Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:
Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.
So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”
Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.
Here is one bit:
MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.
It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.
COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.
MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.
COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?
MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.
But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.
The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.
Original and highly recommended. Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.
Here is an excerpt from Tim Herrra in the NYT, under the title “Three [sic] Tips to Have Better Conversations“:
To be a true conversation superstar, try these tips:
Be attentive and give eye contact.
Make active and engaged expressions.
Repeat back what you’ve heard, and follow up with questions.
If you notice something you want to say, don’t say it. Challenge it and go back to listening.
For bonus points, wait an hour to bring up that thing you didn’t say earlier.
And keep in mind that when you say something declarative, seek out the other person’s opinion as well.
Those seem mostly wrong to me, and perhaps better targeted at the median USA Today reader who has to make small talk at a company picnic. I would suggest some slightly different tips, admittedly not for everyone in all situations:
1. Set up the conversational premise so you, and the other person, have easy outs, if it is not a good match.
2. Don’t assume the conversation will last an hour. Rapidly signal what kind of conversation you are good at, if anything going overboard in the preferred direction, again to establish whether the proper conversational match is in place.
3. If you notice something you want to say, say it.
4. Be worthy of a good conversation.
Rinse and repeat. I would stress the basic point that most conversations are bad, so your proper goal is to make them worse (so they can end) rather than better.
What is conversation for anyway? I don’t even recommend being charming, or trying to be charming, unless a work situation is forcing you to do so. Let yourself be sullen when the mood beckons. Feel free to let eye contact lapse. Don’t repeat back what you’ve heard. Say something surprising. Be willing to go meta. Most of all, try to establish a “we actually can have a more genuine conversation than we thought was going to be possible” level of understanding, taking whatever chances are needed to get to that higher level of discourse.
By the way, do not use alcohol, not if you wish to learn something or maximize your powers of discrimination.
Robert will be interviewing me later this week, as an installment of Conversations with Tyler, just as Patrick Collison once interviewed me a while back. At least part of the interview will focus on my forthcoming book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals. (And we will do 2.5 hours, a Robert specialty!) Here is part of Robert’s bio:
I studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduated top of my class and was named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.
I worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies including the Treasury and Productivity Commission.
I then moved to Oxford in the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director and then Executive Director.
I then became Research Director for 80,000 Hours. In 2015 the project went through Y Combinator, and in 2016 we moved from Oxford to Berkeley, California in order to grow more quickly.
He is renowned for his thorough preparation and he runs a very good podcast of his own. So what should he ask me?
In recent times, that is. Devon Zuegel asks:
Who would you name as a contender for having led the most interesting life in the last 100 years?
Keynes pops to mind as one contender. He was a top-tier intellect and economist, he was closely connected to the arts, had plenty of brilliant Bloomsbury people to chat with, married a ballerina, played a major role in politics several times, and he participated in several critical and indeed formative moments of history (Treaty of Versailles, fiscal policy, Bretton Woods). He experienced both world wars (no one said “interesting” has to be good!). Still, he didn’t travel enough to be a slam dunk (I can’t quite bring myself to write “nor did he have the internet.”)
How about Bill Clinton? He was president twice, oversaw the 1990s, has indeed traveled the world, and known many of the most interesting people of his lifespan. He also has had rather, um…diverse…experiences in one realm of life. And he married Hillary.
Paul McCartney was a Beatle, wrote amazing songs and hung out with John Lennon, had domestic bliss with Linda for a few decades, raised lots of kids, was successful as a businessman, and also has a history of…um…diverse experiences. But did he smoke too much pot?
This list of “best lives” includes Hugh Hefner, Tyra Banks, and Elon Musk. Here is one Quora answer for “most interesting”:
Personally, I find the following people intriguing: Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Marie Curie, Diego Maradona, Michael Jordan, Socrates/Aristotle/Plato, Samori Toure, Nelson Mandela, Michel de Nostredame. It’s a long list. There are even some historical figures that I do not admire, but would like to know more about – people such as Joseph Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Judas Isacriot, among so many others.
