12/10/2021

Three Plant-Based Chemicals That Can Change Your Brain

35:00 minutes

A cluster of bulbous green mescaline peyote cacti in Mexico
A cluster of mescaline peyote cacti in Mexico. Credit: Shutterstock

If you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee, tea, or certain soft drinks today, you’ve been making use of the mind-altering properties of the chemical caffeine, which bestows an alert buzz. And we probably all know a coffee addict, who becomes cranky and irritable without their morning mug. 

But there are also other plant-based compounds that affect the mind’s consciousness, including opium and mescaline—and the use of those compounds isn’t seen as acceptable in modern society. 

an older white man in a blue button down shirt poses in front of a plant filled background
Michael Pollan. Credit: Tabitha Soren

In his book This Is Your Mind On Plants, author Michael Pollan looks at the way these three compounds have been adopted or shunned by various cultures, and why. He joins Ira to talk about the science behind their action, the history of their use around the world, and the societal and cultural factors that go into deciding which drugs are seen as acceptable by a community.  

Read an excerpt from This Is Your Mind On Plants here.


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Segment Guests

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is the author of multiple books, including This Is Your Mind on Plants (Penguin Press, 2021), How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I talked a bit about that buzz you get from coffee or tea today. If you did, as I mentioned, you’re using a plant-based chemical called caffeine and, of course, it alters your consciousness. Michael Pollan has written a lot about caffeine and a couple of other mind-altering drugs in his new book. And if you’d like to join our conversation, you can give us a call– 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK– or tweet us @scifri.

Michael Pollan is a journalist and author of This is Your Mind on Plants. Welcome back to Science Friday, Michael.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you, Ira. Very good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: 20 years, seems like yesterday.

MICHAEL POLLAN: I know. I was shocked when you said that. 20 years, wow. I wonder what we were talking about in 1991.

IRA FLATOW: I know what we were talking about. In fact–

MICHAEL POLLAN: Tell me.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, we were talking about you growing marijuana in your backyard, in Connecticut.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Oh, no.

IRA FLATOW: Do you remember that?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Things haven’t changed that much. No. My interest in psychoactive plants is longstanding. I’m really glad that habit is now legal, at least where I live.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m seeing a trend in your writing. Going back those years, you used to write mainly about food and diet and now your last two books– How to Change Your Mind and this last one, Your Mind on Plants– takes a whole different track. Why is that?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, the two subjects don’t seem quite as diametrically opposed to me as they do to, perhaps, to some listeners or readers. My basic underlying fascination in writing is writing about our relationship to plants and all the different things we use them for and all the ways they use us. And so if you’re focused on that– and it was a focus I developed as a gardener, actually, when I was quite young– you’re going to look at food because food is probably, the most important way we use plants and they use us. And so I wrote a series of books– as you know about that– and our relationship to things like corn.

But there’s this other very curious use to which we put plants and that is to change consciousness and that’s always struck me as a fascinating human habit. Why do we have it? What is it good for? Isn’t it dangerous?

You would think that the desire to change consciousness– which appears to be universal across cultures. There is only one culture, when they surveyed a bunch of them in the ’70s, that did not have a consciousness-changing plant and that was the Inuit in Greenland. So the only reason was nothing good grew where they lived. So why do we have this universal desire? And I’ve been chewing on that one for quite a while.

IRA FLATOW: Good way to put it. You chose three plant-based compounds. Tell us about why you chose– what they are and why you chose those three above anything else.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Sure. I mean, there were a lot to choose from, but I wanted one that was a stimulant and that was caffeine produced by coffee and tea and a couple of other plants. I wanted one that was a depressant and for that I had opium produced by the opium poppy and I wanted a psychedelic. These are basically, the three major categories of psychoactive drugs– uppers, downers, and what I think of as outers. The psychedelic being the outer and for that, I chose mescaline, which is produced by a couple different cacti.

IRA FLATOW: And does every culture have this kind of relationship with some plant or other?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Absolutely. It just appears to be this universal human desire and there are very few examples of cultures that don’t use some plant this way. Some of them are totally innocuous, things like caffeine. Nobody thinks twice about the fact that 90% of us on the planet are using the psychoactive drug every day. And then some are kind of obscure and very specific to individual cultures, but it’s a human given.

