DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we're marking the centennial of the birth of psychologist Timothy Leary, considered the father of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and its experiments with mind-altering drugs. He was born 100 years ago yesterday. We'll listen to an excerpt of our 1983 interview with him and with Richard Alpert, who conducted research with Leary in the 1960s and later became known as Ram Dass. And we'll hear about much more recent research into the therapeutic benefits of LSD and other psychedelics in an interview with journalist Michael Pollan.
In 1960, Leary joined the faculty of Harvard at the Center for Personality Research, where he analyzed the effects of psychedelics on personality. It was there that he met and worked with Richard Alpert. As part of his research, Leary introduced LSD and other psychedelic drugs to many and also used them himself. Leary eventually was asked to leave the university and later served time in jail on drug charges. Terry spoke with Timothy Leary in 1983.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Timothy Leary, I want to welcome you to FRESH AIR.
TIMOTHY LEARY: Happy to be here.
GROSS: Your initial experience or initial way of working with psychedelic drugs was as a researcher. What exactly were you trying to find out?
LEARY: Well, I was a psychologist in 1960. I had written a couple of books on psychodiagnosis and evaluation of psychotherapy. And I discovered what almost everyone else had discovered, that talk therapy just didn't change people. One third would get better. One third stayed the same. One third would get worse. The same thing happened if you talked to a bartender or the neighbor next door. So we were really looking around feverishly for some way to help people change their minds.
And a friend of mine, a professor named Frank Barron, had told me about the mushrooms of Mexico which seemed to alter consciousness, give you new perspectives, tap into new brain circuits. So in the summer of 1966, I had this experience, saw immediately that it does bring about changes in awareness. And we started what became known as the Harvard Psilo Drug Project, that the - after three years, we had about 35 instructors - faculty members from the psychology department, from the divinity department, from MIT. And we turned on almost 2,000 people during this three-year period.
GROSS: What was the turning point for Harvard where they decided that this wasn't such a good idea for them, and they'd better disaffiliate with you?
LEARY: Well, we all realized that the university, which is either tax-supported or - of course, Harvard University is - it's a training school for the elite to go down to Washington or to Wall Street to run, you know, Protestant America. That's - it's not fair to Harvard to have it become the experimental proving ground for a new form of psychology which was to radically change our concept of human nature. And that's what we think did happen in the '60s. It was a return to the old notion of individuality, of looking within, doing your own thing.
It goes back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is mentioned in "Flashbacks" as one of our heroes, who said self-reliance - who got kicked out of Harvard, by the way, in 1838 for saying pretty much what we said. We felt that - and it has, I think, been proven to be true that the new version, the new vision of human nature is that you can evolve. You can go within. You can grow inner development. All these notions would seem so cliche today. There are hundreds and hundreds of schools and gurus and theories to do it now. This was totally unknown when we started our research in 1960.
GROSS: How lasting in your own life did you find the peak high experiences to be? Like, when you'd have a really good trip and would feel a very joyous experience and feel a very mystical experience, how much of it did it last, and how much was integrated after the trip ended?
LEARY: That's a hard question to answer because during a mushroom trip or a peyote trip or an LSD trip, your brain is zinging along at about a million miles an hour. And literally - even if you've been high on grass, you know, you think an hour has gone by, and it's only one half cut of a record. Because of time distortion, you're simply experiencing so much that you think it's a long time, and it's not. OK. I think the main thing you get from a mind-changing experience is the great discovery that there are many dimensions of reality and that your mind can become a telescope, a microscope, an electron microscope. The peak moments don't last, but you don't want them to last.
That's the great thing about sex, for example. You don't want to be walking around 24 hours a day throbbing and pulsing and twitching and moaning and groaning in an orgasm. What's special about an orgasm is it's something that you kind of develop carefully and you plan for. You - maybe your life is centered around it, but, you know, getting the nice kind of house and the flowers, and the right partner and so forth. So it was never our intention to promise or to hope for a permanent high.
