05/18/2018

Consciousness, Chemically-Altered

29:55 minutes

In his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes of his own consciousness-expanding experiments with psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, and he makes the case for why shaking up the brain’s old habits could be therapeutic for people facing addiction, depression, or death.

[With summer around the corner, a guide to the night skies.]

In this segment, Ira talks with Pollan and psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris about the neuroscience of consciousness, and how psychedelic drugs may alter the algorithms and habits our brains use to make sense of the world. You can read an excerpt from How to Change Your Mind here.


Interview Highlights

On the difference between recreational and therapeutic use of psychedelics.
Michael Pollan: There’s a real distinction between the typical recreational use of psychedelics and the way they are now being used in a therapeutic context. It is a guided trip. You’re not alone. You’re in a room, you’re stretched out on a bed or a couch, you’re listening to a very carefully curated playlist that’s meant to structure or support the experience. You’re prepared by your guide, who’s telling you what to expect. During the session, they’re there with you to take care of your body so you can let your mind wander. And then after the experience, they help you integrate it. The stories [that you have] are very vivid but you don’t necessarily understand it. And they help you bring insight from the experience and apply it to the conduct of your life, much as any psychotherapist would do.

On the science of psychedelics.
Robin Carhart-Harris: Psychedelics seem to work on a particular kind of serotonin receptor. There’s at least 14 of these different receptors, and they each tune the brain in a different way. Serotonin comes in as the common key, but these receptors are like different locks if you will.

There’s one particular one—the 2A subtype—which seems to be key in how psychedelics work, because if you block it, then people won’t have a psychedelic experience. It’s a really nice grounding finding in the science of psychedelics. Despite all the sort of mystical stuff that can be conjured up by these compounds [and suchlike], we can trace it all back to a particular molecule in our brains in a particular protein.

On the effects of psychedelics on brain activity.
Michael Pollan: Many scientists assumed that when you give a psychedelic to the brain it would lead to an explosion of activity, much like the fireworks people report. But in fact when Robin [Carhart-Harris] imaged the brain of people who were tripping on psilocybin, he found this surprising finding that activity in this one particular network called the default mode network went down. And this is a network that’s critically involved in really our concept of self. It’s where we go to mindwander, time travel takes place there—thinking about the future and the past—self reflection, worry, and theory of mind, the ability to impute mental states to others.

On new areas of the brain communicating.
Robin Carhart-Harris: As the brain develops and we develop and mature, our thinking becomes more sophisticated, more specialized, more analytical. And all the systems start to parcellate off and specialize. What happens on psychedelics is that there’s a kind of de-specialization in a way, and the brain sort of operates in this more sort of rudimentary, freer, more hyper-associative and plastic kind of way.

Ira Flatow: And the point is made that that’s sort of reversing us into a childlike state, where children are more receptive to new information, and maybe that’s why when you’re on psychedelics you’re [looking at the world] with new eyes.

Robin Carhart-Harris: And you’re exceptionally vulnerable like a child, and you’re exceptionally sensitive to your environment in your context. Children are great learners.

On how to conduct reliable research.
Robin Carhart-Harris: There’s no perfect solution. The effects of psychedelics are so obvious. When you are given a high enough dose of a psychedelic you very quickly realize that’s what you’ve been given. So you can’t give a standard placebo because you know that you haven’t had anything.

You could try what we call an active placebo, another psychoactive drug that changes consciousness, but not in the same way as a psychedelic. You could try lower doses of psychedelics so the people have the expectation that they’re going to get a psychedelic, but that serves as a control.

One thing to add is that you know the placebo effect and expectancy might actually be part of what these drugs work on anyway, in terms of enhancing psychological expectations. So, in the context of therapeutic work it might be part of the treatment model.

Michael Pollan: These drugs are so strange in many ways that they’re hard to fit into the paradigms we have for doing science and for doing therapy. For example, it isn’t just the molecule that is the therapeutic agent here; it’s the experience people have under the influence of the molecule, and that experience is shaped by lots of other factors including the therapist, the trust and the therapist, the room that they’re in, the expectations they bring to the session. So it’s messy, but in a very exciting way I think.

On using psychedelics to treat depression and addiction.
Michael Pollan: Basically, what seems to happen on a high dose is ego dissolution—your sense of self vanishes, or at least is softened in profound ways. And you realize that one of the things your ego is doing is patrolling the borders of self and other, of you and other people, you and nature, and erecting these walls. And that when those walls come down, incredible things happen in the mind.

