How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Could psychedelic drugs change our worldview? One of America's most admired writers takes us on a mind-altering journey to the frontiers of human consciousnessWhen LSD was first discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. It promised to shed light on the deep mysteries of consci...

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Title:How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Author:Michael Pollan
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How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence Reviews

  • Lauren

    Remarkable book. I hope this will gain the same prominence that Omnivore's Dilemma did several years ago.

  • Krista

    dovetails so nicely into my reading interests about the brain and consciousness and picks up some related threads that other recent reads wove for me (in particular,

    by Marilynne Robinson and

    by Barbara Ehrenreich), and continues a course of inquiry that I left dangling decades ago (with reads like

    by R.C. Zaehner and

    by Carlos Castaneda) – left dangling because, as someone raised on shocking Afterschool Specials, the flashback scene in

    , and the horror story of kindly Art Linkletter's tripped-out daughter jumping off a building because she thought she could fly, I knew that I would never consume acid or 'shrooms or peyote as a shortcut to enlightenment; institutionalised fear worked its trick on me. How odd to have been sent this ARC of a book by Michael Pollan – whose only previous work I had read was

    , back when I was interested in the philosophy of food – just at the time that other books started talking about the resurgence of research into psychedelic therapy. This book came at such a good time for me, and so perfectly suits my interests, that's there's some danger of me overrating it; I'm giving it five stars anyway. (Usual caveat: As I read an ARC, quotes may not be in their final forms.)

    is divided into sections covering the history of research into and the eventual banning of psychedelics (and especially the invention of LSD and the introduction of psilocybin – the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” – to the West, which both occurred in the mid-twentieth century), Pollan's recent personal experiences with psychedelics, a brief section on neuroscience and how psychedelics impact the brain, and the uses to which these chemicals are being put to therapeutic study today. As a journalist first, Pollan is present in each part of the book – interviewing subjects and describing his own experiences – and every bit of it was interesting to me.

    Pollan writes that nearly every culture on earth has used psychedelics – the exception being the Inuit, who simply don't appear to have access to the right chemicals in their environment – and with reference to the “Stoned Ape” theory (that prehistoric experimentation with psychedelics might have shocked the brains of early hominids into becoming

    ; although this theory isn't widely accepted, at any rate, these early visions of “the divine” might explain the persistence of religious belief throughout human civilisations), he makes the case that their use has been widespread throughout time and place. There are, of course, nonchemical ways of achieving a psychedelic experience: the characteristic dissolution of the ego can be attained through meditation or hypnagogic breathing techniques; the nineteenth century Romantics – Emerson, Whitman, Tennyson – were so in awe of nature that they became one with it and wrote about it in language that prefigures the accounts of acid trips; Appollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell describes his sudden mystical experience when viewing the Earth and its place in the universe from space:

    I can't help but think that if most of us can't achieve (or won't put in the work to train ourselves to achieve) spontaneous mystical experiences that have the potential to show us that all of humanity is connected and deserving of love, then what's the harm in guided recreational use of psychedelics? On the other hand, you can kind of see why there was such a backlash against Timothy Leary in the Sixties: if everyone does tune in, turn on, and drop out – if

    suddenly sees the pointlessness of their worker bee lives – then who will keep the lights on and the grocery stores stocked and streets ploughed while the rest of us are seeking higher consciousness? It feels ironic to read of Aldous Huxley's enthusiasm for widespread LSD use so many years after writing

    , where he seemed to be advocating for the more authentic life lived by the savages in the wild who weren't blissed out on Soma. One way or the other, psychedelics are making their return to respectability:

    Recreational (or religious/shamanic) use of psychedelics has never gone away – and Pollan was easily able to find trained and experienced guides to help him safely use LSD, psilocybin, and “the toad”. I was impressed by the level of attention that all of these guides paid to preparation (the set and setting that primes the mind), their care of Pollan during the experiences, and their training in helping him make sense of his trips after the fact. I was also impressed by Pollan's efforts to describe the ineffable, as well as his apparent transparency in sharing what seems such private encounters with himself. These guided trips

    to be like compressing years of therapy into a weekend (it can be Freudian or Jungian, depending on how you prepare your mind beforehand), and that sounds valuable.

