Food isn’t a novel topic. Millions of books have been written about growing, cooking and eating the stuff. And yet American journalist and bestselling author Michael Pollan has built a formidable career on making topics feel fresh again. Food in particular.

Since 2011 Pollan has published four major books, all of which have made the New York Times bestseller list. The Botany of Desire examines the co-evolution of humans and edible plants, The Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at farming throughout the ages, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto explores the shortcomings of nutrition science, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation looks at the ways we make food more edible, tasty and nutritious, and has recently been turned into a four-part Netflix series).

While some of this might sound dry on paper, Pollan’s self-deprecating wit and equal use of investigative and gonzo journalism techniques ensures his work is entertaining and insightful – enough so to sell several million copies of his books.

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Now the author turns his attention to psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). Last year he released How to Change Your Mind, also a New York Times bestseller, covering the history of psychedelics and their role in kickstarting Silicon Valley, right through to today’s research into their potential to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD and OCD. In typical Pollan fashion, he also takes us on a mushroom-picking trip with a renowned mycologist, to a neuroscience lab in London and on several of his own trips induced by psilocybin, LSD, toad venom and ayahuasca.

In advance of his Australian tour in July, we phoned the author at his home in California to learn more.

Broadsheet: You’re best known for writing about agriculture, the food system and nutrition – all wholesome stuff. And now you’ve done, to some people, what may seem like a real pivot, writing about (and taking) illicit drugs. Were you worried how this might affect your public reputation?

Michael Pollan: I wasn’t that worried about my reputation. I was worried that my readers wouldn’t want to come along for this ride ’cause this seemed like a very different ride than food and nutrition. I guess I had enough confidence that serious readers wouldn’t think less of me for having broken the law, you know, in order to give them a vicarious experience.

I think my readers expect me to find a way to put myself in the story. When I wrote about the cattle industry, I bought a cow. When I wrote about architecture, I built a house. When I wanted to master baking, I apprenticed myself to a great baker. So, I like to write that way. I like to do that kind of immersion journalism.

I really like the perspective you can get – which is different to the experienced person doing the same thing – because you’re doing it for the first time. You have this naivete, this fish out of water quality, that gives you all sorts of wonderful material. And you have the humour of being a fish out of water and things going wrong, or you being really nervous. But then you also have the wonder of doing something for the first time, you know? That it’s all fresh.

I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of people interested in food and agriculture and nutrition are interested in psychedelics, and that there’s more in common [between them] than I’d even guessed. It hadn’t really dawned on me – it should have – that some people read me for guidance about their physical health and now I was essentially doing the same with mental health.

BS: Would it be fair to say that in your social and professional circles the book has sparked more conversations than you expected, and the feedback’s been quite positive?

MP: Yeah. Initially, I had friends who thought I was crazy; who really looked askance at this. The conversation’s changed a lot [in America] since the book was published. There was this initial hesitance about hearing anything positive about psychedelics. People immediately went to that ’60s image of psychedelics as something that caused you to commit suicide or stare at the sun till you went blind.

The head of the average American still has those memes in it. And they’re immediately summoned as soon as somebody stands up and says something even vaguely positive about psychedelics. But even my friends who were very dubious about the whole venture are now asking me where they can get them, and where they can find a guide. And this includes my mother-in-law, who’s 93 – the most unlikely people.

BS: The bit of the book that’s really stayed with me is the fMRI research Robin Carhart-Harris is doing, looking into what happens to our brains when we take these drugs. And professor Alison Gopnik’s metaphor about an adult’s versus a child’s consciousness. Can you talk about that a bit?

MP: A child’s consciousness, which [Gopnik] likens to psychedelic consciousness in a very provocative way, is more like a lantern. They’re projecting light and taking it in from all sides. It’s not focused. Whereas adults have what she calls “spotlight consciousness”. It’s very directed; it’s very egotistical. It’s, “I’m going to aim my consciousness here and get what I can out of this, solve this problem, whatever.”

Her theory is that on the psychedelics we revert to something like the consciousness of children, which is not only more promiscuous in the information it takes in, but it has less prior beliefs. When adults confront any situation, we bring everything we know about similar situations to it, what are called “priors”. You know, “This is probably a face based on all the other faces I’ve seen, and I can expect it to be convex, not concave, and I can expect those two black dots to be eyes.”

Children, who haven’t had the years to build up that memory bank of beliefs about how the world works, tend to approach things very freshly and experimentally, and it makes them better learners for many problems. Any kind of problem where you need divergent thinking, or thinking outside the box to solve, kids will be better than adults. But any problem that the solution is sort of like the solution that worked last time –moves in chess, for example – the adult is going to do a lot better. Children are very good at exploring and we’re very good at exploiting.

BS: What are your thoughts on tripping as a cautious 60-something rather than doing it as a reckless 20-something?

