Michael Pollan | One Writer’s Trip || Radcliffe Institute


-I hope to answer a question
about my trajectory. And how is it that
the same writer could get from the image on the
left to the image on the right? That’s Alex Gray’s
memorable painting of the stoned ape theory
of how psilocybin led to human self-consciousness. The path of someone’s
career really only appears as a path in retrospect. This is something we
construct after the fact. I really didn’t know
where I was going. The path of a writer
is not like the path of a doctor or a lawyer. It’s really crooked. And so this appears–
something you figure out after the fact, which only goes
to show that you don’t know on this journey
which books you’ll be grateful to have packed,
or where your curiosity will take you. And this is another
writing lesson I learned along the way, which
is that questions are more important than answers, and
that a good question can drive a book from beginning
to end in a way that answers don’t always. That questions lead to
more propulsive writing, more suspenseful writing. It becomes, indeed,
the difference between a speech and
a detective story. So the question in this
book was what I think of as the bumblebee question. And that was, it
occurred to me– you saw me planting
those weird looking– I was planting potatoes. And one day I was planting
potatoes in my garden, and it was a beautiful day,
May in Northwest Connecticut. And while I was
planning potatoes, the bees were just avidly
going after this apple tree that was in spectacular bloom. And gardening doesn’t take
up that much mental space. That’s one of the
things I like about it. And it occurred to
me, I wonder what I have in common with those bees? Look what they’re doing. They think they’re getting
the best of this arrangement with the blossoms, that
they’re getting the nectar. But in fact, they’re being
manipulated by those flowers to pay a visit, in
order to advance the interests of the plant. So who’s in charge? Are the bees in charge
or the plant in charge? And I thought, well, is
that happening to me too? I’m planting this kind of potato
and not that kind of potato. I’ve ordered these seeds. They’ve been shipped
across the country. So are these plants
in some sense, these domesticated
plants, manipulating us? And that question kind
of launched that book. And that we too are in this
co-evolutionary relationship, one where we think we’re
in charge, but in fact, very often we’re
being manipulated. We are not the only
subject in nature. We think of everything
else as an object, but many other species are
acting on us– that nature is really this dance of desire. And so, I looked at human desire
as a fact of natural history, shaping evolution just like
the climate does, or the soil, or the preferences
of pollinators. I looked at four cases,
apple for the desire of sweetness, tulips and
beauty, potatoes-control, and cannabis-intoxication. And I tried to use
each of these plants as mirrors in which we can
learn things about ourselves. Because in the same way
you can look at a flower and know precisely what a
bee or another pollinator regards as beautiful
or aromatic, you can look at the plants
that have evolved with us and understand a lot about us. And that was the basic
conceit of the book. So among the desires I looked
at in Botany of Desire, and I’m returning to in
this current project, was this very curious
universal human desire to change consciousness,
the existence of which has been a very
good thing indeed if you are cannabis sativa
or opium somniferum, or a fungus like
psiloscybe cubensis. One of the things
plants do to animals, for their own
purposes, is drug them. It was recently discovered
that the nectar of many plants contains caffeine. Why? To make the pollinators
better at their jobs, make them work harder,
just as it does for us. And there are many examples like
that of plants drugging animals to get things out of them. So the evolutionary
success of these plants depends on that desire of us,
our abiding desire to change the texture of consciousness. So you sort of see, you see
that my real interest, food is a very important interest. But I’m also very interested
in this engagement with nature that happens on our
plates, and in our homes. And it’s always happening. It’s happening right now with
the microbes in your gut. And bringing this
to light has always been what I’m interested
in doing as a writer. And this issue of altered
states of consciousness, it’s another thing that
plants do for us, or mushrooms do for us. And why? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for us? And what turned me on to this
as a subject that was time to do it was news of a
remarkable trial that took place at Johns
