Book Review: How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan (2018)

Finished April 2021

psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin, DMT/ayahuasca), war on drugs, neuroscience, mental health, therapy, death, spirituality

While it isn’t the radical manifesto I was hoping for, How to Change Your Mind remains a very readable, frequently informative and occasionally thought-provoking overview of how psychedelic drugs came to occupy the position that they do, and have the image that they have, in contemporary Euro-American (heavy on the ‘American’) society.

Michael Pollan also reviews and synthesises a lot of the excellent research being done in the UK and US into how psychedelics can be used to help patients heal from trauma, manage grief and alleviate the symptoms of chronic mental pain. What I particularly appreciate is that he devotes significant portions of the book to considering the non-medical, spiritual, ‘recreational’ (a controversial term, I have now learned) uses of LSD, mushrooms and DMT/ayahuasca and despite not having any particularly profound experiences of his own – he describes three guided trips he undertakes – he concludes on a note of mystery and optimism.

Parts of the book which I particularly enjoyed include the chapters on the 20th century history of psychedelics, featuring characters such as: Timothy Leary, the infamous proponent of “turning on and tuning out” whose non-rigorous experimentation with LSD many blame for the crackdown on psychedelics; Aldous Huxley; Albert Hoffman, the god/father/godfather figure of LSD fans; Al Hubbard, “the most improbable, intriguing, and elusive figure to grace the history of psychedelics”; and many others. I learned that while all these non-conformists agreed on the potential power of psychedelics to change the world for the better, there was a significant disagreement on how LSD should be brought to the people: Timothy Leary favoured a democratic, grassroots approach while Al Hubbard wanted to selectively and tactically enlist and dose the elites of politics, art and academia in the hope that the spiritual transformation would ‘trickle down’. Well, that worked about as well as trickle-down plans always do: those at the top enjoyed their share and then banned it for the rest.

In the middle of the book, Michael Pollan describes three trips he took along with those who guided him. The trips themselves were not that interesting to me, as I’ve read about and had more profound experiences with the drugs described, but I think it’s important that they were included. What I think they do really well is demystify the experience, thereby also helping to work against the sensationalism and stigma often attached to powerful drug experiences. What I did absolutely love about this part of the book is Pollan’s meeting with the mercurial Paul Stamets, a mycologist who rejects the term ‘magic mushrooms’, perhaps because he knows of the many other magics they can perform besides imparting psychedelic experiences to humans, and who “is so deep into the world of fungi there’s frequently one perched on top of his head.” Pollan’s description of this humble giant in the world of mushrooms is as tender and respectful as it is humorous and curious, and it made me like them both so much more than I already did.

In the third part of the book, Michael Pollan comes to what the book’s tagline advertises: “What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”. The truth is, as anyone who finishes the book will know, that the science is far from new. Nevertheless, while this part was in a sense the driest for me to read, it was probably also the one that will most impact people who are averse to or sceptical of the increasing use of psychedelic medicines in the treatment of a range of conditions and situations. The section is rich with anecdotes, vignettes and what could arguably called case studies: the atheist who felt god’s love embrace her and yet remains an atheist, suddenly able to hold conflicting truths in her mind and body without tension; the “a fifty-three-year-old television news director being treated for a cancer” whose treatment with psilocybin allowed him to feel a happiness he had never before felt and helped him come to peaceful terms with his death; the people in the grip of addiction who, on taking psychedelics in a clinical setting, are able to experience a kind of acute ‘awe’ which can make their struggles and symptoms more manageable.

It is especially this section on ‘awe’ which will stick with me:

Hendricks mentioned the research of Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at Berkeley who happens to be a close friend. “Keltner believes that awe is a fundamental human emotion, one that evolved in us because it promotes altruistic behavior. We are descendants of those who found the experience of awe blissful, because it’s advantageous for the species to have an emotion that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves.” This larger entity could be the social collective, nature as a whole, or a spirit world, but it is something sufficiently overpowering to dwarf us and our narrow self-interest. “Awe promotes a sense of the ‘small self’ that directs our attention away from the individual to the group and the greater good.”

Keltner’s lab at Berkeley has done a clever series of experiments demonstrating that after people have had even a relatively modest experience of awe, such as looking at soaring trees, they’re more likely to come to the assistance of others. (In this experiment, conducted in a eucalyptus grove on the Berkeley campus, volunteers spent a minute looking either at the trees or at the façade of a nearby building. Then a confederate walked toward the participants and stumbled, scattering pens on the ground. Bystanders who had looked at the trees proved more likely to come to her aid than those who had looked at the building.) In another experiment, Keltner’s lab found that if you ask people to draw themselves before and after viewing awe-inspiring images of nature, the after-awe self-portraits will take up considerably less space on the page. An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism.

“We now have a pharmacological intervention that can occasion truly profound experiences of awe,” Hendricks pointed out. Awe in a pill. For the self-obsessed addict, “it can be blissful to feel a part of something larger and greater than themselves, to feel reconnected to other people”—to the weave of social and family relations that addiction reliably frays. “Very often they come to recognize the harm they’re doing not only to themselves but to loved ones. That’s where the motivation to change often comes from—a renewed sense of connection and responsibility, as well as the positive feeling of being a small self in the presence of something greater.

To sum up, I enjoyed this book mainly because I am interested in the topic, and because it is a great pleasure to read Michael Pollan’s conversational, reflective and relentlessly curious voice contemplate some of the mysteries that occupy my mind as well. Unfortunately, much as in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m frustrated that he seems to stop short of developing a solid stance on the book he spends presumably years researching and find myself yearning for a moment where he gets off the fence fully. I recognise that that’s not a fair expectation to have, and that it says far more about me than it does about him. All I’m saying is that if I’d written this book it would have ended with the following statement:

We need to legalise LSD, decriminalise psilocybin and fling open the doors to perception for all who want to enter. We need to create avenues for these medicines to be used in clinical settings and de-stigmatise and legitimise the profession of pscychedelic guides, manufacturers and sellers so that everyone can have easier access to awe.

Read this book.

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