Dr. Katherine MacLean is a neuroscientist, writer, research scientist, mother, and adventure-seeker. Dr. Maclean thought she would study anthropology, religion, or pre-Med when she first started undergraduate school. She had many interests including genetics, spirituality, and the brain. She recalls “I took an anthropology of religion course, and that’s when I first learned about Shamanic and spiritual ceremonies that could trigger changes in the brain that created visions that created the experience of real-life entities.” At the time, she also took psychology courses and learned there was a rhesus macaque lab in the basement. She wanted to find out what those monkeys were doing in the basement so with the help of her undergrad mentor, Yale Cohen, she was able to corral all of her disparate interests and combine them with her passion to forge a new research path that combined her work on mindfulness research while earning her doctorate at UC-Davis and her psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins University where she completed her postdoctoral fellowship in psychopharmacology.
In this podcast interview, Dr. MacLean brings us back to her undergraduate and graduate experiences and shares the critical events and people that led her to obtain her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Neuroscience and attend UC-Davis for her PhD in Research Psychology as well as attending Johns Hopkins University for her postdoctoral fellowship in psychopharmacology. She shares her experience visiting graduate schools and how she mentioned her interest in studying psychedelics “just to see how they would respond.” At the time, serious research on psychedelics was not happening so Dr. MacLean combined her interests and passion to establish a legitimate line of groundbreaking research studying the effects of mindfulness meditation and psychedelics on cognitive performance, emotional well-being, spirituality, and brain function. Her research suggests that psychedelic medicines can enhance openness to new experiences and promote mental health and emotional well-being throughout the life span.
Dr. MacLean co-founded and directed the first center for psychedelic training and education in New York, was featured in the New Yorker article entitled “The Trip Treatment by Michael Pollan, and her TED Talks have been viewed nearly fifty thousand times. She was one of the lead researchers on the Shamatha Project, which was a groundbreaking study of the effects of intensive meditation on psychological and brain function. When she was a research follow and faculty member at Johns Hopkins, she apprenticed with and was supervised by two of the world’s top psychedelic therapists – Bill Richards, PhD, and Mary Cosimano, LSW – learning how to effectively and safely support people before, during, and after high-dose psychedelic experiences.
When reflecting on your journey and her professional career, Dr. MacLean shares practical advice for those “climbing the ladder of success.” She states, “I might have been very happy as a tenure track faculty member at Johns Hopkins. But, the thing that I want to impress upon young psychology students is something that a medical doctor told me when I was deciding whether to leave Hopkins, ‘sometimes as you’re climbing the ladder of success, you get to the top and realize it’s on the wrong wall and you have to get all the way back down and put the ladder up on a different wall and start from scratch.’”
Dr. MacLean spent the last two decades studying the effects of mindfulness meditation and psychedelics on cognitive performance, emotional well-being, spirituality, and brain function. Her professional journey takes an unexpected detour following the death of her sister from cancer. She left her faculty position and decided to travel the world. In her new book, Midnight Water: A Psychedelic Memoir, she shares her story of grief and redemption. During our discussion she shares more about her book, why she wrote it, and the important takeaways we should learn from it. She refers to her own personal journey as one where she climbed halfway up the ladder but realized that she was working all the time, working weekends, feeling stressed out, and then having a significant life-changing moment which left her feeling very anxious when thinking about all of the other things she still wanted to do with her life (having children, enjoying life, etc.). She said “there’s no way I wanted to work all weekend, not have any children, not be able to have a fun life alongside my dream. So, I temporarily gave up my dream to pursue life and what came out of that was this book.”
Given the current state of psychedelic research, Dr. MacLean would advise students who are interested in the field to consider getting a medical degree along with their PhD “because you will not regret it when you are one of the only doctors in the room who also understands this research and how these drugs work in the brain.” She also offers advice to aspiring psychology students who are just starting out on their academic journey. She states, “find the research that’s fascinating and talk to the people who are doing it, you know, because you never know where that’s going to lead.”
Interests and Specializations
Dr. Katherine MacLean received her doctorate in research psychology and completed her postdoctoral fellowship in psychopharmacology. She is an expert studying the effects of mindfulness meditation and psychedelics on cognitive performance, spirituality, emotional well-being, and brain function. Her groundbreaking research on psilocybin and personality change is well-known in the field.
Bachelor of Arts (BA), Psychology & Neuroscience (2003); Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Research Psychology (2009); University of California – Davis, Davis, CA.
Postdoctoral Fellowship in Psychopharmacology (2012); Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD.