Hopkins and was published in the Journal of
Psychopharmacology with this decidedly
idiosyncratic title, “Psilocybin Can Occasion
Mystical Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained
Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” Doesn’t sound like a
pharmacology magazine. And what they discovered was
that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely
and reliably occasion a mystical experience, which of
course the psychologists have defined and have their
are seven-point scale. That the participants
rank these experiences as among the most
meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a
child or the death of a parent. That was striking. And the volunteers who
had the most complete mystical experienced,
by the scale, showed significant
and lasting increases in their well-being and
their openness to experience. And openness is one of the
five criteria of personality that psychologists measure. And this quality of openness
is a predictor of tolerance, aesthetics, creativity. And its effect
lasted for months. Now, I have never had
a mystical experience. I may in fact be
spiritually retarded. But suddenly, I was extremely
curious about the fact that a mushroom could
have such an impact on not only one’s personality
but one’s metaphysics. Because a lot of
these people were not religious to begin with. So what does that have to
do with nature or food? Well, you’ve probably guessed. The chemical responsible
for these amazing affects in our brains is
produced by a mushroom. How did that happen? And it’s kind of a food. The Aztecs called the
magic mushroom teonanacatl, the food of the gods. But it’s more of a sacramental
food than a staple. Still, something from nature
that, ingested, changes us. So what does it do
for the mushroom? Well, the curious
thing about it is that the chemical, the
psilocybin or the psilocin, is not found in the mycelium,
the underground part, which is the central part of a
mushroom, the part that’s the organism. The fruiting body, the mushroom,
is the only part that has it. And that’s the part
that the mushroom doesn’t mind having
eaten, and doesn’t depend. So it has something to
do with animals, who apparently like psilocybin too. And in our own time, it’s
been spread around the world by the human interest
in these drugs. So anyway, I’m looking at
the natural history of it, and I was very surprised to
learn that if you go back pre-1965 that there was kind
of a golden age of research into both psilocybin and LSD. And a lot of it, of
course, took place here. But what happened here
with Timothy Leary was the end of this process. He kind of screwed it
up, and for reasons that make some sense. But before his antics, there had
been a thousand peer reviewed studies of LSD in
the literature, and 40,000 research
subjects going back to 1950– and very
suggestive results that it could be useful
for people who were dying, and addicts, and
obsessives and depressives. And all this research
is now coming back. The government has eased up
and is allowing scientists to study it. And my guess is this
scientific Renaissance is going to teach us
some extraordinary things about consciousness
and the mind, about spirituality and
religion, about creativity, and about this handful
of mental disorders it’s being used to treat. The most interesting
and the first was giving psilocybin
to people who have terminal cancer diagnoses. And this study was done
at NYU and Hopkins, and I spent a lot of time
interviewing the people who had this experience. And it was fascinating. But I want to end by reading one
passage about one character who I actually never got
to meet because he died before I had a chance. But his name was Patrick Metas. One of the most
compelling stories I heard was from a volunteer in
the psilocybin cancer trial I never got to meet. He died before I knew his name. However, I did get
to know him slightly through the words of
his wife and therapist, and the remarkable
pages of his journal. Everybody is asked to keep a
journal of their experience. Patrick Metas was a
New York journalist diagnosed with a cancer
of the bile ducts that had spread to his lungs. As it happens, Patrick
was almost exactly my age and had first read
about the psilocybin trials in the same New
York Times article I did. Though he had never before
taken a psychedelic, he immediately called NYU to
volunteer in their psilocybin trials. The experience he
had there would change his life and his death. I first heard Patrick’s
story from Tony Bossis, one of the investigators in
the psilocybin trial at NYU. Tony, a bearded, bearish
psychologist in his mid 50s, had been so deeply moved
by his work with Patrick that he obtained permission
from his wife Lisa to share his story with me. I need to share with you