For one thing, you do have this flood of information from the world that comes in that you might not have been aware of… Also, your ego defends you against unconscious material, and all sorts of things emerge from your unconscious and your memory. There’s also a wonderful or terrifying—depending on whether you surrender to it or fight it—sense of merging with an entity larger than yourself, whether it is nature [or] other people. And when these gates open, what rushes in very often is a sensation of love and connectedness. And a lot of the problem if you’re depressed or [addicted] is your connections to the world and other people have been frayed. And those connections are re-established.

Even though it is only temporarily the case, these are memories you bring forward into your life. I talked to one patient that Robin [Carhart-Harris] treated, an American living in London who had been depressed continually since 1991. [The depression] lifted for a month, and even though the depression came back she now had this destination. This objective that there is this other consciousness and it’s worth working to get there.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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Segment Guests

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of multiple books, including How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence (Penguin Press, 2018) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley.

Robin Carhart-Harris

Robin Carhart-Harris is Head of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College London in London, United Kingdom.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow coming to you today from the studios of 90.5 WESA in Pittsburgh. Now, if I say Timothy Leary, you say– weird guy tripping out on LSD, right? Hippies dropping acid or having peyote dreams out in the desert. All remnants of the drug culture of the ’60s, right?

Well, Michael Pollan is here to change that paradigm. In his new book How to Change Your Mind, the author who changed our minds about what to eat– eat food, not too much, mostly plants– is here to change your mind about psychedelic drugs. Which science is now investigating seriously, as aids for people dealing with cancer, depression, and even death. He also argues that psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin allow parts of the brain that never talk to each other to actively communicate. Shaking up the snow globe, as one scientist called it, allowing us to learn how the brain works– or might work better– by looking at these new connections brought about by psychedelic compounds.

So if you have a question about the scientific study of psychedelic drugs or how they could help us understand consciousness, give us a call. Our number– 844-724-8255, 844-724 [? sci talk. ?] Or you can tweet us @scifri.

Now, let me introduce formally my guest, Michael Pollan– teaches writing at Berkeley and Harvard. His new book– How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. We have an excerpt of the book up at sciencefriday.com/sciencemind. The book is titled How to Change Your Mind. It blew my mind when I read it. And I want to welcome back Michael Pollan from WLRM in Miami. Welcome back, Michael. Good to have you.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Oh Ira, great to be here. I’m very much looking forward to this conversation.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s get right into it. Because, as I mentioned before, people think of the hippies of the ’60s. And there was a rich tradition, though, of psychedelic research in the ’50s, as you say– 1,000 studies, tens of thousands of research subjects. How did all that get buried? Or were Timothy Leary’s antics responsible for doing away with that?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Partly– I mean, I think what most of us understand about psychedelics is the image that was kind of frozen in place during the ’60s. And during the ’60s, they were the source of a lot of controversy and helped fuel the counterculture and the backlash against the counterculture. But what I was surprised to learn is that the ’60s is one brief chapter in a much longer and more interesting history that goes back actually thousands of years. There are traditional cultures that have been using psychedelics in their religious ceremonies, in their healing ceremonies. But for our purposes, there was a very rich tradition of research from about 1950 into the mid-’60s, where they thought of psychedelics as the next psychiatric wonder drug. And we’re getting some really promising results.

IRA FLATOW: And so what happened? I mean, why did it suddenly go underground or disappear? I mean, even movie stars like Cary Grant are big evangelists, right?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, oh yeah. He said he was born again after 60 psychiatric administrations of LSD. What happened was, the drugs escaped the laboratory. And they were taken up by the counterculture. And people like Leary got impatient with science, basically. And he went from thinking this might be useful to treat individuals to it might be useful to treat the whole society. And this is an occupational hazard, I think, of many people who work with psychedelics. That they get so excited about the possibilities and the fact that they could potentially help everybody that they kind of lose interest in science and become evangelists. And that is what happened to Timothy Leary.

And in the ’60s, psychedelics did play a very disruptive role– a positive or negative. It’s up to your perspective on the ’60s. But we hear about the generation gap, the fact that you had this very unusual bifurcation of young people and old. And the young were inventing their own culture with their own styles of dress and sexual mores and music and culture. And that was very frightening. And psychedelics had something to do with that. Because for the first time that we know of, you had a rite of passage, which is what a powerful psychedelic trip is. It’s a conversion experience.

