Environment Forum | Michael Pollan in Conversation with Elaine Scarry – Writing the Ineffable

Welcome to the Environment
Forum of the Mahindra Humanities Center. My name is Robin Kelsey. I’m Dean of Arts and
Humanities and Burden Professor of Photography. And with Ian Miller,
Professor of History here in the front row, we convene
the Environment Forum at the Mahindra. And we do so under the
beneficent graces of Homi Bhabha, the center’s director–
who could not be here with us today, but we will
be thinking of him– and with the extraordinary
support of Steve Biel and Sarah Razor, who are unfailingly
energetic and dedicated to ensuring that
this forum operate at its maximum capacity. When Ian and I
first met with Homi to discuss the possibility
of launching the Environment Forum, the idea for us was
not to bring the environment into the humanities as
one more topic or theme, but rather to think about what
the humanities would become if we took our relationship
to the natural environment seriously. And it has been
inspiring to pursue that question from one meeting
of the forum to the next. We have a great treat in
store for us this evening. Our special guest
is Michael Pollan, who last year joined the
English Department as Professor of the Practice of Creative
Writing and Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer. And we are deeply
grateful for that. Michael, as everyone this
side of the moon knows, is one of the best writers
of nonfiction in English. He is the author of several
bestselling and critically acclaimed books such as Botany
of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his most recent
book, How to Change Your Mind. Michael, through these works,
has probed our exchanges with the natural world,
particularly the exchanges entailed by our ways
of ingesting it. He and his books
have been festooned with so many prizes
that to list them all would take up
much of the evening, so please consult his
website if you need any more information along those lines. To converse with
Michael, we are very fortunate to have Elaine
Scarry, The Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and
the General Theory of Value, which is my favorite
professorial title at Harvard, and Michael’s colleague
in the English department. Elaine is one of our most
accomplished humanists, having written, among many
other things, The Body in Pain, Dreaming by the Book, and
that compact little volume from her Tanner Lecture at
Yale, On Beauty and Being Just. Our topic this evening
is Writing the Ineffable. Harvard, generally
speaking, is deeply effable, and one of the delights
about this event is the chance to
use the Environment Forum to press against the
confident articulations of this institution. And we’re going to talk
amongst ourselves for awhile, and then we’re going to open
things up for questions. There are going to
be two microphone stands available in the
aisles, but there’s also one roving one for
people who would find it uncomfortable to get to
one of the mics in the aisles. So be thinking about your
questions as we proceed. So by agreement, I am
going to kick things off. And I’m going to
ask Michael about– here’s the book, How to Change
Your Mind, for those who have not yet gotten it and read it. In addition to giving us
a very clear exposition of the new science of
psychedelics in this book, you describe your own
experience with them. And I wanted to ask
you about that decision and what challenges
that decision presented to you as a writer. Good question. Well, thank you all for coming. And Elaine, what an
honor to share this table with you and Robin. Thanks for the invitation. You know, as soon
as I decided I was going to be writing a
book on psychedelics, obviously the question is then
planted right in front of you. Are you going to have
these experiences that you’re describing? I had written a long
piece for The New Yorker before I embarked on this book
in which I didn’t do anything. I was very much the
omniscient journalist with no skin in the game. But there were a
couple reasons that made me decide that
I needed to do this. And I have to say it was
with some reluctance, because I had had very limited
experience of psychedelics at the age-appropriate
moment in life. I happened to be
at a college where there were no psychedelics. And I chose poorly, I guess. But I was I was also
not ready for them. I was terrified of them. And I believed a lot of the
scare stories that were around and the real stories
that were around. I came of age just
a little too late, and the scare stories were
dominant in the culture already, people staring at
the sun till they go blind, thinking they could fly and
falling off of buildings, and people having trips from
which they never returned. And so all that weighed on me,
and so I kind of avoided them. As a writer,
however, I’ve always tried to find a way to
put myself in the story, just to offer that unique
perspective writing from inside. And this goes back to– I realized recently– to the
time when I was 11 years old and my parents gave me a copy
of a book by a Harvard alum named George Plimpton
called Paper Lion. And it was a kind
of amazing book– he was also editor
of The Paris Review– where he was trying to
reinvent sportswriting. And he did it by
getting onto the field. He persuaded the Detroit Lions
to let him play in a scrimmage, go through the
summer workout camp, and then play as
quarterback in a scrimmage. And he got stuff that not only
no sports writer could ever get because they were
on the sidelines, but no player could get because
they’d been playing continually since they were little kids. And so that quality of
wonder, of first sight, is available really
only to the person doing something for the first time. And I loved that book. And I didn’t think
about it years later, but I started doing
that in my work. When I wrote about
the cattle industry for Omnivore’s Dilemma,
I bought a cow, and became a baby cattle
rancher for a couple of months, and built a house when I was
writing about architecture. And it just gave me a vantage. It gave me humorous
possibilities because you’re usually
a fish out of water, and that’s always
valuable in writing. And it gave me narrative. So that was kind of to one side. My readers kind of expected
something like that. And then the other was I
became intensely curious. For this New Yorker
piece I mentioned, I was interviewing
cancer patients who had participated in a
trial of psilocybin, the chemical in magic mushrooms. And the theory– and they were
reprising research that had been done in the ’50s and ’60s– that having the kind of
powerful spiritual experience many people do on
psychedelics at a high dose might help them deal with
what the doctors called the existential distress
of facing your mortality, or the fear of recurrence. And I started
interviewing these people, and their stories
were so amazing. And I gradually grew
envious of them. I had never had a
spiritual experience. I’ve always thought of myself
as kind of spiritually retarded. And I was so curious
to have what they had and see what that was about. So at a certain point, I
realized I have to do this. I don’t know how
I feel about it. I had many conversations
with Judith, my wife, who had her own trepidations
about my doing this. We could invite her up
[INAUDIBLE],, but we won’t. But you know, we’ve been
together for a very long time. And if one person
in a relationship is going to have a big,
supposedly possibly life-changing experience, that
could be very destabilizing to a relationship. And would I change in some ways? And what she didn’t
think enough about was that I might get better. But we can decide whether
I did or not later. So that was the sort
of thought process. And then there were all