There’s something about us that just isn’t satisfied with everyday normal consciousness. And we seek and we go to great lengths and risks to vary it in different ways, whether it’s the kind of sharpening of focus and the energy lift we get from caffeine or the desire to transcend our everyday lives, ourselves with something like a psychedelic. Which, those two, we think of psychedelics as a very modern phenomenon or a product of the ’60s, but my research found that the use of mescaline by Indigenous peoples in the Americas goes back at least 6,000 years. And there’s evidence for ancient psychedelic use in many different cultures, usually as a sacrament or to heal or for divination to see what’s going to happen in the future.

So this is a very old and deeply ingrained habit that we have. So what is it good for is an interesting question. I mean, one thing we use psychoactive for, of course, is to decrease pain and opium, of course, is the classic example. And you would see why that would be very adaptive to have some sort of substance that relieved pain because for most of history, what was medicine about, except relieving pain? There were not a lot of cures on offer. So opium has played a critical role and that, too, has been used for thousands of years.

But then we use drugs that don’t eliminate pain, that do other weirder things. And some help us work, some help us relieve boredom, and some help us have experiences of another world the way the psychedelics, which may have been used in early religion, may be responsible for some of the visions of an afterlife, of an underworld, of just another dimension that underlies so many different religions and we may have to credit those visions to psychedelic substances.

IRA FLATOW: And you tried to get into that world. Didn’t you?

MICHAEL POLLAN: I did. I was very interested in mescaline. It’s, kind of the orphan psychedelic. When I wrote How to Change Your Mind a couple of years ago, I focused on psilocybin, which is being used a lot in research and I talked a lot about the history of LSD, but mescaline was really, the first psychedelic to be discovered in the West.

William James fooled around with it, apparently, and other scientists around the turn of the last century, around 1900. And it was the first psychedelic to be isolated and synthesized and then it disappears.

Oh. It’s the one Aldous Huxley wrote about, too. in Doors of Perception, which is one of the most beautiful books about transcendental experience that’s been written and he had a mescaline trip in the ’50s that really changed his life.

But then it disappeared and I was trying to figure out why. And one reason is that LSD, which is similar in its effects, is easier to find and you use much less of it. I mean, doses of LSD are measured in micrograms– millionths of a gram And, of course, when you’re in a legal drug market, less is more. Right?

IRA FLATOW: Right.

MICHAEL POLLAN: The lighter and smaller the drug, the less likely you are to get caught. Whereas mescaline, you have to take something like 400 milligrams so it’s like two fat capsules.

But the other reason I was interested in mescaline, though, is that it has been used continuously by Native Americans and extensively in the last 100 years in what is called the Native American Church, which is a trans-tribal church of Native Americans who have the legal rights– since 1994– to use mescaline. And they do it in the form of peyote, which is a very inconspicuous, beautiful, low-lying, bluish-green cactus that grows only in a small area along the Rio Grande– on both sides of the Rio Grande.

And I was very curious to find my way into that subculture because it proposes a very different approach to psychedelics. We, kind of, think of psychedelics as being very disruptive to society and very radical and, in some ways, it was in the ’60s. But in the Native American Church, the role of peyote has been to promote social cohesion, community building, community preservation under the threat of colonialism and occupation. And it’s a profoundly conservative drug in that context and has it done a lot to preserve Indian identity in America, as well as healing. It’s used to treat alcoholism and social problems in the community.

And it’s, like, 250,000 people strong. It’s a major church in America and it proposes a very different use of drugs we regard as dangerous and illicit.

Our number– 844-724-8255– let’s go to the phones, if you have a question for Michael Pollan that you would like to ask him. Let’s go to Portland. Hi. Welcome, Shaun.

SHAUN: Hey. Yeah. So I had a question on what the best way to fight the stigma that you were talking about, the illicit drugs that we consider illicit. I mean, we drink coffee to wake up, we take melatonin to go to sleep, but I can’t smoke a joint and then operate heavy equipment a month later. So what’s the best way to fight that stigma?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, you people in Oregon are doing it. You passed two pieces of legislation in the last election that are profoundly going to change, I think, the whole drug landscape. The one I’m particularly interested in is a measure that will legalize psilocybin. Not just decriminalize the drug, but actually obligates the state– State Department of Health– to train and license guides– train facilitators– and train and license growers of psilocybin so that people may have in a safe and stigmatized way, a psilocybin experience, whether they have a mental illness diagnosis or just want to do it for spiritual development.