But it was a rite of passage that wasn’t organized by the elders in a society. Normally, the elders organize the rite of passage. And they use it to bring adolescents into adult society. Here, the kids were organizing their own rite of passage. And it plopped them down in this country of the mind that adults thought was completely terrifying. And so this contributed to the split in society. And then, you had people like Leary saying– kids who take LSD aren’t going to fight your wars, which was very upsetting to President Nixon, who in turn called Leary the most dangerous man in America.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And the experience that you describe of taking psychedelics is very different from that cliche. You tell us about how a session– how a session now or what your experience is– is conducted. It’s formalized. It’s guided.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, well that’s a very important point. I’m glad you brought it up. There’s a real distinction between the typical recreational use of psychedelics and the way they are now being used in a therapeutic context. It is a guided trip. You’re not alone. You’re in a room. You’re stretched out on a bed or a couch. You’re wearing eye shades. You’ve got headphones on. You’re listening to a very carefully curated playlist that’s meant to kind of structure or support the experience.

You’re prepared by your guide– or guides– who’s telling you what to expect, helping you to know what to do if it gets really scary, which it may well get. And that basically– the advice is encouraging you to surrender to whatever happens. It’s really when we resist what’s happening in our minds under psychedelics that we get into the situation where we panic. And that is the bad trip, very often. And then, during the session, they’re there with you to take care of your body so you can let your mind wander. And that’s very reassuring. Nobody is going to knock on the door. You’re not going to do anything foolish. You’re not going to walk into traffic.

And then, after the experience, they help you integrate it. The guides let you retell it. And the stories are very vivid that you have. But you don’t necessarily understand it. And they help you bring insight from the experience and apply it to the conduct of your life, much as any psychotherapist would do. So it’s a situation in which the experience can be done. You can let go and feel safe. I had an experience that resulted in the complete dissolution of my ego. I never would have surrendered to such a terrifying experience if I didn’t feel incredibly safe.

IRA FLATOW: And so where are these– are these research sessions? Are they therapy sessions? How widespread are these happening?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, there’s a couple of things going on. You have these organized clinical trials that are really interesting. And they’ve been very productive in many ways. And that’s going on at very prestigious universities– NYU, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Imperial College in London. And very soon, there will be trials all over the country in another dozen or so locations, mostly in medical centers and universities.

But at the same time, I discovered, there is a shadow world of underground therapists who are guiding psychedelic journeys in a therapeutic way. These are very often trained psychologists, MDs in some cases. Many of them are licensed people. And they just feel that this therapy is so effective that they’re willing to take the chance of doing it illegally at great personal risk.

I found them to be– the ones I met, I mean, some of them seemed a little loosey goosey and I couldn’t trust with my mind. But I met many that I was really struck by how professional they were, and the fact that they very carefully clear– figure out what medicines you’re on, do a medical questionnaire, an autobiographical questionnaire. As one said to me– we don’t have very good insurance, so we’re very careful.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve discovered how totally these experiments and these therapies have totally upset the opposite of the effects people think or thought they would have on the brain. And we’re going to get into a little more brain research on it after the break. But that just was amazing to me also.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the idea– most of us think of psychedelics as something that could make you crazy. The big takeaway is– it turns out, with the right support, they can make you sane.

IRA FLATOW: Wow– say more about that. What did you–

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that we do know this history of people getting into psychological trouble with psychedelics. And there are psychological risks. There are not a lot of physical risks, I was surprised to learn. The drugs are relatively nontoxic. They’re non-addictive. But people can get into psychological trouble if they’re already at risk for mental illness, or they do the kinds of stupid things people do when they’re on drugs.

But when they’re used with proper support, with guidance, they have been proven to be effective in dealing with a lot of various indications of mental illness, such as– as you mentioned earlier– treatment-resistant depression, addiction both to alcohol and cigarettes. And there’s a cocaine study underway now in Alabama. Obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety– and especially the anxiety and depression of people with cancer.

I think that’s been the most dramatic and moving work– that people facing a terminal diagnosis who undergo a psychedelic experience have a complete reset of how they approach their death and mortality. And it has, in many cases, removed their fear and allowed people to die with equanimity, which is an astonishing thing.

IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting, yeah. Why would a fungus produce a chemical, as these mushrooms have such a radical effect on people who eat it? What’s in it for the chemical?

MICHAEL POLLAN: What’s in it for the mushroom? Well, I actually explored that question, trying to figure it out. Because one of the curious things about the chemical– it’s called psilocin and psilocybin, and there are 150 different mushrooms that produce it– is that it appears to be only in the fruiting body of the plant. The part that comes– you know, the mushroom. And as you know, mushrooms are 90% underground. That’s where the real organism is. The mushroom is like the fruit.

