The Tim Ferriss Show: Michael Pollan – Exploring The New Science of Psychedelics

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The Origins of Michael’s Research into Psychedelics
  • Michael likes to think of himself as a nature writer – writing about the relationships between humans and other species
  • We use plants to change our experience of consciousness 
    • “There is not a culture on earth that doesn’t use some plant or fungi to alter consciousness, with one notable exception – the Inuit”
  • Michael recalls hearing about research involving psilocybin being used to reduce end of life anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients
    • “The experience had completely reset their thinking about mortality. It had given them a mystical experience, that dissolved their egos, and made them think about their place in the world in such a novel way, that dying lost its sting.”
    • Check out I Took a Psychedelic Drug for My Cancer Anxiety. It Changed My Life by Dinah Bazer, Time
    • Hearing about these experiences, made him interested in going much deeper
What are psychedelics?
  • They were first called psychotomimetics in the early 1950s – as in the compounds mimicked psychosis
  • Others called them psycholitics – meaning “mind loosening”
  • The term “psychedelic” was coined in 1957 by Humphry Osmond. He corresponded with Aldous Huxley in his research.
    • Psychedelic means “mind manifesting” – it’s a compound that helps the mind manifest its deepest qualities
  • To Michael, psychedelics include – Magic Mushrooms/PsilocybinDMT, LSD, Mescalin, and others that are unified by the fact that they work on similar receptor networks in the brain
    • Michael doesn’t like to think of MDMA as part of this group
Michael’s new book – How to Change Your Mind
  • It’s dedicated to his father
    • He was very sick while he was writing it with terminal cancer, and died in January of this year
    • “In a way, I wish my father were able to have one of these experiences [with psychedelics]”
    • “One of the big things our egos defend us against is death. So when we’re confronted by it, we figure out a million ways to think about something else.”
      • Michael’s own psychedelic experiences, and the amount of thought he’d personally given to dying, allowed him to better deal with his father’s death
  • Did Michael go into writing this book with the intention of having his own experiences?
    • In short, no
    • Michael gradually became convinced by the authority of people talking to him, about their transformative experiences
    • “Each of my own psychedelic journeys that I had for the book were preceded by a sleepless night of incredible anxiety.”
      • He realizes now, that that voice was his ego defending itself against the “assault to come” 
  • Michael tends to write in an interesting way
    • “I don’t like to write as an expert. I like writing close to the beginning of the learning curve. Reader’s probably don’t like being lectured at by highly experienced experts. I think they’d rather come on a journey of education with you.”
What do we currently know (or suspect) about the neuroscience behind the effects of psychedelic compounds?
  • Psilocybin or LSD links to the same receptors that SSRIs engage with
    • After this – we don’t have a clue what’s going on
  • From using fMRIs to image the brains of people of psychedelics, we’ve learned activity in the brain is depressed, particularly in the Default Mode Network (DMN)
    • This is where the brain goes when it’s not busy – to worry, daydream, ruminate etc.
    • The DMN is a linked set of structures, including the prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and other structures involved with memory and emotions
    • The DMN is very important, and is involved in a range of meta-cognitive functions, involved in self-reflection and rumination, time travel (thinking about the past/future), and the autobiographical self
    • In the DMN we integrate what’s happening to us, with the narrative we have of who we are
    • “To have a sense of self, that’s consistent over time, even though it’s completely illusory, the work of constructing that happens in parts of the DMN” – so really the DMN = our ego
    • The higher a drop in DMN activity, the more likely someone is liable to report they experienced ego dissolution 
      • Ego dissolution is almost like a rehearsal for death – this is what may help terminally ill cancer patients
    • Another point – studies at Yale showed the brains of very experienced meditators look very similar to the brains of people on psilocybin 
      • Meditation is another way to quiet the DMN
      • There’s probably several others – like fasting or floating in a sensory deprivation tank
  • Connections in the human brain change during a psychedelic experience
    • When you turn off the DMN – other networks that don’t ordinarily talk with each other, spike up conversations
    • Why? – Perhaps because the DMN isn’t requiring these connections to come through its hub
    • Take a look  – REALLY CLICK THIS
    • “These new connections may manifest as new perspectives, new ideas, new metaphors. By temporarily disrupting the order of the brain, a new order forms. That new order may have incredible value in mental health, psychology, and creativity.”
What psychedelics studies have been most memorable or surprising for Michael?
  • One in 2006 done by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins
  • A smoking study
    • Long-Term Follow-Up of Psilocybin-Facilitated Smoking Cessation by Matthew W. Johnson et al., The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse
    • 80% of people who went through the process (2-3 psychedelic experiences with some cognitive therapy) were confirmed abstinent at the end of the study
    • Why did this happen? – Participants describe an experience that put their life in a new context, something like -“My breath is the elixir of life, and it’s dumb to damage my breath”
  • A hallmark of psychedelic experiences – The things you think you know, but really only exist on the top of consciousness, suddenly set down roots deep in your subconscious and become rock solid convictions that you believe more than anything you’ve ever believed before.”
    • “Psychedelics have the ability to reinforce an idea we already know, or should know better, and make it powerful enough to actually guide our behavior”
Why have psychedelic compounds been unavailable for medical trials for so long?
  • Treatment resistant depression
    • “Our mental healthcare system is badly broken”
    • Rates of depression and suicide are rising dramatically – we’re in a crisis
    • SSRIs are only somewhat effective and their effect appears to fade over time
  • Addiction
    • There are studies underway with psilocybin and alcohol addiction at NYU
    • There is work planned to look at psilocybin and opiate addiction
    • We know Ibogaine works to treat addiction
  • MDMA was recently granted break through therapy designation to expidate the process of phase 3 trials for treating PTSD
  • The classic psychedelics are not addictive, so it’s not like you’re using one addictive drug to treat addiction to another addictive drug
  • The founder of Alcoholic’s Anonymous originally planned to incorporate LSD into the treatment program
Why have psychedelic compounds been unavailable for medical trials for so long?