I hope you are not offended if I rule some of those lives out on grounds of insufficient length, or too much time spent in prison. Here is a list of interesting writers’ lives, topped by Ernest Hemingway.
Contrarian but not crazy answers would cite the person who raised the greatest number of children, the person who lived the longest in decent health, “whoever you are,” and the person who has traveled the most, at least adjusting for the quality of the trips (working on an oil tanker may not count).
Is it possible for a very famous person to win this designation? Their very fame limits the possible range of experiences they have, and perhaps at some margin the consumption of additional status and adulation, however fun (?) it may be, just isn’t all that interesting. Can Paul McCartney or Bill Clinton go out in public much? Is the real answer someone most people never have heard of?
Who is your nominee?
As of today, we at Mercatus, led by me, are formally initiating a new project called Emergent Ventures.
Most importantly, here is the application page, and here is its opening summary:
We want to jumpstart high-reward ideas—moonshots in many cases—that advance prosperity, opportunity, liberty, and well-being. We welcome the unusual and the unorthodox.
Our goal is positive social change, but we do not mind if you make a profit from your project. (Indeed, a quick path to revenue self-sufficiency is a feature not a bug!)
Projects will either be fellowships or grants: fellowships involve time in residence at the Mercatus Center in Northern Virginia; grants are one-time or slightly staggered payments to support a project.
We encourage you to think big, but we also will consider very small grants or short fellowships if they might change the trajectory of your life. We encourage applications from all ages and all parts of the world.
Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.” Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence. Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor. What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government? I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures. Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.
We will be running Emergent Ventures with a minimum of overhead costs and a maximum of attention on upside potential from your projects. This means:
1. The money is given away, not spent on staff or creating a new self-perpetuating bureaucracy. That also keeps our incentives away from self-perpetuation and risk-aversion.
2. There is no committee to screen applications, or to keep the “crazy” ideas from getting to my desk. I will personally review each and every application, albeit with additional refereeing assistance from Mercatus, the Mercatus network, and my own personal network.
3. If you receive money, the “report back” requirements are minimal, typically a 1-2 page report a year or so later, and possibly future reports too. If you can’t show value or progress in a short report, you probably haven’t produced it.
4. The proposal you submit is limited to 1500 words, though with an option of supplementary documents. If you can’t get to the point and explain your plans succinctly, we will not fund you.
5. If you receive a grant, we at Mercatus — and also I personally — will do our very best to help you in your endeavors.
Think of the goal of Emergent Ventures as supporting new ideas and projects that are too difficult, too hard to measure, too unusual, too foreign, too small, or…too something to make their way through the usual foundation and philanthropic process.
If you wish, you also can think of Emergent Ventures as a bet on my own personal judgment. For some time to come, I will be devoting significant time to Emergent Ventures every single day (with a few exceptions, mostly travel-related). Most applications will be processed promptly.
If you are interested, as a donor, in supporting Emergent Ventures, please write to my email. It is a tax-deductible contribution. Within a short period of time we expect to have a total of $4 million lined up, from a very brilliant set of donors, but we hope to do more.
Those of you who are applying should use the main site (not my email), so I hope you will apply here.
If you tweet, write on Facebook, blog, write as a journalist, work as a professor or teacher — I am asking you to please do your best in helping us to publicize this endeavor.
Addendum: For the curious, here is one bit from the application: “…what is one mainstream or “consensus” view that you absolutely agree with? (This is our version of a “trick” question, reversing the now-fashionable contrarianism.)”
