Mud City Press


Michael Pollan's


What the New Science of Psychedelics Teach Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

(Penguin Press, May 2018, 465 pages, $14.00)

Reviewed by Dan Armstrong

How to Change Your Mind is Michael Pollan's excursion into the history, science, and experience of psychedelic drugs. This is significant because Pollan, a professor at both Harvard University and the University of California Berkeley, and arguably one of the most influential science journalists of the last ten years*, uses How to Change Your Mind to reopen a discussion that has largely been forgotten and has long needed to be readdressed. The project also required a fair measure of courage on Pollan's part because of the political baggage attached to psychedelic drugs, which are illegal schedule one substances**, and because he ingested a variety of psychedelic drugs as part of his research.

History: Plants or fungi possessing psycho-activating chemicals have been around longer than humans and have been used as sacraments by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. In 1938, Albert Hoffmann, a Swiss chemist working for the drug company Sandoz, synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) while trying to reproduce molecules found in the fungus ergot, something known to produce unusual effects when eaten. Seventeen years later (1955), R. Gordon Wasson, a vice-president at J.P. Morgan Bank, traveled to Mexico to experience the sacred mushroom with an indigenous shaman. He found the experience so profound that two years later he published an article about his trip to Mexico in Life magazine under the title, "The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions." These two singularly different events opened the wonder of psychedelic drugs to the modern world.

In the years after Hoffmann's synthesis of LSD, when psychedelic drugs were legal, several psychiatric researchers in different parts of the world explored the clinical use of LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) for the treatment of alcohol addiction and alleviating depression in terminal cancer patients. This initial foray into psychedelic-assisted therapy is essentially cult history, and Pollan's review of the material is both important and engaging. The research, though groundbreaking and mostly unknown, was, curtailed in accredited labs when the drugs were made illegal in 1968. By then, however, LSD and Timothy Leary's call to "turn on, tune in, and drop out" had reached the streets. Legal or not, the exploration of psychedelic drugs went underground for the next thirty years.

A Novel

Science: Accredited research begins again in 1999 in the Psychiatry and Neuroscience Department of John Hopkins University under the purview of researcher Roland Griffiths, whose reputation and connections allowed him to navigate the Federal bureaucracy–over the course of five years–and obtain permission to explore psychedelic-assisted therapy on humans. Law changes in 2006 opened the door even farther, bringing more researchers and labs online. Describing this "renaissance in psychedelic research," as Pollan refers to it, is one of the central thrusts of his book. Pollan interviews research teams at New York University, John Hopkins University, and the Center for Psychiatry at Imperial College in West London—and their volunteers. Not surprisingly, the work in these labs picks up where research left off in 1968, focusing on depression in terminal patients and addiction. The interviews with the scientists are informative, but the interviews with their volunteers–especially those dying of cancer–contain some of the most enlightening and moving parts of the book.

Experience: While the history and science are central to the book, what attracts Pollen personally to the subject is a research paper written by Griffiths in 2006. The paper's title, "Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance," would, of course, attract just about anyone's attention, but for Pollan, who describes himself as a not "particularly spiritual," philosophical materialist, it inspires a personal quest for spiritual breakthrough. In a chapter titled "Travelogue," he recounts his search for a psychedelic guide to assist him in this quest and his various experiences on psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, and ayahuasca. WOW! These psycho-activated sojourns and their interpretations give the reader the most intimate insights into psychedelics and Michael Pollan.

How to Change Your Mind will have two types of readers–those who have and those who haven't experimented with psychedelic drugs. For those who haven't, Pollan provides a fair idea of what taking a psychedelic drug might be like, while also noting various methods and precautions. His descriptions of his own trips are, of course, constrained to the limits of words, but Pollan understands this and, all things considered, he does an excellent job, meaning the book will certainly inspire many to take a dip. For those who have, the book offers the reader an important and educated view of psychedelic drugs to compare to his or her own. In the end, How to Change Your Mind imparts detailed history, in depth neuroscience, journal-like personal experience, and endless speculation about the nature of consciousness. All good stuff.