I think that what’s destigmatizing psychedelics is the voters speaking out that they think the drug war is a dead end and they want to see it end, but also the research that’s being done. We have had an incredible string of papers coming out about the value of both psilocybin and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, in treating mental health problems, which are epidemic right now. And nothing has done more, I think, to change the image of these substances than this research. And it’s changing the image of things like ecstasy, which was a rave drug– a counterculture rave drug– or psilocybin, which was a counterculture psychedelic, to think of them as medicines, as productive tools for treating some of the most serious problems we face.

The other thing that I think affects this stigmatization, frankly, is the fact that many people are in the closet about their own use of these substances. It was either embarrassing or reputationally risky to write about having psychedelic experiences. And the more people come out and talk about it, which is happening– I mean, Will Smith apparently writes about this in his book and there are a great many celebrities have recently talked about the value of their ayahuasca experiences or other psychedelic experiences. So I think we’re on the way to normalizing the use of these substances and I think that’s a healthy thing.

IRA FLATOW: You point out in your book, the irony is that the legal drugs are killing more people than the illicit drugs.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, what’s really striking– so I wrote a chapter in the book about opium and my experience growing opium poppies and trying to make an opium tea from it or laudanum, which is opium poppies dissolved in alcohol. And in the ’90s, when I was writing about this and having this experience, it was at the height of the drug war and they were cracking down on gardeners and this is the summer of ’96. We were making this mild narcotic tea that’s, like, served at funerals in the Middle East and relieves back pain and things like that.

And while the DEA was cracking down on that practice– and I got, kind of, caught up in that skirmish in the drug war back then– Purdue Pharma was introducing OxyContin the very same summer. And that introduction and the way that drug was marketed and the way they lied about its addictiveness and side effects is what gave us the opioid crisis, which last year, killed 100,000 people.

This was a crisis begun by the legal prescription of drugs, not by the illicit use. And I actually think that irony– if we can call it that– is part of what is cutting the legs out from under the drug war. While we were putting in so many billions of dollars to defeat illegal drug use, we were promoting legal drug use in a way that has been the biggest public health crisis of the last 20 or 30 years.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let me break in and say, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Michael Pollan, author of This is Your Mind on Drugs.

A lot of people with questions for you, Michael. I’m sure you would understand that. Let’s go to Jordan, in Santa Cruz. Hi, Jordan.

JORDAN: Hi, there. Thanks for being here, Michael. I’m a big fan of yours.

You write a lot about how interesting it is that something like 90% of adults use caffeine– the mind-altering substance from plants– on a daily basis and how it fuels the economy of capitalism. So I’m curious if there’s any other substances in your research that you can imagine people using on a more regular basis similar to caffeine, even if it’s, kind of, out there to think of at the moment and how it might change how we work, how we learn, or even thinking about your book– A Place of Our– our built environment.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you for your question. Well, we do use other drugs on a daily basis. They’re not exactly plant drugs. Alcohol comes to mind, but that’s the product, of course, of yeast, which ferments the plant sugars to make alcohol so that’s one.

In other parts of the country, a really interesting example is coca. We’re familiar with the product of the coca plant through cocaine, which is a powerful drug and people really get into trouble on cocaine. But the way it’s used in South America is much more like coffee.

It’s chewed, sometimes all through the day by people. Gives them this stimulant, this, kind of, mild stimulation that also, like caffeine, sharpens focus, increases endurance, also helps with altitude sickness. And it’s used apparently– from what I read– without much problem of abuse and that there’s something about the mild dose you get from consuming it that way.

Once you refine drugs– and this goes for the opiates, too– and turn them into white powder drugs, you’re intensifying them and for many of these drugs, that’s when you run into issues of dependence and drug abuse of various kinds.

But coca, which Andrew Weil has written about and Wade Davis, both of whom– Andrew Weil, we know as a doctor, but he’s also an ethnobotanist. And Wade Davis, who’s a famous ethnobotanist, they make a very strong case that we should have coca chewing gum and that this would be a healthy thing and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of health risks associated with it.

