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Michael Pollan and Tim Ferriss Talk About Psychedelics

Michael Pollan is the author of 7 books, consisting of The New York Times bestsellers In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Problem, and The Botany of Desire.

A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan focuses on the intersection between nature and culture, be it on our plates or in our farms and gardens.

In 2010, Time publication called him among the 100 most prominent individuals worldwide.

Pollan’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence explores how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are used in treatment for conditions varying from depression to dependency to anxiety.

In an episode of The Tim Ferriss Program that Ferriss said might be the most essential podcast he’s put out in the past couple of years, the two spoke about these applications as well as the reemerging field of psychedelic research. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, modified by Outdoors.

Ferriss says,

For people who have heard the terms psychedelic or psychedelics, but are uncertain on exactly what they refer to, can you define them? What are psychedelics?

Pollan says,

At first, psychedelics were called psychotomimetics in the early fifties, right after LSD was made available to scientists. And psychotomimetic indicated that it was a psychedelic drug that mimicked psychosis.

Other individuals called it a psycholytic, which suggests mind loosening. And they were using them in your common talk-therapy session as a method to loosen individuals’ defenses and permit them to connect with subconscious thoughts and emotions.

Psychedelic, as a term, was created in 1957 by an essential figure called Humphrey Osmond. It implies mind-manifesting– that these are compounds that assist the mind to manifest its deepest qualities. And it caught on.

I tend to not think of MDMA or cannabis as psychedelics, although some individuals do. But the group of chemicals that consists of mescaline, DMT, psilocybin, magic mushrooms, and LSD, that are merged by the fact that they deal with comparable receptor networks in the brain and have similar results– when I talk about psychedelics, that’s what I’ve got in mind.

Brand-New Insights or Theories on Psychedelics

What brand-new insights or theories on psychedelics have captured your attention in the clinical realm?

The neuroscience is absolutely remarkable. But that stated, the brain is still extremely inadequately understood. So it is very important to understand that everything I will tell you is a hypothesis.

We know LSD or psilocybin links to a certain type of brain receptor, the H25AR receptor, which is the same one that SSRIs, a class of antidepressant drugs, engage with. But what occurs downstream of that, we do not have a clue.

Among the most fascinating ideas has actually originated from imaging the brains of people on psychedelics. The greatest takeaway from that work is that the brain was in fact depressed by psychedelics, especially in the default-mode network, called that due to the fact that this is where the brain goes when it’s not busy. It’s where you go to ponder, fret, daydream.

And how intriguing that this specific network, essential as it is, goes off-line or at least is activity diminished by psychedelics.

When it does, other parts of the brain that do not normally talk with each other strike up conversations. And so you have, for example, a movement center talking directly to your visual cortex, which, low and behold, might enable you to see things you’re feeling. It might result in hallucinations.

Likewise, when researchers at Yale started scanning the brains of really experienced meditators, their scans look really comparable to the people on psychedelics.

Meditation is another way to quiet the default-mode network, and my guess is there are numerous others, too, like fasting or when you go into sensory deprivation. My guess is that all of these effective experiences may well involve alternate techniques for shutting down or quieting the default-mode network.

Those brand-new connections might manifest as brand-new viewpoints, originalities, brand-new methods, new metaphors. And that’s what we need to enter right now.

What Happens With Those Brand-New Connections?

Do they endure or not? And are there methods to help them withstand longer?

Which studies of psychedelics have stunned you or amazed you the most?

Well, the first one is a 2006 research study. It was an effort to see if psilocybin could be used to celebrate extensive, magical experiences in individuals.

In such a way, this was the predicate of all of the research to come given that, because, first, they proved that you could securely administer these drugs in this environment.

And second, with an extremely high portion, you could cause an experience that individuals would report as one of the most significant experiences in their lives, equivalent to the birth of a kid or the death of a parent.

The fact that you could cause such an experience in a lab dependably, with a mushroom, that sort of blew my mind.

In a follow-up, they discovered that a statistically considerable portion of people who had had these psilocybin experiences in fact had changes in their character that were withstanding.

Openness, which associates with tolerance for other people’s viewpoints, the capability to take in great deals of unexpected info, and creativity, in fact, were increased. And it’s really unusual that personality changes in adults at all.

Now, this has yet to be reproduced, this specific result. But whether there are lasting modifications in the personality of people who take psychedelics, I think, is a truly rich topic to check out and certainly should have more work.

What Are The Threats of These Substances?

There’s no known lethal dosage of psilocybin or LSD. If it kills you, it’s not going to be since it’s harmful. I believe that the risks are more mental in origin. They are extremely disruptive.

