The Brain

A Healing Head Trip

October 1, 2018  • Institute Staff

Best-selling author Michael Pollan discussed the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat depression, addiction, and trauma as part of the Institute’s Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit series this summer in Aspen. In conversation with Corby Kummer, the editor-in-chief of IDEAS and the director of the Institute’s Food and Society Program, Pollan described the extensive research that went into his latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, as well as his intensely personal experiences going on a series of psychedelic trips himself.

“We could have a powerful new tool for psychiatry,” Pollan said, adding that mental-health care has not seen any significant advances since the advent of anti-depressant drugs in the late 1980s. “There’s a desperate need for new tools. Psychedelics have the power to shake the snow globe of the mind.” During trials at NYU and Johns Hopkins, Pollan explained, clinicians gave high doses of psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) to cancer patients dealing with anxiety, depression, and fear of death. Most were able to confront and overcome those issues, as have other volunteers in pilot studies using psychedelics to treat addiction.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between recreational use of drugs and therapeutic or guided use. For his own experiences—including smoking the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad—Pollan enlisted the help of guides and psychotherapists. Pollan said the neuroscience behind the psychedelics is based on the brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to adapt. Researchers have found that brain activity under the influence of psychedelics is strikingly similar to that of very experienced meditators. “Our brains are tuned for novelty,” Pollan said, “which makes sense in evolution, but we downplay the familiar, such as love for people. And the familiar becomes something really rich you suddenly want to explore.”