Here is the audio and transcript, and here is the summary:
Michele Gelfand is professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and author of the just-released Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. In her conversation with Tyler, Michele unpacks the concept of tight and loose cultures and more, including which variable best explains tightness, the problem with norms, whether Silicon Valley has an honor culture, the importance of theory and history in guiding research, what Donald Trump gets wrong about negotiation, why MBAs underrate management, the need to develop cultural IQ, and why mentorship should last a lifetime.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: As you know, it’s a common distinction in cross-cultural analysis to call some cultures individualistic and others collectivistic. How does tightness and looseness differ from that distinction? What do you pick up that, say, the work of Triandis does not?
GELFAND: Actually, Triandis is my mentor. I went to Champaign to work with him. I did a lot of research on collectivism and individualism. For a long time, that was the one dimension that we looked at in cross-cultural psychology.
It’s almost akin to, in personality psychology, only studying extroversion to the neglect of other dimensions, like neuroticism. In cross-cultural psychology, we got a little bit narrow in what we were studying. Collectivism-individualism is related to tightness but distinct.
Part of the problem we’ve had is, we’ve confounded cultures in our research. We’ve been studying East Asia, which is both tight and collectivistic, with the United States and other Western cultures, which tend to be loose and individualistic. So they have been confounded.
But when you think about the off-diagonals of that two-by-two, you can imagine cultures like Germany, Switzerland, Austria that tend to be pretty individualistic. They emphasize privacy. They’re not hugely group and family oriented, but they’re relatively tight. They have strong rules and punishments for deviance.
On the flip side, you can think about Latin American cultures — in our data, that’s Brazil or Spain — that tend to be pretty family oriented and pretty collectivistic, but they’re rather loose.
In a lot of ways, you can disentangle that variation, even if they’re related. They tend to be related about 0.4. That’s found both in modern nations and also traditional societies. At the state level, they also tend to be related but again distinct. Only in that case, it’s about 0.2 or 0.3, the correlation between tightness and collectivism.
COWEN: Overrated or underrated, Staten Island?
GELFAND: [laughs] I would say probably underrated. That’s because I actually am familiar with Staten Island. We have relatives that live there. It’s probably the last undiscovered place around the city. Brooklyn has become a chichi place to live, but Staten Island has not. There’s great delis there. I’ve spent some time there.
COWEN: Putting aside your political views, but just if you observe Donald Trump as a negotiator — as a psychologist, what strikes you?
GELFAND: Donald Trump has a very classic negotiation style. It’s a distributive negotiation style. It’s a win-lose style. It works in certain contexts, especially contexts where there’s one issue or when there’s very little expected future interaction.
What Donald Trump does is, he takes that style to international [laughs] politics where these contexts, the structure of these situations is very different. There’s usually many issues at the table. There’s expected future interaction…His style is really mismatched with the context that he’s in.
Many of the best parts are at or near the end, so do read or listen all the way through. And you can buy Michele’s book here.
I thank you all for your pre-orders of my forthcoming book from Stripe Press, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals (did you notice how the title draws from Liberty Fund?), due out October 16. It is my most philosophic book, most heartfelt book, and least current affairsy book, at least in the last twenty years.
As I explained in an earlier post, all of my receipts from the book are going to Yonas (not his real name), a tour guide in Ethiopia, near Lalibela, who wishes to start a travel business. I met Yonas during my Ethiopia trip last May.
Yonas already has received one installment of the money, due to the great efficiency of Stripe Press and Stripe proper (it is, after all, a payments company). He has bought a plot of land and a house on that land with the money from the pre-orders to date, a modest house by your standards I can assure you but nonetheless a big step up for him. Of course I (and he) hope to sell more copies. Now that he has an effective means of storing and saving wealth, the next step is for him to expand the scope of his travel guide operations, and you can help him in that endeavor, while you at the same time foment enlightenment more generally.
Here is the Amazon link.
So I hope — for several reasons — that you buy and also gift copies of the book. You might have noticed in the post below that Chris Blattman is somewhat skeptical of cash transfers as a means of bettering the lot of the poor, at least relative to his earlier views. But this experiment differs in at least one critical way: Yonas is not randomly selected, rather he is the one person whom I thought would make the best use of the money.