    Even more remarkably, there are reputable institutions currently conducting research into using psychedelics to combat depression, addiction, and obsessions (what all of these seem to have in common are brains that are stuck in destructive modes of thinking that can literally be rebooted – like shaking a snowglobe – by a single acid trip.) Terminal cancer patients who are given psychedelic therapy discover their loving place in the universe and accept death as nonthreatening, smokers realise that their habit is pointless, people with depression (so far, temporarily) see the beauty in life – even Bill W, the founder of AA who had quit drinking after tripping on belladonna, is said to have wanted psychedelic therapy available to alcoholics; his philosophy of fellowship and surrendering to a higher power comes directly from what he experienced on his own psychedelic trip.

    Pollan is careful not to conflate the metaphysical with “God” – even avowed atheists who could only describe their experiences as having been “bathed in God's love” still assert that they don't believe in God after it's over – but as the common experience seems to be seeing oneself as a part of all creation, and as this fosters a feeling of love for all humanity, it's hard to see what governments are afraid of by banning the recreational use of psychedelics (except for that whole needing the worker bees to keep the lights on and the grocery stores stocked and the streets ploughed). Full of history, science, and personal experience,

    suited me and my interests perfectly.

  • Mehrsa

    I read the Pollan essay in the New Yorker about psychedelics and so I picked this up right away. And I'm convinced. I totally want to try this! Wish it wasn't illegal.

    What was really brilliant about this book is his exploration of the ego and how that leads to so much stuckness and unhappiness. The book is a sober, in-depth account of a radical idea.

  • Matthew Quann

    A cursory glance at the cover of Michael Pollan's new book examining the science of psychedelics manages to say a lot with very little. There are no vivid colours arranged in mandalas, no kaleidoscopic landscape, no face with eyes replaced by swirls of sickening colour combinations. Instead, a black, text-laden page is only broken up by the not-quite-square dimensions of a window that looks out onto a blue sky. In one sense, this encapsulates the book perfectly: it is an attempt to reorient the

    A cursory glance at the cover of Michael Pollan's new book examining the science of psychedelics manages to say a lot with very little. There are no vivid colours arranged in mandalas, no kaleidoscopic landscape, no face with eyes replaced by swirls of sickening colour combinations. Instead, a black, text-laden page is only broken up by the not-quite-square dimensions of a window that looks out onto a blue sky. In one sense, this encapsulates the book perfectly: it is an attempt to reorient the reader from the counterculture, 1960s, Timothy Leary-infused legacy of LSD and psilocybin to the scientific and social future of psychedelics. It may not be of a comparable level to the cognitive expansion made possible by psychedelics, but this book certainly opened my mind to the potentials and pitfalls of this science undergoing its second go-around.

    As in

    ,

    , Pollan acts a superb narrator and a stellar scientific journalist. While reading or listening to some nonfiction and scientific journalism can feel like your most dry undergraduate course, Pollan always manages to write in a fashion that is compelling, thoughtful, and mindful of narrative. Part of what makes this book work so well is that Pollan tackles his own hopes, misgivings, and flagrant disbelief in a way that endears the reader to his quest to understand psychedelics. Additionally, I couldn't help but be excited to listen to Pollan talk about his own trips on several different psychedelics. His attempt to lay structure upon ineffable experience is admirable, interesting, and emotionally honest.

    Of course, it helps Pollan that his subject matter is controversial and, at least to me, inherently interesting. If you've ever wondered about the limits of consciousness or been curious about the trips induced by psychedelics, then this book is definitely going to pique your interest. I was taken in by Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD and its brief journey through the halls of science before being derailed and made publicly available by figures such as Timothy Leary. It was compelling to hear the accounts of researchers devastated by the public consumption of substances they were still trying to understand, and having that quest for understanding cut short by the government.