The brain we now see is a network of perhaps 40 billion microcomputers hooked up in a network. And there are infinite ways you can program and reprogram your brain. And there are times - you know, when my airplane pilot tonight - when I'm flying to Boston, I don't want him to be hallucinating up there in the cockpit thinking about how grand the universe is. I want him to be, you know, watching the runway. I don't want him high on grass because I don't want him to be turned on by the pretty lights. I want him to be straight. On the other hand, I think he's a better pilot if on a weekend he has some way of relaxing, and loosening up and getting a broader perspective than just being a robot pilot because I think that boredom is what causes most crashes. So the idea of a permanent high or coming down is not - never been our goal.
GROSS: When you started turning people on in the early '60s, you would do it under pretty controlled circumstances. You were there to be a guide. You had done it a lot of times before and knew somewhat of what to expect. Of course, everybody would react differently. But you'd be able to understand their reaction and if they were having a bad trip, to help them with it and if they were having a good one to, you know, help them enjoy themselves or develop whatever it was they were thinking about. When psychedelic drugs started spreading later on in the '60s, there wasn't - there were some people who had guides and other people who were really less informed about what to do and how to handle the new experience that they'd be having. What did you think about then? Like, what did you think about the multitude (laughter) of people taking it, some of them not really understanding the power of the experience that was about to happen to them?
LEARY: Well, we were - first of all, were shocked to see that this was happening, and we were disturbed. No. 1, of course, is the problem that they weren't taking LSD. There was no legal LSD in this country after 1966. So there are about 7 or 8 million people who took bathtub LSD or garage LSD or bootleg LSD. And if they were lucky, they got something that was reasonably good, but most of it was laced with speed or God knows what. This was a cause of tremendous concern to us. Now, as far as the wisdom of preparing yourself for a good trip, it's plain, old common sense. And the same rule works. And we used to laugh - you know, we're writing these manuals.
All right. You should know what you're doing. You should do it in a beautiful place. You should do it in a place where you're secure and comfortable. You should do it with people that you respect and love. You should do it with people that if any worry comes along, will be able to guide you through it. Now, I'm not talking about LSD. I'm talking about life. I'm talking about making love. I'm talking about working. You should do all these things with a sense of preparation and setting and companionship. And you shouldn't do it alone, unprepared, in a strange place where the vibrations can be unfriendly or police can be around whether you're going to make love or whether you're going to take LSD or whatever.
GROSS: People always speculate about what the effects are of taking a lot of psychedelics. And, probably, you're one of the best-equipped people in the country to respond to that. You've probably done more than, really, about anybody else has. People always wonder, you know, if their memory loss is a result of drugs that they've done or whatever. You know, what do you think? Judging from your own experience, do you have any physical or psychological - I'm not talking about spiritual things, you know? But...
LEARY: You know, it's impossible to answer that question. I'm 62 years old. I'm one of the most active 62-year-old you'll ever find. And I've just got a bestselling book out. And people can read that and judge for themselves. I don't know what I'd be like if I hadn't taken drugs, so it's hard to say. I must tell you this - and anyone who's listening to this program should listen carefully to what I'm saying now. Although I have tremendous courage and almost no stress or fear, I've been very cautious. I've taken, maybe, LSD maybe a thousand times. But I've always known where that drug came from.
I've never taken - I would never take a drug that I didn't have the pedigree of. I would never take a street drug. I've turned down thousands of mushrooms and plants and strange little capsules and funny little pills. I will never take anything unless I know, nor will I take any drug unless it's in the circumstances which are absolutely serene. And I'm very conservative about when and where, although I am very courageous and will take anything. If a friend of mine is a pharmacologist who says, try this, I'll try it. But prudence and intelligence is the way to live long and happily. And I wish it all to your audience.
GROSS: I want to thank you very, very much for speaking with us. Thanks for being here.
LEARY: Great pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Timothy Leary speaking to Terry Gross in 1983. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth. After a break, we'll hear from one of Leary's colleagues in the early research into psychedelics, Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN ANALOG SET SONG, "THE ONLY ONE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're marking the centennial of the birth of psychologist Timothy Leary, considered the father of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s and its experiments with mind-altering drugs. In the early 1960s, Richard Alpert was a Harvard professor of psychology conducting clinical research into the use of psychedelics. He and his colleague, Timothy Leary, were fired from Harvard in 1963. After continuing their experiments off campus, Alpert went to India in 1967, where he met his guru and studied yoga and meditation. His spiritual teacher gave him a new name, Ram Dass. And when Ram Dass returned to the States, he was perceived as something of a guru himself.