So what is tragedy?
“A work is a tragedy, Aristotle tells us, only if it arouses pity and fear. Why does he single out these two passions?” That seems wrong to me. For one thing, it is overly subjectivist. Why start with the passions of the audience? What do they know?
I think of a tragic story as embodying a few elements:
1. The downfall represents some kind of principle.
2. Some aspects of the downfall are, in advance, quite expected in the objective sense.
3. The actual story combines both inevitability and surprise in a somewhat contradictory manner. (I reintroduce the subjective ever so slightly here.)
4. The villain probably should have some sympathetic and/or charismatic qualities.
5. There should be a quite particular logic to how the actual events unfold, as they might be related to the above-mentioned principles in #1.
6. A confluence of aesthetic and metaphysical and personality-linked forces should “conspire” to bring about the final outcome. There should be a melding and a consilience to the evolution of the story.
Some near-perfect tragedies are Don Giovanni, The Empire Strikes Back, The Sopranos (evokes nostalgia in me rather than fear or pity), and King Lear, among other works of Shakespeare. Don’t forget Homer, Melville, and the Bible.
Just stay away from Aristotle on this one.
Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”? Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks. It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling. But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.
Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades. “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter. I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all. Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.
Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout. There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick. For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.
The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5. But it will try your patience.
As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:
Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other. They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek. Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…
I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me. With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.
That is the topic of my recent Bloomberg column. Excerpt:
I am reminded of these points by the recent death of the economist James Mirrlees, a Nobel laureate. His most famous contribution to the field was a model suggesting that the marginal rate of tax on the most skilled workers should be zero.
To illustrate the rationale for this view, imagine that Jerry Seinfeld is no longer doing comedy. His non-existent output, correspondingly, results in no government revenue. What if the government taxed his additional comedy work at a rate of zero? Theoretically, such a policy would encourage Seinfeld to produce more comedy shows without harming government revenue. Both Seinfeld and his audience would benefit.
Mirrlees did not think this was a practical guide to policy, if only because the tax authorities will never be able to tell at exactly what level a zero marginal tax rate will have the desired effect of inducing talented people to continue working. Instead, the model is a guide to thinking about the relevant trade-offs behind tax policy — namely, that foregone output from the talented is a major consideration.
Now, do I wish the world was arranged in such a way that zero tax rates could be handed out, at the proper margins, to these highly talented individuals? Absolutely. I don’t think you would find the same aspirational enthusiasm from the progressive left on this issue.
Do read the whole thing.
Here is the transcript and audio, definitely recommended. Here is part of the summary:
She and Tyler explore her ideas about the stifling effect of political correctness and more, including why its dominant form may come from the political right, how higher education got screwed up, strands of thought favored by the Internet and Youtube, overrated and underrated Australian cities, Aussie blokes, and more.
Here is an excerpt:
COWEN: When did political correctness become a major issue, or become a major issue again? And why do you think it happened exactly then?
LEHMANN: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have the answer. I know that there were lots of debates around political correctness in the early ’90s, for example.
COWEN: Yes, and it seems to fade away and then come back.
I’ve noticed in my own life that I started noticing political correctness around 2007. At the time, I thought it had something to do with the business model of Internet publishing.
That was when Gawker and the blog Jezebel was really popular. It was established in 2007, and then it got very popular over the next couple of years. I thought that there were a lot of clickbait kind of articles promoting these really simplistic black-and-white narratives of oppression.
Unless one had reasonable critical thinking skills, I could see how young people could be influenced by that kind of content coming out. I think there’s something to do with the Internet and the way the media has had to adapt to this new business model where you have to drive . . . You have to get lots of views, lots of hits, millions more than you would with the newspapers.
I think it’s something to do with that, but that’s probably just one variable in many other factors.
COWEN: What do you think of the hypothesis that political correctness is a kind of virus that’s hijacked the left? It’s figured out some kind of weak entry point, and it’s come in and taken over parts of it, and it will bring down many victims with it, but actually, it’s crippling the left.