They disarm your normal defenses, and defenses can be really helpful along with hurtful.

Some individuals, without their defenses, enter real difficulty. And after that, there is a little subgroup of people at risk for severe mental illness, things like schizophrenia, for whom psychedelics can be the trigger and press people into that very first psychotic break.

So I believe that there are individuals who ought to not take these drugs, and it’s people at some psychological risk.

That said, you’ve got to compare it with other drugs, and they all have risks. The dangers, in this case, at the biological level, are small compared to drugs we take regularly– even over the counter drugs that are more harmful than psychedelics, as far as we know. So I think that’s certainly worth bearing in mind.

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Scientists Using Magic Mushrooms to Treat Depression

Scientists are again turning to hallucinogenic drugs as a cure for depression.

Drugs such as LSD and psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in “magic mushrooms”, were seen as an important therapeutic tool back in the early 60s. But after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” their use became taboo amongst scientists.

Now using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens and have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.

An article in the New York Times quotes a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin who benefitted from a dose of psilocybin.

After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating, he recalled. Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.

Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life.

Studies on Phychedelics For Potential Treatment in Depression

Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., for the largest conference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction to drugs or alcohol.

The results so far are encouraging but also preliminary, and researchers caution against reading too much into these small-scale studies. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s when some scientists-turned-evangelists exaggerated their understanding of the drugs’ risks and benefits.

Similarities Between Hallucinogens & Life-Changing Revelations

Because reactions to hallucinogens can vary so much depending on the setting, experimenters and review boards have developed guidelines to set up a comfortable environment with expert monitors in the room to deal with adverse reactions. They have established standard protocols so that the drugs’ effects can be gauged more accurately, and they have also directly observed the drugs’ effects by scanning the brains of people under the influence of hallucinogens.

Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.

In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.

To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin, or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine, or an amphetamine. Although veterans of the ’60s psychedelic culture may have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.

The monitors sometimes had to console people through periods of anxiety, Dr. Griffiths said, but these were generally short-lived, and none of the people reported any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior than did the members of the control group.

The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey, taken 14 months after the experiment. At that point, most of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.

Psilocibin Shows Promising Results in The Treatment of Depression

Since that study, which was published in 2008, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin, the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin’s experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.

In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.

It was a whole personality shift for me, Dr. Martin said. I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasm with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.

The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.

This feeling that we’re all in it together may have benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal generosity, Dr. Griffiths said. On the other hand, universal love isn’t always adaptive, either.

Although US regulators have resumed granting approval for controlled experiments with psychedelics, there has been little public money granted for the research, which is being conducted at Hopkins, the University of Arizona; Harvard; New York University; the University of California, Los Angeles; and other places.

The work has been supported by nonprofit groups like the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

There’s this coming together of science and spirituality, said Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS. We’re hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war. Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation, our culture is much more receptive now, and we’re showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can’t.

Researchers are reporting preliminary success in using psilocybin to ease the anxiety of patients with terminal illnesses. Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist who is involved in an experiment at U.C.L.A., describes it as “existential medicine” that helps dying people overcome fear, panic, and depression.

Under the influences of hallucinogens,” Dr. Grob writes, individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.

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What Does Decriminalizing Magic Mushrooms Actually Mean?

Denver became the first city to decriminalize mushrooms but what does this actually mean?

The campaign manager behind Denver’s vote said that they had left it initially vague on purpose.

Dan Bilzerian, known for his exorbitant lifestyle and a notorious internet personality and weed entrepreneur tweeted:

Denver legalized mushrooms. What a great thing.

It is great indeed but not what actually happened. Magic mushrooms appeared to be out of reach but in the end, was decriminalized in Denver.

Initiative 301

People over 21 years and older will be allowed to use magic mushrooms for personal use. The campaign also wants to prohibit spending on related penalties. However, this is not the same thing as legalization. Despite the vote, psychedelics are a long way from becoming legal in Denver and anywhere else. Advocates in favor of legalization weren’t even aware of what they had actually done.

One thing is for certain. The vote to decriminalize magic mushrooms will help remove the threat from law enforcement for individual consumers. Locals can possess and get high on shrooms without facing any punishment. However, getting access to magic mushrooms or where to buy it has not been resolved and may not be resolved for a while.

Chris Olson, a field organizer of the Denver Psilocybin Inititiative said,

This isn’t setting up a regulatory framework to sell psilocybin. That was a big challenge for us: differentiation between legalization and decriminilazation. Because, to most people, that doesn’t really mean anything.

