Michael Pollan, the celebrated author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” has been writing about food and the environment and their connections to society for years. But when he sat down to write his most recent book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” he wasn’t expecting the experience to become so personal.
Pollan was slated to speak Tuesday at Northeastern University for the 2019 Morton E. Ruderman Memorial Lecture. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said of the author: “Michael Pollan has inspired a conversation with his writing about his exploration of his own mind and spirituality, as he has done about food and other worthy topics throughout his career.”
The Globe chatted with Pollan before his talk at Northeastern.
Q. Your book has turned many heads. Audiences that would possibly never read about psychedelics are suddenly fascinated by them. What do you think contributed to such widespread interest?
A. Well, I was writing as an outsider. You know, most books on psychedelics have been written by people who are part of the psychedelic community, so they’re already persuaded of their value. I went in as a skeptic. I think I represented the readers’ doubts and misgivings. It made it easier for them to entertain the topic. That approach probably resonated with readers more than if I were just evangelizing the use of psychedelics.
Q. Your book also deals with spirituality. When did you first begin to entertain this as a topic of research?
A. My first introduction to my research came long before I even tried psychedelics. I wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which I interviewed cancer patients who were using psychedelics as a therapeutic measure. When I talked to all these patients who had used psilocybin, most discussed a powerful spiritual experience. That led to a quantum change in their attitudes toward their death. In many cases, their fear had been completely lifted. All this was very foreign to me, but really intriguing, The idea that a chemical found in a mushroom could change your outlook at such a profound level. I felt I had to go deeper.
Q. Of all the psychedelics you experimented with, which was the one you were the most surprised by?
A. I had the most profound experience on psilocybin. It was incredibly revealing, my ego completely dissolved and I saw myself kind of explode into a little cloud of Post-It notes and then spread out like a coat of paint on the ground. I experienced it, but at the same time, it felt like I didn’t exist. It’s a paradox that I still chew on a lot. So that was, I would say, the most surprising experience.
Q. After spending so much time investigating the effects of psychedelics, what is your biggest takeaway?
A. We have a public health crisis. A mental health crisis. We have rising rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction. The tools we have to treat these things are not very good. Mental health care is not making the kind of strides that other branches of medicine are. Psychedelic substances, which have been used for thousands of years, appear to hold great promise in treating some of these disorders. And that’s very exciting. We’re not there yet though; much more research needs to be done. And so support for the research is really my big takeaway.
Interview was edited and condensed. Chris Triunfo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.