Other Sources and Links of Interest
Dr. Katherine Maclean: @Amazon
Dr. Katherine Maclean: Open Wide and Say Awe (Ted Talk)
Dr. Katherine Maclean: Befriending the Beloved Mystery with Magic Mushrooms
Dr. Katherine Maclean: The Psychedelic Art of Dying: Magic Mushrooms & The Final Meltdown
Welcome to the Master’s in Psychology Podcast where psychology students can learn from psychologists, educators, and practitioners to better understand what they do, how they got there, and hear the advice they have for those interested in getting a graduate degree in psychology. I’m your host, Brad Schumacher, and today we welcome Dr. Catherine MacLean to the show. Dr. MacLean is a neuroscientist with expertise in studying the effects of mindfulness meditation and psychedelics on cognitive performance, emotional well-being, spirituality, and brain function. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and neuroscience from Dartmouth College. Dr. MacLean then earned her PhD in Research Psychology from the University of California, Davis. Her groundbreaking research on Silo Sibin and personality change suggests that psychedelic medicines can enhance openness to new experiences and promote mental health and emotional well-being throughout the lifespan. Today, we will learn more about her academic and professional journey, more about her current project, and hear about her recent book, Midnight Water: A Psychedelic Memoir. Dr. McLean, welcome to our podcast.
Thanks for having me. This is a great way to spend my, the end of my Labor Day.
Well, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy. Well, actually today Labor Day is nice. I know that you were busy earlier on doing another recording. So, I thank you for being on our podcast, first of all. And to start off, if you’ve seen some of our podcasts, you know that we kind of go through your journey. First, we start talking about your academic journey and then your professional journey. So, I noticed that you received your bachelor’s degree in psychology and neuroscience from Dartmouth College. Can you tell us more about your journey and how you became a neuroscientist and, ultimately, what motivated you to pursue this career path?
Sure. Well, I thought that I was going to study either anthropology or religion. And before that, I thought that I might do pre-Med as well. And very shortly into the pre-Med track, I think it was a genetics class. I just said, you know what this is too. You know, there’s even too nerdy for me and that’s it. You know, pre-Med is too nerdy for me, so I’m going to let some of the other workaholic kids do that track. And I took a number of other courses in anthropology, religion. I was. I was fascinated by how humans expressed their spirituality, their beliefs. I was fascinated by Buddhism, in particular, because it’s very, it’s a kind of a very mind-oriented religion. And then I took an anthropology of religion course, and that’s when I first learned about Shamanic and spiritual ceremonies that could trigger changes in the brain that created visions that created the experience of real-life entities. It seemed to kind of capture all of my interests all in one. And at the time I decided to start taking psychology courses, I took about a year’s worth, and then I found out there was a rhesus macaque lab at the basement of the site building. And I was like, whatever it takes, I need to figure out what those monkeys are doing in the basement. And so that brought me to my undergrad mentor, Yale Cohen and I would say that it was Yale Cohen who finally took all of my disparate interests. My passion for these very kind of weird, wacky topics and directed that energy into the path that eventually landed me in grad school.
And speaking of grad school, you attended the University of California, Davis for your doctorate in research psychology. And so, I’m going to share my screen here and ask the follow up question of. You know, a lot of guests have a wide variety of options when they’re looking for graduate schools in psychology. You know, for example, there are many graduate psychology programs in California to choose from. So why did you select UC Davis?
Well, it was very simple. As I mentioned in the anthropology of religion course that I took, I did a special paper comparing, uh, comparing Native American traditions like sweat lodge, which involves physical challenges that cause the mind and body to go into an alternate state of consciousness. And I compared that to tribes in South America who use ayahuasca, which is a psychoactive plant medicine. And when I went on my grad school visits, I mentioned my interest in psychedelics just to see how they would respond. I knew at the time I assumed this research wasn’t even happening. And UC Davis was the only place where not only did they not blink an eye, they said you’re welcome here. We want people to be pushing the limits of what we understand about consciousness. Consciousness is not a taboo term here. We study the mind and the brain. And you’d be surprised. Some of the other schools, what they said about psychedelics. I wonder if they’ve changed their tune now, not so short a time later.
Right, right. You know, one of the things whenever we talk about and hear the word psychedelic, everybody just thinks about the illicit use, the trips, you know, that sort of stuff. And they don’t really take it seriously. So, I can see where you’re coming from back then, they’re probably looking at you like, what are you doing? But now it is an established line of research. In fact, you studied under Dr. George, is it Mangun?
Yeah. And Dr. Clifford Saron at UC Davis. And so, a lot of your research is focused on that and the interplay and the impact it has on helping, you know, those who have suffered from or had a psychedelic episode or experience as well. And we’ll get into that a little bit later on. So, at what point did you know that you really wanted to go on for your doctorate? You know, a lot of people decide, OK, I love this. I’m going to go this route. Was there a point, can you recall, that you decided, hey, I know I want to go on for my doctorate. How early in your academic career did you know you wanted to go on for your graduate degrees?
It was probably during my senior year I took on an honors thesis project, so I had the experience of doing independent research, having a mentor, producing a body of results, even if it wasn’t really enough to write my own paper. But I got to publish as a co-author on my first academic paper with my mentor at the time. So, I got to experience kind of the whole range of what it would take to run a research lab. And actually, probably during that year, I briefly considered continuing on in primate neuroscience, primate research. Unfortunately, toward the end of my time at Dartmouth, I was assisting in a surgery. You know, when you’re taking care of animals, as research participants, you also have to take care of their bodies. So, it’s like veterinary care, but also, you know, in science. And I sat in on one of those surgeries and I almost fainted. And I thought, well, thank God I didn’t go pre-Med, you know, because I would have realized that, but with humans, and I just didn’t have it in me to witness that kind of, um, life or death situation, that kind of level of suffering. I mean, the animal was anesthetized. But I said, you know what? I need to. I need to go into a more soft area of psychology. So, but I think it piqued my interest that a person could follow their passion. You could love one topic and study that for the rest of your life. And I think that that was the thing about grad school that really drew me in.
