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Michael Pollan is the author of How to Change Your Mind and seven previous books including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemmaand The Botany of Desire,[…]

MICHAEL POLLAN: There was work done in the '60s and early '70s to judge the role of the possibility That LSD could enhance creativity. And there was a group down in the South Bay in California. And James Fadiman is a psychologist there. And he assembled a group of creatives in various fields-- engineers, architects, musicians, all of whom Way with their work. And he gave them 100 micrograms of LSD. It's not a huge dose. He let them sprawl around the floor for a while, And he said, OK, get to your workstations. And they all got to their work tables, and they Started working on their problems.

And many of them reported a breakthrough. An architect who had some issue designing the flow of pedestrians through a mall or something figured out a novel solution. An engineer, a software engineer, designed a tool to help boys with toilet training, Tinkle Toy, where the stream of urine would drive a pinwheel. He came up with this idea on psychedelics-- not a great contribution to human civilization, but OK. He went on to design email, the mouse computer mouse and videoconferencing. So he made a huge contribution, but he doesn't credit that to LSD. But this is not a controlled trial. This is not anything we could go to the bank with. And studying creativity is very difficult. The kinds of anecdotes that I found most moving in a way were those of the addicts.

I remember talking to smoking addicts, and one in particular. Because I was a little baffled at how could a single psychedelic experience break what was a lifelong or very, very long term 30 year smoking habit in a woman who was 60. She was Irish. She was a book editor, and she wanted to quit smoking and had tried everything without success. And she had a psilocybin trip. This was at Johns Hopkins. And she said, "I sprouted wings, and I flew all through European history. And I saw the Battle of Waterloo and saw Shakespeare. And I died three times, and I saw the smoke from my body rise from the Ganges on the funeral pyres. And I thought to myself, there's so many amazing things to do and see in the world that it was really stupid to kill yourself with smoking." And she stopped.

Now, I was very struck by the fact that surely, she had had that insight before that life is too interesting to shorten it by smoking. But for some reason, in the midst of the psychedelic trip, those seemingly ordinary, even banal insights, take on an authority. They're sticky. They're sturdy. And there's suddenly something that doesn't just seem like a insider, an opinion. It seems like a revealed truth-- absolute knowledge. And this is very common on psychedelics. And it's very common in the mystical experience. William James said that-- the noetic quality is what he called it. This idea that what you Learn in that experience has a special absolute authority. It's just a factor in mystical experience.

So this is what I think allows many of the addicts to break their habit. The kind of resolution that most of us make every day and break the next day becomes something that they can actually live by. And I thought that was quite extraordinary. And I heard that from many people. And they would all say the same thing, "I realized I acquired a new perspective on the scene in my life. It was like the camera had been pulled further back than it's ever been. And I saw myself, And I realized this is really stupid." So perspective-- a perspective shift can be very powerful. And it's very hard for us to get out of our heads and acquire a new perspective. And sometimes years of psychotherapy can give us that perspective, but this can happen in an afternoon.