His 1971 book of advice, "Be Here Now," became a bestseller. When Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, his father mocked the change. And there was an enormous rift between the hippie-hero son and his father, who had served as president of the New York, New Haven Railroad. But in the last years of his father's life, Ram Dass lived with his father and cared for him. Ram Dass died last December. He was 88. Here's an excerpt of his interview with Terry from 1990.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's go back to the early '60s, when you were Richard Alpert. And you were a professor of psychology...
RAM DASS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...At Harvard University and were one of the first people, and one of the very first East Coast people, to start experimenting with LSD. What use were you putting it to in your official capacity in the university?
RAM DASS: Well, I'm a research psychologist. And that's a study of the mind - psyche logos. And these chemicals are incredible in overriding habitual ways of seeing the universe and allowing a fresh way of perceiving. And they connected me to levels of my awareness that my Western psychological framework didn't cover. And so just as a student of the mind, I started out with that exploration. In the process of my early experience, I had what, later, I could acknowledge as spiritual experiences, which for a Western social scientist, spiritual stuff was seen as, like, an anthropologist would see it or a Freudian would see it, as sublimated something or other, or, you know, the creation of the human mind. But I really tuned into a larger context in which I exist other than my material, sensual thinking context.
GROSS: So you started using LSD as part of your academic research.
RAM DASS: Yeah.
GROSS: But once you started actually taking LSD yourself, that academic research no longer seemed relevant?
RAM DASS: Well, I'll tell you, it was, because we did studies to show - and I think that it's painful to me that - our zeal to say no to drugs. We have not differentiated between the tryptamines, for example, the psychedelics, which have potential for social change, for use. Like, we worked with prisoners in prisons where the recidivism rate is so bad. We - working in marriages, working with dying people to help them extricate themselves from identification with being that which dies. There were tremendous potential uses, all of which have been - the research has been wiped out by the society's fear of drugs other than for liquor and, you know, things like that.
But - so our research continued to - we started in a naturalistic way because those kind of chemicals were seen in our society as psychotomimetic - that is, they were used by psychiatrists to parallel schizophrenia. And while in other cultures, they were used for religious and oracular processes. And we said, instead of laying a trip on them, let's just give them to people and get reports back. And let's see how they use them and build a new kind of context for them. And then we began to see how set and setting were so important, that a person could have them and have a religious experience. They could use them to escape. They could use them for creative work. They could use them for therapeutic change.
GROSS: You and Timothy Leary at Harvard started using LSD, and then Ken Kesey on the West Coast started using it, I think in very different ways, in a different setting. Did you have any conflicts with Kesey about what LSD should mean in the society, how it should be used?
RAM DASS: Well, we were...
GROSS: ...Who should be taking it?
RAM DASS: ...Somewhere in the middle because there were - I mean, we had Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts and all these people - there was a community of us that were researching. And in a way, we were saying, let's keep it reasonably quiet so we can research because it's very controversial, and it's going to upset the culture. At the same moment, we were opening the door at Harvard with students and so on. So we were partly responsible. Ken blew it apart in a way with the acid test because he made it a street scene. And that frightened the society so much it forced the laws - it forced legislation probably a couple of years before it would have happened, and maybe the research could have gotten more entrenched had there been a little more space.
GROSS: So you still regret that that research wasn't given a chance.
RAM DASS: Yeah, I regret it even now. I think it would be wonderful - not ours, not us. But, I mean, there are a lot of other people that could do research now.
GROSS: Well, eventually you went to India, studied with a teacher who became your spiritual teacher. Can you tell us something about him and about the kind of spiritual path you took with him?