LEHMANN: Yep, yeah.
COWEN: True or false?
LEHMANN: Probably true.
COWEN: If one objects to that argument, we should in a sense encourage more of it, at least if we’re being pure utilitarians, or not?
COWEN: Probably in the media? In general, intellectual life, but if you take, say, the United States as a whole, do you think it’s left-wing or right-wing political correctness that’s stronger and more destructive?
LEHMANN: Yeah, it’s probably right-wing political correctness.
A question from me:
COWEN: I’ve been speaking about the right in aggregate terms, but if you think of the effect of the Internet, which strands of the right do you think are favored, and which do you think are falling away because of Internet discourse? Because it shouldn’t favor it all equally, correct?
We also cover Australia vs. New Zealand, the masculine ethos of Australia and its origins, why PC is different in Australia, the movie Lantana (which we both strongly recommend), and yes Australian fashion.
This one is about as speculative as you get:
Suppose, just for fun, that we accept Posner’s $600 trillion estimate for the value of the Earth. What then is the value of the Universe?
…We could try to calculate the value of the Universe by estimating the number of planets with intelligent life and multiplying that by $600 trillion. It’s very hard to guess the number of such planets per cubic megaparsec. But since the Universe seems to extend indefinitely, the result is infinite.
That’s my best estimate: infinity!
But that’s not very satisfying. What if we limit ourselves to the observable Universe?
No matter what I say, I’ll get in trouble, but let me estimate that there’s one intelligent civilization per galaxy.
A conservative estimate is that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. There might be twice as many, but perhaps a lot of them are small or less likely to support life for various other reasons.
So, I get $600 trillion times 100 billion, or$60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
as my estimate of the value of the observable Universe. That’s $6 × 1025, or $60 septillion.
That is from John Carlos Baez, via Benjamin Lyons. And to think it all cost nothing to produce…..the ultimate free lunch.
I am doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, here is her home page. She is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and has a new book coming out: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Out World. Here is part of the Amazon summary:
Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why was the Daimler-Chrysler merger ill-fated from the start? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”
In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.
So what should I ask?
I will be doing a Conversation with him. Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States. It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”
On the book:
Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union
Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why. I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”
On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:
Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.
My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?
So what should I ask him?
I was very happy with how this turned out, here is the audio and transcript. Here is how the CWTeam summarized it:
Michael Pollan has long been fascinated by nature and the ways we connect and clash with it, with decades of writing covering food, farming, cooking, and architecture. Pollan’s latest fascination? Our widespread and ancient desire to use nature to change our consciousness.
He joins Tyler to discuss his research and experience with psychedelics, including what kinds of people most benefit from them, what it can teach us about profundity, how it can change your personality and political views, the importance of culture in shaping the experience, the proper way to integrate it into mainstream practice, and — most importantly of all — whether it’s any fun.
He argues that LSD is underrated, I think it may be good for depression but for casual use it is rapidly becoming overrated. Here is one exchange of relevance:
COWEN: Let me try a very philosophical question. Let’s say I could take a pill or a substance, and it would make everything seem profound. My receptivity to finding things profound would go up greatly. I could do very small events, and it would seem profound to me.
Is that, in fact, real profundity that I’m experiencing? Doesn’t real profundity somehow require excavating or experiencing things from actual society? Are psychedelics like taking this pill? They don’t give you real profundity. You just feel that many things are profound, but at the end of the experience, you don’t really have . . .
POLLAN: It depends. If you define profundity or the profound as exceptional, you have a point.
One of the things that’s very interesting about psychedelics is that our brains are tuned for novelty, and for good reason. It’s very adaptive to respond to new things in the environment, changes in your environment, threats in your environment. We’re tuned to disregard the familiar or take it for granted, which is indeed what most of us do.
