Michael Pollan Has Lost His Mind


Painting by Cristobal Ortega Maila CC0 from pxhere.com

Michael Pollan, famous for his books on cooking, food and nutrition (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), is about (May 15th) to release his latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches UsMichael gave a long and wide-ranging interview about the book to the less-annoying-than-usual Tim Ferriss, and Tim’s podcast and interview notes are the basis for this article.

The book describes the parallel changes in both the medical and social communities in attitudes toward psychedelics, a word that literally means “mind-loosening”. He urges the medical and regulatory community to be open-minded and humane in allowing research on and subsequent use of psychedelics as a managed therapy for a host of mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessions, addictions and PTSD). These diseases, he says, have in common that they occur when “the default mode network” (a series of connections in various parts of the brain that usually launch our thinking and reacting processes) becomes overly rigid, and caught in repetitive loops. Drugs found in plants such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, 5-MeO-DMT, and synthetics such as LSD have been shown to quieten this network and its pathways and lead to powerful, long-term healing of these diseases, even with only a few doses.

There are of course dangers: people with already-disrupted default mode networks (those with psychoses, schizophrenia etc) can react badly to these drugs, and bad trips for anyone can be very unpleasant and have serious consequences. For this reason, Michael advocates avoiding the carelessness with which these drugs were used in the 60s, and wants us to develop secular community-based support groups with people experienced at guiding people safely through trips (“flight instructions”) and helping people to integrate and interpret them afterwards, before rushing into full legalization.

Michael describes his own personal trips as well as findings from many others he spoke with, as leading to the dissolution of the ego, ie “non-dual” realization and the “merging with something larger than you”.

When asked about Michael Pollan’s earlier description of this dissolution, Tony Parsons (at a meeting of his I attended last year in Wales) seemed to dismiss it as “probably just another experience”. Tony asserts that any “experiences” are experiences of an individual (self/ego) and hence nothing like the true falling away of the self and the seeing of natural reality. I’m inclined to believe him, though Michael’s description certainly matches at least the “glimpses” that have led many (including me) to believe that the self is an illusion (and “a useless bit of software” that arose as a consequences of the emergence of large brains).

What is remarkable to me is the degree to which Michael’s description of the discoveries and ideas that came from these experiences or events parallel the messages and insights into the nature of reality of many people in a wide array of disciplines — so-called “spiritual teachers” (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira etc), philosophers (John Gray in Straw Dogs: “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”), scientists (Stewart & Cohen, Richard Lewontin), and artists (Jim Carrey, Terence Stamp, etc).

Tony has commented that the likely reason there are so few articulating this message is that (a) the loss of the self is not really an experience or event (it’s a realization that the self never existed), (b) it just isn’t in most people’s nature to question or to speak publicly about inexplicable “life-changing” events that leave no trace, and (c) it’s really impossible to put into words, since language is an invention specifically to facilitate communication between acknowledged separate “selves”.

Michael says this is reflected in the gushy, inane, often incoherent descriptions of many people who have “experienced” this (though it isn’t an experience). It’s impossible to describe. It’s not “higher consciousness” (in fact there is generally a quieting rather than a focusing or concentration of the mind). It’s not “consciousness” or “awareness” or “presence” at all — it’s absence, loss. Liberation, from the affliction of the self.

If Michael is right, and presuming we don’t extinguish human life on this planet before it happens, it might theoretically be possible to treat and even cure what I have called Civilization Disease” (including all of the aforementioned mental illnesses, and likely many related chronic physical illnesses and the general anxiety most of us have come to accept as “life”). If that were to happen, we might see a sudden large-scale walking away from our ruinous global industrial civilization, which depends utterly on our culture’s stranglehold over our “separate selves”. If enough of us “lost our selves”, how might the trajectory of the human species then shift? Would we learn, once again, how to live in community as one with everything around us?

If Tony is right, this won’t be possible; psychedelic drugs might enable us to glimpse, and to long for, oneness, but they won’t enable us, in any functional or enduring way, to “lose our selves” and just be, as we were before our selves arose in early childhood.

My guess is that Tony is probably right — the self has too strong and too established a grip on the creatures it inhabits to be shaken by medicines that briefly short-circuit the brain that gave rise to it. Sometimes I even question whether post-civilization societies, living without the stresses and barrage of information and distraction and propaganda that characterize the era of human civilizations, will escape the affliction of separateness and self-hood. We might be just inherently, as a species, too smart for our own good.

Still, the idea of separation and self-hood as a mental illness that might be treated by medicines that “loosen the mind” — liberating us from most mental and chronic physical illnesses in the process — is intriguing.

