Michael Pollan on Psychedelics

Who knew?

Michael Pollan says psychedelic drugs help terminal cancer patients accept their mortality.

As readers know, Varki’s MORT theory says humans needed to evolve denial of mortality to enable their unique brain power, and a side effect of how evolution chose to implement denial of mortality is that humans deny all unpleasant realities.

I’m thinking that a practical solution to getting people to accept and act on human overshoot and its many tentacles like climate change, resource depletion, species extinction, and the debt bomb is to inject magic mushroom extract into the water supply.

I’ll be reading Pollan’s new book soon to learn more.

 

17 thoughts on “Michael Pollan on Psychedelics”

  1. I fell asleep half-way through; nothing to do with Pollan, I just shouldn’t read in bed after a tiring day! I’ll give it another go and will be interested in Pollan’s book. Let’s know what you think of it. I have most of his others and have a lot of time for his writing.
    It’s perfectly logical that mind-altering drugs might well cause a change in thinking to the extent that it allows greater acceptance of death. The trick is connecting it to Varki’s theory of a mutation. I’m still not sure whether I accept the mutation theory, and the hows and whys of its spread, but there sure is a lot of denial about and it needs an explanation.

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    1. Denial is so powerful and so ubiquitous that it must have a genetic underpinning. If not Varki’s MORT, then some other evolutionary force. Let me know if you find a better idea.

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      1. I agree about the genetic underpinning; I have problems with whether denial is/was adaptive. You can only deny reality for so long; sooner or later it must come back to bite you and there goes your adaptation. I need to read that bit of Varki’s book again, I think.

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        1. Remember, denial of mortality was evolution’s goal, denial of all other unpleasant realities was a side effect.

          Perhaps it is like malaria resistance and sickle cell disease. The advantage of a powerful brain that can function without being depressed about knowing it will die, outweighs the disadvantage of denying other unpleasant realities, and in some cases this denial is in fact an advantage, for example giving innovative humans an optimism bias.

          The balance has of course shifted given our severe fossil fuel enable overshoot.

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        2. I think it’s about more than just denial of mortality.

          From Wikipedia:
          “A defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli.
          Defence mechanisms may result in healthy or unhealthy consequences depending on the circumstances and frequency with which the mechanism is used. In psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms (German: Abwehrmechanismen) are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses and to maintain one’s self-schema or other schemas. These processes that manipulate, deny, or distort reality may include the following: repression, or the burying of a painful feeling or thought from one’s awareness even though it may resurface in a symbolic form; identification, incorporating an object or thought into oneself; and rationalization, the justification of one’s behaviour and motivations by substituting “good” acceptable reasons for the actual motivations. In psychoanalytic theory, repression is considered as the basis for other defence mechanisms.”

          Denial (which can be seen as a form of repression) of other things than personal mortality and other defence mechanisms are not mere evolutionary accidents. Defence mechanisms such as denial are an integral part of the functioning of the human psyche in order to function without being crippled by anxiety or other negative emotions, not being overwhelmed by ones limitations and by contradictions (cognitive dissonance), maintain self esteem etc. Evolution has built ALL these traits into the human mind and the concrete fear of death is just of the things that can threaten our psychological well-being.

          Our Overshoot situation, however, is a direct consequenc of denial of mortality. We deny the existence of limits to growth, overpopulation, peak oil, die-off (!) because those are the result of the strategies we use to cope with our mortality (people participate in their culture, their religion, have children, have a “successful life” in order to cope with their eventual death). Acknowledging our predicament means not just having to face up to the probable death of one’s children, the end of our culture and current way of life and other things which provide our existence with meaning, but also the admission that how we’ve been leading our lives for the last 100 years has been very shortsighted and quite insane, sabotaging our collective future. Who’s prepared to do that?

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        3. @foodnstuff

          Denial in and of itself is not an adaptive trait; but taken together with our high intelligence, self-consciousness, Theory of Mind, these traits are evolutionary adaptive, as can be seen by our current dominance over earths ecosystems and our huge (over-)population. That’s because intelligence and our ability to cooperate is so powerful; Varki claims that high intelligence can only exist together with the mental faculty to deny reality.