So the chemical is not produced underground in the body of the plant, which suggests maybe it’s not a defense chemical. So we’re not really sure. But we do know that there has been a selection in evolution for stronger and stronger psilocybin mushrooms, that animals like them. And we have many anecdotal reports of animals eating these mushrooms selectively. And frankly, people’s interest in these mushrooms has helped spread them around the world. Their habitats now include college campuses, the lawns in front of police stations.

So it’s that old co-evolutionary story. One of the things we use plants and fungi for, besides food and beauty and clothing and shelter, is to change the contents of our consciousness and the experience of consciousness. This is a deep human desire. I mean, Ira, everybody in your audience probably today used a plant to change consciousness. It may have just been– yeah, it may have just been caffeine in coffee or tea, but yeah.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and talk lots more about this with Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind. It changed my mind about a lot of this stuff. Also going to bring on one of the scientists in the book, Robin Carhart-Harris, to talk about the science and what’s going on in the brains. So a lot to talk about. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after the break. Don’t go away.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Michael Pollan about his new book How to Change Your Mind. And one of the scientists he writes about who investigates consciousness and what happens in the brain under the influence of psychedelic drugs is Robin Carhart-Harris. He’s the head of the psychedelic research group at Imperial College in London. And he joins us now from the BBC in Oxford. Welcome to Science Friday.

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Hi there. Pleased to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time out from this wedding weekend for us.

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Yeah, that’s some good fun.

IRA FLATOW: Now, I know you study psychedelics and their effect on the brain and how they might be used therapeutically. Serotonin receptors are involved in how psychedelics work. Do we know anything more about how that works?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Well, the psychedelics seem to work on a particular kind of serotonin receptor. There’s some 14, at least 14 of these different receptors. And they each tune the brain in a different way. Serotonin comes in as the common key. But these receptors are like different locks, if you want. And there’s one particular one– the 2A receptor, the 2A subtype– which seems to be key, critical in how psychedelics work.

Because if you block it– you give a drug that selectively gets in the way of a psychedelic getting at this receptor– then, people won’t trip. They won’t have a psychedelic experience. So it’s a really nice grounding sort of staple finding in the science of psychedelics that– despite all the sort of mystical stuff that can be conjured up by these compounds and all the artistic interest and such– we can trace it all back to a particular molecule in our brains, and a particular protein. And it sort of brings the whole area back down to earth, in a way.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you bring up that topic. And I’m glad about that, because I want to get into that. And one of the more surprising– I mean, there’s so much surprising in this book. Michael, you write about the part of the brain called the default mode network, which I think 99% of us have never heard of. What is that? And not only that– you write that the psychedelics work in just the opposite way in that network that we thought they did.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, and that was Robin’s, I think, critical discovery. Many scientists assume that when you gave a psychedelic to the brain, it would lead to kind of an explosion of activity, much like the fireworks people report. But in fact, when Robin imaged the brain of people who were tripping on psilocybin, he found the surprising finding that activity in this one particular network called the default mode network went down, was down-regulated. And this is a network that’s critically involved in really our concept of self. It’s where we go to mind wander. Time travel takes place there– thinking about the future and the past. Self-reflection, worry, and theory of mind– the ability to impute mental states to others. And that, I think, is really the other key finding that is helping to tell this fascinating story.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, Robin, you have a map of connections in the brain. And the brain on psilocybin shows a dense forest of lines connecting every region to the other, which is so much greater connections compared to the much more pruned organized connections of a regular brain.

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Yes– right, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying that, under the influence of psychedelics, parts of the brain that never talk to each other now can talk to each other?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Yeah, or don’t talk to each other that much ordinarily can have a much freer conversation under the drug. And that picture that we see, it actually looks more similar to the kind of organization that you would see in the human brain early on in life. So as the brain develops and we develop and we mature, our thinking becomes more sophisticated, more specialized, more analytical. And all these systems start to parcellate off and specialize. And so what happens under psychedelics is that there’s a kind of de-specialization, in a way. And the brain sort of operates in this more sort of rudimentary, freer, more hyper-associative and plastic kind of way.

IRA FLATOW: So the point is made that that’s sort of reversing us into more of a childlike state, where children are more receptive to new information. And maybe that’s why, when you’re on psychedelics, you’re like– wow, look at the world. You’re looking at it with new eyes, so to speak.

