exciting to think about. I hadn't thought about things that way. So I think putting in yourself in situations where there's a lot of new information, and you're out of your comfort zone. The comfort zone is the problem. If you can put yourself in a situation, and also, we tend to gravitate to what we do well. We get reward for that. But try working on saying you don't do well. I was just thinking then about how when people get older, they tend to go on holidays to the same places. Yes, they go to somewhere new. They don't want to repeat themselves. Yes. No, it's true. I found this at this phase of life, the psychedelic experience was really valuable for that reason, that it did cause me to rethink things, have new perspectives, and have this wonderful feeling of awe, and be reminded of these things. How much I love plants, how much I love love. Relationships, the sense of gratitude, that this is a very common emotion for me. After in a psychedelic trip, it's gratitude for my parents, and my son, and my wife. We don't spend nearly enough time expressing gratitude for what we have. We take it for granted. Undermining the taken for granted, I think is the most important thing that they do. Breathwork, something I've heard you talk about as well. Yeah, so Breathwork is a non-pharmacological mode of changing consciousness.
Breathwork & Psychedelic benefits (55:29)
It was developed by Stan Groff, a Czech psychiatrist who worked in the States for many years. That's great. I respect his wife, but he was at Stan's there. Stan's wonderful, and I interviewed him for How to Change Your Mind. So when LSD was banned in 1970, he was having such good luck with it, and really believed that there were these new superhighways to the unconscious, that he wanted to figure out another way to induce the state. So he studied yogic breathing and all these other traditional cultures that had these trans, induced trans. It's a pattern of breathing that you do, accompanied by usually rhythmic drumming, that for I think about two thirds of people will put you in a trance state that's very much like a psychedelic state. It was really eerie how it works. You basically find yourself losing control of your limbs. I mean, it's very physical. Yes, you're on your back and you're dancing and you're breathing this very unnatural pattern of a stronger exhalation than inhalation very fast. I think you're hyperventilating. I think that's what you're doing. I think that probably - we don't know this yet, but that probably is reducing blood flow to the brain or oxygen to the brain. One of the curious things about psychedelics is not that they're increasing brain function, but they're decreasing it in certain important areas, including something called the default mode network, which is the center of the brain that's very important control center of the brain that is involved with your sense of self, time travel into the past, into the future, the narrative self, the story you tell yourself about your life, how you fit everything into the story of who you are. If the ego had an address, it would be the default mode network. It may be that starving that of oxygen gets a similar effect that psychedelics do, but psychedelics, that's one of the mysteries. It's like we think of all this extra consciousness we get from psychedelics or expanded consciousness, but it may be that it's closing down certain things which allow other things to happen. I did breath work with my partner and my girlfriend in Bali. She's training as a breath work practitioner. So how did it go? So again, walked in super skeptical. This guy starts telling me a bunch of reasons why it's going to, you know, the sort of physiological reasons why it works. It was about a 13 minute, 20 minute session. I mean, 10 minute, I didn't even notice, I only noticed on photos after that. I was laying on my back, but my hands were in the air. So, and I didn't even, I did not put my hands in the air. Yeah, it's in the air. And they were in the air for 15 minutes. And it didn't help my muscles. And the other thing was I, I went to this strange emotional place where I felt a huge amount of gratitude for certain people in my life. And I actually felt the need to like apologize for recent behavior that I'd carried out. It just, it was a very emotional experience as it is for a lot of people. But it was just really compelled me the thought that doing something with my breathing could have a profound impact. And then it got me thinking about my day to day breathing, which is part of the, the education about how we breathe so shallowly. And especially when I'm anxious, if I'm ever anxious, and I think about it, I'm breathing a very good 20% of what I usually breathe. So one of my ways now, if I do feel anxious of counteracting that from that breath back session, is taking seven second inhalation, holding it and then seven second out and honestly doing that for 20 seconds or 30 seconds completely seems to flush out any feelings of anxiousness. There's a brunch, you're really interesting breathing exercises. There's one that Andrew Wilde does called 437-438. And it involves a certain amount of, I'm not gonna remember it right now, but a certain amount of inhalation, hold your breath and then exhale for longer than you inhaled. And it's remarkable. I've done it before going on stage and things like that.
