Michael Pollan is an American journalist, award-winning author, and professor of writing at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010 Time magazine named him among “the 100 people who most affect our world.”
His best-sellers The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Food Rules (2009), and Cooked (2013) explored the ethical bonds connecting (or not) our bodies and minds to farms and food, and his general aim is to investigate human evolution in close relation to culture, consciousness and our planet. That is the setting of his latest book: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
This time Pollan takes us on a journey into the medical and social revolutions presently ongoing about psychedelic drugs, including Pollan’s firsthand experiences with them. He accessibly describes how in the last few decades scientific research has been a powerful driver of the current psychedelic renaissance—with promising results, particularly for the advancement of mental health.
Neuroscience and psychedelics
Common conditions like depression and addiction are generally considered to result from our survival instinct—to constantly seek order—going amuck and getting stuck in repetitive impulses and disproportionate protection reactions. Psychedelics’ mind-expanding action, Pollan says, can “loosen the grip of the machinery of the mind, ‘lubricating’ cognition where before it had been rusted stuck”.
As he further explains in a chapter devoted to neuroscience and psychedelics and another entitled “The Trip Treatment”, a carefully-guided trip can shake addicts out of ingrained mental patterns and provide them new inner space. This is showing positive effects in early clinical trials, and researchers think it could be helpful for the broader population—a powerful hope, given that psychiatric treatments for these conditions haven’t advanced significantly since the development of SSRI antidepressants in the late 1980s.
Among the many researchers he interviewed, Pollan quotes at length Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College, London, explaining that psilocybin quiets activity in a part of the brain called the default-mode network. This step prevents an overbearing ego from turning on itself and controlling all and everything, as is typical in chronic and treatment-resistant depression. In October 2017 a small study by Carhart-Harris’s team concluded that psilocybin is effective in such cases; two further studies are planned for this year.
Also highlighted are experiments being carried out with psilocybin for cancer distress and addiction in the United States by the Heffter Institute, and studies by the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) looking at MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat a variety of PTSD conditions. Experienced researchers are quoted, such as David Nutt and William Richards, along with volunteers involved in research at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and at New York University into psychedelics for end-of-life anxiety, alcoholism and cancer treatments.
In the account of his meeting with noted mycologist Paul Stamets, Pollan writes that they did “talk Psilocybes, eat (other kinds of) mushrooms … and ramble the surrounding woods before driving south to Oregon border Sunday morning to hunt azzies.” Overall we get a wide investigative report from which emerges a vast (under and above-ground) network of researchers, advocates, and patients pushing for a new multifaceted approach to our legal, medical, educational, and social relationship to drugs, particularly to psychedelics.
Promising medicines but still illicit drugs
Most psychedelics are classified in the USA as Schedule I substances, i.e., with “no medicinal value and high potential for abuse”, under the Controlled Substances Act signed into law by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1970 and then replicated across the world in an effort to curtail the anti-establishment counterculture spreading in the late 1960s. Although a rich body of research was conducted by scientists after Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann discovered LSD in 1943, Pollan carefully describes how the effort to suppress the counterculture meant federal funding dried up for research and these substances were portrayed by the media and seen by the public as subversive and dangerous, despite evidence to the contrary.
A central figure in the counterculture’s psychedelic drug aspect was Harvard psychologist turned LSD advocate Timothy Leary. A major objection to Leary’s behavior is what Pollan calls Leary’s “do-it-yourself approach to the psychedelics, especially his willingness to dispense with the all important trained guide.” Experienced guidance and an appropriate “set” (group of people) and “setting” (location and surroundings) are crucial determinants to the nature of a psychedelic experience. That’s why Pollan checks out various guides before actually having his own trip. He is not shy to do some testing on himself, and describes it in detail; chapter four is an insightful travelogue of his own trips, documenting and reflecting on his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, and a substance called 5-MEO-DMT, which is made from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad.
Spirituality and human consciousness
Pollan asserts that the sights and sounds of a psychedelic trip “are experiences in your mind that really happen. That’s what consciousness is.” He shows some skepticism about the frequent reports of mystical experiences from luminaries who have tried psychedelics in the past—British author Aldous Huxley, American psychologist William James—but Pollan’s accounts of his own experiences ring similarly. He prefers to call them spiritual rather than mystical, but cannot deny their ineffability, nor the strong feelings of universal love and interconnectedness with all sentient beings frequently described, including by Pollan himself.
It is made clear that psychedelic therapy is just that—therapy—and it is not the same as recreational usage. It requires proper medical assistance, guidance, and preparation. The substances are not addictive, but there are psychological and behavioral risks to take into consideration. But as Pollan meticulously explains throughout the book, this type of medicine could be of great use not only in treating various kinds of psychoemotional distress, but in helping us explore the nature of consciousness and the meaning of life.
Broadening public conversation on psychedelic science
Pollan’s book has received broad media coverage in the anglophone mediasphere and in online venues, quickly entering The New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists—like his previous books. Excerpts and reviews have been published by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The Guardian and The Times, as well as the websites of Science Magazine, Spectator, and Bioneers.
Pollan has given many talks and presentation events in the United States, and he will be speaking in London at several events in June 2018.
A blend of science, memoir, history, and medicine, How to Change Your Mind provides a timely backdrop for personal and broader medical investigations of spirituality and consciousness. It offers much fodder for public debate on psychedelics and related issues. Although psychedelics are still illegal and generally dismissed with jokes about hippies, today’s social climate is very different to that of the 1960s, and the stigma around psychedelics is gradually dissipating. Alongside evidence from rigorous studies and clinical trials demonstrating that these substances can be safe and beneficial, Pollan’s book can serve to shine new light on a subject long shrouded in scorn and disapproval.