the mechanics of like, how do you do this? How do I find someone? I couldn’t get into
the above ground trials at reputable institutions. So I had to find my way into
the psychedelic underground to find people who were
willing to work with me, knowing that I’d be
writing about them, and given that they
were doing illegal work. And obviously there were
legal considerations, too, and we can talk about
that later or not. But I definitely had
misgivings about that. Did you anticipate
the challenges of writing about it even
before you had the experience? I mean, were you
thinking about not only what is it going to be like
to have the experience, but what is it going to be like
to write about the experience? Without question. I mean, there was the
worry about going to jail, and then there was to
worry about description . And they don’t
seem commensurate, but I was actually more
worried about the description because I’d read Huxley,
Doors of Perception, which is the ur-text, in a way. I mean, every psychedelic
experience since then, or account of it, has
been influenced by that whether you’ve read it or not. It’s one of those
powerful accounts. And it was beautiful. And I didn’t think I could
write any account that good. And then I’d read all these
really crappy trip reports that are all over the internet. It’s like the quickest way
to repel someone is tell them your dreams, right? And psychedelic trips can
function in much the same way. So yes, there was a lot
of anxiety about it. And the whole time I was
working on the book– and there’s so many parts
of the book, my travelogue, as it were- those
accounts loomed ahead as these great peaks that
I had to get up and across. Definitely. So one of the reasons that
this is particularly germane, I think, to this
forum is that a lot of people who get into the
environmental humanities get into the
environmental humanities because they’ve had some
experiences in the world that more or less feel, to
them, transcendent. And then they go in and
they do their studies, and often there’s not
much of a connection between the experience that
got them into the study and how they actually then
conduct their research and write about it. And I’ve been
fascinated by that gulf. And it’s often only late in
the evening, when you say, so why did you do this– It’s embarrassing. Right. Right. So can we talk about
that, just a little bit about the what is it
that is embarrassing, what is it that
is so difficult– Well, you’re talking
about academics, and then you’re
talking about emotion. So– no, the experience
that gets a lot of people into writing about
nature is an experience of awe in nature and a
transcendent feeling. Awe is an overwhelming emotion. We don’t understand
it very well. And it’s interesting that those
people don’t write about it that much, even though
it was the mode of force. But I’ve also met
lots of people who got into psychiatry or
neuroscience because of a psychedelic experience
and don’t necessarily talk about it. So I think sometimes these
motivating experiences happen when we’re young, too, and
we construct a more grown up rationale for what we’re doing. But I agree. I think that the
experience of awe, anyone who devotes
their life to studying nature and the environment. It’s certainly true for me. I see this work is part and
parcel of all my writing on nature I mean,
that’s really has been what’s unified all my work. I mean, people think
of me as writing about food or psychedelics. But what joins them
together, as you pointed out, is these are ways we engage
with the natural world. They’re not the normal way of
admiring it or writing elegies for it or whatever we do. But I’ve always been
attracted to the idea that we have an active
engagement with nature, yet when we mostly
write about it, we write about it as spectators. Michael, I had a question. Eating engages us. Yeah. A moment ago you
described yourself as spiritually retarded. And throughout the
book, you say that. You say I’m not sure I’ve ever
had a spiritual experience. And yet all your books
are about gardens, and you describe even
being four years old, and your first garden
being between a lilac bush and a fence and so forth. And are you just
saying that in the book to make everybody
feel at ease and make it more believable
when you then start going off into outer space? Well, it’s a good question. I mean, I have had experience
that, from the outside, feel like spiritual experience. And I’ve talked about meals and
the communal quality of meals. And in some sense,
that is spiritual. And many people read
Botany of Desire and would tell me
that they thought it was spiritual, the fact
that I’m imputing agency to the plants, and
that I’m trying to see the world from
their point of view. But it never felt that
way to me, I guess. That was an idea, to me, that
was very much rooted in what we know about co-evolution. And so I always
thought other people were putting that kind
of spiritual gloss on it. But I think, though, I was
having spiritual experience, and I just didn’t
know it because I was so uncomfortable with
that vocabulary, spiritual. I just really had
this sense that to be spiritual was to
believe in the supernatural, and that’s what spirituality is. And that’s not a
very good definition. But it was the one I had. I saw myself as a
materialist in terms of my philosophical attitude. And people who
were spiritual had left the realm of
explaining things according to the laws of nature. And one of the big
things to come out of the kinds of
spiritual experiences I had in writing
this book was not a belief in the supernatural,
which some people do come out of psychedelic experience
absolutely convinced of. And who knows,
they may be right. I mean, this idea that there is
some universal consciousness. You know, Huxley talked about
the mind at large, the idea that consciousness
is not necessarily the product of brains, that
it might exist in the world. And there are physicists
who believe this. But I tended to think
that consciousness was a product of the brain. But I totally reset
my understanding of what spirituality was in
the course of writing the book. And that happened– let me see. Well, maybe we should
hold that until I’ve talked about some
of the experiences because it doesn’t make
sense without a long– Can we talk about
the experiences, but I especially want to talk
about them as a writer, when you’d had the
experiences, what were the challenges and the
risks that you experienced as you tried to write
about what you encountered? Well, the first challenge,
and always the challenge when you’re writing, is
boredom, I mean, that you’re going
to bore your readers and you’re going to
describe something that’s so idiosyncratic to
you, like your dreams, that who else would
care about it? And as a writer of nonfiction,
you always have one eye on– you have this internal
boredom meter of impatience. And this comes out of writing
for newspapers and magazines where I just know how
long I can venture down a digression before I’m
going to lose people. I can just feel them
closing the book. And that’s my
anxiety as a writer. And so there was that,
that I would bore people. Then there was the fact that
would anyone understand it, because what happens is so
strange and hard to explain. You know, William
James, who wrote about mystical experience, which
is the best analog we have, I think, for the psychedelic
experience, his whole analysis. And one of the qualities
of the mystical experience is ineffability, that it
transcends the categories we have, the words we have. It’s not like anything else
that’s ever happened to us. And so there was that. How do you eff the ineffable? And so that was a concern. And I had one experience