RAM DASS: Well, meeting him was - the power of that initially was that everything that I took LSD to touch in my being, I realized he was. In fact, he actually took 900 micrograms of LSD and nothing happened to him because it's like if you're in Detroit, you don't have to take a bus to Detroit. I mean, he was that quality. He had integrated it. So it showed me the potential that a human being - he showed me what a human being could be in terms of freedom from a fixed model of himself and a quality of love that was - I experienced as unconditional because he was resting in a place in himself where he didn't want anything from me. He didn't want my money. He didn't want anything. He didn't want my love. He didn't want anything from me. He didn't even want me to change. He didn't want anything. And I had never been in the presence of somebody who didn't want something from me. I mean, that was a big thing for me. That opened my heart a great deal. And he died in 1973, and I would say he is the most real - I don't know how to say - entity in my consciousness still now, that once you have a friend like that who has that quality of compassion and has that quality of emptiness and that quality of the giggle, the cosmic giggle, you just carry that with you. And that's the way in which he continues to influence my life.
GROSS: I want to ask you a question about your father. He died in the past year. You had been living with him when you weren't on the road and helping to take care of him. He - I don't know how he was when he died. But at one point in his life, he was a wealthy man. Was there an inheritance? And how did you decide to use it?
RAM DASS: My guru said to me early on, he said, your father has money? I said, yes. He said, he going to leave it to you? I said, well, he's going to leave me a portion of it. He said, you're not to accept your inheritance. I said, boy, that's interesting. I mean, to tell that to a Jewish boy is something, you know? I couldn't tell my father because he had raised it, you know, earned it for his kids. But - and he trusted me so much, he made me the executor and all of that. But what I've done is I divided what went to my brothers, and my nephews - and nieces and nephews and then the rest of it I've given away.
GROSS: So you never told him that you weren't going to...
RAM DASS: No.
GROSS: ...Personally accept it?
RAM DASS: No. I felt that that would be hurting him.
GROSS: So you thought it was OK to not tell him the complete truth about this it sounds like?
RAM DASS: He never asked me (laughter).
RAM DASS: He just assumed. But there was some subtle thing that happened between us because the minute my guru said that, that money no longer was mine. And in some deep, psychological way, that changed my relationship to my father. After that, I wanted him to spend his money. I wanted him to - you know, there was no longer my money that he was using. And I helped him get married. I gave away the bride in his second marriage. I was close friends with him. I helped them enjoy themselves as much as I could, and he sensed that. He sensed that I didn't want something from him. And I think that's why he trusted me to give me power of attorney, to make me executor, you know, as I'm not a lawyer and so...
GROSS: Not wanting something from you...
RAM DASS: No.
GROSS: ...That's what you said you felt towards...
RAM DASS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...Your teacher that he didn't want anything from you.
RAM DASS: Exactly.
GROSS: That was very important to you.
RAM DASS: It's quite an art, isn't it? Yeah, it's quite an art.
GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.
RAM DASS: A pleasure, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Ram Dass, previously known as Richard Alpert, speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. He died last year at age 88. After a break, we'll hear from author Michael Pollan about the most recent studies and possible benefits regarding psychedelic substances. And I'll review "The Undoing," the new HBO miniseries. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "C'EST CLAIR")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today, we're marking the centennial of the birth of psychologist Timothy Leary, who led influential research in the 1960s into psychedelic drugs, using himself as a subject, as well as volunteers. That research eventually was shut down in the 1970s over concerns about the recreational use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. We're going to hear about how psychedelic drugs are having a surprising renaissance, being used experimentally in therapeutic settings to treat depression, addiction and the existential fear of death in people with cancer. Michael Pollan is the author of the 2018 book "How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression And Transcendence." As part of his research, Pollan experimented with LSD and psilocybin with the help of guides who created the setting and prepared him for the experience. His book also tells the back story of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and LSD, which was created in 1938 by a Swiss chemist working for a pharmaceutical company. Michael Pollan also is the author of the bestsellers "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany Of Desire." He teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross interviewed Michael Pollan in 2018.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So looking at how psychedelics are being used in research today, let's start with depression. How are psychedelics being used to try to treat depression? And we should preface this by saying there's a lot of frustration now about antidepressants.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. And that's part of the story. I didn't realize until I started working on this book how broken mental health care and treatment is in this country and that we really haven't had a big innovation since the late '80s with the introduction of Prozac and then the other antidepressants. And those now are turning out not to be the panacea we thought they were. Their effects are fading. People complain about the side effects, which are really severe. And they're very hard to get off. They are addictive. And they only work a little bit better than placebo in trials, which is kind of remarkable considering how many people are on them.
