To learn what the latest Michael Pollan book, How to Change Your Mind, is about just check out its subtitle: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Pollan creates an epic book. It’s part memoir, part history, and part science and medicine text.
Pollan interweaves each of these elements seamlessly. He uses this style often and it should be familiar to fans of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for one. But don’t expect it to be studious or boring. The fabric of this book is just as colorful as 1960s tie dye. It spins and wiggles. Most of all, now I think completely differently about the positive potential of psychedelic drugs.
You might think LSD or Magic mushrooms began with Timothy Leary and “Turn On, Tune in, Drop out.” In fact, mushrooms with psychoactive capabilities have been used since ancient times. And LSD was developed decades before Leary in a completely scientific setting. Pollan explains both origin stories thoroughly.
Through the last 50-60 years, public perception of psychedelics has shifted back and forth. Of course, they’ve been illegal in the U.S. since 1966. But people also use them to assist in spiritual and emotional journeys, both before and since then. Originally the psychological community embraced their potential. And now that same group is also contributing to the future of psychedelics.
Many other types of scientists have investigated the role of psychedelics in life as we know it. For example, one theory aims to prove that apes ingesting psilocybin led to changes in the hominid brain, including societal bonding and analytical thinking. It’s called the Stoned Ape Theory. Psilocybin is the psychoactive drug compound found in over 200 types of mushrooms.
Science and Medicine
Researchers are studying various psychedelics for medical purposes, according to Pollan. Multiple respected institutions have conducted drug trials to investigate these possibilities. One example is giving psilocybin “to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death.”
Additionally psychedelics are being tested for use with patients whose depression is both major and intractable. Pollan intersperses research information with stories from study participants, which adds both relevance and gravitas.
Pollan also tries mightily to describe his own various experiences with psychedelics. All the while he says that words fail to adequately describe his experiences. His explorations explain the advantages of “guided journeys” for introspection and spiritual advancement. Rather than randomly ingesting psilocybin, there’s a lot of logic to creating some ceremony and having other (non-ingesting) people around to keep you safe. Those “guides” also serve to help “ingesters” to emotionally process and integrate their psychedelic journeys. This structure harkens back to the way hallucinogenic substances have been used for centuries.
I had many laughs at Pollan’s stories. In one, he’s with an expert hunting for a certain type of mushrooms called azzies. “We’re obviously not the first people to hunt for azzies in this park, and anyone who picks a mushroom trails an invisible cloud of its spore behind him; this, he believes, is the origin of the idea of fairy dust. At the end of many of those trails is apt to be a campsite, a car, or a Winnebago.” Having ready many fantasies set in the fairy world, this seems oddly logical to me.
More than the laughs, I gained true insight into the nature of these psychedelic journeys. Pollan balances the science and history expertly with the more groovy aspects of his book.
I received a digital advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for this honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House, and most importantly, Michael Pollan for the opportunity.