I can’t evaluate those claims, but I have a lot of respect for them as authorities. So that would be another example of a plant drug that could be folded into society without a whole lot of disruption and possibly with some positive benefits.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because you point out that people are now doing the experiments they stopped doing– what– back in the ’60s and they’ve picked them up, again. Let me get more–

MICHAEL POLLAN: We’ve lost– we’ve lost 30 years of research. And the other one I’d throw out there– and again, there’s not enough research on this yet to say– is microdosing psychedelics, which we can talk about. But that would be a very routine, everyday use of a subperceptual amount of a substance, like LSD or psilocybin, which many people believe has positive effects on their mental health and on their productivity and creativity. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but the claims are out there and need to be tested.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’ll talk more about that after the break. We have to go to a break.

We’re talking with Michael Pollan, author of, This is Your Mind on Plants. Our number– 844-724-8255. Lots of time to talk about it. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this short break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour with Michael Pollan, about his book, This is Your Mind on Plants– The Way Humans Interact with Caffeine, Mescaline, and Opium. And you can join our conversation– 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Lots of people on the phone.

Before I get to the phone calls, I saw you have a conversation where you talked about why people are so attracted to addictive drugs, like opioids and especially heroin, and you talked about the lab animal experiments with rats that I thought was just fascinating. Could you talk about that, again?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. This was fascinating to learn about. I think a lot of us have gotten our ideas about addiction and drugs from these lab experiments done with rats and mice.

And in the classic experiment, they hook a rat up to a setup where they can press a lever and administer the drug under review– let’s say, heroin or cocaine– to their bloodstream or with another lever, they can administer sugar water– sucrose.

And what most lab animals will do faced with a drug like that is press the lever for the drug over and over and over again to the point of addiction and, indeed, even death, in the case of cocaine. And this has led to the general belief that it is simply exposure to these substances that leads to addiction, that it is a strictly biological process.

But in the ’70s, there was a scientist in Canada– whose name, I believe, is Bruce Alexander– who came to doubt this idea and he was curious to know whether the condition in which the rats were living might have affected their likelihood of becoming addicted or using drugs.

So he set up something he called the Rat Park and this was a very enriched cage, much larger with natural things in it– plants and other rats to play with and toys and good food. And then he set up– and he gave them the choice between the drug and food and he found that while the rats did still try the drug– whether it was cocaine or heroin or morphine– they used very little of it.

In one case, I think, it was 5 milligrams a day, instead of 25 milligrams a day. And what that suggests is your likelihood of addiction– if you’re a rat, anyway– had to do as much with the condition of your cage as with the biochemistry. And what it suggested to a lot of people is that we need to look at the environment in which people get addicted.

Another great example of this also came out of the ’70s and that came at the end of the Vietnam War. In country, something like 20% of American troops were using heroin regularly. There was a lot of worry that when these millions of addicts came back– or thousands of addicts, rather– came back to the streets of the US, we’d have a tremendous heroin addiction problem, but when the soldiers got back, 95% of them were able to simply stop using heroin without any treatment, without much problem at all and only 5% continued. And that suggested, too, that it was the environment, the conditions in which people were living that was determining whether they became addicted or not.

So I think we have to keep our eye on this and it certainly jibes with if you look at the geography of the opioid crisis or the meth crisis, these are the poorest parts of America. Places where prospects for the future have been shrinking and disappearing, places with lots of other problems and it encourages us, I think, to look at addiction as a symptom, rather than a cause of social problems. And that argues for a whole other way of approaching it.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Houston, an anonymous caller. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

CALLER: Hello. Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, yes. Go ahead.

CALLER: It’s me. OK. Yeah.

So first off, Mr. Pollan, and I wanted to say thank you. Your book, How to Change Your Mind, was integral in my own journey into psychedelics and solving some issues with depression and anxiety and I really appreciate it.

My real question, though, was the linkage between– if you plan to write anymore about the linkage between the physiology of the body and the mind. I was really interested particularly in your last book, in the last third chapter about the neuropsychology of it. And I’d also like hear your thoughts on ketamine and I will hang up and listen.

IRA FLATOW: All right Thanks for your call.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Thanks for your question and thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate that.

Well, I’ll start with ketamine. Ketamine is not technically, a psychedelic. It is a legal anesthetic, which at lower than the dose that puts you out, which is how it’s used in emergency rooms, has psychedelic effects or so, people report. And it has been approved for use in treating depression and it’s showing some efficacy there. The effects don’t seem to last that long, but they can be critical in getting someone out of, say, a suicidal episode.