    Following the account of several of Pollan's trips, the medical and neurological research ongoing into psychedelics makes for a smooth landing of a difficult to pilot vessel. I was perhaps most taken by the psychedelic experiences of palliative cancer patients, who reported decreased or absent existential dread about their death after their guided experiences on psychedelics. These and other avenues of psychedelic research are all guided by trained psychologists or physicians, which seems a far-cry from the dreadlocked, Burning Man, tie-dye psychedelic experience you might expect. It is in these chapters that Pollan makes both his most compelling argument for continuing the study of psychedelics while distancing them from their tumultuous childhood.

    Leaving the book, I'm definitely more curious about psychedelics than I was beforehand. Pollan lays out potentials and pitfalls of the future of psychedelics. There will be a precarious balance between entrenched public perception (held by many people: most of my family and friends with whom I discussed the subject quoted myths and prejudices discussed by Pollan), the possible danger of these molecules, and their therapeutic potential. I really enjoyed this book and was impressed throughout by Pollan's ability to remain objective even when dealing with the most zealous anecdotes. This is a great one: expand your mind with a listen!

  • David

    This is an epic book about the history of psychedelics, and their potential for improving the human condition. My first thought on the subject was of people tripping on LSD, and making a mess of their lives. But, this does not have to be the case at all. Many mental illnesses could be cured with "psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy".

    The first half of the book is about the history of psychedelics. Before 1965, Time-Life Publications were enthusiastic boosters of psychedelics. For example, in Life

    This is an epic book about the history of psychedelics, and their potential for improving the human condition. My first thought on the subject was of people tripping on LSD, and making a mess of their lives. But, this does not have to be the case at all. Many mental illnesses could be cured with "psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy".

    The first half of the book is about the history of psychedelics. Before 1965, Time-Life Publications were enthusiastic boosters of psychedelics. For example, in Life magazine in 1957 had an article by R. Gordon Wasson, a banker, who may have been the first white person in recorded history to eat divine mushrooms. Wasson hypothesized that some religions may have been inspired by a psychoactive mushroom. The Spanish had tried to crush mushroom cults in South America because they saw them as a "mortal threat to the authority of the church."

    LSD was used in the 1950's and early 1960's to successfully treat thousands of alcoholics in Canada and the United States. Therapeutic sessions with LSD had success rates of 70% for anxiety neurosis, 62% for depression, and 42% for OCD. But sadly, this history has been all but erased. Experiments showed that success depended on the setting and environment of the treatment. Simply giving someone LSD in a sterile environment, without any discussion ahead of time or real-time guidance, is a recipe for failure.

    The downfall of LSD in the 1960's was unintentionally assisted by Timothy Leary, a professor at Harvard. He did "experiments" that had little scientific value. He famously told a reporter,

    LSD became illegal in 1966. All research was shut down, except for the large program at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center at Spring Grove. Research there continued to explore the potential of psychedelics to treat alcoholism, schizophrenia, and the distress of cancer patients.

    I thought the following anecdote was hilarious. Andrew Weill was a young doctor working in the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in 1968. He saw a lot of bad LSD trips and developed an effective treatment. After examining a patient and determining that it was a panic reaction, he would tell the patient, "Will you excuse me for a moment? There's someone in the next room who has a serious problem." This was an immediate cure!

    So, the real question is why psychedelics can be helpful for such a wide range of mental illnesses. Brain scans (fMRI's) have shown that the default mode network is turned off in people undergoing psychedelic sessions. The default mode network is the portion of the brain that is active when not actively thinking about anything. It acts as a filter on the fire hose of sensations that the body encounters, and also acts as a filter on the subconscious. The hypothesis is that the ego temporarily loses its dominion, and the unconscious, now unregulated, comes to an observable space. Brain scans show that psychedelics rewire the brain. Whether this rewiring is temporary or permanent is not known. It is interesting that the brains of experienced meditators look very similar to those on psilocybin. Both dramatically reduce activity in the default mode network.