OK, after you were done, you actually did your postdoctoral fellowship in psychopharmacology at Johns Hopkins University. So, tell us what sparked your interest in psychopharmacology, then.
So I was actually at Hopkins, where I was doing the psychedelic work, and when I was at UC Davis. I remember, so I called him Ron. So, George, Ron Mangan, Ron Mangan was taking a chance on letting my other mentor Cliff Saron start a three-month meditation study with neurophysiology EEG, heart rate monitoring, behavioral analysis. We took blood, we took saliva. It was a huge project, but I remember Ron telling Cliff. I don’t know about this meditation stuff, but like, prove me wrong, you know. Prove me wrong that there is nothing here. And so, then when the psychedelic research opportunity came up with Roland Griffiths, I remember both my mentors are like, oh, see, now what’s look, what happened? We did this one meditation study and now she’s off to study psychedelic drugs but from Roland Griffiths perspective, the reason he even entertained my postdoc interview was because of the rigorous training I’d had at UC Davis and he told me later that he got emails every week from all sorts of people only interested in the drug studies, but they didn’t have the kind of rigorous training that I had in neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience being able to record brain activity in human participants. So, in a way, I feel like if the opportunity to jump straight to the psychopharmacology research had been offered to me. I would have missed all of the training that I got in the interim. So, I guess if there’s a piece of advice there, it’s if you have a passion for a, a somewhat strange topic, you know, something that no one else is really studying, you don’t have to put it on the shelf. You can keep yourself active getting really good training in the basic strategies and mechanisms of your field, and then just wait for the right opportunity to appear. And for me it wasn’t that long, but for some people you know could be 10/15/20 years before they feel confident enough to take that leap with their career.
Having that good base, here’s my personal opinion. Looking at your journey, having that good base of research not only just, you know, looking at and studying, you know, all of the you could you could find your we talked about branches of psychology or different lines of research as well. But if you have a good foundation in the research behind it, as well as applying it for example, while you were at Johns Hopkins University, you conducted legal clinical trials of psilocybin, or sometimes it’s pronounced psilocybin, the primary chemical found in the magic mushrooms. You were also the lead researcher and session guide on the first study to test the combined effects of high dose psilocybin, daily meditation training, and integration support. I believe when I looked at it, it said your research on meditation and psilocybin indicates that these practices can promote positive and lasting changes in concentration, emotion regulation, openness, well-being and pro social traits. Can you talk to us a little bit more about this?
Sure. I mean it’s kind of a mouthful, but what it basically means is that if you train your brain to pay attention, it not only helps you pay attention, it helps you stay calm in the face of stress. It helps you take that pause when you’re getting really frustrated or angry at someone in your life for not loading the dishwasher correctly. You know, all these kind of little things that trip us up during the day. And not only that, the more that you can regulate your emotions then the more open you can be to the reality that other people have different lives that they’re living, they have different motivations, intentions, thoughts, assumptions about the world. And then when you can stretch your mind to be more open, then it’s easier to be more forgiving, more compassionate. These, the pro social traits are things that really represent the culmination of a spiritual life in a lot of traditions. So, if you talk to Buddhists, you know, you start with focusing on the breath. You learn to pay attention and sit still. But why are you learning to do that? It’s so that you can have compassion for people when they’re doing really horrendous things or when they hurt you and so the research that I did, starting with the mindfulness research at UC Davis and culminating in the psilocybin research at Hopkins, crossed that whole spectrum. So really, it’s about it enhancing the capacity for flourishing and well-being, which is a is kind of a positive psychology on steroids. And it’s a real shift from just focusing on all the things that can go wrong with the brain and the mind, which is kind of where I started. I think some of us took a class called abnormal psychology in undergrad. I hate that term now, abnormal psychology is like, no, no, still normal. You know, so many of us have this. So, yeah.
Well, it it’s funny that you brought up. We are so stuck on terms, and we even mentioned one before about psychedelics. It promotes, or it actually shouldn’t say promotes, but it elicits a certain reaction and a lot of times it’s a negative reaction and we have to ask ourselves well why? It’s because of how it’s portrayed and how it’s talked about in social media as well as just with your friends and so. Look at all the research now, as I said before, we started recording. I have three screens and I’m glancing at some. A lot of the research on psychedelics now and how it influences and impacts how we view ourselves, other people and it can be used to help treat people with certain conditions as well. So, as I said, we’re, we’re going to talk about that, but let’s finish off your academic journey with a question that I usually ask most of my guests. In hindsight, when you look at the process related to searching for graduate schools or programs, think about that for a second. Is there anything that you would do different in terms of that process? And if so, let us know what you’d change.
