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Author Michael K. Pollan, a Harvard lecturer in English and professor of the practice in non-fiction, spoke about the future of research into the societal and cultural aspects of psychedelics during a Mahindra Humanities Center talk on Wednesday.
The conversation, moderated by Mahindra Humanities Center interim Director Bruno M. Carvalho, marked the center’s first event on the topic of psychedelics since Harvard received a $16 million donation last month for the Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture.
During the talk, Pollan — who is well known for his best-selling book on psychedelics, “How to Change Your Mind” — said he hopes Harvard’s study of psychedelics can “do something really different” than other collegiate psychedelics centers.
“They tend to focus on science and therapeutic applications. But the implications of psychedelics go far beyond that,” Pollan said.
Pollan described three “containers,” or contexts in which psychedelics are used and studied in society: clinical, religious, and the less-defined recreational.
The clinical container encapsulates a field of emerging benefits for people with dementia and mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Though most of his past work has focused on the clinical container of psychedelics, Pollan said studies of psychedelics in the religious and recreational containers are similarly important fields of study.
Pollan said though the religious container has roots in Indigenous groups across the Americas, psychedelics are emerging in contemporary organized religion as well.
“There are other ways in which I think psychedelics are going to re-enter our society, whether it’s the current organized religions or newer religions that are popping up in incredible numbers,” Pollan said. “These are groups that get together and use psychedelics, sacramentally.”
Pollan said some areas of potential research include the possibility for psychedelics to alter political and social perceptions and the study of consciousness.
In an interview prior to the event, Pollan said he expects Harvard to host more events on research into psychedelics and society as the study establishes itself.
According to Pollan, psychedelics are one of the “rare areas” that connect the humanities and sciences. Pollan is currently working on a book about consciousness, and he said many of the neuroscientists and philosophers he has interviewed have commented on psychedelics.
“I’m amazed at how many of them were either inspired by psychedelic experience or using psychedelics as a way to explore consciousness,” Pollan said in the interview.
Tej Mehta, a graduate student at MIT who attended the event, emphasized the importance of psychedelics in mental health research.
“I’m here today because I am a huge believer in the power that psychedelics can have on mental health as a whole and for society’s progression,” Mehta said.
According to Carvalho, the conversation was intended to introduce students interested in the field of psychedelics to the study on campus. The study plans to issue a call for grant proposals in the coming weeks, Carvalho wrote in an email.
Pollan called for all interested affiliates to apply for grants through the study.
“Anyone — I mean undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, faculty, can apply — if they have an interesting research project or artistic project related to psychedelics,” Pollan said.
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