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS And you’re exceptionally vulnerable, like a child, and exceptionally sensitive to your environment and your context. And children are great learners as well. And poets have written that they are sort of spiritual beings. And so you can see a lot of overlaps with that.

IRA FLATOW: Do we have any idea whether these, then– we’re showing all these neural connections. Are they ever permanent when you’re done?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS That we don’t know. I mean, that would be an area that’s very much deserving of further study is– what are the longer-term implications? And we’ve done a little bit of this at Imperial looking at the brain after a psychedelic, not during the psychedelic experience, but after the effects have worn off. And what we’ve seen there is something quite surprising. So the sort of picture that you’ll see during the experience with brain networks dissolving– Michael was talking about the default mode network dissolving or disintegrating. What we see when the drug effects wear off is that these networks spring back. There’s a kind of resetting of them. And they reconfigure. And that’s quite reassuring, in a way. But, yeah, there’s a lot more to discover, I think.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s see if we can go to the phones, get some calls in. Let’s go to New Haven, Connecticut. Carolyn, welcome to Science Friday.

CAROLYN: Hi, Ira. My question is about microdosing hallucinogenics. And by that, I mean taking very small doses, basically sub-perceptual doses. I’ve heard anecdotally about the potential of microdosing psilocybin to have a positive effect on treatment-resistant depression and creativity and other things. And I’m wondering if your guests have anything to say about microdosing and the neurological processes involved.

IRA FLATOW: Michael, Robin, any– you write about it in your book a bit.

MICHAEL POLLAN: I think Robin is about to study it, which I think is really important. The key fact about microdosing dosing is, what we know about it is purely anecdotal. And there is no scientific basis– as far as I know, right now– to believe that it works and is anything more than a placebo effect. However, Robin, tell me if I’m wrong. I think your lab is about to take a look at it, yes?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Yeah, we are, in a placebo controlled study. But this is true. It’s amazing that this meme, this phenomenon of microdosing has really captured people’s imagination. And it seems so many people are doing it in creative areas in the world, like Silicon Valley. And this idea that it can aid creativity and enhance well-being. And all of it, so far, is anecdotal.

So the placebo effect is incredibly potent. Expectation is incredibly influential. And so the idea of microdosing is, you take tiny doses that you don’t really feel. And so it is an open question. I could see how it could work, conceptually. I could see how very low doses of LSD might kind of lubricate the mind. But where we are right now, keeping our feet on the ground, there isn’t any evidence to support it.

IRA FLATOW: And you could ruin the whole phenomenon, Robin, by finding that it doesn’t work.

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Well, that’s the beauty of science.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about the science of this, because– how do you do serious double-blinded studies of psychedelics if you really want it to be accepted, right, the results? Since the effects are going to be so obviously different than the control group. I mean, how do you go about, Michael or Robin, to actually verify the science of what’s going on?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Well, there’s no perfect solution. The thing is, the effects of psychedelics are so conspicuous. They’re so obvious. So when you are given a high enough dose of a psychedelic, very quickly you realized that that’s what you’ve been given. And so it’s hard to control for that. And so you can’t give a standard placebo, because you know that you haven’t had anything. You’re not meeting God and having these transformative experiences.

So there isn’t really a perfect solution here. You could try what we call an active placebo– another psychoactive drugs that changes consciousness, but not in the same way as a psychedelic. You could try lower doses of psychedelics. So the people have the expectation that they’re going to get a psychedelic, but that serves as the control.

So there’s no perfect solution here. And one thing to add is that the placebo effect and expectancy might actually be part of what these drugs work on anyway in terms of enhancing psychological expectations. So it might, in the context of therapeutic work, it might be part of the treatment model.

MICHAEL POLLAN: I think Robin raises a really interesting point here, which is that these drugs are so strange– in many ways– that they’re hard to fit into the paradigms we have for doing science and for doing therapy. So for example, it isn’t just the molecule that is the therapeutic agent here. It’s the experience people have under the influence of the molecule. And that experience is shaped by lots of other factors, including the therapist, the trust in the therapist, the room that they’re in, the expectations they bring to the session. So it’s messy, but in a very exciting way, I think. And how exactly we will fit this kind of therapy into the models we have, which tend to be either pharmacological or talk therapy. This is a new hybrid.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Sarah in Missouri. Hi, Sarah. Welcome to Science Friday. Go ahead. Sarah, are you there?