So there is an openness that you might not have seen 20 or 30 years ago to look for new ideas. And one of those ideas was very alive in the '50s and early '60s. And that thread of research was dropped after the moral panic about LSD. In in the early '70s, research shut down. But it was actually very promising. I didn't realize, but there had been a thousand peer-reviewed studies of psychedelics before the mid '60s, 40,000 research subjects, six international conferences on LSD conducted by psychiatrists and psychologists.
So there's an effort beginning in the '90s, a renaissance, really, to pick up that thread and see how these drugs might help. The way they're being used is in a very kind of controlled or guided setting. And, by the way, they usually use psilocybin for two reasons. One is the trip is shorter. You know, it only lasts, like, five or six hours as opposed to up to 12 hours for LSD. So that's kind of awkward. And also, LSD is just so much more controversial. It has all that political and cultural baggage from the '60s. So psilocybin, which works very similar, works on the same receptors in the brain, has similar effects is the drug of choice in the therapy.
The way it's used is they don't just give you a pill and send you home. You're in a room. You're with two guides, one male, one female. You're lying down on a comfortable couch. You're wearing headphones, listening to a really carefully curated playlist of music, instrumental compositions for the most part. And you're wearing eye shades, all of which is to encourage a very inward journey. And someone is kind of looking out for you. And they give you a set of flight instructions, as they call them, which is what to do if you get really scared, or you're beginning to have a bad trip. If you see a monster, for example, don't try to run away. Walk right up to it. Plant your feet and say, what do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind? And if you do that, according to the flight instructions, your fear will morph into something much more positive very quickly. And, in fact, that seems to be the case.
And then the session itself, where they do very little - they let your mind and the and the drug guide your journey. And it takes you on this kind of intrapsychic movie in which - let's say you're a cancer patient. You confront your cancer or your fear. And you look out and get some ideas about your mortality or your immortality, in some cases. You have what is called a mystical experience. And that is an - yeah, sorry.
GROSS: Does the therapist talk with you during during this experience?
POLLAN: Yeah. The therapist says very little. It's a very non-interventionist kind of thing 'cause the theory is that you'll go where you need to go. You'll have the kind of trip you need. So, for example, if you need to confront your mortality, that's going to happen - and that these therapists believe very much in the power of the mind to heal itself in the same way the body heals itself. So they hang back. If you get into trouble, though they might take - you know, offer a hand or a comforting word, but they try, actually, to say almost nothing because you're so suggestible. If they said something, you would have the kind of experience your therapist wants you to have. So they want to leave it open. And then after the experience, they help you integrate what happened.
GROSS: Is one of the premises of this kind of treatment for depression that when you're depressed, you get caught up in these cycles of thought and these like, tape, loops of telling yourself negative things and seeing the world in negative ways and that, through the use of a psychedelic, that you're going to almost be forced to perceive things differently, thus opening up the door into a new way of thinking?
POLLAN: Exactly right. The drugs foster new perspectives on old problems. You know, one of the things our mind does is tell stories about ourselves. And if you're depressed, you're being told a story perhaps that you're worthless, that no one, you know, could possibly love you. You're not worthy of love, that life will not get better. And these stories, which are enforced by our egos, really, trap us in these ruminative loops that are very hard to get out of. They're very destructive patterns of thought.
What the drugs appear to do is disable for a period of time the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. And it's called the default mode network. And it's a structure - it's not a structure. It's a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex, the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain, to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside. And it's a very important hub in the brain, and lots of important things happen there - self-reflection and rumination, time travel - it's where we go to think about the future or the past - and theory of mind, the ability to imagine the mental states of other beings - and I think most importantly, the autobiographical self. It's the part of the brain, it appears, where we incorporate things that happen to us - new information - with a sense of who we are, who we were and who we want to be. And that's where these stories get generated.