So ketamine is an interesting substance because it’s legal. Because ketamine clinics are being built around the country that I think will transition into becoming psilocybin or MDMA clinics when those two drugs are approved by the FDA, which is only a few years away. So people are, kind of, practicing, how would you create safe spaces in which to administer these drugs? And the ketamine industry is really pioneering that, I think, in various ways.

On the other issue, I continue to be very interested in what psychedelics may have to teach us about consciousness. It’s hard not to have a psychedelic experience– and I’ve had several in the course of my research– where you don’t begin to think hard about consciousness and what a strange phenomenon it is and why do we have it? And is it necessary? And how is it that brains produce the experience of red or the sorts of subjective first person experiences we have?

It’s amazing how little we know about this and how primitive the science of consciousness is. In some ways, the poets and writers are ahead of the scientists, I think, at least in terms of describing it well. But yeah. I’m very interested. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it again in one way or another. Will I figure it out? I think that’s much less likely.

IRA FLATOW: Melissa in Portlandia, hi. Welcome to Science Friday. You’re next up Hi, Melissa.

MELISSA: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

MELISSA: Hi. Sorry.

IRA FLATOW: That’s OK. Go ahead.

MELISSA: So my question is currently, if I’m taking, say, an herbal supplement like lion’s mane, I go to my pharmacist, I go to my doctor and I ask them, is this going to interact with the current medication that I’m taking? And they don’t have no idea. I think that part of that is that there isn’t enough research on, say, lion’s mane itself that is widely available for doctors and pharmacists to be confident about suggesting whether that’s OK or not for you to be taking along with any other medication.

So my question is for you, when do you think that the research would be available? And are we going in that direction in terms of psilocybin or any of the other plants that you’ve been talking about and written about where you can have a conversation with your doctor and be confident that they have enough information and that you, as a patient who might be taking lots of other medicines, that you would be OK to go ahead and take that along with these other supplements?

MICHAEL POLLAN: It’s a really good question. The issue of supplements is a little different than the issue of psilocybin. Supplements are very lightly regulated in this country so you don’t have to do much research on them, if any, to introduce them. And that’s why your doctor doesn’t really know about the interaction of, say, lion’s mane– which is a kind of mushroom– and a supplement that many doctors actually think has value.

I know I had a conversation with my doctor and he indicated that the research on lion’s mane was encouraging, but it’s not the kind of research that gets a drug approved by the FDA. And until you’ve gone through that process– which is quite an elaborate and expensive process where you look at things like drug interaction, where you look at safety, as well as efficacy– we’re not going to know the answer to that question in any, kind of, persuasive way.

Psilocybin is not going through, though, the supplement process of regulation. It is going through the FDA drug approval process. So they are actually looking at those questions, among others. In fact, a study just came out last week, suggesting– there’s a general belief that if you’re on an SSRI antidepressant, a psychedelic treatment, like psilocybin, won’t work very well because both use the same receptors– serotonin receptors– in the brain, but this study came out that suggested that may not be true and that people on SSRIs, or at least some of them, should be eligible to take psilocybin.

So whether that is going to be the conventional wisdom or not remains to be seen, but these are questions that are being looked at in the case of psilocybin. And if it is approved as a drug, doctors, I think, should have the information they need to make a judgment whether it’s safe for you to take it or not.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been talking about the people involved in the people-plant relationship, but what’s in it for the plants? I mean–

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, that’s a great question

IRA FLATOW: Did they evolve the plants for some reason or is it a happy coincidence that– whatever?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, it’s a little bit of both. What’s really interesting about most of these psychoactive plant substances is that they were originally evolved as defense chemicals. They are chemicals that plants produce to keep from being eaten and they are toxic, like most drugs, in a high dose and, of course, a toxic dose for an insect is different than a toxic dose for people.

But what’s really cool about what happened here is that plants, in general– the ones that produce these psychoactive defense chemicals– have figured out– and I say that advisedly. There’s no intention involved– that simply killing your pest with a highly lethal chemical is not a great strategy for defense because as we learned with toxic pesticides, you then select for resistant members of the pest population really quickly and so we found that various pesticides stop working after a while.

But if your chemical defense is doing something different, which is simply ruining the appetite of your pest– which most of these psychoactive chemicals do. You are not hungry when you take these chemicals– or simply confuse the pest, make it lose contact with reality, that’s a much better strategy. And that may be why– and I’m being somewhat speculative here. I don’t think there’s any research to prove this particular point– but that may be why these defense chemicals are at certain doses, psychoactive. They’re meant to mess with the mind of predators.

