Michael Pollan's new book, How to Change Your Mind, describes two factions within psychedelic research: those who seek to demonstrate the drugs’ spiritual side as a tool of self-improvement and those who investigate the drugs’ medical and psychiatric uses in a clinical setting
Harriet de Wit, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, belongs to the latter group. She has spent decades doing controlled experiments to learn how substances as varied as amphetamines, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and MDMA affect mood and behavior, with an eye toward treatment for people with mental and emotional health problems.
Unlike Pollan and many of the drug researchers he profiled, de Wit has never taken psychedelic drugs herself. She called his book “terrific,” but she also has some cautionary thoughts.
De Wit particularly appreciated Pollan’s focus on taking psychedelics under supervision and then relaying that experience in a clear-headed, journalistic manner. She doesn’t support making recreational psychedelics more widely available outside a clinical setting.
De Wit spoke with HuffPost about Pollan’s book and what the current interest in psychedelic drugs can tell us about their future ― as well as the ways in which these drugs can serve not just as tools to better the lives of the well but as life-saving treatments for people with major mental illness.
As a health reporter, I regularly talk with researchers and scientists. The idea that the researchers, who are meant to be objective about their work, themselves tried the psychedelics they were studying threw me.
It’s almost a religious experience that they have. Or maybe not religious, but important. That’s one of the features that characterize pharmacological effect. The drug induces a feeling of significance. Whatever experience they go through, it gets labeled as being significant. There is some substrate that instills importance.
“Important” is an interesting word choice. I prefer it to the religious-sounding terms researchers in Pollan’s book used to describe psychedelic experiences, like transcendent and spiritual.
A lot of the people who are into that area of research feel like they are reaching some reality that really exists. It exists at one level, but it’s not as though it’s giving people access to a truly existing other world. Rather, that it allows them to see their world in a much broader way.
That’s what this book is masterful at. Michael Pollan seems like a trustworthy, rational person. He takes you through that experience and it’s believable. It gives me an idea of what it would be like for me. I started reading it Sunday morning and finished it Sunday night. I felt like I’d been on an excursion with him.
There’s this cultish evangelism in some drug literature that I can’t cut through and it turns me off. Pollan felt more critical.
Right. And actually, on the scientific side, we sometimes go the other way and make it too clinical and not psychological enough. I think there’s a challenge for us to come up with words and methods and measures to get to the more psychological concepts that are so apparently meaningful to people.
Through our lifetime of experiences, we narrow our ways of perceiving the world. This drug kind of messes that up. It loosens up all the constraints that inhibit you.Harriet de Wit
I didn’t grasp why people cared so much if their transcendence was a placebo effect from psychedelic drugs vs. a “real” spiritual experience.
If you think about it in a religious context, then have you really seen God? Did you really access some other reality? It’s hard to find the words for these things.
In my heart, and I think in Michael Pollan’s as well, they are all experiences in your own brain, and they are fascinating experiences and they do remind you that there are other ways of seeing the world and that through our lifetime of experiences, we narrow our ways of perceiving the world.
This drug kind of messes that up. It loosens up all the constraints that inhibit you.
Do you see any parallels between the physical wellness culture that some wealthy, white people invest in, like yoga retreats and juice cleanses, and psychedelic use for “the betterment of well people”?
If you put it like that, there’s no question that only privileged people are going to have access to it in the kind of setting that we’re thinking of ― a protected and guided setting where you get insight.
Just the privileged people are going to be able to afford it, or know about it, or appreciate it. That’s a social comment on our whole system, presumably. Is that what you’re asking about?
I’m asking if controlled recreational use of psychedelics is a trend of the privileged.
I think so. That’s true of so many things in our culture. Only a few people are going to seek that out. They are going to be educated and well-off and have access.
Do we think that there would be any benefit in making this available to the less advantaged people? I have never thought of that. I don’t want to go there.
My curiosity is less about whether disadvantaged people should have access to recreational psychedelics and more about how inclusive the trend is. Who else gets access?
The one place where it’s kind of interesting is that [researchers] are using MDMA for PTSD. They are using it in people who have come back from wars. Those people are not necessarily privileged.
The way the psychiatrists talk about it is that those people have become very constrained in their thinking. They are fearful and their life has become very narrow. They interpret environmental events in a very narrow way, and the drug can help them. In the context of eight-hour therapy sessions, it can help them loosen constraints in thinking.
That’s one situation that cuts across privilege. But that’s talking about people who are unwell taking the drug to become well. It’s not so much the well people experiencing some new level of insight.
I found it fascinating that psychedelics could potentially be used to disrupt addiction, depression or other conditions characterized by rigid thinking.
When you wonder how could one drug treat all those very different disorders, what they have in common is a narrowing of thoughts. An obsession with alcohol, or a fear of crowds, or a negative view of the world ― what all those have in common is constrained thinking. If a drug, together with therapy, can loosen that, it’s a wonderful thing.
You mentioned PTSD. That’s another very rigid way of looking at the world.
It’s tempting to take that one step further into a political discussion of people who are very rigid in their politics or in their religion. In a way, they are constrained as well, and a drug like this could allow them to think a little bit more loosely. There are lots of ways that people get rigid in their thinking. Including any of us, presumably.
President Donald Trump came to mind.
For sure. But would he benefit from it? I don’t know. I think you have to have a certain level of insight, an openness, a certain willingness to consider other ways of being or be self-critical in a sense. I think you need a certain amount of openness to use the experience.
An obsession with alcohol, or a fear of crowds, or a negative view of the world ― what all those have in common is constrained thinking. If a drug, together with therapy, can loosen that, it’s a wonderful thing.Harriet de Wit
Pollan’s controlled psychedelic use seemed prompted by midlife existentialism. I hadn’t previously thought of a midlife crisis as a type of mental unwellness.
I’m not sure if I would say it’s an unwellness or just an existential thinking about your life. That could be within the norm of wellness. You’d think there was something wrong with somebody if they didn’t think about mortality or what are they doing with their life.
Am I making the best of my life? Have I made big mistakes? What have I got left? What am I still going to do? Those are all questions that people want to ask and, in this case, explore a little bit more.
Pollan profiled people dying of cancer who were able to reframe their fear of death by taking psychedelics. Culturally speaking, is end-of-life care the natural place for psychedelic use to be incorporated into mainstream medicine?
Anyone who takes this kind of drug knows you can’t be sure it’s going to be positive. Even fairly regular users have to gear up for it and brace themselves. It’s not exactly fun. It’s challenging and interesting. But not necessarily pleasant. To put yourself through that at the end of life, that takes a certain amount of courage.
Both you and I realize it’s an unknown. If we haven’t [taken psychedelics] because it’s unknown now, I can’t imagine doing it [while dying].
Did the book make you think any differently about your own work?
It’s a fascinating topic, both from a scientific point of view and a human point of view. We’ll continue to grapple with what it is these drugs do, how they do it and how they can find a place in society.
It does make me feel that there are big questions to address. But it’s hard for one researcher to get a handle on what the question is to ask and how to collect the data. I would like to do something important.
That’s one of the themes of the book! We all want to do something important and have important thoughts.
There you go.