And these stories can be really destructive. They trap us. And what happens - and this was a big surprise with the modern period of research - that - was that this network is downregulated. It sort of goes offline for a period of time. And that's why you experience this dissolution of self or ego, which is a quite - can be a terrifying or a liberating thing depending on your mindset. And this is what allows people, I think, to have those new perspectives on themselves, to realize that they're - they needn't be trapped in those stories, and they might actually be able to write some new stories about themselves. And that's what's liberating, I think, about the experience when it works.
BIANCULLI: Michael Pollan speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COOKSHORT'S "THE SCOTTS")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2018 interview with Michael Pollan. He's the author of the book "How To Change Your Mind," which examined the history and current uses of psychedelics.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So we were talking about the use of psychedelics in treating depression and anxiety. There are also research projects now using psychedelics with people who have terminal cancer, and they're in - they're facing their death, and they're very anxious about it. So how are psychedelics being used in that setting?
POLLAN: So far, the most exciting trial, I think, has been giving it to people with life-changing diagnoses. They're not all terminal, but many of them are. And I spent a lot of time telling the story of a man named Patrick Mettes, who is a journalist in his 50s who had bile duct cancer that had spread to his lungs. And he entered the program at NYU and had an experience that - you know, it was kind of a review of his life, but it culminated in a vision of an afterlife that he found incredibly compelling. And he had a sense that his consciousness would somehow endure after his death. And he wasn't ready to go there now. But he looked out on what was this very peaceful plane of consciousness and said, OK, that's where I'll go. But I'm not ready yet. I have too much to do in this life. And I don't want to leave my wife Lisa yet. And the last 17 or so months of his life were spent without fear. He stopped his chemo at some point because he wanted - he was very concerned about the quality of the life left to him rather than the quantity, and lived his final months in a state of remarkable equanimity to the extent that when in the last few days of his life, when he was in a hospital room at Mount Sinai here in New York, the whole staff of the hospital would gravitate toward his room because of this vibe he was putting out that was so remarkable.
GROSS: What you described that this person experienced on the hallucinogenic sounds like a lot of near-death experiences that other people have described where you see that death isn't going to be terrible, that there's some kind of peaceful beyond that you'll be going to, but you still have work to do in this world so that you come back from that near-death experience. This is what I've read. This is what I've heard that some people have reported. And it's very similar to what you've just said.
POLLAN: Yeah. And we don't know what to do with that. There's no way to to prove this, obviously. And it was a question that really troubled me as an old-fashioned materialist, skeptical journalist. It's like, well, what if these drugs are inducing an illusion in people? And I got a variety of answers to that question from the researchers. One was, who cares, if it helps them? And I can see the point of that. The other was, hey, this is beyond my pay grade. None of us know what happens after we die. And others say, well, you know, this is an open frontier, that there may be consciousness that is - you know, we all assume consciousness is generated by our brains. But it's important to understand, I think the Dalai Lama said this, that's just a hypothesis. There are people who believe that consciousness is a property of the universe, like electromagnetic radiation or gravity. So, you know, we're here at the edge of knowledge, and none of us should be overly confident in what we pronounce. The experiences that people have are very real to them. They're psychological facts. And one of the really interesting qualities about psychedelic experience is that the insights you have on them have a durability. William James called it the noetic sense. This isn't just an opinion. This is revealed truth. And so the confidence people have is is hard to shake, actually.
GROSS: So as part of the research for your book, "How To Change Your Mind," about psychedelics, you wanted to try them yourself. Tell us about the most meaningful psilocybin - was it psilocybin...
POLLAN: Yeah, psilocybin.
GROSS: ...That you took? Just tell us first what advice you got beforehand.
POLLAN: Well, I worked with a guide that I call Mary in the book who was an incredibly empathetic, compassionate therapist. I had to fill out lots of medical forms. I had to fill out an autobiographical statement. She wanted to know everything about me. And then, you know, she offered me her own set of flight instructions, you know, which was that if you see something scary, don't run away. So I worked with her. And she - it was a pretty high dose. I was trying to simulate the dose being used in the clinical trials. And so I worked with about four grams of mushroom - not the derivative, but the mushroom itself. And I had an experience that was by turns, you know, frightening and ecstatic and weird. Initially, I found myself in this weird computer-generated world. It looked like the - you know that foam that you see in a recording studio full of stalactites or stalagmites? It was a world made out of that stuff for some reason. And I didn't like it. It was a product of the music I was listening to. And one of the really interesting things about psychedelics is something called synesthesia, that your senses get cross-wired so that the sounds you hear start generating palpable space.