SARAH: Hi. Hi, I’m sorry. My name is Sarah. I have been suffering from treatment-resistant depression since I was 18. I’m currently 39. And I was just wondering– a normal person like me who has gone through several different types of medication, the tricyclics to the SSRIs, and even SSNI without any kind effect. How can a normal person like me become a person in the study who might be able to get this to change my life and the way I look at my life?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, how can people who are suffering get in on a study or get therapy? Good question.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Robin, do you want to take that?

ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS Yeah, sure. I mean, it’s hard because there’s so much demand, it seems, now. And that’s exceeding supply on such a vast scale. So it’s difficult, because– for example, we’re doing a new study at Imperial where we’re comparing two doses of psilocybin to six weeks of taking an SSRI every day, citalopram. And yet, we can only have 50 people in the trial. And only half of them get the full dose of the psilocybin. So it’s tricky to cater for all this.

And the key message is that, to deliver this therapy properly, you have to do it in a particular way and maintain certain safety standards. And so it’s a difficult situation, because people may well be quite desperate for this new treatment that they hear can be effective. And they want to have it. But they can’t. And then there’s, of course, the legal implications.

IRA FLATOW: So Michael, what is keeping this from being expanded to normal studies of thousands of people?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, we are going to move into phase three studies. That is the last step in the FDA protocol before they will rule this a medicine that can be prescribed. So that’s very exciting. That should happen before the end of the year. And there will be a dozen or so sites in America– and another, I think, eight or 10 in Europe– where they will be studying, having trials involving hundreds of people.

The funding is in place. The FDA appears to be onboard. So there will be opportunities. And if callers want to learn about it, the organizations that are sponsoring the studies in this country is the Usona Institute– U-S-O-N-A. They’re in Madison, Wisconsin. And at some point soon, they’ll have information on their website where you can apply to take part in these studies.

And there are other very exciting studies going on that MAPS is doing– an organization called the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. And they’re studying MDMA, or ecstasy, in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. And they’re starting widespread trials this summer. So but Robin is right. The demand is going to overwhelm the supply.

The hope is that within the next several years, these phase three studies will be completed, and this will become an accepted form of therapy paid by insurance. Even before that happens, though, the FDA has certain expanded access or compassionate use programs. And so it may actually be possible in the next two or three years that people will be able to have access. I don’t want to raise expectations too high. But that scenario is a real one.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. And is Science Friday from WNYZ Studios. I’m talking with Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind, and also with one of the scientists mentioned in the book doing cutting edge research, Robin Carhart-Harris. And this book did change my mind. And one of the first things I thought about is– gee, how could I try that out on myself? I’d be scared to do it.

But you made such an incredible case about what happens in your mind so differently, about how you sort of revert us to our childhood states– right, Michael? And opens up– and that’s really the trip. The trip that we see people describing is not– what is the trip? It’s the influx, the flooding of stimuli we never were allowed to let in before.

MICHAEL POLLAN: That’s part of it. I think, for me in my understanding– and I should say, it was shaped in large part by Robin’s work, which is really visionary work. And I encourage people to look up some of his papers. But basically, what seems to happen on a high dose is ego dissolution. Your sense of self vanishes, or at least is softened in profound ways.

And you realize that one of the things your ego is doing is patrolling the borders of self and other– of you/other people, you/nature, and erecting these walls. And that when those walls come down, incredible things happen in the mind. For one thing, you do have this flood of information from the world that comes in that you might not have been aware of– the doors of perception, as Huxley called it.

But also, your ego defends you against unconscious material. And all sorts of things emerge from your unconscious in your memory. So you’re given access. And there’s also this– what can be wonderful or terrifying, depending on whether you surrender to it or fight it– the sense of merging with an entity larger than yourself. Whether it is nature– and I certainly had that experience– or other people. And when these gates open, what rushes in very often is a sensation of love and connectedness.

And a lot of the problem if you’re depressed, if you’re addicted is your connections to the world and other people have been frayed. And depression certainly is a case of feeling disconnected. And those connections are re-established. And even though it is only temporarily the case, these are memories you bring forward into your life.

I talked to one patient that Robin treated, an American living in London, who had been depressed continually since 1991. It lifted for a month. And even though the depression came back, she now had this destination, this objective that– yes, there is this other consciousness. And it’s worth working to get there. I’m not going to give up. And that’s very powerful.

IRA FLATOW: I’m talking with Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind. And we’re going to take a break and come back and take more of your questions. Lots of people have questions about it. And I just want to thank him for– well, we actually have run out of time. I’m sorry. Yeah, we have. We’ll have you back to talk more about it. This has got so many people interested– Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday.

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