Michael Pollan: Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics – The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • Psychedelics (psilocybin in particular – the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) have been found to be useful for treating the following:
    • End of life anxiety in cancer patients
    • A variety of addictions – OCD, alcoholism, smoking
  • Current and future studies plan to examine the effectiveness of using psilocybin to treat depression
    • Besides the recent approval of a ketamine nose spray, there haven’t been any new tools approved for the treatment of depression since antidepressants first appeared in the late 1980s
  • What else might psychedelics be medically used for?
    • The treatment of opiate addiction, eating disorders, and demoralization in AIDS patients
    • Helping individuals cope after learning they have certain conditions (like Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, etc.)
  • Why are psychedelics so effective at treating so many things?
    • In general (at high enough doses), they result in a true mind reset
  • Mental healthcare in the U.S. (and the rest of the world) is broken
  • Psychedelics decrease activity in a part of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN)
    • If the ego had an address, that’s where it would be
    • When we’re thinking about the future or past, we’re using the DMN
    • Interestingly – very experienced meditators have reduced activity in their DMNs
  • One of the major challenges that lies ahead is the funding of psychedelic research
    • Trials are very expensive to run

Books Mentioned:


The Term “Psychedelic”

  • It means “mind manifesting” 
    • It’s suggesting that these drugs bring the mind into an observable space
  • Psychedelics were originally called “psychotomimetics”
    • Why? – They appeared to imitate psychosis, and were a good way to help therapists “understand the mind of the mad man”

The Dark Age of Psychedelics

  • Lots of psychedelic research was being done throughout Europe and America in the 1950s
    • Specifically – research related to healing depression, end of life anxiety associated with cancer patients etc.
    • “It was a very promising period of research”
  • In the 1960s, the drugs started being embraced by the counterculture
  • Soon enough, there was a turn against psychedelics ~1965, leading to a moral panic about the class of drugs
    • Richard Nixon regarded LSD as one of the reasons that men were not willing to go fight in Vietnam
    • The media turned against psychedelics as well and started to demonize them
      • Why? – A few reasons, but the largest being that the media often follows the government
  • Research eventually grinded to a halt

The Current Psychedelic Renaissance

  • Research with psychedelics has picked back up again at places like Johns Hopkins and NYU
  • What has the new age of research shown so far?
    • One study at Roland’s lab showed that psychedelics were effective at treating end of life anxiety in cancer patients
    • Psychedelics have been found to be effective at treating various addictions
      • These include smoking, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and alcoholism
  • What’s next?
    • Current and future studies plan to examine the effectiveness of using psilocybin to treat depression
      • Besides the recent approval of a ketamine nose spray, there haven’t been any new tools approved for the treatment of depression since antidepressants first appeared in the late 1980s
    • Other planned studies include examining the effectiveness of psychedelics for the treatment of eating disorders
  • Important points:
    • It’s important to note that all these studies are GUIDED and do not involve recreational psychedelic experiences
    • LSD is not being used in research, only psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms)
      • Why?
        • It’s very controversial
        • Practicality – an LSD trip lasts from 6-10 hours while a psilocybin trip is 4-6 (you can fit it into a work day)

Why do psychedelics appear to work so well at treating so many things?

  • In general:
    • “These drugs make it possible to break out of repetitive loops and destructive narratives about yourself” 
      • AKA – “I’m not worthy of love” or “I can’t make it through the day without X”
  • Many of the people who undergo these psychedelic treatments/experiences say it’s one of the 2-3 most meaningful experiences of their life
    • In a way, it’s like a “reverse trauma”
  • A lot of it comes down to the “ego dissolution”
    • “It is your ego, in a way, that writes and enforces those destructive narratives”
    • “The ego builds walls…. and when you bring down those walls in the psyche, there’s less of a distinction between you and the other”
  • It’s only a temporary experience but it has such a remarkable authority
  • “It’s a real reset of the mind”
  • And perhaps the most important point:
    • Depression, anxiety, addiction, OCD etc. – perhaps they’re not all that different
      • “Depression is regret about the past, anxiety is regret about the future”
      • Addiction and depression often exist together
      • Anxiety, depression, OCD are all characterized by obsessive thinking to one degree or another/a rigid brain

What Michael Learned From a High Dose Psilocybin Experience

  • In Michael’s Book, How to Change Your Mind, he recounts a few of his own psychedelic experiences
    • These included a LSD experience, a couple of Ayahuasca experiences, a few psilocybin experiences, and one 5-MeO-DMT trip which Michael calls “terrifying”
  • From one of his high dose, guided (by someone he really trusted) psilocybin experiences, Michael recounts:
    • On losing his ego – “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life”
      • “In the calmness of this perspective, I realized that I’m not identical to my ego…that I can let my ego go and not be obliterated”
        • Mostly everyone assumes they’re identical to their ego (the constant chattering in our head) – it’s not the case
        • “The ego is only one character in the drama going on inside your head”
    • “I merged with the music…there was no space between me and the music, I was it”
    • “I became a much better meditator after this experience. I had an idea of the space I wanted to get to.”
    • Michael says he became a lot more spiritual after the experience and changed his idea of what spirituality actually is
      • He used to think to be spiritual meant believing in the supernatural
      • “This experience…especially the merging that went on, made me realize that the opposite of spiritual is not material, it’s egotistical. It is our ego that keeps us from the profound connections – whether with our loved ones, humanity, or a piece of music. THAT’s the wall. If you can bring down that wall…that to me is a spiritual experience.”