in particular, the most kind of upsetting and violent
one, that not only did I have an experience of ego
dissolution, which had happened on an earlier
experience and is also, by the way, a hallmark
of mystical experience, the fact that your sense
of self melts away. And when that happens,
if you’re not panicking, if you’re surrendering to
it, there is this sense, since there are no boundaries
anymore between you and the world, you
have no ego defenses, you’re merging with
something larger. And that, I think, is the heart
of the mystical experience, which is a wonderful sense
of being one with nature, being one with other
people, feeling powerful currents of love,
all these things that happen when we’re undefended. That was going to
be hard to describe. But anyway, so that was the
template, William James. And it holds up really well. So how was I going
to put words to this? I had never tried to write
about something like this. And there was definitely
some worry about that. And I wrote after each
of my experiences. So just you know, I had
like five or six different, seven psychedelic
experiences on a range of different substances. So LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca,
and a very weird one called 5-MeO-DMT, which is– this is going to sound odd–
but it’s the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert Toad. The ingenuity of humans
to figure this out. We’ve got this
toad here, and you know we’re going to do with it? We’re going to milk it of
its venom and smoke it, and something will happen. Wearing a headlight. Yes, wearing a headlight
to capture them, yeah. Now when we’re writing,
we need certain things. We need the element of time,
we need the element of space, and we need a being, a
character of some kind. Those are kind of
essential ingredients. I mean, you can write without
them, but it’s difficult. I’d never done it. And on this particular
psychedelic, where you take a single puff
and before you have exhaled, you have left the
Earth and you’re in a completely
different dimension. And it’s just terrifying
because not only do you experience a loss of
self, but you experience a loss of any reference of there
is no time, there is no space, there is no matter. There is just pure energy. You are just in this
storm of mental– you don’t even know if it’s
mental, but just this energy. It’s kind of like pre-Big
Bang, as we all remember that. But that’s what I mean, the
difficulty of describing it. So I had none of the elements
from which we traditionally construct a narrative. So I didn’t know how I was
going to deal with that. But the bigger worry
was just surviving that one, let alone
writing about it, because it was
really terrifying. The best thing about
that experience was it only lasted
20 minutes, but I didn’t know it was 20 minutes. So Elaine, as a
reader, what did you take away from Michael’s
passages about his experience? Well, I thought, good,
I don’t have to do this, because I’ve experienced
it through him. That’s a public service. Yeah. And it’s so
graphically described. And I thought that
in a number of cases, there is a strong
element of synesthesia. And in your first event
that you describe with LSD, the musical notes are
turning into building blocks, and then members of your
family are inhabiting them. And then in the one
with psilocybin, again, the music is–
whether it’s a kind of music you didn’t like, or whether it’s
Yo-Yo Ma playing a cello suite, the very direct
transformation synesthetic experiences into color and
visual events or tactile events, like at one
moment, you feel that you’ve become the cello
and Yo-Yo Ma’s horsehair. I can feel it over my skin. You’re the strings, yeah. And I think that in studies
that I’ve read of synesthesia– and you talk later in the
book about synesthesia– one theory is that
all the pruning that we learn to do to
separate sections of our brain when we’re infants and
toddlers and so forth is incomplete in people
who have synesthesia. And there’s crosstalk
between areas of the brain. And one thing that’s very
interesting is that some neuroscientists– like
this person Ramachandran, who’s got a very prominent
place in this world– believes that that is the
heart of how metaphor works, that when you use a metaphor,
you are actually experiencing a moment of crosstalk
in the brain, and you’re actually eliciting
it from your readers because they may
have not themselves had the ability or the tendency
to have this kind of breakdown in the areas of the brain. But you can prompt it
by this unexpected leap. And so I thought– and of course, the
things that are happening to you during
the event are themselves– I mean, they’re
literally happening, but they’re not
quite literal events, like you gave birth to
your son in one of them. It’s not a literal
event, but it’s as though it’s metaphor that
then requires other metaphors to communicate it. And yet that’s not getting
away from the heart of the experience. That is the very
experienced that’s going on cognitively
is that there’s all this kind of crosstalk. And that’s what we are coming to
understand neuroscientifically. There’s one illustration
in the book that shows how the brain is
wired when you’re straight and how it gets
rewired on psilocybin. And it’s really
interesting because you have this situation where
all these different brain networks that are ordinarily–
since that pruning period that you’re describing–
are kind of segregated. And they only communicate
with one another through this master control
of the default mode network, which is where the ego appears
to reside, and that suddenly, when that network goes quiet,
which happens on psychedelics– at least according to
FMRI imaging of the brain, this particular kind
of orchestra conductor of the brain
network goes quiet– suddenly you get these new
connections springing up. And so your sense of smell might
talk to your sense of sight might talk to your
sense of music. And you’re right. And I think that is why it’s
such a metaphoric process. And that is, to me, the
most salient part of it, is the fact that
music in particular, it becomes so concrete, the most
powerful experiences of music, both good and bad,
that I’d never had. So I think that is what it is. It’s a temporary
rewiring the brain. And in a way, it is going
back to child consciousness, before all that pruning
and division of labor has happened in the brain. And one of the people I talk
to in the book, I interview, is Alison Gopnik, the
child psychologist. And she’s convinced that
psychedelic experience is the closest we can come
to the mind of the child. It’s kind of the
Wordsworthian drug. My kids definitely seemed
that way at certain points. Well, most kids,
four-year-olds and under five and younger, many aspects
of their consciousness is pretty psychedelic. They have trouble
focusing on a task. They’re taking in
information from all sides at once instead of– she describes it as there’s
spotlight consciousness, which is what we have as adults. And we can attend to a
particular task or focus. And then there is a
lantern consciousness, which is taking in
information from all over. And in some ways,
their consciousness is actually more accurate than
ours because when you focus, you edit out too much. Wordsworth says, “Of the
child, oh best philosopher,” a line that Coleridge
thought was preposterous. But it’s certainly consistent
with what you’re saying. And she’s done these really
interesting experiments where she’ll give a task– she’ll design a game, a task,
and for many kinds of thinking, kids will outperform adults,
little kids will outperform adults, if the task
requires throwing out the rules of the game and trying
something completely different. So for example, she created
this blicket detector. And if you put a block