MP: Lots of young people get a lot out of psychedelics, but I do think they have a special value as we get older. One of the things they seem really good at is jogging you out of deeply ingrained habits of thought and behaviour. And as we get older, we get really stuck in our ways, and we have these reliable algorithms we use to navigate life’s challenges. And we always do it the same way. We’ve lost that plasticity of the child mind that is willing to try things, try lots of different things and find something exciting that works. We play it safe. We go to the solution most likely to work with the least amount of energy.

Habits are like labour-saving devices for the brain. It doesn’t have to go through a whole formula of figuring something out. I’m 64 now, I have lots of habits and they’re really effective. I have habitual ways of starting and finishing an article, I have habitual ways of soothing an angry child or wife and dealing with my boss. I’ve got all these tools in my tool kit and they are valuable, but they also cut us off from the fresh experience of life. Because we’re not taking in as much information as we would if we were inventing a new way of doing something.

And a lot of these habits come from a very destructive place. Things like addiction, depression, anxiety. All these are habits of thought. And one of the most important things psychedelics seem to do is kind of dissolve these belief systems, these rules of thumb, and create a kind of temporary plastic state in the brain where you might actually develop some new rules of thumb and some new ways to go about things and free yourself from destructive habits.

BS: Do you think your trips had a lasting effect on your mental state?

MP: Yeah, I think they’ve affected how I live. My wife says I’m more open and more patient than I was, and that sounds about right. I’m a little less quick to make a conclusion or take offence at something. I think I’m less defensive. And I think all that may have to do with the fact that I’ve got a little more distance on my ego. I’ve learned I’m not identical to my ego; that I don’t have to obey that voice. It’s certainly useful for getting a lot of work done and getting ahead in various ways, but it’s not the only voice and it’s only one dimension. I now see it more as a tool than an identity. And that’s a big change. A lot of people get to that point and acquire that perspective on their ego after years of psychotherapy. It’s one of the things you work on. But the idea that it could happen in the span of four or five hours on an afternoon on a medicine like psilocybin is quite remarkable.

BS: Despite this, you’re still reluctant to advocate for outright legalisation, aren’t you?

MP: Yes, I am. I don’t think we’re ready for it. I do support decriminalisation – I don’t think anyone should go to jail for possessing a mushroom or using it or growing it, but I get nervous when I think about a world in which corporations are actively marketing psilocybin to people. There simply are lots of people it’s not right for. For example, people at risk for schizophrenia with a family history or personal history. They should stay away. And people taking high doses. It’s really imperative they have a sitter or guide with them. It’s very risky to do on your own when you’re taking a high dose, an ego-dissolving dose. So how do we assure that in a legal environment? I’m not sure. I don’t think we know how to do that. I also think that pushing for legalisation now risks politicising psilocybin in a way it isn’t right now.

These drugs are going through the approval process in both Europe and the United States and it hasn’t been a politicised process. The FDA and the EMA in Europe have been encouraging and helpful and no roadblocks as far as we can tell have been thrown up in the way of these researchers. And to my mind, their work is the most important because if they succeed, they will succeed in reducing human suffering. The suffering of the mentally ill, the suffering of the people with treatment-resistant depression and addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that’s the emergency.

Anything that jeopardises that makes me nervous. I definitely support figuring out a way to give access to people who are not mentally ill but could still benefit; for people like myself to have access to this. But if we start making a big push for legalisation, we then force politicians to take positions prematurely. And that will lock them in to a very often a hostile position because when it comes to drugs, that’s always the easier position for a politician. So it’s about timing, really, and it’s about tactics.

BS: Do you have any insight into research and legalisation in Australia?

MP: No, I was going to ask you that question. What is the status? I know there is research going on in Melbourne, giving psilocybin to people who have cancer diagnoses.

BS: That’s at St Vincents, I think. But we’re very far behind with that kind of thing. Cannabis is still a fair way off being legalised here like it has been in so many US states. So I think it follows that psilocybin and anything else would be a long way behind.

MP: Well, it’s a good sign that there’s research happening and that the government obviously approved the research. And I think when people see the results of this research, if it’s as strikingly positive as it was in this country, that can pretty quickly change attitudes. I think the success of the cancer trials had a big effect on getting people to take a second look and look at psilocybin not as a party drug or a concert drug but as a medicine.

And I’m sure that in Australia, as here, you have a crisis around mental health and that there are lots of people struggling with depression and addiction and suicide. And the current tools that psychiatry makes available are really inadequate. They treat only symptoms, they have lots of side effects, people don’t like taking them, they’re hard to get off. And the idea that you could address the mental illness problem with a single guided psilocybin session or maybe two, that’s a very different model and it’s a very exciting model.

How to Change Your Mind is available online and in bookstores nationally. Michael Pollan appears at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on July 19 (tickets are $35) and at the Sydney Opera House on July 20 (tickets are $57.50).