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        4. I think it’s about more than just denial of mortality.

          From Wikipedia:
          “A defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli.”

          Denial (which can be seen as a form of repression) of other things than personal mortality and other defence mechanisms are not mere evolutionary accidents. Defence mechanisms such as denial are an integral part of the functioning of the human psyche in order to function without being crippled by anxiety or other negative emotions, not being overwhelmed by ones limitations and by contradictions (cognitive dissonance), etc.

          Our Overshoot situation, however, is a direct consequenc of denial of mortality. We deny the existence of limits to growth, overpopulation, peak oil, die-off (!) because these are the result of the strategies we use to cope with our mortality (people participate in their culture, their religion, have children, have a “successful life” in order to cope with their eventual death). Acknowledging our predicament means not just having to face up to the probable death of one’s children, the end of our culture and current way of life and other things which provide our existence with meaning , but also the admission that what we’ve been doing has been very shortsighted and quite insane

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          1. I’m not sure what you mean by absence of denial; (just a speficic instance where denial of reality is overcome and acceptance of reality sets in?)
            Do you mean a person without psychological defense mechanisms?
            That would be an highly anxious and depressed individual. And a whole tribe of such individuals would surely lose out in competition with their more optimistic fellows from the neighboring tribe.
            Evolutionarily adaptive = surviving and reproducing (abundantly)
            A realistic, objectice view of the world and onself is hardly adaptive; an optimistic view that is blind to certain risks is much more adaptive, even if it leads to much unneccessary suffering, overpopulation, warfare over contested resources, etc.

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            1. (What would be “complete” denial of reality?)
              We all have a very incomplete model of “reality” in our minds. People deny certain aspects of reality or possibilities they cannot handle.
              Nature didn’t reinvent the brain when homo sapiens evolved. It just took an mammalian / ape brain and added some new functions, an extended capacity for abstract thinking etc. In humans, because thoughts and expectations trigger emotions (the more primitive, mammalian part of the brain), some mechanism is needed to protect form potentially debilitating fear, when it has no survival value . E.g., you know you will eventually die. But unless you’re in acute danger of dying you don’t feel it viscerally. For our ancestors in the savannah (and even today) life was full of dangers and often it was unavoidable to take risks, therfore the ability to control fear and focus on an optimistic outcome was needed.
              The result can obviously seen all around you: whenever people are confronted with threats (physical or to their self-esteem) they are powerless against, they will deny the existence or gravity of these threats in order to reduce unnecessary fear.

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            2. Of course, in general it is adaptive to have the most realistic model of reality in your mind; but much of reality and about the future and risks is inherently unknowable, and reality can also be depressing/terrifying for a vulnerable animal, therefore the capacity of blind spots/ unfounded optimism is needed.

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  2. I am reading Pollan’s book and need to correct a mistake I made in how I interpreted what Pollan said in this interview.

    Psychedelics do not help dying people accept the reality of their mortality.

    Psychedelics scramble brain software giving the illusion that spirituality is real and thus can provide comfort by making people believe there is some purpose to life and persistence of soul.

    In other words, psychedelics reinforce our ability to denial reality when reality becomes so strong that it is hard to deny.

    This also explains why fans of psychedelics tend to be fans of woo woo.

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  3. Ok, I finished the chapter on Pollan’s observations about his trips.

    He thinks psychedelics unlock different ways of observing and thinking that can be positive, and that can be called spiritual.

    However, Pollan was careful say that spiritual does not, in any way, imply super-natural.

    Yah for Pollan. He remains on my short list of great writers.

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  4. I’m really enjoying Pollan’s new book. It’s a fascinating and well written look at how the brain and consciousness work with lots of useful insights.

    Psychedelics show promise for treating a wide range of mental disorders such as addictions, depression, and obsession disorders because they share a common characteristic of rigid brain networks.

    “Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill, a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into the preexisting trails, almost like a magnet.” Those main trails represent the most well-traveled neural connections in your brain, many of them passing through the default mode network. “In time, it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.

    “Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.” When the snow is freshest, the mind is most impressionable, and the slightest nudge—whether from a song or an intention or a therapist’s suggestion—can powerfully influence its future course.”

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