of the right shape on in the right position,
the whole thing goes off and there’s lights and music,
and it’s very exciting. And adults can do
it pretty well. Kids can do pretty well. If she changes the
rules so that it’s not the shape of the block, it’s
two blocks, this radical change in the rules, kids will
get it before adults do because we are in these
narrow channels of behavior and pattern. We’re very good at
recognizing pattern, but then we get
stuck in pattern, and kids don’t get
stuck in pattern. So she sees that
as a good analog of psychedelic consciousness. That’s fascinating. I want to ask you another
question about the challenge of writing about the ineffable. So there’s a wonderful
quotation in your book that is “The mystical
journey seems to offer a graduate education
in the obvious,” which could you say a little more
about what you mean? Yeah. I mean, in some ways, you
know that’s the toughest part, is that you have
profound epiphanies that are completely banal and that
they belong on a Hallmark card. And the number of
people who have had psychedelic experiences
where they discover that love is the most important
thing in the universe– Which is what you discovered. Which I did discover. And by the way, It’s true. Can we just stipulate that? But how do you write about it
in a way that isn’t ridiculous? And so I struggle with that. There’s no irony in the
psychedelic experience that I detected. I’m sure some people have
had ironic experiences. But yeah, that was a struggle. And so the way I dealt with
it finally– it took me a long time to figure
out how to do this– and I wrote these
accounts right after, and when I read them
over, I was like, ugh, this is not going to work. But one of the
things I’ve learned from reading a lot of memoir– and this is something
I’ve talked to my students about– is that they really
get interesting when there’s kind of a double consciousness. When you’re writing, you’re
not just immersed back in the four-year-old self or
the eight-year-old self telling the whole narrative that way,
but you’re kind of jumping back and forth between
the adult perspective and the kid’s perspective,
and that that really gives– James Baldwin does
this beautifully in Notes Of a Native Son. And Orwell does it,
too, in his memoirs. And it gives a kind of tautness
or friction to the narrative. So I decided that when
I got to something that was kind of
ridiculously banal, or that I knew my reader
was going to struggle with, I just acknowledged it
and I talked about it. And I said– I kind of broke the
fourth wall and said, I know how dumb this
sounds, or I know how implausible this sounds. And so that the reader, I was
giving him or her something to hold on to that I could see
it from their point of view, even as I was seeing it
from my point of view. And so a lot of it is
going back and forth. And in some ways,
you could say I didn’t have the courage of my
convictions, which is probably true. But I found that I could
talk about something like the graduate education, the
obvious, in the midst of this, and say at the same time,
I know how it sounds. But isn’t it also true? And so there’s a kind of a
doubling of the perspective. And I found when I did
that, it just freed me. And after I had kind of come
up with that approach– and I [INAUDIBLE] that many times. But for example, in describing
the tow trip, I’m very aware, and I say, look, I’m going to
give you a couple of metaphors because metaphors can help
us with ineffability, as you were suggesting. They’re not quite right. And I proceed to give them. One is I had the sensation
that I was strapped to the outside of a rocket
that was taking off, and this thing was
shuddering horribly, and the G-forces were
pulling my face down, and we were rising through
the sky and through clouds. And then I said, it
was a little like that. That’s all I could promise. And then I offered
another metaphor. And so I found metaphors
saved me, in many ways, even when they weren’t perfect. And I was very
frank about the fact this isn’t exactly
what I felt, but this is what I can give you. This is an analog. So in a way, yeah, being
straight with the reader was helpful. And then after
that, I have to say I had a really good time
writing these scenes. I probably had more
pleasure in the writing than I’ve had in anything
I’ve ever written. And that was a surprise. I really didn’t expect that. Part of it was the freedom. I’m a journalist. I’m a nonfiction writer. I write in this tight box
of fact-checkable facts. And here I was describing the
contents of my imagination, and nobody could fact
check this stuff. So I felt more like I imagine– I’ve never written
fiction– but as I imagine the novelist feels who
is describing a narrative unfolding in his or her head. Also, all your descriptions
of your ego or your will, like when you say my ego was
back in uniform and on patrol, it so prepares the reader
for not kind of pulling back from you when you suddenly
do surrender anything that has to do with will or ego. Well, ego is a really important
term in this whole thing. And to me, that was the big
takeaway of the experience, is that you could lose
your ego and not die. You could lose
your ego and still have a vantage, a presence. Anyway, that was my
biggest experience was on this one
psilocybin trip, I had an experience of looking out
at some point and seeing me– and I know this isn’t going
to make a lot of sense– but kind of burst into a
little puff of post-it notes. But I was fine with it. So who was this I that was
fine with it, if that’s me? Well, I discuss actually
trying to explain well, there’s another first person
pronoun that we need to understand this experience. But it turns out I’m
not identical to my ego, and that I can acquire
this distance on it. And what that
perspective was, I don’t know, because it was
very different than me. It was very objective. It had complete equanimity
about what was happening. I think this is the
perspective Aldous Huxley would have called the mind at large. He would believe
that at that moment, he was acquiring a kind of
more transcendental perspective that maybe belongs to the
universe, not to individuals. I don’t know. I think the double
voice you have in writing about it is
very important for a number of reasons. One is I actually think
it stages or performs disidentification with the
ego, or at least this kind of toggling. I also think it’s
a very generous way to write because you didn’t
lose the readers who had not had this experience because
you always gave them back their voice, which
is this, like, wow, that sounds like a
Hallmark card or whatever. Well, I was honoring
their skepticism. Yeah. And we didn’t talk
about the beginning, but that is one
of the challenges. Unlike pain– Elaine’s
written brilliantly about the ineffability of
pain, and I was comparing that to psychedelic experience. We can all imagine pain. We’ve all been in pain. But I knew that there would
be a substantial portion, or I hope there would
be a substantial portion of my readers, who had not
had a psychedelic experience. And I didn’t want
them to feel left out or that I wasn’t
writing to them. And that had been
something I’d noticed in most of the literature
around psychedelics. It kind of assumed you
were in on the game, you were in the tent. And I didn’t want to
do that, definitely. I thought that– one of the
things that I noticed once when I was trying to deal
with this problem– as it happens, with
certain kinds of labor, like coal mining– is that if a
feature of something is that it’s inexpressible, then
if you’re able to express it, there’s a certain
way in which you’re in danger of falsifying it. So let’s say that– and I was looking at the
example of coal mining. It happens that one of my