Now, what’s cool about plants is that they can go from producing a chemical which they invented– which is incredible, in and of itself, these complicated molecules that just so happen to unlock human consciousness– that they can switch from having produced them as defenses to essentially, producing them as attractants. And caffeine is a great example of that.

IRA FLATOW: Let me stop you– let me go for the break because this is a great story. So let me remind everybody that this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. Talking with Michael Pollan, author of the book, This is Your Mind on Plants.

Yeah. This is the next question I was going to ask you about. The caffeine B relationship, was that the one you’re going to talk about?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Exactly. So that’s a fantastic example.

So caffeine was originally produced, it appears, to poison insects that want to eat coffee plants. When it was discovered, though, that we love caffeine– humans loved caffeine, it became a strategy for evolutionary success for the coffee plant and we spread coffee and tea around the world. But the plant also figured out that if a certain group of plants produce caffeine in their nectar– now that’s really weird because if it’s a defense chemical, why would you put it in nectar, which is meant to attract insects?

IRA FLATOW: Right.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, some species– citrus species, in particular– figured out that a little bit of caffeine gave a buzz to bees and–

IRA FLATOW: Very well done, Michael. Very well.

MICHAEL POLLAN: And attract– actually, we don’t actually know if they have any feeling about it, but it does have the effect of attracting them. And the bees that get caffeine– and these tests have been done just in the last few years– return more reliably to the plants that gave it to them, remember where those plants are, and essentially, become more– and this is in the words of one of the researchers– more faithful pollinators. So, in effect, these plants are using caffeine the way we do, which is to say to make us into better workers.

IRA FLATOW: Does that mean they have the same receptors in the bee brain that we would have–

MICHAEL POLLAN: Probably. A lot of these things are preserved. I don’t know for a fact, but we have a receptor– adenosine, which is a receptor in the brain– that caffeine fits can unlock. It’s supposed to take this chemical that helps us get tired over the course of the day– adenosine levels rise. We get sleepier, sleep pressure increases, and we go to sleep. But if the caffeine blocks that receptor, we’re wide awake and it stops that action from happening. Whether it’s working the same way in the brain, I don’t think has yet been determined.

IRA FLATOW: I only have about 30 seconds to a minute, but you did the ultimate for your book. You gave up caffeine for a few months and you survived to tell about it.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. That was one of the harder things I’ve done. You know? I like to practice immersion journalism and as you know, in my writing about psychedelics, I’ve tried mescaline, I’ve tried psilocybin just to see what it was like and write about it from inside.

But I also felt I had to do the same thing with caffeine, but that involved giving it up since I was already pretty well addicted. And I had three months without caffeine and I have to say, it taught me very quickly how dependent I am on caffeine, but not only that. How being caffeinated is now normal everyday consciousness for me and I don’t feel myself without it, which is an amazing statement. That I need this plant chemical to feel myself. But there it is.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And there’s a great section in your book that you write about the rise of modern civilization dependant on caffeine and our ability to change our work hours.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, caffeine had a lot to do with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism because if you think about it, before caffeine, the main drug that people used every day was alcohol because alcohol was safer than water. And you can’t operate heavy machinery safely on alcohol and if you’re going to work the long hours and night shifts, you can’t have a night shift without caffeine.

IRA FLATOW: It’s all in your book. I have to cut you off because there’s so much to talk about and so much in your book, Michael. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MICHAEL POLLAN: My pleasure, Ira. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

IRA FLATOW: Michael Pollan, author of This is Your Mind on Plants, published by Penguin. It’s a great read. Now here’s Daniel Peterschmidt with some of the folks who made this program possible.

DANIEL PETERSCHMIDT: Thanks, Ira. Jennifer Fenwick is our director of institutional giving, Ariel Zych is our education director, Beth Ramme is our comptroller, Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer, and I’m digital producer, Daniel Peterschmidt. Thanks for listening.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Daniel. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music and, of course, we had help this hour from audio engineers, Lisa Gosselin and Kevin Wolfe. And if you missed any part of the program, you can subscribe to our podcast or ask your smart speakers to play Science Friday. Have a great weekend. I’m Ira Flatow, in New York.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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