The legalization in Denver may allow people to grow their own mushrooms without concern for legal punishment but only for personal use and possibly share with a small number of friends.

Noah Potter, a lawyer who helped craft the ballot says,

One of the more innovative aspects of this inititiative is at the point where the supply equals the demand. When the comsumer is also the producer- that demand of production here is also decriminalized.

However, if this were true, it is unclear how much magic mushrooms you can grow without attracting the attention of law enforcement.

Decriminalization is Not Relatively Clear

Kevin Mathews had said that they left it vague on purpose and didn’t include limits, specifically on cultivation because it is extremely difficult to measure from a law enforcement perspective.

For those that want to recreationally use shrooms in their daily lives is not relatively clear.

Matthews said that he will be contacting the city’s attorney’s office and schedule a meeting with them. He says that they have questions as to what personal use looks like and they “may draft a little addendum to be added to it.”

The Denver Police Department is working closely with the Denver City Attorney’s Office for assistance in the interpretation of the new law regarding the legalization of magic mushrooms. Their feedback will determine the training that will be needed for the officers to move forward.

In both Oregon and California, a review panel still has to be set up to keep tabs on implementation and will look into Denver as a model moving forward.

Legalization Was About Policing Rather Than Commercialization

People will be eager to compare the legalization of magic mushrooms to weed but they don’t compare in any way. Partly because of the distinct nature of both drugs and the history of their enforcement. Furthermore, nobody is advocating the recreational use of magic mushrooms as they had with marijuana.

Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana policy and law at the University of Denver said,

There were not a lot of psilocybin arrests in Denver prior to this. And I think, in that way, it is different from marijuana.

People are still getting arrested for marijuana, and while there are very few people doing jail time for simple possesstion, it is something police can use to harass, or go through someone’s pockets. That just hasn’t really been true with psilocyin. But another imortant thing to remember is that marijuana legalization in Colorado started with decriminlization of it in Denver. I think some people have seen some parells here. But we’re certaintily not going to come up with the same commercial market.

Olson had suspected that the votes for legalizing magic mushrooms would have been higher if residents understood that the legalization was about policing rather than commercialization. In fact, recreational marijuana hadn’t arrived in the city without arousing anger in some corners.

If voters had grasped this then maybe they may have given the measure of legalization a boost, perhaps an even greater boost than the one Olson attributed to Michael Pollan’s 2018 book titled, How to Change Your Mind, a best-seller that introduced psychedelics to a wide range of audience.

A Work in Progress

The decriminalization of magic mushrooms was officially certified on May 16. Both potential mayors, Michael Hancock, the two-term incumbent, and his challenger, Jamie Giellis were currently in a runoff election. Both mayors had said that they would respect the will of the people.

Beth McCann, a city attorney had also said that she would respect the will of the people as well. For now, Mathews plans to advocate the public in Denver and other countries about the use of magic mushrooms and its benefits. It is a work in progress and something to look forward to in the future.

The decriminalization of magic mushrooms may not be widely understood but the idea behind the beneficial use psychedlics can bring to medicine has come a long way.

Scientists are now experimenting and researching the powerful effects of psychedelics and may be a stepping stone for personal use in the future. It may take a while for psychedelics to really be legalized just like marijuana where you can actually buy the substance in public rather than just using magic mushrooms privately.

Soon, other psychedelics might make their way into the public eye and may also be legalized. The legalization of other drugs may take some time though but I believe that it will be legalized since scientists are already seeing a breakthrough in the medicinal use of psychedlics.

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We Are in Desperate Need of Psychedelics

Experts point out that MDMA therapy may be legalized in as little as three years.

You gather around strangers and friends anticipating the effects of the psychedelics you just took to kick in. The effects begin to take effect and suddenly you are overcome with love. The crowd around you starts to yell out whatever comes to their mind and suddenly you follow.

Thousands of attendees are gathered around Lightning In a Bottle, music festival, and psychedelic culture living in tents. The crowd of people will participate in yoga, art, dancing, bodywork, swimming, roller skating, sound healing, and lectures like the one they are all gathered around for.

The Mainstream Needs Psychedelics

The lecture begins and Ismail Lourido Ali says,

You are the leader, the president and the people of your own internal country, what is the state of your union right now?

Ismail Lourido Ali, Shannon Clare Carlin, and many others preaching on the many benefits psychedelics have and the great potential for use in therapy. Ali begins by saying,

In terms of the state of our collective union, we know people are feeling a lot of isolation and separation from their communities, their families and from themselves. People are feeling meaninglessness, divisiveness and polarization.