grandfathers was a coal miner. But I was looking at coal
mining in Zola’s Germinal and in Orwell’s
Road to Wigan Pier. And if you say, well,
this phenomenon of labor has these features,
A, B, C, D, and then it has this other feature,
which is ineffability. And if you can get
to the ABCD, that’s great, except that
now you’ve falsified this one because a
key feature of it is that it’s inexpressible. And the way that
Zola and Orwell solve that is by very
carefully describing the path towards which the thing
gets made, comes into being, and the path away by
which it gets unmade. Literally incredible
descriptions in Germinal of the long
drop down to the ground, and long passage
through tunnels. And same with Orwell. And then much of the book is
structured on the getting out. But that’s true of your
book, that you give us the kind of passage
to approach it, and then the kind of
coming away from it again, so that we’re not only
getting the features of it in– very graphically
rendered images that you haven’t even begun
to describe here tonight– but all of you, you
should read these, these are amazing accounts. But you’re also given this
very careful preparation, not only in the whole kind
of scientific neuroscience and the work that’s been
done with cancer patients and people who are
addicted and so forth, not only in your
claims that this is the start of neuroscience
and the start of– I think you actually even
start the Silicon Valley as coming out of this. I can’t remember how
you pulled that one off. Think I oversold that? Yeah, I thought that
was a little bit– but then the actual
experiences are like the jewel in the center. And if you haven’t read this, he
interviews 15 spiritual guides before he actually arrives
at the ones who are going to be there to assist him. And those descriptions
of the rejected guides are often quite hilarious. Well, they’re people
you just don’t want to have a psychedelic
experience with. There’s a lot of them. And the other thing
is that you realize that he’s really afraid
he’s going to die. You’re really
afraid you’re going to die because it can have
an effect on your heart. And so it is this
very dramatic thing. But this set of attributes that
are gradually coming into being are preceded by this very
careful, carefully wrought account of the progress of
approaching the thing, and then the retreat from it. Well, in my writing
I really like to approach whatever
is the center of it– whether it’s our
relationship to plants or a psychedelic experience– in a circular way. And let’s look at
it scientifically, let’s look at it historically,
let’s look at it, I don’t know, anthropologically,
let’s look at it therapeutically. And then there’s
the personal, too. And no one perspective
is adequate. It’s been a conviction in my
work for a very long time. Scientists don’t always
have the last word. Sometimes the poets
get there first. But it’s by multiplying
perspectives that you begin to get a
richer portrait of it. And speaking of
multiplying perspectives, why don’t we take this occasion
to open it up for questions. And we do want questions. I’ve talked with Michael
about his experience in talking about his book. And there’s many people in the
world who have had experience with psychedelics,
and many of them like to talk about
those experiences. And I’m sure they’re
very, very interesting. But it would be
great if we could if we could get questions. Be fantastic. Yes. Please. And the mics are
coming down the aisles. And for anyone
who has difficulty coming to a mic in an
aisle, there’s also, I believe, a roving mic. It’s not on. I think he’s gone. Turning it on. There it is. OK. So are you still a materialist
in terms of consciousness? And what actually shook your
faith, maybe, in materialism, and how did you
approach it before you got into this experience? So I’m glad you brought
this up because I left something hanging earlier. So this experience of ego
dissolution, which I really think is central to the
psychedelic experience when it works– and it doesn’t always happen. For people to be willing to let
their ego completely dissolve, they have to feel very safe. And that’s why the choice
of guide is so important. But the change that
I underwent was I went from thinking that the
opposite term for spiritual was material. And I came to understand, after
having this period of time where my ego was gone– when your ego is gone,
your defenses are down. You feel emotion in
this powerful way, and particularly
the emotion of love. You feel your place in nature
has completely changed. You no longer feel
you’re a subject and everything
else is an object. Actually, the subject
object duality falls apart when
the ego falls apart. It’s all objective or
all subjective, whatever. So this powerful connection. I had this sense of
being in my garden, and the sense that consciousness
was spread very evenly over all the species in the garden. I didn’t have a monopoly
on consciousness. The plants had it, too. So it made me realize that it’s
the ego that stands in the way of spiritual experience,
and that for me– and this is a very
non-supernatural definition of it– the opposite of
spiritual is egotistical. And it is the
walls that our egos build that keeps us from feeling
our connection to nature, that keeps us from feeling
love in its most profound manifestation. So for me, that
was a big change. I kind of redefined
spirituality for myself. And yeah, that was the news. That was the news for me. I know other people
come out of it with the idea of
universal consciousness. And I’ve heard from
a lot of people since the book came out that I
didn’t take that idea seriously enough, and that maybe
I should, and maybe I should look into it. I still feel like
I am a materialist about consciousness. But I also know
enough about this area that we actually don’t know that
brains produce consciousness. There’s remarkably
little evidence of that. It seems to me the more
parsimonious theory, but there are people who
make good arguments it’s not. As the Dalai Lama said,
the idea that brains produce consciousness is
an interesting hypothesis. But that’s all it is so far. Well, at one point,
you report someone as asking you how
confident you are that God does or doesn’t
exist, and you say, well, 2% to 3% chance. Oh, yeah. No, that was about immortality. Yeah. And the person says to
you, but that’s a lot. That’s a high percentage. I was interviewing Roland
Griffith, who is really the scientist at Hopkins who’s
done the most to get this started, the research started. And he’s a very prominent drug
abuse researcher, actually. And he had a mystical experience
in his meditation practice, and that got him very
interested in altered states of consciousness and got
him raising questions about the nature
of consciousness. And when I was interviewing
him the first time, it was the weirdest question
to hear from a scientist. I’ve interviewed
lots of scientists. And he’d said, so
what do you think the chances are that anything
happens after you die? And I’m like, hmm, I
don’t know, 2% or 3%? And he says, that’s a lot. I guess it is a lot. I don’t know where I came
up with that number, though. It may have been
journalistic tactic because if I’d said
zero, given I knew he was a spiritual
person, I would have less connection with him. So I don’t know if I
really believed it. Maybe I’m being defensive now. Thanks. Hi. So I understand
and appreciate that when you were having
indescribable experiences [INAUDIBLE] to have
disclaimers to the audience that this might not make sense. You might not understand this. Was there any part of doing that
that [INAUDIBLE] that you would lose the readers whose
trust you had built in either the writing or
[INAUDIBLE] works you had leading up to it? Were you afraid of