Well, there was a there was a personal piece connected up with this academic journey, which was where is my boyfriend, who I wanted to become my husband going to land. And so, he had already moved to San Francisco, CA, right out, right out of graduation. And we had gone. We had graduated Dartmouth together, and he had applied to UC Davis as well as a couple of other schools. So, there were schools that we had applied to together. But remember, he’s a 22-year-old guy. So, you know, he’s not thinking about marriage and kids and everything. And so, he was kind of on his own journey. And I remember choosing between East Coast and West Coast based on where he, you know, limited his search. I have no idea what my life path would have looked like if I had gone to Duke and studied neuroscience in primates. Probably would have been very successful academically, but personally my life would look totally different. And so, I think looking back, it’s important to recognize that there are non. That there are personal variables and those are just as important because you might lose an academic opportunity in one place, but you gain a life partner and a totally different life than you could have lived if you had just squirreled away your consciousness in you know that one domain. So yeah, and I, I had some of the best years of my life living in California, so I think the geography also really matters. You want to be in a place where you feel happy, especially when you’re a young person.
Yeah, definitely. Any other general advice that you give to aspiring psychology students who are just starting out on their academic journey?
Something that someone told me was to contact to find the research. It’s very easy now with technology, with the Internet, find the research that’s the most fascinating to you and actually contact the authors themselves. Authors are fairly easy to get in touch with. Some of them are very busy, but I was shocked at how many lead authors and top psychology researchers actually emailed me back when I was just an undergrad, and I think that really shifted my understanding of like who these people were. They weren’t, you know, celebrities that I could never meet in person, and they all responded to e-mail. I don’t know what it’s like now. Everyone’s totally overwhelmed by this point in terms of e-mail content and contact, but that would be my recommendation. Find the research that’s fascinating and talk to the people who are doing it, you know, because you never know where that’s going to lead.
I would guess that a lot of people like yourself assume, oh my gosh, they are so up here on the pedestal they got to be busy. They’re probably inundated with all these emails. And in some cases, that may be true. I would guess based on all my conversations with my guests on the podcast, most of the time, that’s not true. They are more than willing to share their research, share their thoughts and suggestions because (a) they probably would be impressed that you reached out to them and had the guts to actually do that and (b) they want to pursue and have other people bring other people into their line of research as well. So, it’s a good point that don’t be afraid to reach out to those people and find that line of research that you are really passionate about. When I looked at your journey, I also saw that you were the Co-founder of and directed the first Center for Psychedelic Education and training in New York. You were featured in The New Yorker article entitled The Trip Treatment by Michael Pollan. So, tell us a little bit more about how it has changed, and this question is more geared toward at the very beginning, you already mentioned that when you were looking at grad schools and when they found out that you were interested in psychedelics, you weren’t really received that well with everyone, that transition has probably changed and the view of studying psychedelics has probably changed in your career as well. So, tell us a little bit more about that experience when you were kind of featured in The New Yorker and how it has changed throughout these years leading up to today.
Yeah, it’s, it’s actually quite hard. You know, I think a lot of students now would be shocked to learn at how much discrimination there was against certain topics in psychology. I think in every domain, things have really opened up in the last 10 to 15 years. But when I was an undergrad, I mean, you had to pick a really specific topic. It had to be something that people had been studying. There had to be mentors. I remember another young colleague at UC Davis who was studying music in the brain, and everyone was like, oh gosh. How are we going to study music in the brain? You know things really shifted during the time that I was in grad school and Michael Pollan’s book so How to Change Your Mind came out in I think it was 2015 or 16 I remember he came to interview me when I was living on the farm right around the time my daughter was born. So, I had left Hopkins at that time I had started the center in New York and he kind of wanted to do for psychedelics what he had done for organic food. He wanted to teach regular people about this topic that seemed really far removed or like, oh, only hippies are interested in organic food and psychedelic drugs. And it’s really amazing what that single book did. And so, there’s not really advice there, except I think what I what I always told my mentors and what I chose for myself is that I wanted to be open to the public. I wanted to do press interviews. I wanted to do radio interviews. I wanted to bring our findings to regular people, and I couldn’t really pinpoint why I felt that that was important. But I was always kind of against the academic silo mentality of like, there’s this special content and knowledge that’s only available to the experts. And then it kind of filters down, I felt like, well, if we’re studying things that can benefit everyday people, why shouldn’t everyday people hear about them? And so, I think that was the turning point. Michael also saw the potential for that. Like, let’s bring this information to the public and just see how they decide, you know, not everyone has the same negative viewpoint from the 1960s that the government has, for example, and even the government now they’ve totally changed their tune. It just took a it just took a, you know, a number of years in the right kind of research, I think, to turn it around. And get back to where it used to be in the 50s. Where thousands of studies were being churned out, you know, on a daily basis.
