BY MICHAEL POLLAN
PENGUIN PRESS, 2018
480 PP., $28.00
I tried pot late at age twenty-five. Though I’d been an English major who hung out with wannabe Beats and around plenty of pot and acid, I was terrified to inhale or drop a tab. I was part of the Just-Say-No generation, convinced by Nancy Reagan, teachers, and parents that illicit drugs of any sort would screw my life up and fry my brain like an egg.
My parents had caught the fever of moral panic surrounding drugs in the psychedelic 1960s, a panic in part sensationalized by the media. TV personality Art Linkletter, for instance, blamed LSD for his daughter’s leap from her apartment to her death, while other reports said the drug scrambled your chromosomes and led to the Manson Family murders, as Michael Pollan explains in his new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Pollan himself was susceptible to this fever. “By the early 1970s, when I went to college, everything you heard about LSD seemed calculated to terrify,” he writes. “It worked on me: I’m less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.”
It took more than forty years for Pollan to change his mind about psychedelics, and How to Change Your Mind is, in part, about how he went about changing it. But the book is more than a memoir of drug trips. It employs “several different narrative modes: social and scientific history; natural history; memoir; science journalism; and case studies of volunteers and patients” to recount what has led to a new wave of interest in the benefits of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelics.
A book about psychedelics might seem a leap for Pollan, who’s known for his food writing in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cooked, and In Defense of Food. But much of that food writing is about our relationship with plants, how those plants affect us, and how we, in turn, affect them. In many ways, How to Change Your Mind is about how plants—mostly fungi, usually mushrooms—or certain plant-derived molecules change our brains and perceptions, and how those molecules have been used for thousands of years “as a matter of healing, habit, or spiritual practice.” Moreover, the book explains how the discovery of those molecules—or rediscovery, in the cases of mescaline and psilocybin—in the early twentieth century marked a cultural shift toward using psychedelics in such matters.
More than two-thirds of the book exposes just how detrimental the moral panic over LSD was to researcher’s findings. Early studies, which began shortly after chemist Albert Hofmann’s accidental discovery of LSD in 1938, proved overwhelmingly promising. They seemed to show psychedelics could treat addiction and depression in particular.
Used as a source of healing, psychedelics began to gain popular appeal and almost gained endorsement from the unlikeliest of sources, Alcoholics Anonymous. AA founder Bill Wilson “credited his own sobriety to a mystical experience he had on belladonna,” Pollan writes. In the 1950s, after Wilson tried LSD in controlled lab experiments, he was ready to promote LSD therapy. But the AA board, notes Pollan, strongly disagreed, “believing that to condone the use of any mind-altering substance risked muddying the organization’s brand and message.”
Influential groups like AA, however, had little to do with getting psychedelics placed on the Schedule 1 list of illegal substances. What Pollan unearthed is how powerfully the drugs worked on the mind and the public’s imagination. They unleashed what he calls an “irrational exuberance,” such as that exemplified by LSD guru Timothy Leary. This exuberance, along with the double-whammy of domestic social unrest and media misinformation and political change wrought by the Vietnam War, played a major role in getting the drugs outlawed and driven underground. At the same time, Leary and his cohorts alerted some of the best minds of that generation to psychedelics’ potential as a force for healing and spiritual revelation. And those minds are now leading the surge of the second wave of research.
This new wave, as Pollan discovers, is leading researchers into new doorways of perception and unveiling new ways of thinking about transcendence, dying, and consciousness. Some, building on the past, are furthering explorations into the drugs’ healing properties with regard to mental health. This research, in part, suggests psychedelics help patients break away from the tyranny of the ego and the fixed narratives that have chained them on a singular restrained mental path. Psychedelics often break people away from the ego in a fashion similar to long-term meditation practice. Similarly, others are looking into how psychedelics might ease the anxieties of the terminally ill, and Pollan recounts some fascinating and revealing stories of how cancer patients experimenting with psychedelics have, indeed, overcome their fears of death.
Of course, as Pollan explains, there are caveats. Outside of clinical trials the drugs still remain illegal. And because of the ego dissolution, those prone to illnesses such as schizophrenia might very well sink further into their psychic breaks. Moreover, bad trips, which seem like psychic breaks, might very well cause some people serious anxiety. In other words, psychedelics aren’t for everyone.
Caveats aside, Pollan finds himself determined to see just how irrationally exuberant the drugs might make him. Will they elicit mere druggie Hallmark-platitudes of “love everyone and all will be well” or will they open him to some transcendental state? “To become more ‘open’ especially at this age [sixty-two], when the grooves of mental habit have been etched so deep as to seem inescapable—was an appealing prospect,” he writes of his desire to find out how the drugs would affect him.
Pollan discovers transcendence and platitudes when he takes various trips on LSD, psilocybin, and the desert-toad derived 5-MeO-DMT. Another caveat: these trips aren’t taken alone. They’re guided by trained professionals—“White-Coat Shamans,” he calls them—in safe settings. Setting and an experienced guide, Pollan notes, are essentials for a good trip. And should a trip go sideways, the shamans are there to put you back together.
If good travel writing guides you to a place you’ve never been, and gives you a “you-are-here” feeling, then Pollan’s done his job in How to Change Your Mind. He’s a great tour guide not only on the magic bus of psychedelics, but also a guide through the maze of human consciousness—that inner space we’re only beginning to explore, whether through psychedelics, psychology, meditation, neuroscience, or a combination of all four. And, while I’m not necessarily ready to drop a tab of acid, even with a White-Coat Shaman present, I always welcome avenues to better understand the inner reaches of my own mind, to find better ways to break the grooves of old mental habits that might make me listless. I want to know things, to boldly travel to unseen spaces of my mind. Pollan’s book is a fine launch pad for that journey.