losing that trust? Did you think about
what would happen if you didn’t make those disclaimers? Yeah, I didn’t think of
them in that context. I mean, I did have
a general awareness that I’d written seven
books before this, and they were on very
different topics, and would people who’d
read me on food and nature and agriculture read me on this? But I think you just
make that leap of faith. I mean, currying favors
with your readers is a sure path to bad writing. So no, s was more
just any reader who hadn’t had
psychedelic experience. I wanted to honor their
skepticism because I shared it. You know, I didn’t
know how much weight to put on this experience. I didn’t know how true it was. I still don’t. There’s so much
about the experiences I have I’m still processing. It’s kind of one of the
interesting things about it is that you have powerful
visual images that become almost these visual koans
that you just kind of turn over in your head, and I still do. And I don’t know what they mean. I don’t know where
they came from. And so it really is
just the bringing of my normal
journalistic skepticism into this psychic space. So it wasn’t just for
keeping the reader on board. I mean, yes, I’m always thinking
about that to some extent. But it really was because I
didn’t emerge from the process a convert in the way
that Huxley does. You know, Huxley I’ve said
really nice things about, and he’s a wonderful writer. But I find his account
a little credulous– or not credulous. I think he had the experience
his philosophy prepared him to have and then
he wanted to have, and that he was illustrating
a kind of metaphysics that he already had with the mind
at large and the idea that there was a common core
of mysticism to all religions. There’s a footnote in the
book where I compare him to another account of
a mescaline experience the same year, 1954, by
much less writer named Henri Michaux, who wrote
a book about his psyche his mescaline experience
called Miserable Miracle. And Michaux, who’s a
poet and an artist– yeah, you can guess what
he thought about it. But his challenge
as a writer was I am not going to distort this
experience with metaphor. I am not going to distort it
with even complete sentences. It was like my toad experience. This was such a chaotic,
inchoate experience that I would be
doing violence to it to render it in narrative,
to render it with metaphor. And so you have the
neat, elegant account of Huxley on this
side, and you have the absolutely unreadable,
crazy account of Michaux, whose writing descends into
drawings at various points because he just can’t
figure out what to say. I definitely didn’t want
to go down that path. But I respected it,
whereas I thought that Huxley was being
a little bit glib, and that his whole thing
just felt neat to me. So in a way, those were
my Scylla and Charybdis. I was trying to find a
path between those two models, both of which
I had trouble with. Yeah. I’m curious if you’ve had
any psychedelic experiences since writing the
book, or if you feel like you’ve gotten
kind of all or most of what you can get from
these experiences. Yeah. I have not had any
experiences since I did the research for the book. A couple of reasons for that. Now I’m out publicly talking
about having broken the law and don’t want to
put myself at risk, but more importantly, don’t
want to put my guides at risk. We didn’t talk about
the way I did this. But I was never alone. I was with people who
were very professional, but taking these chances
with their freedom. And so if I were to work
with one of them again– and I really
believe, by the way, in having a guide when you’re
doing a psychedelic experience. If you want to have a
profound experience, you don’t want to
just be walking around in the street or even in
the woods on your own. To have an experience
of ego dissolution, you have to feel so safe and
in such reliable company. So anyway, so no. The answer isn’t. If it were legal, I would
definitely do it again. I can totally imagine
a scenario where I would do this every
year on my birthday, that that would be kind of a
good way to use these tools, and a stocktaking addressing
problems, connecting with loved ones who have
died, all these kind of things that happen. If we lived in a
different world– and we may get
there, by the way. We’re closer to some form of
FDA approval of psilocybin than you would guess. It could be 2021. Pretty soon. So anyway, but thanks
for your question. No. Yeah. You were introduced tonight as a
person who writes about nature. And the word was just
uttered without really defining it, which is fine. But a lot of writers
and philosophers have pointed out that
the concept of nature is pretty problematic because
on the one hand, any experience that a person in human society
has of nature is unavoidably mediated by society. But on the other
hand, human society is itself just kind of
a natural phenomenon. So it’s very difficult
to know where to draw the line between what’s
nature and what’s not nature. And of course, you’ve
written a lot about how the relationship between even
humans and plants, the plants that we cultivate, is very,
I guess you would say, dialectical. So I would love to hear you
talk about how you define that concept, how
you draw that line, and also maybe even how both
your experiences as a writer and your experiences
with psychedelics has helped to inform your
understanding of that concept and that distinction. I’m going to dwell
in the second half of that because the first half
we don’t have the time for. And I totally agree
with you that it’s a problematic conception,
and that we define it in many different ways. The fact that we
define ourselves out of nature so
often, routinely– people who write
about nature often think of humans as
standing apart from that. And that’s, I think, a very
curious thing about us. I mean, we feel like we’re in
nature but we’re not in nature. So this is something
I’ve written about a lot. But in this sense, I’m using it
in terms of the other species we share the world with and
our engagement with them, and the fact that we co-evolve
with other species, and they– as I wrote in about
in Botany of Desire– their evolutionary
strategy, understanding that there’s no
intention involved, is often to gratify our desires. And our desires include
changing consciousness. And there are
certain species who have engaged with
us on that level, and the psilocybin mushroom
is definitely one of them. In terms of my own
attitudes toward nature, they were affected
profoundly by the experience, and specifically the kinds of
ideas that in Botany of Desire were an intellectual conceit,
this idea that plants manipulate us even as
we manipulate them, that the corn plant
or the apple tree is using us for
its own purposes, or that the grasses have
evolved to get us to mow them, which would seem to be
anti- the grass’s interests. But in fact, the
main grass interest is keeping the trees
from coming back. So we’re actually doing their
bidding when we cut them down to this size. So those kind of
like thinking our way through the natural
world, and who’s in charge, and all
that kind of stuff has been something I
enjoy thinking about and thought about a lot. But in the midst of the
first psychedelic experience that I describe in the book,
which is the psilocybin experience, unguided, that
took place in my garden, I had all these intellectual
conceits became flesh. They became real. The plants really
were looking at me. They were returning my gaze. And as I said, I had the
sense that consciousness was spread very evenly
over the natural world. They were totally benign
and wished me well, I felt. And I don’t have to say I
know how crazy this sounds, but what had been an