One of the things that happens on psychedelics, and on cannabis interestingly enough — and there’s some science on it in the case of cannabis; I don’t think we’ve done the science yet with psychedelics — is that the familiar suddenly takes on greater weight, and there’s an appreciation of the familiar. I think a lot of familiar things are profound if looked at in the proper way.
The feelings of love I have for people in my family are profound, but I don’t always feel that profundity. Psychedelics change that balance. I talk in the book about having emotions that could be on Hallmark cards. We don’t think of Hallmark cards as being profound, but in fact, a lot of those sentiments are, properly regarded.
Yes, there are those moments you’ve smoked cannabis, and you’re looking at your hand, and you go, “Man, hands, they’re f — ing incredible.” You’re just taken with this. Is that profound or not? It sounds really goofy, but I think the line between profundity and banality is a lot finer than we think.
COWEN: I’ve never myself tried psychedelics. But I’ve asked the question, if I were to try, how would I think about what is the stopping point?
For my own life, I like, actually, to do the same things over and over again. Read books. Eat food. Spend time with friends. You can just keep on doing them, basically, till you die. I feel I’m in a very good groove on all of those.
If you take it once, and say you find it entrancing or interesting or attractive, what’s the thought process? How do you model what happens next?
POLLAN: That’s one of the really interesting things about them. You have this big experience, often positive, not always though. I had, on balance . . . all the experiences I described in the book, with one notable exception, were very positive experiences.
But I did not have a powerful desire to do it again. It doesn’t have that self-reinforcing quality, the dopamine release, I don’t know what it is, that comes with things that we like doing: eating and sex and sleep, all this kind of stuff. Your first thought after a big psychedelic experience is not “When can I do it again?” It’s like, “Do I ever have to do it again?”
COWEN: It doesn’t sound fun, though. What am I missing?
POLLAN: It’s not fun. For me, it’s not fun. I think there are doses where that might apply — low dose, so-called recreational dose, when people take some mushrooms and go to a concert, and they’re high essentially.
But the kind of experience I’m describing is a lot more — I won’t use the word profound because we’ve charged that one — that is a very internal and difficult journey that has moments of incredible beauty and lucidity, but also has dark moments, moments of contemplating death. Nothing you would describe as recreational except in the actual meaning of the word, which is never used. It’s not addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons.
I did just talk to someone, though, who came up to me at a book signing, a guy probably in his 70s. He said, “I’ve got to tell you about the time I took LSD 16 days in a row.” That was striking. You can meet plenty of people who have marijuana or a drink 16 days in a row. But that was extraordinary. I don’t know why he did it. I’m curious to find out exactly what he got out of it.
In general, there’s a lot of space that passes. For the Grateful Dead, I don’t know. Maybe it was a nightly thing for them. But for most people, it doesn’t seem to be.
COWEN: Say I tried it, and I found it fascinating but not fun. Shouldn’t I then think there’s something wrong with me that the fascinating is not fun? Shouldn’t I downgrade my curiosity?
POLLAN: [laughs] Aren’t there many fascinating things that aren’t fun?
COWEN: All the ones I know, I find fun. This is what’s striking to me about your answer. It’s very surprising.
W even talk about LSD and sex, and why a writer’s second book is the key book for understanding that writer. Toward the end we cover the economics of food, and, of course, the Michael Pollan production function:
COWEN: What skill do you tell them to invest in?
POLLAN: I tell them to read a lot. I’m amazed how many writing students don’t read. It’s criminal. Also, read better writers than you are. In other words, read great fiction. Cultivate your ear. Writing is a form of music, and we don’t pay enough attention to that.
When I’m drafting, there’s a period where I’m reading lots of research, and scientific articles, and history, and undistinguished prose, but as soon as I’m done with that and I’ve started drafting a chapter or an article, I stop reading that kind of stuff.
Before I go to bed, I read a novel every night. I read several pages of really good fiction. That’s because you do a lot of work in your sleep, and I want my brain to be in a rhythm of good prose.
Defininitely recommended, as is Michael’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.