I can echo your thoughts a little bit on that, Dr. MacLean through my discussions with my guests I found and sense that even when I was in grad school, it was almost like we have blinders on. Let’s do our academic research. Let’s Publish or Perish (POP). Let’s do all of this and then eventually, somewhere along the lines, it got to the point where we were being told and needed to apply that to real life situations and apply that to the general public. I think for one reason is it brings in more interest and attention and it brings in more funding, you know, for the institutions, but it’s a good thing that that happened because now here we are. Talking about complex a lot of times, complex, complicated terms and studies. And we have to almost filter it down into how can I communicate this in a simplistic way for the average person to understand what my research is focused on? And so, it’s changed throughout these years. Any other thoughts on that?
Well, you know, I think one of the shifts I made when I left an academic position and kind of moved into a public health, I guess you could call it position clinical more clinical position, I wasn’t a clinician, so I had to also learn how to work with licensed clinicians. I had to learn to interface with sometimes people’s therapists, their medical doctors. So, it was a very different kind of learning curve when I left my academic research, I was still working with medical doctors and psychiatrists and therapists at Hopkins, but they were colleagues. They weren’t. It wasn’t like a real-life person who has anxiety coming to one of the groups that we were offering in New York and asking, you know, can I take mushrooms if I’m on this anxiety medication. It was totally different kind of skill set that I had to and how to answer that kind of question, not in a medical way, but in a in a supportive kind of public health way based on the research. So, it’s a really interesting kind of territory, I think maybe I would have done better if I had a medical degree or a clinical degree, but I could always kind of reach out to colleagues who had those skill sets.
You know, many students are interested in pursuing a career in psychology but may feel uncertain about what branch, as I mentioned earlier, or area to specialize in. How did you decide to focus on, you know, the research end of psychology and neuroscience, which eventually led you to study mindfulness, meditation, and psychedelics?
Right. And I’m looking on here. So cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology, health psychology, personality psychology. I didn’t choose the research that I did based on these major branches, and I don’t think I ever would have thought I would have been a personality psychology researcher. You know, I was fascinated by the brain first and foremost, and then that kind of led me to all these more social questions or interpersonal questions. I think that the what the. Let me put it this way. The environment at UC Davis was very much about cognition and you know how we behave and think about the world but from a cognitive perspective. My mentors were all giants in the field of cognitive neuroscience. A lot of them had published some of the first papers showing that how human attention happens in the brain. And so, I think, I was definitely influenced by that environment. And then when I got to Hopkins and we were just trying to understand the basics of how these drugs impact a person, I had to kind of branch out. It’s no longer about cognitive performance. It’s well, did their personality change? Did were they nicer to their family afterwards? You know, did they demonstrate these kind of more social changes after an experience with psilocybin?
One of the other interesting parts of your journey, or aspects of your journey was you were one of the lead researchers on the Shamatha project, and what I read about it was it was a groundbreaking study of the effects of intensive meditation on psychological and brain functions. So, a lot of our guests wonder, well, how did they find this opportunity? How did they end up here? Why did they end up going here? So, can you tell us a little bit more about that project and how you found that opportunity?
So, this it’s called. It’s the way to pronounce it is Shamatha and it’s actually it’s from Tibetan Buddhism. And it just so happened that the person who became my mentor, Cliff Saron, he had been studying a very basic multi-sensory integration how the brain takes auditory information, visual information, touch somatic information and kind of combines it all into an experience of, you know, I’m seeing you on a video. I’m looking at all of this information. I’m hearing sound coming in. I’m still feeling my body. And he was fascinated in both how that kind of goes haywire. So, in certain cases of autism spectrum disorder and other types of neurodivergence, but also how it can go really well, like, how can we train ourselves to do these kinds of things better? And he had traveled to India and met the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers. And I think similar to me, whereas I wanted to go into the Amazon and put brain electrodes on people’s heads while they took ayahuasca, he wanted to go to India and put electrodes on monks’ heads while they meditated. And so, he was one of the first people in the world to do that. And when he came back to UC Davis, he said, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen what monks can do, but these guys are monks. Can regular people learn to do what these monks could do, and that was the seed of that project, and I took it as a challenge too. I signed up for the same kind of meditation retreat. I only did it for one week, not three months. But in that one week I got a glimpse of oh, it feels really good when you could pay attention. And so, it was a very special time and if I had arrived three years later or three years before it never would have happened. And so, what I take from that both the Shamata project and the work I did at Hopkins is sometimes the timing is just right and you have to join the project that’s happening when you arrive. And if you kind of drag your feet or say, oh, that doesn’t feel quite right or it’s not exactly what I wanted to do you might miss a truly life changing opportunity.
And speaking of opportunities, before we started recording, I saw in your academic and professional journey you were hired as a tenure track faculty member at the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins in 2012-2013 and you’ve had a number of other experiences since then as well. But eventually you left because you wanted to start writing a book. And so, here’s a good transition to talk about your new book that came out in June, I believe June 27th just recently. And the name of the book is Midnight Water: A Psychedelic Memoir. Tell us a little bit more about the book and why you wrote it.