intellectual conceit became a conviction, at least during
the time of the experience. And that goes to another
quality of mystical experience that James talked about,
the noetic quality, that there is this weird
authority that whatever epiphany you have, whatever
insight or even opinion you have, is not a mere opinion. It’s a revealed truth. And that’s an amazing quality,
I think, of psychedelics. I don’t understand it. It may flow from
the idea that you’ve destroyed the usual
subject object division so that
everything seems objective. It’s not just if there’s
no thinking subject, there can’t just be
opinions or points of view. It just all is. But I don’t really
understand how it happens. It’s very valuable in
a therapeutic context because you have addicts, for
example, who have an insight– there was a smoking study
done that I described– where they realized gee,
there’s so many amazing things to do and see in this world. I’ve just had this experience of
flying through western history, I’ve sprouted wings, and I saw
my body rise from the Ganges. And what a stupid thing to
smoke and shorten your life. And that banal insight–
there’s another banal insight– has the force of revealed
truth and allows that person to never have another cigarette. That’s so curious. So anyway, I had
that noetic quality about these ideas in my
relationship to other species, and that was powerful. Do I now think the
plants are gazing at me when I walk through the garden? No. But I also now question my
normal straight perception, and that things
are hidden from us. As Huxley said, consciousness
is filtering out more than it’s letting
in, and that it just allows us access
to what he called the measly trickle of
information we need to survive, and that there’s a whole
lot of other things going on that we don’t see day to day. Yeah. This tall. Sorry. Hi. So we talked a
little bit about– well, you talked about
your process in the book a little bit about
how you were writing. And it’s clear from
your other books, too, that you write from
a place of vulnerability to like invite your
readers to join you. And I was wondering,
because psychedelics are such a vulnerable
experience, the theme of this is writing the
ineffable, and I’m wondering, for bare
bones process-wise, how did this differ for you? What was your process like
for writing this book compared to Botany of Desire or
Omnivore’s Dilemma or even your books on architecture? Yeah, I don’t know
that the process was fundamentally different. I think what you’re saying about
vulnerability is interesting. I like to write from a position
of naivete or ignorance. And almost everything
I’ve written, if you read the first paragraph
or two, I’m kind of an idiot, and I don’t know things. And I realized I
really like writing at the beginning of
the learning curve rather than at the
end as an expert. And most of us, especially
most of us in academia, we don’t start writing until
we’ve got it all figured out. And we impersonate
the person who has it all figured out on page one. And I’ve always found
that a bit of a turnoff. And I think the reader likes
to go on a journey with you of learning. So this book, like
all my books, begins in a state of ignorance,
relatively, and curiosity, and that we’re going to
learn all this together. And I think that’s generally
a good writing strategy. I think it’s awkward for the
academic for various reasons having to do with conventions,
and that that vulnerability is not welcome in academia. But in general, it was similar. It was kind of like I’m going
to learn everything I can. I’ve got a file called science. I’ve got a file called history. I’ve got a file called memoir. And I’m going to fill
those up, and then figure out how to layer them. The big difference is– and this is maybe getting
a little too granular– is that most of my
books, each chapter has had the multiplication
of perspectives in it. So in Botany of Desire there’s
a chapter on the apple, and you learn about
Johnny Appleseed, and you learn about the
biology of the apple tree and my own experiences
and da da da da da. Here I couldn’t do
that for some reason. There was the psychedelics,
and the experience and the science of
it, and each chapter had to be a different lens. And I’m not sure
exactly why that was. It was something about
the nature of the subject. But it wasn’t
fundamentally different. Thanks Thanks. I really didn’t want
to be the last person to ask a question because
mine is quite [INAUDIBLE].. It’s got to be
really good, right? Oh, great. [INAUDIBLE] So yeah, I kind
of have a technical question. It’s also about process. I’m curious about
your note taking, the note-taking process,
how it’s different when you’re trying
to write about being on psychedelic drug versus when
you’re writing about things that are effable. Are you taking notes
while you’re on the drug? What does your notebook look
like at the end if you are? If you’re not, when do
you start taking notes? And I guess, related
to that, too– well, I’ll just leave it there. We want granular. Yes, I know. I know We’re serious. So here’s some grains for you. I guess just to add
on one more thing, I’m curious if
there’s a difference– if you felt like you had a lot
more or less drafts that you had to write in order to get to
the final version compared to– Of the trips? Yeah, compared to when
you’re writing about things that are effable. Yeah. So I couldn’t take notes
during the experience. It was just too– I did bring my computer
into one session, and that was a huge mistake. I had wanted to
perform an experiment that I’d heard about, which was
the rotating mask experiment. There’s this famous
experiment in psychology of a mask that’s convex on one
side and concave on the other, and it rotates. And something really
interesting happens. As you begin to
perceive the back of it, it pops out because the
brain will not allow you to see a concave face. Faces are convex. And it’s an example of what’s
called predictive coding, the fact that most
of what we see is a prediction rather
than literal sensory data. And I’d heard that people on
psychedelics, it didn’t happen. They could see the
back of the mask. And it’s true of
schizophrenics, apparently. They can see the
back of the mask. So this very important brain
function, I wanted to test it. And I thought I would
take some notes, too. The mere act of having
the computer in the room– Leary famously talked
about set and setting, that the experiences is highly
vulnerable to your expectations and the environment you’re in. Half of this experience was
this horrible computer world, where the graphics
of that mask became the graphics I
experienced, and the music summoned this video game
world that I hated and I felt trapped in for hours. So I never brought my
computer into the room again. And I felt like to write
notes during the experience would represent not
completely surrendering to it, which all my guides
had said was really the key to a
successful experience, is not to fight
anything about it. If you see a monster, you’re
supposed to step right up to it and ask what it’s
doing in your brain. If you see a staircase,
you’re supposed to climb it. You know, John Lennon said it. Relax your mind and
float downstream. And taking notes
didn’t go with that. So what I did instead was
I asked my guides to record anything I said, and I would
try to say a few things to them, which never was better than,
like, spectacular, or gnomic utterances like, I don’t want to
be so stingy with my feelings. That was a note. So that wasn’t that helpful. But what I did
do– and actually, what the guides, both
in the university trials and the
underground experiences, tell you is write a
journal right after. So that night I did two things. One was Judith debriefed