  • Research with psychedelics was halted in the 1960s and is just now starting to get going again
  • There was a this divide between younger people, who were experimenting with psychedelics, and an older generation who was very against them
    • This led to the government coming down hard… Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America”
  • Could this happen again?
    • Probably not according to Michael – psychedelics are not so strange anymore, many of the people in charge have used them themselves
    • There would just be too much backlash
    • “I think that this work dealing with PTSD and the existential distress of cancer patients, wins the sympathy of the public”
What are the risks of these psychedelic compounds?
  • There is no known lethal dose of psilocybin or LSD
  • The risks are more psychological in origin
    • They disarm our usual defenses, and without these we can get into trouble
      • People have walked into traffic or stepped off of buildings while unsupervised on psychedelics
    • Psychedelics can be a trigger for Schizophrenia 
    • Panic attacks can be more common while on psychedelics – aka bad trips
      • Bad trips can be averted by having an experienced guide, but they can also be very useful to people if properly analyzed
      • Very much to the contrary, bad trips do often not translate to long term negative outcomes. They can give you much more sympathy for the mentally ill.
  • It’s important to note – all drugs have risk
    • The biological risks of psychedelics are minor compared to drugs we take routinely
    • “Because psychedelics are illicit, they’re surrounded by penumbra of fear”
Perhaps anxiety, depression, OCD, and eating disorders are not as different as we think?
  • We are close to developing “the grand unified theory of mental illness”
  • Why is it that psychedelics have such profound effects with all of the above illnesses? – Maybe they’re rooted in the same areas of the brain and aren’t so different after all
  • The names we give the above are artifacts of the insurance industry – we have to assign a number to every diagnosis, so we tend to separate things
    • “Depression is regret about the past, and anxiety is regret about the future, so the only difference, is tense”
  • Check out this paper on the entropic brain – The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs by Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
    • Summary – The brain has a certain order which is enforced/regulated by the DMN and the ego is the felt version of that
    • In many people, that order gets overaly rigid
    • Our brains function along a spectrum, from entropy to rigidity
      • On the entropy end – this is childhood consciousness
      • The other end – ailments consistent with too much order (anxiety, obsession, addiction, depression)
      • You really want to be in the middle
      • Psychedelics work by increasing the amount of entropy in the brain
Why do some of these compounds seem to have a long-term effect that far exceeds its presence in the body?
  • We don’t understand the mechanism
  • An analogy for what’s happening – if you’re on a ski mountain, over time, ruts develop and you tend to follow those same ruts/paths to go down the mountain
    • After a psychedelic experience, those ruts are removed, and you’re forced to develop new paths within the brain
  • Repetition then reinforces these new paths/links 
    • How? – meditation, or just simply replaying the experiencing in your head. This is why the reintegration period following the psychedelic experience is so important.
Michael’s Experience With Psychedelics
  • Michael has had guided experiences with LSD, psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT, and Ayahuasca
  • The most useful was a guided psilocybin journey with a women on the east coast (probably at Johns Hopkins)
    • Michael took a little less than what’s been used in the current clinical trials
    • For the first time, he experienced ego dissolution – “I was able to perceive this whole scene with this dispassionate objectivity”
      • “It made me realize I am not identical to my ego, that chattering voice in my head”
      • The experience, Michael claims, changed his relationship with his ego – “I know when he’s up to his old tricks, and sometimes I can put him back in his place”
    • He ate the mushrooms with chocolate
    • He wore eye shades
    • A booster dose was given
    • “I became identical with the music”
  • If you get anxious, remember your flight instructions
    • If you experience/see anything scary, don’t step away from it – surrender and confront
  • “A mystical or spiritual experience is what happens when your ego gets put aside. It’s about a sense of merging with something larger than you, and its your ego that stands in the way.”
  • A psychedelic experience allows someone to feel and experience things, that would be very hard to talk themselves into
    • “There are things that are difficult to talk your way out of, if you didn’t talk your way in” – WOW
How does Michael think psychedelics might help us solve what he believes to be society’s biggest problems?
  • “The two biggest challenges we face as a culture are the environmental crisis and tribalism, both of which are functions of ego consciousness”
    • What we do to nature – we think of ourselves as the only subject and everything else as an object for our use
    • Tribalism is the sense of ego patrolling a border – everything on this side is “us”, and everything on that side is in contest with us
  • Psychedelics offer an antidote to both ways of thinking
    • “The world becomes animate in a way it wasn’t before. You feel very connected, in a way that makes it hard to be destructive.”
How might we gently caution overenthusiastic psychedelic proponents away from messing things up for the rest of us (again)?
  • Carelessness is a great threat
  • Throughout history, psychedelics have only been used in a very controlled and considered way
    • People didn’t take them alone. They were taken with an experienced elder in a ritualistic fashion.
    • “A guide, whether a friend, or someone who is well trained or experienced, makes all the difference”
    • “A guide created a space for me in which I could surrender and put down all my senses. I’m not going to do that, taking psychedelics and walking around Manhattan.”
Michael’s Parting Thoughts
  • Tim HIGHLY recommends Michael’s new book
  • Michael says he isn’t an advocate YET, for psychedelics, but “we have to support the research to understand the mind” 
    • Psychedelics are a really powerful tool for doing just that
    • For the second time – Tim hints at writing a book about psychedelics
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Notes By MMiller

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