    The problem with performing scientific research, is that it is very difficult to perform double-blind studies that have become the foundation of testing for pharmaceuticals. The reason is that both the patient and the research can know almost instantly whether the medication is a psychedelic or a placebo. In addition, it is difficult to isolate a single variable. A psychedelic/therapeutic session is not simply a matter of ingesting a chemical; it is only successful with the proper guidance, and this can be a subjective matter.

    A single guided psilocybin session is sufficient to remove depression from 80% of cancer patients. The fear of death is a function of our egos, and a psychedelic can suppress the ego. The resulting journey yields a "heightened sense of purpose and consequence." The journey can shed light on "how best to live the time left."

    A study of smoking cessation found that most participants stopped smoking. Those who had the most complete mystical experiences had the best outcomes. But, pharmaceutical companies might not be interested in psychedelics. The LSD patent expired long ago, and psilocybin occurs in nature. And, if a single dose/session is sufficient, there may be little profit.

    The author, Michael Pollan, has written another wonderful book. My attitude toward psychedelics is completely turned around. Hats off to a fascinating story!

  • David Wineberg

    Michael Pollan’s Brain – on Drugs

    Neither LSD nor magic mushrooms harm you. They are not addictive, toxic, debilitating or destructive. They cause no illness and have no side effects. They seem to unlock receptors in the brain, causing mashups and unexpected connections (and therefore perceptions). They dissolve the ego by restricting blood flow to the Default Mode Network of the brain, which can cause users to lose the border between their persona/self/ego and everything else (eg. the universe).

    Michael Pollan’s Brain – on Drugs

    Neither LSD nor magic mushrooms harm you. They are not addictive, toxic, debilitating or destructive. They cause no illness and have no side effects. They seem to unlock receptors in the brain, causing mashups and unexpected connections (and therefore perceptions). They dissolve the ego by restricting blood flow to the Default Mode Network of the brain, which can cause users to lose the border between their persona/self/ego and everything else (eg. the universe).

    They do not take over (unless you allow it). You can manipulate your bad trip as well as your good trip if you so desire. You can switch from love to hate, you can send demons away, and explore more of what you are appreciating. It’s something like directing your dreams, except you will remember everything, and it will change your outlook. Possibly for life.

    Michael Pollan has done the research and tried four different psychedelics, always under the administration of guides, either underground/outlaws or in labs. They were psilocybin (mushroom), LSD (artificial chemical compound), DMT (the venom of the Sonoran toad), and ayahuasca (Brazilian plant compound). How to Change Your Mind is an exploration of the experience and the potential of these chemicals. From what Pollan has seen, it is all very positive. And he is not alone. Engineers, doctors and other researchers all seem to have one thing in common: once they’ve tried psychedelics themselves, they want absolutely everyone to try them too. No other drug has that rep.

    The mind-expanding powers of psychedelics is a function of the infinite connections the brain goes through when its receptors are unlocked and the Default Mode Network (DMN) powers down. The DMN runs the core brain and defines the ego/conscious/persona. It fights to keep control and sends corrective signals to reinforce what it has learned over its lifetime, to the point of denying/correcting what you see in front of you.

    We spend our lives specializing, becoming more expert in an ever-decreasing number of subjects. To the DMN, anything that diverts from that is irrelevant and a waste. The ego actively suppresses them. So we lose our childlike appreciation of most everything. We also become set in our ways and our perceptions.

    By opening up to all the possibilities at once, users flood themselves with new appreciations and insights – to plants, animals, the planet, the stars, music – anything that pops into their minds during their trip. Instead of all inputs being directed to their appropriate receptors, it is possible for music to have shape and color, for rocks to become animated, for objects to melt into the scenery. And for the now borderless, bodiless self to merge with nature (“I was swimming in the ocean. I was the ocean” for example). Suddenly, absolutely everything is possible.

