Michael Pollan, Sam Harris & Others Explain How Psychedelics Can Change Your Mind

You may nev­er have tried psy­che­del­ic sub­stances. You may nev­er have had an inter­est in try­ing psy­che­del­ic sub­stances. But if you’re read­ing this, you do have a mind, and you’ve almost cer­tain­ly felt some curios­i­ty about how that mind works. As any engi­neer knows, one of the short­est routes to under­stand­ing how a machine works is to dis­rupt its nor­mal oper­a­tions. Psy­che­delics do just that for your brain, shift­ing your con­scious­ness into a new per­spec­tive that can offer insights into your very per­cep­tions of real­i­ty. Or at least they do it in the view of Michael Pol­lan, Sam Har­ris, Jacob Sil­va, Ben Goertzel, and Matthew John­son.

The more famil­iar you are with cur­rent psy­che­delics research, the more of those names you’ll know. Pol­lan, who made his name writ­ing about food, stars in the Big Think video above about the sci­en­tif­ic renais­sance of mind-alter­ing drugs. “The brain is a hier­ar­chi­cal sys­tem, and the default mode net­work appears to be at the top,” he explains. That net­work is “the orches­tra con­duc­tor or cor­po­rate exec­u­tive. You take that out of the pic­ture, and sud­den­ly you have this upris­ing from oth­er parts of the brain and you have net­works that don’t ordi­nar­i­ly com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er sud­den­ly strik­ing up con­ver­sa­tions.”

Psy­che­del­ic sub­stances do this, mean­ing that when they’re in use, “you might have the visu­al cor­tex talk­ing to the audi­to­ry sys­tem, and sud­den­ly you’re see­ing music.” Any music-lover would feel at least some desire for the same expe­ri­ence. And even those with­out any inter­est in music would sure­ly like to enjoy for them­selves what Sam Har­ris describes feel­ing dur­ing one of his own psy­che­del­ic expe­ri­ences: “There was a whole veneer of fear, frankly, that I did­n’t know was there that got stripped away,” leav­ing a “naked aware­ness of the present moment.”

This may sound sim­i­lar to the kind of state com­mon­ly ascribed to inten­sive med­i­ta­tion, and indeed, Har­ris — him­self a prac­ti­tion­er and advo­cate of med­i­ta­tive prac­tice — acknowl­edges it as anoth­er path to the same des­ti­na­tion. But for some peo­ple, Har­ris says, “tak­ing a drug is the only way they’re going to notice that it’s pos­si­ble to have a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence of the world.” Even if we’re not so “lumpen and un-inquis­i­tive,” we still may not have seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered the range of ben­e­fits psy­che­delics could offer human­i­ty. “Many of the dis­or­ders that psy­che­delics appear to treat well are man­i­fes­ta­tions of a stuck brain,” Pol­lan says, “a mind that’s telling itself destruc­tive sto­ries like, ‘I can’t get through the day with­out a cig­a­rette,’ ‘I’m unwor­thy of love,’ ‘My work is shit.’ ”

The Unit­ed States was actu­al­ly con­duct­ing research into psy­che­del­ic drugs up until the ear­ly 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s admin­is­tra­tion made them ille­gal due to their poten­tial to sap the will of the men who were sup­posed to fight the Viet­nam War. (“He may well have been right,” Pol­lan acknowl­edges.) But now our soci­ety has found itself in a “men­tal health cri­sis,” as John­son, a psy­che­del­ic-sub­stance researcher at Johns Hop­kins, puts it in the brief explain­er just above, we’ll have to explore all pos­si­ble avenues — even pre­vi­ous­ly closed ones — in order to change our minds.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How to Use Psy­che­del­ic Drugs to Improve Men­tal Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

Psilo­cy­bin Could Soon Be a Legal Treat­ment for Depres­sion: Johns Hop­kins Pro­fes­sor, Roland Grif­fiths, Explains How Psilo­cy­bin Can Relieve Suf­fer­ing

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

New LSD Research Pro­vides the First Images of the Brain on Acid, and Hints at Its Poten­tial to Pro­mote Cre­ativ­i­ty

Inside MK-Ultra, the CIA’s Secret Pro­gram That Used LSD to Achieve Mind Con­trol (1953–1973)

Aldous Hux­ley, Psy­che­delics Enthu­si­ast, Lec­tures About “the Vision­ary Expe­ri­ence” at MIT (1962)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Michael Johnson says:

    Pret­ty cool! Thanks. NOVA just had a show on heal­ing and pyschedelics, so all of this if final­ly going very main­stream.

    Just one error:

    “Or at least they do it in the view of Michael Pol­lan, Sam Har­ris, Jacob Sil­va, Ben Goertzel, and Matthew John­son.”

    That’s JASON Sil­va, not Jacob.

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