just a bit of it now, since Patrick’s experience
of learning how to die, what Socrates said is the most
important work we have to do, is one of the reasons
I decided to embark on my own psychedelic
journey of research. In the course of four
or five hours spent laying on a couch in the
treatment room at NYU, wearing eye shades and
listening through headphones to a specially curated playlist,
Patrick underwent a journey by turns wrenching and ecstatic. In his journal, he likened
the start of that journey to the launch of
the space shuttle. That’s me hunting for
psilocybin mushrooms, but this is what I
want to show you. This is the setup in
the treatment room. And that’s the
therapist, the guide, and that’s the volunteer. And that’s the spiritual
tchotchkes they put all around. In his journal, he likened
the start of that journey to the launch of the space
shuttle, a physically– this is his words– a physically
violent and rather clunky liftoff, which
eventually gave way to the blissful serenity
of weightlessness. Early on, he re-experienced
the trauma of his birth, but as both mother and child. Tony’s session notes say Patrick
drew his knees up to his chest, convulsed, and when it was
over began to cry softly, saying twice, birth and death is
a lot of work, birth and death is a lot of work. And then, oh God, it all
makes sense now, so simple, so beautiful. Metas also took an
internal tour of his body. I went into my lungs
and saw two spots. They were no big
deal, Metas recalled. I was being told without words
not to worry about the cancer. It’s minor in the
scheme of things, simply an imperfection
of your humanity. Then he experienced what he
described as a brief death. I approached what appeared to
be a very sharp, pointed piece of stainless steel. It had a razor
blade quality to it. I continued up the apex of
this shiny metal object, and as I arrived, I had
a choice, to look or not look over the edge and
into the infinite abyss, the vastness of the universe,
the eye of everything, of nothing. I was hesitant,
but not frightened. I wanted to go all in but felt
that if I did I would possibly leave my body permanently. Death from this life. But it was not a
difficult decision. I knew there was much
more for me here. Telling his guide
about the decision, he explained that he was not
ready to jump off and leave Lisa, his wife. When Lisa came to pick
him up after the session, Patrick looked as though
he’d run a marathon, but also radiant. He told her he had
touched the face of God. Patrick lived for 17 months
after his psychedelic journey, and Lisa reports
he was a changed man, able to enjoy
the time remaining to him free from the
debilitating fear and anxiety that had
plagued him before. The siege of his terror
had been lifted somehow. We still had our
arguments, Lisa recalls, but Patrick had a
sense of patience he had never had before. And with me he had real
joy about things, she said. It was as if he had been
relieved of the duty of caring about the details of life. Now it was all about
being with people, enjoying his sandwich and
the walk on the promenade. It was as if we lived
a lifetime in a year. Metas spent his good days
walking around the city. They lived in Brooklyn. He would walk everywhere, try
every restaurant for lunch, and tell me about all these
great places he discovered. But his good days
got fewer and fewer. In March 2012, he
decided to stop chemo. He didn’t want to
die, she said, but I think he just decided that this
was not how he wanted to live. In April, his lungs
failing, Metas wound up back in the hospital. He gathered everyone together,
this is his wife’s words, and said good bye, and
explained that this is how he wanted to die. He had a very conscious death. Metas’s equanimity
in the face of death exerted a powerful influence on
everyone around him, Lisa said. And his room in the palliative
care unit at Mount Sinai became a center of
gravity in the hospital. Everyone, she said, the
nurses and the doctors, wanted to hang out in our room. They just didn’t want to leave. When Tony Bossis visited
Metas the week before he died, he was struck by
Metas’s serenity. Patrick was consoling me. He said his biggest sadness
was leaving his wife, but he was not afraid. It is very strange to feel
something akin to envy for someone dying of cancer. But hearing Patrick’s
story, I realized this man had acquired that
essential knowledge so few of us ever will,
which is how to die with equanimity, without fear. Somehow I didn’t
completely understand the mystical experience he
had in that room at NYU, courtesy of a molecule
produced by a mushroom, had showed him how to die. Thank you very much.

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