The State of Mental Healthcare

  • “Mental healthcare is really broken in this country, and in rest of the world as well”
    • If you compare it to any other branch of medicine, like cardiology, oncology etc. – they’ve all made HUGE strides in the last 50 years – while mental healthcare hasn’t at all
      • Suicide rates are rising
      • Anxiety/depression are more prevalent than ever
    • “Mental health professionals are at a loss”
    • Because of this – many people in the medical field are starting to open up to the idea of using psychedelics to treat these conditions
      • “If you go to any psychiatry department around the country right now, they’re talking about psychedelics”

The Ego

  • We don’t really know how psychedelics work their magic
    • They all bind to the same receptor (Serotonin 2A) and then……?
  • But one thing we do know…
    • Psychedelics decrease activity in the default mode network (DMN)
      • If the ego had an address – that’s where it would be
      • When we’re thinking about the future or past – we’re using the DMN
      • The DMN is involved in self-reflection
        • Think about what a “self” is – it’s everything that’s happened to us in the past and our objectives for the future
      • When the DMN activity is reduced, here’s what happens – all these different parts of the brain start communicating with each other
    • Interestingly – very experienced meditators have reduced activity in their DMNs
  • A good thought:
    • “There are very good reasons to have an ego – the ego got my book written and it does all this other good stuff, but an overactive ego is a tyrant”

What are the current bottlenecks of psychedelic research? What’s the path forward?

  • Here’s how the FDA approval process for drugs works:
    • Phase 1 – pilot studies, no placebo
    • Phase 2 – a placebo-controlled trial
    • Phase 3 – just a larger phase 2
  • If you surpass the above and show the drug is both safe and effective, the FDA will approve it as a medicine
    • For psychedelics – “We’re not that far away from that happening. It could happen within 5 years.” – For MDMA and psilocybin
      • MDMA is slightly further ahead at the moment and is currently in phase 3 trials for the treatment of certain traumas
  • The FDA has granted “breakthrough therapy status” to both psilocybin and MDMA
    • What does this mean? – The FDA will actively help the researchers design trials that will quickly move these drugs to approval
  • But the challenge….these studies are extremely expensive (they cost millions to run)
    • The government won’t fund them – it’s too controversial (people would get upset about using tax dollars for this)
    • All research has been privately funded by foundations and individuals
  • And then there’s the issue of figuring out the business model
    • “The pharmaceutical industry just isn’t interested in a drug you only take once”
    • Also consider therapists – their income depends on you coming back consistently, so they obviously don’t love this
  • “You’re not just prescribing a drug, you’re prescribing an experience”
  • AND…
    • “I do worry that there could be another backlash”
      • The press around psychedelics is currently good, but who knows what might happen

Important Points

  • Psychedelics are not addictive
  • They are very NON-toxic
    • We don’t even know the lethal dose of LSD and psilocybin
  • But the risks are real
    • Using psychedelics in the wrong set/setting can lead to potential psychotic breaks
    • There are people who have trips so bad that they’re traumatizing
    • About 8% of people who use psilocybin recreationally report seeking psychiatric help at some point after the experience
  • BUT – Having a guide you’re comfortable with severely reduces the risk associated with taking these drugs

What’s one area of psychedelic research Michael is most excited about?

  • Using them to help people cope with new conditions
    • For example – People who have just learned they have Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS, Parkinson’s etc. – “They go through a very difficult psychological passage and I think these medicines could help people in all these areas”

Other Possible Psychedelic Treatments

  • Opiate addiction 
    • 70,000 people in 2018 died from opiate overdoses (50,000 people died in the entire Vietnam war)
  • Treating demoralization in AIDS patients

More Psychedelic Related Resources

Want to contribute to psychedelic research?

If you were to ask how to find a psychedelic guide…

  • Read some of the books that MAPS.org has published so you understand what a good guide looks like:
  • Michael also recommends – The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by James Fadiman
  • Or…..
    • There are legal ketamine clinics all over the country
      • “If a ketamine therapist doesn’t think you’re right for ketamine, they’re often in a position to make a referral”
  • Other points
    • Interview several people
    • “You’ll know when someone has the right head for you. If you have any doubts…stay away.”


  • One of the common traits of a psychedelic experience is called synesthesia (your senses blend together)
    • So sound gets projected visually (if that makes sense), especially if you have eye shades on
  • Stan Grof has famously said – “Psychedelics would be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy and the microscope was for biology
  • Check out a new documentary coming out soon – Fantastic Fungi

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

Tim Ferriss Show : , , , , ,
Notes By MMiller

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