Despite his extensive research and superior writing skills, Pollan's book, which he admits in the prologue is not meant to be comprehensive, inspires one minor quibble, likely related to his desire to have a personal breakthrough. During Pollan's first trip, which he refers to as recreational, when Pollan and his wife drink mushroom (Psilocybe azurescens) tea at home, he uses no guide and wanders around his property eyes wide open. However, in three of Pollan's four ensuing trips, which do not include his wife, he uses a guide, larger doses of psychedelic drugs, and, because he is pointedly seeking a deep internal psychological experience, eye covers. During the other trip, when he smokes the Sonoran Toad venom (DMT), which is a much shorter experience (thirty minutes compared to the six to eight hours for LSD and psilocybin), he lies down on a bed and closes his eyes. The eye covers–or his closed eyes–are used to enhance introspection and to create such robust visions that the voyager's sense of self is eliminated. This somewhat esoteric method, known as "dying" to the psychedelic counterculture of the 60s and 70s, is, apparently, common practice among the contemporary "guides" and the psychedelic-assisted psychiatric therapists Pollan interviewed, to whom dissolution of the self is considered one avenue to spiritual and/or psychological breakthrough. Pollan does achieve this psychedelic extreme several times and experiences temporary loss of self, which is not for the weak of heart to be sure. To Pollan's disappointment, however, these numinous moments do not include the breakthrough he seeks, though he openly acknowledges the experiences did change him in a positive way, summed up nicely in the book's final sentence: "This I can say with certainty: the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began."

This is all well and good.

For those who haven't, however, Pollan's descriptions of these experiences, if by number alone, may unwittingly suggest that the way to take psychedelic drugs is with your eyes covered so that the trip takes place behind the eyelids. This view needs a little tempering. The internal voyage is significant. It is the method used in the research clinics, and also what Pollan himself was most focused on, but it is not the only path to take. Pollan's "recreational" walk around his home and garden when high on mushroom tea is a less intense way to go–and a much different introduction to psychedelics than with eye covers—and, arguably, no less magical or psychologically valuable.

And that's the point. There's more than one way to eat a mushroom. The mystery of life is everywhere and anywhere when tripping–inside your head or out–and never more humbling than within the august realm of nature. Walking on the beach or along a river, hiking through the forest, sitting around a campfire with several other psychonauts, listening to live music, or dancing to it, these are all excellent and conventional ways to appreciate psycho-activating drugs. Knowing his book will inspire a rise in psychedelic experimentation, Pollan might have touched on this a little more. Because once you're out of the lab, the door is wide open–and the line is fine between constructive psychological introspection and recreation. Rather than using a large dose of psilocybin and eye covers to produce a cathartic psychological event, the seeker might prefer to take the drug multiple times, in working doses, so it can be used as a conscious tool for self-realization, creativity, and perhaps spiritual breakthrough.

In all fairness, Pollan has tackled a difficult topic and is rightly circumspect with regard to casual use. He is critical of Timothy Leary's pied piper approach, and like many others, believes Leary's reckless advocacy led to taking the drug out of the labs and putting it on the black market–a major loss, and likely true. But Ken Kesey, certainly an important figure in this mythology, is only mentioned in passing, and was probably misunderstood by Pollan because of Kesey's prankster approach to LSD. Without denying the mystical or introspective element, Kesey encouraged LSD users to be entirely spontaneous and have fun***, knowing there is considerable therapeutic value in psychedelic-assisted play.****

Eye covers or not, Pollan's book is excellent. Splendid research and an important topic. At the end of the book, when Pollan asked Roland Griffiths about using psychedelics for the betterment of well people, hinting of recreational use, the researcher struggled with an answer, finally saying, with an accent on the future, "This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people." Pollan cautiously advocates:

"I, for one, sincerely hope that the kinds of experiences I've had on psychedelics will not be limited to sick people and will someday become more widely available. Does that mean I think these drugs should simply be legalized? Not exactly. It is true I had a very positive experience using psilocybin 'recreationally'—on my own, that is, without the support of a guide—for some people this might be fine. But sooner or later, it seems, everyone has a bad trip for which "bad" is far too pallid a modifier. I would hate to be alone when that happens."



*Michael Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, The Botany of Desire and several other best-sellers.

**It should be noted that this book includes a disclaimer in the front material. The key part of this disclaimer reads as follows: "It is a criminal offense in the United States and many other countries, punishable by imprisonment and/or fines, to manufacture, possess, or supply LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and/or the drug 5-MeO-DMT, except in connection with government-sanctioned research. You should therefore understand that this book is intended to convey the author's experiences and to provide an understanding of the background and current state of research into these substances. It is not intended to encourage you to break the law and no attempt should be made to use these substances for any purpose except in a legally sanctioned clinical trial. The author and the publisher expressly disclaim any liability, loss, or risk, personal or otherwise, that is incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the contents of this book." The same is true for this review!

***It should be noted, courtesy of Ken Babbs, that Kesey felt responsible for his proselytizing and listed his address and phone number in the local phone book so that people on bad trips could reach him at any time.

****The tale of professional baseball pitcher Dock Ellis is suggestive. On June 12 of 1970, Ellis, then pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates, mistakenly thought he was not scheduled to pitch. He took a hit of LSD at noon and went to the ballpark. Upon entering the clubhouse, he discovered his mistake–he was starting that day. Not mentioning the LSD, he took the mound–and pitched a no-hitter!