Well, it became. Let’s see. If life had gone differently, I might have been very happy as a tenure track faculty member at Johns Hopkins. But, the thing that I want to impress upon young psychology students is something that a medical doctor told me when I was deciding whether to leave Hopkins, sometimes as you’re climbing the ladder of success, you get to the top and realize it’s on the wrong wall and you have to get all the way back down and put the ladder up on a different wall and start from scratch. And so, the way I kind of talk about my journey is that I was halfway up that ladder when I realized, wow, I’m working all the time. I’m working weekends. Everyone around me is working all the time. I’m really stressed out. Wow. My anxiety has gotten really bad. Am I ever going to be able to have kids? So, all these personal questions kind of came up. And I said well. How? How am I supposed to do this and this? And then a life event happened? Which was I lost my sister to breast cancer and in that moment, I thought, OK, if something like this ever happened to me, there’s no way I wanted to work all weekend, not have any children, not be able to have a fun life alongside my dream. So, I temporarily gave up my dream to pursue life and what came out of that was this book, which I don’t know if I could have ever written a book by the age of 42 if I had stayed in academia. I probably would have written a thousand papers. But to actually produce a creative work of art that’s all mine. That’s all my original ideas. I don’t know that I would have accomplished that at such an early stage in my career. Probably would have been when I was 60 or 70, you know, reflecting back on a long career in research. So, Midnight Water is a glimpse to, you know, a really challenging decade of my life and how I applied both the meditation research and the psychedelic research to my own situation. And now I have to be super clear. I’m not encouraging anyone else to do what I did, but I think there’s a lot to learn from what I did, and that decade of your life may happen when you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s. It may not happen until you’re in your 80s, but I think every one of us has that really hard period of life where maybe we lose a job, we get divorced, women have a miscarriage. You know, our child ends up in trouble in high school, we lose a parent. So, they’re all these kind of life events where suddenly you wish you had practiced more mindfulness. You wish you had learned to regulate your emotions. You wished maybe you’d had that mushroom experience with a therapist to understand life and death so. The book is about kind of that territory of life that is running alongside your professional life. And as we’ve seen with the pandemic, you know, sometimes life gets decided for you and you know, how are you going to pivot? How are you going to be resilient in the face of those changes? And that’s what the book is about.
One of the things that I read about the book as well is the impact and importance of storytelling. And as a means and I even alluded to it earlier in our conversation as a means to communicate complex psychological or neuroscience, you know, concepts to the broader audience. So, tell us a little bit more about how you had to make that mind change when you wrote this book because some of the excerpts that I read, were brought down to the common or broader audience instead of you and I both know there’s the academic writing versus the general public writing, and so was that a challenge for you to try to do that or not? I guess that’s kind of a loaded question because.
No, there’s a funny answer, actually. So, when I started writing for my undergraduate thesis. Yale Cohen said you’re an amazing writer and we need to get rid of all of this flowery stuff and make you a science writer. And so, the joke was that that flowery storytelling, that dramatic storytelling, the more English literature, poetic storytelling, was what I preferred. And I had to learn how to write for science, and so the copy of the book that I sent to Yale I said, listen, I’m so sorry, the flowery writing has returned. I know you worked so hard to get to train it out of me, but now I look at my scientific writing and I think, wow, it’s like I knew a foreign language and that I’ve already, you know, I’ve forgotten because I’m not immersed in that culture anymore. So, it really, I felt like there was a part of me that got to wake up after a long, deep sleep like Rip Van Winkle, you know, coming, coming out to write this book and tell those stories.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I’m sure there are some audience members that are listening or viewing this podcast who still want to stay in the academic world but still want to write their own books. And so that involves the ability to actually use some scientific rigor that scientific academic writing as well as writing for the general public and actually bringing in kind of a sense of wonder to your story writing. So how can aspiring researchers strike that balance between these two aspects in their own work? Any thoughts on that?
Well, it’s tricky. And there’s one woman that I think of in particular, she was like, a, an academic sister to me. So, we had the same mentor, and she was a few years before me, maybe 10, not quite. And she is now one of the leading world experts on mindfulness and attention. And so, I knew her as one of the best scientists I had ever met. And she’s trained by one of the best scientists that I had ever met. And then when her book came out, I was amazed that she had managed to take really complex material and turn it into something the public could devour, which so it’s called Peak Mind. Her name is Dr. Amishi Jha, a super popular book. And I remember when I asked her to blurt my book. I think she was expecting it to be more like Peak Mind. You know, this is like the public’s version of psychedelic research. And she started reading it and she said. She’s like Catherine. I can’t believe what you’ve created. She’s like I had to take a break in the middle. She’s like, you know, this is really intense stuff. And I said, well, the only way I knew how to translate what we had seen in the Hopkins program with psilocybin was to put that kind of vulnerability and intimacy into my story. If I was just telling it from a scientist perspective. No one would understand what we meant when we said life changing mystical experience. Like what does that mean? Well, you can’t. Those words don’t mean anything. You have to show people. And so that’s when I think my high school English teacher, you know, show don’t tell. And a lot of science writing is tell, don’t show like we want to know exactly what you did, how you did it, we want to replicate it, we want to be able to tell that you followed the rules. But when you’re writing for the public, you want to illustrate it in a really beautiful way, so they remember. It’s not so much about getting all the facts into the book, it’s more about do they remember it enough that they can then tell their friends and maybe ask their therapist. Hey, I heard about this new medication that I might, you know, be able to have next year. Can we talk about that? So, it starts the conversation.
