AMA: Tim Ferriss, Michael Pollan, and Dr. Matthew W. Johnson on psychedelics research and philanthropy

We’re excited to bring you an AMA with three people who have done a lot to increase the profile and prospects of psychedelic research.

Effective altruism has a history of engaging with psychedelics (see these posts, for example) as a promising intervention for mental health issues — one which could sharply reduce the suffering of tens or hundreds of millions of people.

Between Tim, Michael, and Matt, we have many kinds of expertise here — nonprofit investing, journalism, medicine, and more. We hope the discussion is interesting, and useful for anyone who’s thought about working or giving within this area.

We’ll gather questions for a couple of days. Michael and Matt will answer questions on Sunday, May 16th. Tim will answer questions on Tuesday, May 18th (we’ve pushed his original date back by one day).

Author introductions

Tim Ferriss

Hi, everyone! I’m Tim Ferriss, and I’ll be doing an AMA here. More on me: I’m an author (The 4-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans, etc.) and early-stage investor (Uber, Shopify, Duolingo, Alibaba, etc.).

Through my foundation and since circa 2015, I have committed at least $4-6 million to non-profit scientific research and clinical treatments of “intractable” psychiatric conditions such as treatment-resistant depression, opioid/​opiate addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. I believe (A) this research has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of mental health and addiction, which the data from studies thus far seem to support, and (B) I’m a case study. Psychedelics have saved my life several times over, including helping me to heal from childhood abuse.

Projects and institutions include the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London (the first such center in the world); the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (the first such center in the US); MAPS (Phase 3 studies for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy); divisions and studies at UCSF (e.g., The Neuroscape Psychedelic Division); The University of Auckland (LSD microdosing); and others (e.g., pro bono launch of Trip of Compassion documentary on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy).

I evaluate non-profit and scientific initiatives in the same way I evaluate for-profit startups, and I believe some bets in this nascent field represent high-leverage, low-cost opportunities to bend the arc of history, much as Katharine McCormick did for the first birth control pill. Here is one blog post with more elaboration.

I am happy to answer any questions through the AMA. Dr. Matthew Johnson is no doubt better qualified to answer the scientific (and more), and Michael Pollan is no doubt more qualified to answer the journalistic (and more), but I will do my best to be helpful!

Michael Pollan

I’m a journalist and author who focuses on ways that the human and natural worlds intersect — including within our minds.

In 2015, I wrote a New Yorker article on psychotherapy, “The Trip Treatment”, which profiled a number of cancer patients whose experiences with psilocybin had reduced or entirely banished their fear of death. This led me to embark on a two-year journey into the history of psychedelic policy and its potential for modern medicine, and to write a book: How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. My forthcoming book, This is Your Mind on Plants, covers the strange contrast between the human experience with several plant drugs — opium, caffeine, and mescaline — and how we choose to define and regulate them.

I’d be glad to answer questions about anything I’ve written on the subject. Particular topics of interest:

  • The history of drug regulation, and the dynamics that lead to specific substances facing especially harsh regulatory regimes

  • The ways in which different cultures incorporate plant drugs, and how that might or might not map to cultures (e.g. in the United States) that have yet to legalize those substances

  • The potential of psychedelic therapy to alleviate the worldwide mental health crisis

  • My personal experience with psychedelic substances, and how it changed the way I think about my own mind

Dr. Matthew W. Johnson

I’m a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I’m an experimental psychologist who has conducted research with psychedelics since 2004, including studies of psilocybin and such topics as mystical experience, personality change, tobacco addiction treatment, cancer-related distress treatment, and depression treatment. I’ll soon start studies on the treatment of opioid addiction and PTSD among others.

I’ve supervised hundreds of psychedelic sessions and have personally guided over a hundred people through psychedelic sessions with psilocybin and other psychedelic compounds. I’ve also conducted research on the nature and treatment of addiction with drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids, alcohol, and tobacco.

I’m looking forward to answering questions related to psychedelics, including those about therapeutic effects, risks, mechanisms, and opportunities. You can ask me anything!

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