GROSS: Was it electronic music you were listening to?
POLLAN: Well, it's interesting. I thought it was electronic music. It turned out not to be, but it sounded like electronica, and it put me in this computer space. The other reason, though, I entered a computer space is that I had brought a computer into the room to - because there was an experiment I wanted to perform. And so I had - again, you know, you mentioned set and setting. My mindset had a computer in it. And dammit I was stuck in computer world for most of this trip. After a while, I started feeling somewhat trapped in this world and I took off my eyeshades, which I was wearing, to let the world back in and reassure myself it was still existing. And then at that point, I also had to pee and I went to the bathroom and was very careful not to look in the mirror because I just did not know what I would see. And after I came back, I asked Mary - she asked me, did I want a booster dose? And I said, yes. I was in for the whole trip. So she gave me another mushroom. Anyway, when I went back under...
GROSS: So far, this is not sounding like a great trip.
GROSS: So how did it turn? Yeah.
POLLAN: It turned - it turned about now. After the booster shot, I found myself in this place where I could no longer control my perceptions at all. And I felt my sense of self scatter to the wind, almost as if a pile of Post-Its had been released to the wind. But I was fine with it. I didn't feel any desire to pile the papers back together in terms of - you know, into my customary self. And then I looked out - and I know how paradoxical this sounds. I looked out and saw myself spread over the landscape like a coat of paint or butter. I was outside myself. And the consciousness that beheld this, though, was not my normal consciousness. It was completely unperturbed. It was dispassionate. It was content as I watched myself dissolve over the landscape. And what I brought back from that experience was that I'm not identical to my ego, that there is another ground on which to plant our feet and that our ego is kind of this character that, you know, is chattering neurotically in our minds. And it's good for lots of things, right? I mean, the ego got the book written, but it also can be very harsh, and it's liberating to have some distance on it.
GROSS: You've had - you had these experiences - I don't know when your last trip was, but do you still feel transformed in some way by it? Or does that seem more like a memory of how something once was different but no longer is for you?
POLLAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, you do refer back to the memories. They're useful. They're kind of in your archive. They're very vivid. And you can refer back to certain images or experiences and use them that way. But, you know, I was talking to my wife about this, Judith. And, you know, because when people say, how were you changed, you know, that's - kind of the best person to consult is a spouse. And she said something very interesting. You know, I just went through the death of my father in January. And when I asked my wife this question, do you think I'm any different, she said something interesting, which is, well, I don't think you would have dealt with your dad's death quite the way you did. In other words, the usual defenses we erect against something so painful as the death of a parent and the way in which watching someone die makes you confront your own mortality, that's an experience a lot of people turn away from. And I'm the kind of person who would have turned away from that, I think, but I didn't. I was incredibly present to him. I spent the last ten days very much by his side. I was able to say everything in my heart to him. It was, I think, much better than it would have been had I not had that experience. And I think that, you know, one of the things...
GROSS: By better you mean more meaningful, more deeply felt?
POLLAN: More meaningful, yes, and more emotionally available, less defensive. And I think that's the big gift of these experiences when they go well, which is that, you know, the defenses that we have - and they're very important, they help protect us. They also wall us off. They wall us off from other people. They wall us off from nature and to reduce their influence in our lives, especially at moments of crisis, like a death of a loved one, is an enormous gift. And so I would say she's right, that there was a kind of quality of openness that I had that I would not - that I did not have before. So I think that was one of the legacies of my experience.
BIANCULLI: Michael Pollan speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. He's the author of the book "How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence." And that concludes our commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Timothy Leary, famously associated with researching and trying to popularize LSD. Coming up, I review "The Undoing," the new HBO miniseries that starts Sunday. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "CAST YOUR FATE TO THE WIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.