Politics & Prose: Michael Pollan in Washington, D.C.

This past week, Michael Pollan, professor, food journalist and New York Times best-selling author, was in the District talking about his new book – How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

First of all, the space that Politics & Prose held the discussion with Pollan was beautiful! If you haven’t been to the Sixth & I synagogue, then I’d highly recommend finding an event to attend. Pollan was in conversation with Alix Spiegel, co-founder of Invisibilia, a podcast and radio show from NPR about the unseen forces that control human behavior - our ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and thoughts. She was phenomenal! It was also amazing to see how much of a fan Pollan was of her work as well. 

 Michael Pollan and Alix Spiegel at the Sixth & I synagogue. I was seated in the balcony.

Michael Pollan and Alix Spiegel at the Sixth & I synagogue. I was seated in the balcony.

Pollan’s book explores “how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety.” Not only did he and Spiegel discuss the history of LSD, they also dove into Pollan’s experience and what it was like to engage in the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists.

 “Epiphanies in a psychedelic experience have much more weight than in normal everyday life,” Pollan explained. He went on to say how we’re all stuck in one way or another, seeking answers or a more certain direction that truly begs the question, “Why aren’t we happy with the consciousness we have?” 

I think the most striking part of the conversation is the story he told about a woman who was participating in clinical trials at New York University. The enrollees were cancer patients who would participate in a psychedelic journey – with the active ingredient psilocybin found in so-called magic shrooms – to help alleviate their anxiety and “existential distress”.  

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Although the New Yorker article doesn’t go into specific details, Pollan goes on to explain key pieces of her story at the discussion. This woman was in her early 60s and was still teaching as a career. She previously had ovarian cancer and beat it. But for some reason, she was afraid to live her life, living in constant fear that the cancer would come back. When she took her trip, she was inside of her body, wandering around until she came to her lungs. That’s when she saw it – a large black mass. She instantly shouted obscene things at it and it eventually disappeared. Once she was off her trip, she wasn’t afraid of getting cancer anymore and her anxiety was eliminated. Of course, even Pollan said he was afraid at first to say her fear was totally eliminated and described it as “substantially reduced”. However, she corrected him during the fact-checking process of his writing and said her fear was genuinely eliminated – which is incredibly powerful! The teachable moment for her was this: even though she couldn’t control the cancer, she could control her fear. That’s what truly allowed her to live again. 

As the discussion continues, Pollan begins to reveal how his research impacted him and starts thinking about his own life. He didn’t enter the idea of taking a trip lightly. In fact, he was extremely hesitant and really careful about how he wanted to experience what he was researching. That’s how the book turned into a third and first-account of the power of psychedelics. 

Pollan’s work has continued to evolve with every piece of writing he publishes. This space he’s entered isn’t for everyone – which he publicly acknowledges. At first, I wasn’t sure why he was writing this book. I haven’t read it yet, but this discussion gave me a better understanding of where he was coming from. He’s always been interested in health and healing - which is why I started following his work. This book appears to guide us to a somewhat “taboo” place of research, healing and honesty that Pollan has brought through in his numerous authored pieces but gives a more personal account than ever before.