How can you change your breath to increase focus, lower stress, or reduce version? (59:48)
It just lowers your stress level very quickly. I'm guessing it lowers your blood pressure. There's a lot we don't know about breath. I mean, breath is amazing. And I think you can do a lot to fiddle with your consciousness using breath. It's genuinely of all the things that people have prescribed or told me. The simplest thing that I've sort of implemented my own life when in situations where I'm feeling stressed before going on stage as well, before my tour, I used to do it in the green room, all when I'm feeling anxious or divulging and sort of like overthinking is just focusing on my breath. My next question to you, my last question really is about what's next for you. As a tremendously successful author, that's written about such a diverse range of topics. I mean, I think the first question when you walked in the door was what are you writing about next? Yeah. It's got to be something of deep interest. You're gonna immerse yourself. You're gonna buy a cow again. I don't know what I'm gonna do for this topic. So I'm researching consciousness, the science and philosophy and literature of consciousness. One of the things that psychedelics does is raise questions about consciousness.
How does the change in the scientific world view impact the environment? (01:00:58)
I talked to you at the beginning about questions are more interesting than answers. It's kind of amazing that we're conscious. I mean, we could do all this stuff automatically, but we're not. We have this space in our heads where we see things, we assume other people have consciousness too, but we can't be sure. And how does three pounds of tofu in your, between your years produce an experience of subjectivity, of quality. It's one of the greatest mysteries left. So I'm gonna explore all of it and see where it takes me. You know, again, I don't know where I'm going, but that's the exciting part of writing. Quick one, we bring in eight people a month to watch these conversations live here in the studio when we're here in the UK and when we're in LA. If you want to be one of those people, all you've got to do is hit subscribe. You know, you said at the start that your job is to answer questions. What is the question that you're trying to answer in your next project? Is it just what consciousness? What is consciousness? There's a couple questions under that though. Why do we have it? What do we need it for? What does it allow us to do? Who else has it? You know, if you do the insects have consciousness, do the plants have, there are people who believe plants are conscious. Are they? How do you define consciousness? There's so many subsidiary questions you have to answer to get to the bottom of it. And I think it has a lot of this question of who else has consciousness has a lot of political or environmental implications. I think that one of the reasons we got into such trouble with the environment is the scientific worldview for all its power has blinded us to the interests of other creatures. And one of the, you know, you look at Native American culture and there's this sense that everything is alive, everything has a spirit to it. That keeps you from doing something to certain things to those others, right? I mean, that you're violating spirits. We don't have that feeling. I mean, our worldview allows us to see nature as something for us to exploit, rather as our relatives, as Native Americans would describe it. So getting consciousness right means getting a lot of things right. So I wish me good luck. No idea. I'm sure you're going to do an unbelievable job on that, because you always have on your, on your, on your work and all the books you've written, take a different approach. And I think that, yeah, you highlighted how that comes from a place that starts with a place of naivety and curiosity. I'm definitely naive. I mean, I, because I have to learn neuroscience for this, a lot of it. And that's a struggle for me. And some of these theories are really mathematical. And that's really a struggle for me. But you know, that's, that's the job, is finding the good explainers who can help me to explain it and make it. I get a lot of satisfaction from taking a subject that people think might be very dry and difficult and, and helping people make sense of it. You know that there's a tradition on this podcast where the previous guest writes a question for the next guest. They don't know who they're writing it for. The question is, as you've struggled your life work relationships, friendships, and self-time, what things have been key to building your resilience? Doing new things, including taking psychedelics, which has definitely affected me and, and contributed to my resilience. But I think it's seeking out new projects and doing things that break you out of habitual ways of thinking and responding to things.
Message To Younger Self
If Michael could write a letter to his 25-year-old self (01:04:43)
Habit is wonderful. It's very efficient. But it's deadening too. So I'm often thinking, and I am a creature of habit. I have like a whole routine every day to get myself to the desk to write. But, but breaking it is, is, I think breaking habits, I would say, would be an important one. You spoke into that throughout this conversation. So that's a beautiful ending. This is the side of leaving your comfort zones as well. Thank you. Thank you for all the work you're doing. It's really inspiring to me that an author could be so powerful. And I hope we can have another conversation again once your book about consciousness is out because I'm sure it'll be a bit of a time. I'll look forward to that. It's been a great pleasure talking to you. Thank you, Michael. Thank you. I had a few words to say about one of my sponsors on this podcast. As the seasons have begun to change, so has my diet. And right now, I'm just going to be completely honest with you. I'm starting to think a lot about slimming down a little bit because over the last couple of, probably the last four or five months, my diet has been pretty bad. And it started to show a little bit really over the last two months, I go to the gym about 80% of the time. So I track it with 10 of my friends in a WhatsApp group and this tracker online that we all use together. And so one of the things I'm doing now to reduce my calorie intake and trying to get back to being nutritionally complete and all I eat is I'm having the fuel protein shake. Thank you, you're for making a product that I actually like. The salted caramel is my favorite. I've got the banana one here, which is one my girlfriend likes, but for me, salted caramel is the one.