Well, I know that we’ll put that link on the website when we go live with your interview as well. So, we are more than willing to include Peak Mind, the book Peak Mind as well. Are you still interested, and do you still follow some of the psychology neuropsychology or psychopharmacology research? Tell us what you’re doing now.
Well, when I launched the book, I remember deciding that. I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t make myself do anything next until I had kind of gotten to the end of that, and then the summer was coming to a close and I had joined the school board at our local school. It’s a very rural town in southern Vermont. And the principal came up to me and she said I, you know, I heard you talk about how you have a PhD, and you did, you know, statistics and high-level research and cognitive neuroscience. She said, can you teach algebra? I said I use algebra every day. You know, people don’t think about math when they think about psychology, but I needed to use algebra every day and she’s like, could you teach algebra here? And so now I’m a high school math teacher, and my husband thinks I’m a little nuts. But at the same time, you know, part of my journey has been to ask, you know, where can I be of most help? Where can I be? Where can my education benefit the most people? I mean, I think at its heart, psychology is about the human condition and the human condition for high schoolers right now is challenging in ways that most of us can’t even comprehend, and they need to understand how their mind works, they need to understand how to take a breath, they need to understand their emotions. And so, everything that I learned in my career is suddenly being applied in the real-life classroom of these high school students. And they’re also getting to learn math. So, I think the universe is laughing. You know, this talk about the latter being on the wrong wall. There’s no way if someone said when I was 20 years old, do you think you might teach math? I’d be like, no way, that’s for somebody else. And then here I am, and I am, I’m enjoying the adventure. So that being said, I wish I could keep up with more of the academic research I haven’t totally put it out of the realm of possibility that one day I might be asked to join a research team again, or see the opportunity for myself, but I’ll let other people do some of the hard work for now and I’m going to have a little bit of fun.
Well, it sounds like it and. So, I know that I’m in Minnesota and so our high school students go back to school tomorrow. Did you already start or are they starting also tomorrow?
The students were back last Wednesday, so I had three days. The first day, you know, the first day nobody gets anything done, but I introduced. I told you know, I told them I have a I have a PhD, you’re going to call me Dr. MacLean. I think it’s important for high school students to know that that’s a possibility. I didn’t know that PhDs existed when I was in high school. You know, I didn’t. I didn’t understand that you could get a graduate degree and so. Even that, I think is educational and it lights things up in people’s brains to hear that at a young age. I introduced the concept of mindfulness. You know, I’m sure they’re just like, ohh, come on, mindfulness is everywhere. You know, it’s like not 20 years ago, not when I was in high school. No one told me about mindfulness. So, I had their interest, I think, and they’re kind of like, OK, let’s see what this lady can do, you know, she’s telling me all this psychology stuff she’s going to teach me about my mind. And maybe, you know, trick them into some math problems.
Yeah. So, I have to ask, what do you love most about your job thus far?
I love seeing human minds and brains that are still in that stage of high plasticity and openness. I think what was what became sad about the world of psychology for me was that so many adults, by the time they’re middle-aged or older are really setting their ways is a lot of people are dealing with dealing with depression and anxiety. You know, they’re like, this is how things are and it takes a huge amount of effort either through therapy or through a brain intervention or through psilocybin, to get people out of that rut. And the coolest thing about teenagers is they’re not in any rut yet. Some of them are dealing with anxiety and depression, but they still have that openness, like anything is possible. And now I know adults are usually terrified about that, but I think it’s a great thing to keep that openness and not lose it and then have to regain it again when you’re an adult. So, I’m kind of seeing where people end up and then kind of going back to the start and saying like maybe we could do this differently, like what would it look like if people don’t end up at their therapist’s office at 45 being like, I don’t know what happened to my life.
At the end of our podcast, we usually ask guests some fun questions, and the first one I usually ask is tell us, tell us something unique about yourself.
So, I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie when I was younger. I’m less so now just because I have kids and you know, I want to take care of my body. But I really like jumping off of cliffs into water and I’ve done it in lots of different places all over the world and people always think that’s a little bit funny. Like what? You’re an academic. What are you doing jumping off of cliffs? I was like, well, no, I still think about it. I plan it out. I make sure it’s safe. I think about how high it is and how I’m going to land, so I still apply the scientific method, but yeah, it’s just such a thrill.
Do you have to point your toes?
No, you don’t want to point your toes. You usually kind of want to just maximize the surface area when you’re landing. The thing you definitely don’t want to do is put your arms out so that does maximize the surface area, but then you get bruising all over your arms because that’s what hits with the most force.
OK. Oh, OK.
So as long as you stay kind of like a pencil jump. Don’t. But don’t. You don’t need to point your toes. And sometimes if it’s high enough, you wanna wear sneakers or water shoes because then that takes the impact of the water.