But I’m deeply skeptical. We are complex creatures, we humans, and every body is different. We may have a deeply transformative experience under the influence of these medicines, and some may find they heal some of the ailments that have defied all other attempts at treatment, at least for a while, maybe longer, and that’s wonderful. But what then? Things are the way they are for a reason, and I wonder if we are already too damaged, and if our propensity to do things that don’t seem healthy for us can ever be “cured”. We may briefly escape the damage that the self inflicts on us. But that will not destroy the self.

There is nothing to destroy, after all.

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4 Responses to Michael Pollan Has Lost His Mind

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dave
    A circuitous route to a goal….Consider the Christian Creeds which speak of faith in the resurrection of the body. Now Science has discovered that our body cannot survive even for one day without our trillions of microbes. Does the Creed require the resurrection of the microbes?

    Science also teaches us that the microbes are a determinant of things like our psychological state. If ‘we’ are not solely in charge of our own psychological state, then how can we speak of ‘we’? On the other hand, the food we choose to eat influences the microbes….and so we are dealing with circularity and the thorny question of ‘choice’.

    I perceive that Science is on pretty firm ground when it talks about processes. But the Cartesian notion of the Mind/ Matter split is fast fading from the scene. And bacteria are so promiscuous with gene swapping and quorum sensing that thinking of them as fixed species is probably not a very productive thing to do.

    Is a whirlpool a process or a ‘thing’? Does ‘thing’ even make any sense?’

    (But the whirlpool exists!)

    Don Stewart

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. Yes, thinking about the fact that most of ‘us’ is microbes helps challenge our perception that we are “all of a piece”. Learning about how bats ‘see’ and make sense of the world through their sonar far more than vision is another brain-stretcher, as is the realization that the reason we perceive 0º with no wind and 0º with a “wind chill” so differently is that we create our own “environments” around our bodies; where then does the body end and the environment begin? And hence where do ‘I’ begin and “everything else that is not-me” end?

    I love the English language invention of gerunds — they are half way between nouns (things) and verbs (processes) and can take either adjectives or adverbs as modifiers. There is no whirlpool thing or whirlpool process, but whirlpooling is happening!

    Apparently.

  3. Ben T says:

    Hi Dave,

    Some bits and pieces that might be of interest.

    Leo Gura or actualized.org has interesting material on psychedelics and enlightenment. Check this ‘live footage of enlightenment’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_6TZMr1HXM&t=0s. In the follow up video he clarifies that this was induced by psychedelics (although he is hardcore with meditation/self-inquiry also which forms the foundation). He advocates psychedelics for ‘showing what you should be shooting for’ when it comes to meditation/self-inquiry. To give you a glimpse of the direction you should be heading in in spiritual practice. If this is of interest would highly recommend browsing through his other vids on enlightenment. Very…er…enlightening.

    Gary Weber (shown in brain scans to have persistent [>90%] very low default mode network activity after 20,000 hours yoga/meditation => no thoughts!) also has some interesting thoughts on psilocybin and enlightenment. Apparently the same ‘ brain state’ (I know it’s not a state, but there is no word for it…) is induced in both cases (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCXQ2syNsKU) but obvs psychedelics is impermanent. (Re: Parsons’ point above, it seems that according to the science the loss of ego is legit during the trip, although it seems likely that after the fact the ego would then reclaim that ‘experience’ as its own, which the practitioner would have to watch for).

    Gary Weber in his (free) book Happiness Beyond Thought also has an excellent critique of the neo-advaita position (Tony Parsons etc.) that enlightenment cannot be reached through spiritual practices. What seems to be necessary is at some point the practices turns to a questioning of the meditator (e.g. Rupert Spira – did mantra meditation for 20 years, then starts doing self-inquiry and BOOM). I think this position is pretty easily debunkable these days given the ability to scan the brains of long-term meditators and determine that there is a “there there”, so to speak. Note how most neo-advaitans such as Parsons themselves had long-term practices, which they claim had no impact. Just because they don’t think they had any impact doesn’t mean that this is actually the case. See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Enlightenment-Changes-Your-Brain-Transformation-ebook/dp/B017DOB1CQ/
    This also rocks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztKJ6BPIe0k

    Love your blog to bits :)

    Ben

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Ben: Thanks for the kind words, and the excellent links. I will check out Leo’s stuff (I’ve already read Gary’s book and a lot of his other online material, and found it interesting but surprisingly invested in ‘process’ (of ‘enlightenment’).

    Tony keeps asserting that you’re as likely to have your ‘self’ fall away when you’re lying drunk in an alley as after 40 years of practices (though probably less likely to be inspired to talk about it publicly afterwards). My instincts tell me he’s right, but I still meditate, still read and think endlessly about losing my ‘self’. It may not help, but it makes ‘me’ feel better in the meantime, and probably can’t hurt. I’m starting to feel exactly the same way about psychedelics.

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