I finished this book over the summer, about a decade and a half after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a college class about sustainable agriculture. How To Change Your Mind is a great introduction to an ever-evolving dialogue unfolding in the United States these days about the topic of psychedelic drugs. I first started thinking about this subject when I read Ben Westhoff’s Fentanyl, Inc., which remains probably one of my top ten books of all time in the category of popular critical journalism. Westhoff looked at the opioid crisis in the United States and explored a ideas around better regulation and harm reduction. He specifically looked at psychedelic drugs that have, for complex reasons, been undeservedly lumped in with fentanyl and heroin, including drugs that are increasingly thought to have serious therapeutic use, like LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT, and MDMA (a.k.a. “molly” or ecstacy).
Pollan’s book is not an arms-length, academic exploration: rather, he personally relates his own experiences with psychedelic drugs, and describes them in graphic depth. Pollan, a bestselling journalist who writes with a lovely, playful curiosity, is anything but a street addict, but nor is he particularly risk-averse or circumspect about it. He’s approaching this subject of cultural and legal taboo by tracing the historical roots of those taboos going back to the 1950s, and looking at the early promising results from using LSD and psilocybin in clinical treatments (before the hippies ruined it for everyone, more or less). This history is fascinating, bringing together scientists, hippies, corporatists, and more in this quest toward understanding the various psychedelic millieus of radical empathy, transcendence, and perspective. A particularly enjoyable passage is included below:
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner […] If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up! And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch. This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt.”Michael Pollan, How To Change Your Mind
Pollan explores, both from neurological and social perspectives, how the psychedelic experience breaks established connections in the brain to form new ones that can help generate valuable new perspective, and cites specific examples of how this has been beneficial, not only in a recreational context, but in therapeutic ones, being used to treat otherwise-untreatable substance addiction, treatment-resistant depression, and more.
I read somewhere in a complementary article– I tend to supplement books like this with other academic and journalistic sources just for kicks- a commentary that writings about individuals’ drug trips are usually quite tedious, and I tend to agree with this, as it’s one particular pitfall of this book and of others I’ve read. I greatly enjoyed some of the episodes of Tales from the Trip, for example, in which comedians describe their specific psychedelic experiences in a series of animated shorts. The psychedelic experience is so varied from person to person and, indeed, so deeply personal, that verbal descriptions alone often seem profoundly elusive. Pollan refers to this challenge, but it doesn’t stop him from trying. Since he’s a good writer, he manages to pull off a book that is cohesive in spite of getting bogged down in the attempt to explain what it feels like when the conceptual glue of the universe has become loosened while on an LSD trip.
As we are witnessing the birth of a new movement here in Detroit, a city that recently decriminalized psychedelics, it is anyone’s guess whether we will develop a common language to describe the experience. As someone who is fascinated by both the neurochemistry and the nascent capital dynamics of a new product market, I find it all quite fascinating, but I think I would find it far less fascinating had I not read so much about the psychedelic movement in terms of its history, its pharmacology, and the accompanying psychology or neurology. If you have zero background in the subject, How To Change Your Mind is definitely worth a read. There are some especially fascinating historical anecdotes about major actors in the psychedelic movement. (⭑⭑⭑½)