    For all the dozens of trips Pollan describes, the most common change is being one with nature or the universe (for some it is seeing God). No one seems to have incredible sex or become fabulously wealthy. It’s not about peace on Earth, but merging with and appreciating the facets of the universe. And as Pollan found, “You bring a different self to the journey every time.” Perhaps disappointingly, he says, the most common takeaway from psychedelic trips is that love is everything. Trite, but that by itself seems to change everyone who tries them.

    When directed by guides, psychedelics help the dying be relieved and appreciate their position and role in the universe. (Aldous Huxley had his wife inject him with one final dose of LSD on his deathbed.) It has stopped people from smoking because smoking is so superficial and irrelevant. It can reverse depression and anxiety. And it’s all quite illegal, thanks in large part to Timothy Leary.

    There is a long tale of Timothy Leary in all this. He is reviled by the community for making such loud and obnoxious noises that all such compounds became illegal and research all but completely halted. Leary set back the discipline by decades, though at the same time, he made it known to the world. His gleefully unscientific approach (Tune in, turn on, drop out) remains a horror to medicine to this day. They’re still trying to live down that reputation.

    Pollan is not the most economical of writers. The book could have been a hundred pages shorter and still imparted the same information. There is a lot of description, history, speculation and self-questioning that becomes a little tiresome. It often reads like an infomercial, with endless testimonials from satisfied customers – including Pollan – that on television would be followed by an 800 number. But the information he delivers is valuable. He dispels myths, corrects wrong impressions and sets the record straight.

    The science of the brain is fascinating. We are still just cracking the code. Importantly, Pollan shows how seriously beneficial such compounds can be, and how seriously research scientists take them. There is a huge future for psychedelics in medicine. How to Change Your Mind tackles the small-mindedness (in every sense of the term) and beats it up pretty good.

    David Wineberg

  • Darwin8u

    - Roland Griffiths, quoted in Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

    - Humphry Osmond

    I have family that struggle with addiction, depression, PTSD, and anxiety. The idea that one group of compounds (psychedelics) could transform how we view and treat these various challenges to the human con

    - Roland Griffiths, quoted in Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind

    - Humphry Osmond

    I have family that struggle with addiction, depression, PTSD, and anxiety. The idea that one group of compounds (psychedelics) could transform how we view and treat these various challenges to the human condition is VERY excititng. Pollan's book does a great job of juggling the memoirist experience with psychedelics (think of this partially as a 21st century version of Thomas De Quincey's

    ) with a narrative nonfiction exploration of the history and current science surrounding primarily LSD, Psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (the Toad). Michael Pollan writes well (he's not quite, for me, upto the level of John McPhee -- but he's close). He both annoys and seduces at the same time. He reminds me of a well-produced TED Talk. He is both interesting and compelling, but also a bit like a worn and comfortable shoe (say a Birkenstock) that represents a group I already feel comfortable both simultaneously walking with and yes kicking.

    Most of Pollan's book focuses on LSD and Psilocybin (which makes sense because that is where most of the history and science are). I was familiar with Leary, Ginsburg, Huxley, and even James' takes on mind-altering drugs and states, but it was nice to see it framed by Pollan. I was also thrilled to be introduced to a bunch of characters I had never heard before. I feel a movie could/should be made about JUSt Al Hubbard.

    There is a huge part of me that finds the idea of psychedelic experience very compelling (I've got friends who are well-respected doctors, writers, and attorneys who feel the same way). However, my issue with most drugs (especially pot), is most people take them to GET close to where I feel I am already. I have a lot of awe, wonder, don’t get depressed, feel no guilt, exist with very low anxiety, etc (although I’m absolute shit at meditation). I think I do a pretty good job of hanging in the present (while being able to look both forward and back when needed). So, I'm not sure I would be seeking LSD or Psilocybin (or smoking the Toad) for any reason except curiosity and [gasp] recreation. That's the draw. The reason I am skeptical still is I'm not sure I trust most of the product (clarification, after reading this I trust the product more than say the manufacturer, deliverer, source). I'm a bit suspect of taking candy OR street tacos from complete strangers so "smoking a Toad" that I didn't catch and milk myself doesn't exactly seem like something I'm going to run off and do anytime soon. But, if the practice comes above ground, standardizes, or I'm dying -- all bets are off. Bring me the TOAD.