me over dinner, and I said as much as I
could about the experience. And that was actually
really helpful because she could connect
it to other things and had various insights,
because what you’re doing is you’re taking something
that’s non-linear, non-narrative, and you’re trying
to turn it into a narrative. And you are doing
violence to it, in a way, because there’s tons
of it that makes no sense, and you’re kind of
editing that out. And then I would write this
long, loose journal that would be like 15 single
spaced pages of everything I could remember
about the experience. And that became the
raw material later. But one of the things that’s
striking about the experience is you don’t have
trouble remembering it. It’s not like dreams, where you
feel that undertow pulling it out of your conscious
awareness and you have to fight it to preserve it. I’ve talked to people
who can vividly recall trips they had 30 years ago. It’s just stored in the memory
in a very different way. But anyway, I used these
journals, and that was the key. A couple more questions. Yeah. Thank you for being here. I’m a div school
alum, and so when you talk about things
like the plants all having consciousness,
that doesn’t sound crazy at all to us, and
please come over to our corner of the world. I see a few other
div school folks. My question was how this
has influenced your thoughts about what you’ll write next. Frankly, it’s made
what I’m going to do next harder to think about. I’ve never had an
experience that affected me in so many ways that was as
consuming as this one in terms of occupying all my imagination
and whatever skills I have, that when I think
of other topics, they seem kind of
small right now. I’m sure that’ll change. It takes me a while. My agent had some idea for– I had lunch with
her the other day. She says, you need to
write a short, scary book about food and climate change. And someone needs
to write that book. But it had no appeal to me. I’m much more interested in
continuing this exploration of self and consciousness. I don’t know where it goes. But one of the
things I learned is that there are many
other ways to explore this besides psychedelics,
meditation being a very important one,
and meditation being the way many people keep
their psychedelic experiences alive for themselves. There’s a very interesting
progression from psychedelics to Buddhism that many, many
Americans have followed, and there’s a logic to that. And the brain networks are
affected in similar ways. So I’m kind of more interested
in that general area. But I have no idea. I have no idea. What I normally do between books
is write a couple articles, and then one of
them turns out to be a bottomless well of
stuff I have to learn, and I realized
that’s the next book. But I don’t know what is yet. I will keep my eye on The New
Yorker and The New York Times Magazine and look forward to it. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks very much for the book. I enjoyed it. We’re at Harvard, and you
just mentioned Timothy Leary. And so I’d like to pursue
that a little bit more. Those of us who were involved
in psychedelics way back then in the ’60s, when Timothy
Leary was walking among us, believe that you
give everybody acid and we’ll have universal peace. And what you’ve described, and
what we’re talking about here, is a very individual,
very personal experience. But we’re doing it in the
context of a center, which I imagine is concerned
about the planet, concerned about the environment. Is there potential
in psychedelics for redressing, repairing
our relationship with the environment as a
society beyond the individual? I think that’s a great question,
and a great question to end on. You know, a lot of people who do
this research, even university researchers,
psychopharmacologists and pharmacologists, come out of
this work thinking this really does have relevance
for our predicament. And they’re a little nervous
about talking that way because of Timothy Leary. But many people emerge
from the experience with that conviction, that it
has something to offer us now. And I don’t think
it’s an accident that this revival of research
is happening right now. There’s two ways
to look at this. I do believe that, from
my own experience and also from the research,
that the nature of the psychedelic experience
has a very specific relevance for what I see as the two
biggest problems that face us as a civilization. One is tribalism and the other
is the environmental crisis. And in this sense,
both are based on the objectifying of
the other and of building walls rather than
bridges, and that the psychedelic experience,
because of the fact that it can lead to this ego
dissolution and the opening of these channels of connection,
this sense of connection is the most powerful thing
that comes out of it. Some of the researchers have
even sought to measure this, and there is a
scale psychologists have called nature
connectedness, where they actually– going back to your
question– they assess, through a
questionnaire, how much do you feel you’re in
nature or outside of nature? And people’s scales
change dramatically after a psychedelic experience. And that doesn’t surprise me
at all that that would happen. My guess is if you did a similar
scale for how tribal you feel, how much you feel
that your group is no different than the other– because those two things are
growing from the same place of objectification. So if these drugs have the power
to address those two problems, then you get to another
huge challenge which is, how do you prescribe
a drug for a culture? You can’t. I mean, Timothy
Leary tried to do it. He would make
calculations on napkins about how many Americans
he’d have to turn on to change America, and
it was like 2.9 million, or 1.9 million. Well, that many
people were turned on and everything didn’t change. You’re not going to
put it in the water. It’s not like fluoride. So that’s where you
run into trouble. And that was a
debate in the ’50s. The goal was, if these drugs did
have a positive social effect– and Huxley believed this, too. Many, many people believed
this during the ’50s and ’60s– how do you spread those ideas? Leary’s theory was
turn on everybody. He was a Democrat. He was the populist
of psychedelics. Huxley and several other people
that he was affiliated with, researchers, were
terrified by this idea, and they had a much
more Mandarin approach. You turn on the elite. And there were efforts
to turn on the elite. That’s how it got into Silicon
Valley, artists, writers, politicians, people
in the church. And there was a
deliberate effort– I talk about it in the book– to turn on these
people with the thought that this new kind
of consciousness would filter down. That didn’t really work, either. But the possibility is there. And we can all think
of an individual who really would benefit
from a psychedelic trip. But it actually wouldn’t
work because you really have to want to have
your ego dissolved. And that’s his
superpower, right? Objectification of the other. So maybe you slip
it into his tea. But I don’t think that’s
going to work either because you really do have to
want what the experience is. So that’s the dilemma. That’s the dilemma where we are. I think it’s highly relevant
to the kinds of questions we’re facing. But exactly how you
get from here to there, that’s a tough one. My next book, Rx for America. I want to thank all
of you for coming. I know there were a lot of
things going on this evening, and it’s a very busy
time of the semester. I want to thank Elaine for
coming as a conversant. I want to thank you, too, And I want to thank
Michael as well for his fantastic contribution. Thank you, Robin. Thanks.

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