The bestselling author and activist has been exploring the use of psychedelic drugs in medical research for his book How to Change Your Mind. And yes, he had to try them for himself

Michael Pollan first became interested in new research into psychedelic drugs in 2010, when a front-page story in the New York Times declared, “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning in Again”. The story revealed how in a large-scale trial researchers had been giving terminally ill cancer patients large doses of psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – to help them deal with their “existential distress” as they approached death. The initial findings were markedly positive. Pollan, author of award-winning and bestselling books about botany, food politics and the way we eat, was born in 1955, a little too late for the Summer of Love. That New York Times story, however, was the beginning of an “adventure” that saw him not only explore the new research, but also detail the history of psychedelic drugs, the “moral panic” backlash against them and – partly through personal experiments with LSD, magic mushrooms and ayuhuasca, the “spiritual medicine” of Amazonian Indians – to examine whether they have a significant part to play in contemporary culture. The result of that inquiry is a compulsive book, How to Change Your Mind: Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics. This interview took place by phone last week. Pollan was speaking from his home in northern California.

Do you see this book on psychedelics as a departure in your writing, or part of a continuum?
Both, really. I have this abiding interest in how we interact with other plant and animal species and how they get ahead in nature by gratifying our desires. And one of those desires I have always been keenly interested in is the desire to change consciousness.

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