I didn’t know that. I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie myself. I jump out of airplanes and do stuff. I’ve never done any cliff diving or cliff jumping before, so I’ve always wondered, do you point your toes? I, now that I think about it when I look at the some of the videos, I don’t see them pointing. They almost keep straight and then they keep their feet almost flat and some of them wear some stuff on their feet and not so. I was just curious. Thank you. Looking back, what is your favorite term, principle, or theory and why?
Well, the thing that sucked me in and became my little maze or labyrinth to solve was called the vigilance decrement.
And before I came along, very few people studied it. There was really old research from World War 2 where they wanted to try to make radar operators not fall asleep on the job, so not miss the targets and the best they could come up with was if you give them caffeine or speed then they can sustain their attention. But I was fascinated by this. How is it that human attention works and then it just drops off. It’s a natural function. It can be described mathematically, but I’ve been always fascinated by how do you change that decrement? And so far, we’ve seen that meditation can change it. So that’s a good thing. Vigilance decrement.
OK. OK, I’ll have to look that up. I haven’t heard that one yet. Do you have any other advice for those interested in the field of psychology, neuroscience, or psychopharmacology?
Well, if people who are listening are interested in the psychedelic research, what I would strongly suggest, and if I could go back in time, I would have done this is get through those pre Med courses, consider a medical degree because you will not regret it when you are one of the only doctors in the room who also understands this research and how these drugs work in the brain. Right now, we’re trying to educate a whole country’s worth of medical doctors who couldn’t care less about psychedelic drugs. Suddenly, they’re the ones who are going to be having the conversations with their, with their, you know, medical customers about these very complex topics. So, if I could go back in time, I would consider a combined MD PhD and I know a couple friends who did it and they’re the coolest people. So that would be my recommendation, do the hard work right off the bat, get through genetics. And get your medical degree if you’re interested in doing any kind of work with either drugs or clinical research.
Very good advice. Here’s kind of a fun question for you to top it off, if you had the time and money to complete one project or go on one trip, what would you do?
Well, I would love to go to Egypt. I’ve never been, and especially because of the intersection of meditation and death practices at ceremony. The Egyptians combine all of that. So, I’m kind of fascinated to go to a culture where that was kind of the pinnacle, right? They were living their whole life to get to this perfect state of meditative death in these huge tombs. So, I would love to go and visit and see what it’s like on the ground.
Wow. Yeah, that would be interesting as well. Katherine, is there anything else that you’d like to discuss or bring up in this podcast?
Well, something that we talked about before we started recording is just that you can’t predict how your career is going to go, but you can predict how you show up and what kind of training that you pursue. And so, you know it was a series of losses in my life that ultimately resulted in me writing my first book. And no one had prepared me for those losses. You know, my mentors hadn’t prepared me for what life might throw at me. No one had told me that I could get fired, that I could be asked to resign from a job, I said, why? You know I’m, I’m the best at what I do. You know, I was always achieving at such a high level that no one told me that getting fired is a normal part of life. Losing a job is a normal part of life. Having to leave because a family member is sick is a normal part of life. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It doesn’t mean you’re any less smart. It doesn’t mean you’re less capable and so I wish that as a very high achieving young person, someone had told me hey, you know, there may come a time where you lose a dream job or your career, and it’ll be fine because you’ve trained yourself to make that switch, and it could be that you switch to something that is even more fun.
Well, I like sharing that advice. Thank you for sharing that. I know that we talked about it before we started recording and you know the old adage is you know it opens up the doors for other opportunities that you might not have even considered and then some people, I’ve had guests on where tragedy has occurred, they’ve opened up another opportunity and they found their passion, going that route as well. They didn’t even consider, similar to what you said, hey, 20 years old, you know, later on in 2023, you’re going to be teaching mathematics, algebra at a high school and somewhere in Vermont. You go no way, that’s not my path, that’s not my plan.
So, Katherine, thanks again for sharing your journey and your suggestions and advice with us. Any other plans for the future? I know that you’re going to kind of wait and see what happens, so I’ll leave it with any other plans or goals that you have for yourself right now.
Well, I have at least two or three more books that I’d like to write, but I’m taking those as they come. I can see how writing becomes a really fun obsession. But I don’t know many people for whom writing pays the bills. So, if you’re, if you’re someone who really likes to write, has books churning in your brain already, I encourage you to journal, write down little jot yourself notes. Don’t be afraid to write every day, but also, don’t be afraid if that book never materializes for 20-30-40 years. You could still write it as you go, and then the time will appear, and you’ll and you’ll do it. So, I’m hoping that the next two books. I don’t know. We’ll have to. You’ll, I’ll have to tune back in and tell you when that happens, but.
We welcome that. Yeah, keep in touch and we’ll definitely plan on if you have any other changes in your in your journey, including the books, we’d love to have you on as a guest again.
Thank you so much.
Well, thanks again for sharing your journey with us and good luck. We will be in touch. I will share everything that we discussed, including some of your YouTube videos, your social media, that sort of stuff as well once we go live. So, thanks again for being a guest on our podcast.