With our modern world expanding and changing rapidly people today are feeling more anxious, depressed, lonely, addicted, and angry. Especially in the world we live in today and the pandemic affecting many worldwide people are now feeling isolated and everyone around them is an enemy.

Pharmaceuticals are profiting now more than ever but their side effects are unpleasant and many of these drugs do nothing long term.

Psychedelics have been growing in popularity and are needed more than ever. In these past recent years MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and ibogaine have been used to treat mental illnesses. The Wall Street and Stars and Stripes are on a psychedelic revolution.

Ayelet Waldman wrote a book, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, detailing the beneficial experience she had with micro-dosing on LSD.

Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence takes a look at the emerging science of psychedelics.

Psychedelics were considered dangerous and a threat to society but have now hit mainstream and many experts are starting to realize how beneficial they can be in therapy and our daily lives. Carlin and Lourido Ali and many MAPS researchers argue that the mainstream needs them desperately.

Carlin points out,

People are seeking meaning, purpose, personal growth, development, mindfulness and expansion, and there’s also a huge desire to heal. With psychedelics, we can sometimes borrow the courage to look at parts of ourselves we don’t want to consider because they’re not pretty. Psychedelics can also give us the inspiration to embody love and to celebrate. Humans need celebration.

The crowd at the music festival go wild as Carlin and Lourido Ali preaches about are desperate need of psychedelics today.

MDMA Could Treat Those With PTSD

Advances in psychedelic research are linked to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), founded by Dr. Rick Doblin in 1986, the research has focused on psychedelics as medicine and its benefits.

MAPS has solely focused on MDMA research in therapeutic settings and believes that it will be legalized by 2021. Lourido Ali works as MAPS’ policy and advocacy counsel and Carlin serves as the MDMA therapy training program manager.

As the crowd gathered around in a Shavasana pose for relaxation, Lourido Ali and Carlin tell them that their research is currently entering phase III clinical trials. In the United States, Canada, Israel, Brazil, The Netherlands, Colombia, Chile, Germany, the Czech Republic, and more, 200 patients will take part in these studies, and is one of the largest MDMA psychotherapy trials the world has ever seen.

MDMA assisted therapy has been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Phase III psychotherapy trials saw groundbreaking improvements in patients with PTSD through 65 hours of MDMA assisted therapy in a period of 4 months.

This therapy is conducted by a pair of male and female clinicians working with a patient that has ingested 120 mg of MDMA. Eight-hour sessions of talk therapy begin once the effects kick in.

Research has demonstrated that once the effects kick in, the amygdala, a region of the brain related to fear are deeply decreased allowing the patient to discuss their traumatic experience without experiencing the trauma of that experience. Many of these patients have pointed out that talking about their pain while on MDMA is revolutionary.

Carlin says,

Some people have never had someone willing to sit with them, give them attention and not judge them. Even our placebo group improves by 20 percent.

The 110 participants in the Phase III trials included veterans, police officers, and firefighters, a group that experiences suicide and PTSD at a very high rate. MAPS wants to expand its research to areas that need it the most. Carlin points out that there are more than a thousand names on the waiting list and people with PTSD cannot simply wait until MDMA is legalized.

It does not help that many still stigmatize MDMA and not allowing those in need to experience its beneficial effects. However, the US government is finally acknowledging its potential to treat PTSD.

Lourido Ali says,

The FDA has essentially told us that what we’re doing is important and that the science is good. They’re really trying to expedite the process and help us through this.

MAPS is working alongside Dr. Monnica Williams, at the University of Connecticut. She has consulted on trial recruitments and those who are trained as therapists. Her goal is to make this treatment available to all people, not just rich white people. Adolescents ages 13 to 17 will also be included in the treatments.

Many fear that they will have a bad trip but psychedelic professionals at MAPS point out that there are no bad trips, only challenging experiences.

Psychedelics Can Change The World

As MDMA breaks stigmatizing barriers, other psychedelics are also coming to light and being researched.

Ibogaine is being researched to treat opioid addiction which is in grave need today. The CDC estimates that 115 people die from an opioid overdose every day in the United States.

Other scientists are working with psilocybin to treat anxiety and MAPS is beginning trials on smoking marijuana for US veterans with PTSD.

Medicine is just one way that psychedelics can shape our world today. Music, art, television, and film are also a point of entry for psychedelics to become mainstream.

The goal is to create feelings of satisfaction and belongingness in our world today like so many at the Lighting In a Bottle festival feel.

Our world can change for the better, psychedelics could be the breakthrough we need for this change to happen.