  • Lou

    I have such a wide range of non-fiction reading interests that sometimes, until I actually see the book and its subject, not even I knew that I wanted to read it! But if it is something I am eager to know more about, I know right away.

    Let me start by saying, the only drugs I have even taken are those prescribed for me by a doctor, so I have no idea about other drugs, including psychedelic ones. What I do know about is how strong painkillers (morphine, fentanyl, buprenorphine, oxycodone etc) can

    I have such a wide range of non-fiction reading interests that sometimes, until I actually see the book and its subject, not even I knew that I wanted to read it! But if it is something I am eager to know more about, I know right away.

    Let me start by saying, the only drugs I have even taken are those prescribed for me by a doctor, so I have no idea about other drugs, including psychedelic ones. What I do know about is how strong painkillers (morphine, fentanyl, buprenorphine, oxycodone etc) can certainly have a big impact on the way your mind works while taking them, so this book intrigued me in that respect.

    In "How to Change Your Mind", Michael Pollan aims to discover whether psychedelic drugs can alter your worldview. When LSD was discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. The sort that would lead to groundbreaking discoveries on consciousness, as well as bring relief to addicts and the mentally ill. But in the 1960s all research was banned. However, in recent years this work has begun once again on the potential LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Pollan bravely volunteers as a guinea-pig and writes a remarkable history of psychedelics that paints a compelling portrait of this extraordinary world.

    The narrative is accessible and will appeal to researchers, scientists, doctors and the general public alike. Pollan is clearly a guy that takes pride in his work, even taking psychedelics himself in order to make this study as reliable as possible. It's testament to his character that he chosen to do this, where others may have merely consulted those who have experience of taking the drugs.

    Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for an ARC. I was not required to post a review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

  • William2

    Don’t expect any “nicety of style” here, to use E.M. Forster’s phrase, though the book is well organized. It starts with background on the relatively recent resurrection of research into psychedelics after the 1960s federal suppression of it on grounds—I’m serious—of national security. Psychedelics, which induce in the seeker an unequivocal belief that one has experienced nothing less than a view of the fundamental non-dualist nature of the universe, created an unprecedented generation gap.

    Don’t expect any “nicety of style” here, to use E.M. Forster’s phrase, though the book is well organized. It starts with background on the relatively recent resurrection of research into psychedelics after the 1960s federal suppression of it on grounds—I’m serious—of national security. Psychedelics, which induce in the seeker an unequivocal belief that one has experienced nothing less than a view of the fundamental non-dualist nature of the universe, created an unprecedented generation gap.

    It turns out that the early suppressed research, roughly a thousand clinical papers, showed how psychedelics might be used to treat addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety and other maladies. Most of this valid research, according to Pollan, though tainted at times by over-enthusiasm on the part of investigators, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that psychedelics could be a viable pharmacological tool. Yet out of fear and destestation of those experimenting with the drugs in those days, who were young and vehemently anti-war, the findings were suppressed so that, yes, millions might suffer without the alleviation psychedelics would surely have provided in the interim. This suppression of science is a national disgrace and reason, as if we needed more, to heap further opprobrium on past leaders.

    Pollan writes about this era of Cold War suppression, but focuses mainly on figures like Bob Jesse, Roland Griffiths and others who have been instrumental in spurring recent research into psychedelics. In addition to a description of the history, present day research, and neurological functioning of psychedelics, are the author’s own experiences with LSD-25, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT, or Sonoran Desert toad venom.

    I read on...

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