It was never part of Michael Pollan’s life plan to write a book about psychedelics — nor to use them — but he ended up doing both with profound results, the author told a standing-room-only crowd in a vast tent in the Seaport District Tuesday evening.
Pollan has been best known as the author of several books about food and agriculture, and is famous for the seven-word dietary dictum “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
But when the author read about research showing that psychedelics freed terminal cancer patients from the fear of death, he was deeply intrigued, drawn into the research that would result in the 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Answering questions from Bina Venkataraman, who will become The Boston Globe’s editorial page editor next month, Pollan described his extraordinary journey on the first day of HubWeek, a three-day festival of musical performances, digital art experiences, speakers, and other activities.
Psychedelics like LSD and “magic mushrooms” were once taken seriously by psychiatrists, Pollan explained. Only after Timothy Leary was thrown out of Harvard amid sloppy science and LSD-taking by his students did psychedelic drugs come to be seen as features of the 1960s counterculture.
Now, researchers at New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and elsewhere are taking another look, and finding intriguing possibilities. Most are studying psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” Patients with terminal cancer who took psilocybin experienced significant declines in depression and anxiety that lasted even six months after a single psilocybin “trip.”
“It’s not a pharmaceutical effect,” Pollan said. “The experience, more than the drug, is changing your mind. You’re acquiring a new perspective. Your sense of self has changed.”
Psychedelics are “essentially nontoxic,” he said, affecting the brain but not the rest of the body. There is no lethal dose, and no risk of addiction.
But there are risks: “When the drugs are used in an uncontrolled way, a reckless way, people can walk into traffic or fall off buildings. It has happened,” said Pollan, who teaches writing at Harvard and at the University of California Berkeley.
During his psychedelic trips, Pollan had a guide to prepare him for the experience, help him through it, and make sense of it afterward. He took several types of psychedelic drugs, including smoking the venom of a poisonous frog.
But the most meaningful experience was when he was on psilocybin.
“I saw myself dissolve,” he said. “Something I recognized as me burst into a little cloud of Post-It notes, which is kind of appropriate for a writer.” Then he saw himself as paint spread on the floor.
“I had awareness without ego, without self . . . You no longer have boundaries around you. You melt into something larger.”
Some people feel they melt into the cosmos or become one with God. In Pollan’s case, he became one with a Bach cello suite playing in his headphones.
He understood why the drug comforted dying patients, showing they were not isolated in a mortal body.
How does this happen? Researchers using functional MRIs have found that psilocybin quiets activity in the “default mode network,” a group of brain structures that generates the sense of self. The network is like a switchboard operator connecting different parts of the brain in set ways.
Venkataraman asked Pollan whether psychedelics could play a role in political and social awareness today, as they did in the ‘60s.
“When you think about it that way, it’s exactly the drugs for our times,” he said. “We have a very egotistical politics. We objectify the other.
Pollan added that he that knew members of the audience “are thinking ‘Trump, Trump, why haven’t we given the drug to Trump?’ I don’t think it would work,” he said, to laughter. “Things could go wrong and this man has his finger on the button.
“You need to want it, you need to be willing to dissolve your ego,” he added. “He would not want to do that.”
Venkataraman, who elicited Pollan’s comments as they both sat in white armchairs on the stage, teaches in the program on Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and is a fellow at New America. A former journalist for The New York Times and the Globe, she also served as senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House and directs the Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Her recent book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age,’’ explores how people can make decisions that will benefit individuals and society over time.