How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
by Michael Pollan 2018
Psychedelic drugs- LSD, mushrooms, toad venom- these mysterious chemicals have a unique ability to unlock areas of the brain that do not connect during normal waking consciousness. Are these drugs destroyers like cocaine and methamphetamine? Or are they life-changing medicines that can improve human lives?
I've avoided reading this book because of my serious aversion to drugs in any shape or form. I've read too many stories of how lives have been destroyed by drug highs that take over and make addicts of users. I've even managed to avoid coffee and beer, two of the more popular mood-enhancers if only because I guard my mental faculties zealously.
Recently the TV show 60 Minutes did a segment on hallucinogens in therapy, so I thought I'd give this book a look. I changed my mind about "How to change your mind".
Michael Pollan is a writer and researcher who has limited background in medical science, but he has put together a convincing argument for the renewal of interest in these drugs and how they can help people better than many other drug or cognitive therapies.
There are two types of hallucinogens- naturally occurring and lab created. The natural ones like peyote, mushrooms and toad venom have been known of for centuries and been part of religious ceremonies. And then there is LSD, created in a lab by Albert Hoffman in 1938. The book covers a fascinating period in the 1950's and 1960's when these drugs were openly used by scientists and medical professionals as potential therapies.
For a brief window, people believed that LSD and its cousins could be helpful, especially for treating mental problems. Magic mushrooms and their effects were discussed in a national magazine- Life magazine in 1957. Canadian researchers were both taking hallucinogens and experimenting with patients. By the 1960's the drugs showed promise and seemed to be on the verge of more wide acceptance.
But then came the counter-culture, hippie lifestyle, and anti-Vietnam protests. LSD was adopted along with marijuana by that culture and used recreationally. Young people often didn't know how to interpret the strange visions on their trips, and the drug got a bad reputation with some. Timothy Leary became the most famous proponent of LSD, also known as acid back then, and he is blamed in the book for single-handedly setting back the cause of hallucinogen research for decades. Because of the anti-drug fervor that came in response to the counter-culture, LSD and all its cousins were outlawed, and all legitimate research stopped.
The power of psychedelics both in immediate experience and their lasting effects kept interest in the drugs alive for decades, if only underground. The US war on drugs was a notorious failure at containing illegal substances, many of which were made overseas and imported through vast networks. Magic mushrooms, because they grow naturally in many areas, are almost impossible to ban. But it takes a true expert to tell which of the thousands of species of mushroom fungus are the real deal and not poisonous.
The author goes through his own experiences on psychedelics, which I found helpful in a vicarious way. The key to a good experience, he says, is to have a trained guide. The drugs unlock vast areas of the brain, but without a guide people can flail around and become afraid. Guides encourage you to suspend belief and plunge into the unknown, making sure you know that they are there watching out for you and keeping you out of danger.
In a guided situation, the patient takes the drug, lays down, puts on a mask to cover the eyes, and experiences the trip entirely inside their mind. All report that their sense of self disappears. Without an ego, the mind is free to explore issues and areas that interest them, often feeling awe and spirituality along the way. The "trip" may take a few hours, but the effects on the mind can last for weeks as new insights are gained. One of the most amazing parts of the book is a color diagram of a normal brain communication system and one on psychedelics. With the drugs, connections are multiplied tenfold, and interesting possibilities come forward.
Here is an excerpt from the author's personal experience. "Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which in some fundamental way ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn't seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the forces of revealed truth. Love is everything.
Okay, but what else did you learn?
No, you must not have heard me it's everything!"
The author takes a deep dive into how the drugs have helped patients suffering different types of ailments. People facing death were given the drugs and were able to feel much more at peace with themselves and their predicament. Those struggling with addiction reported a bigger perspective on their lives and able to stop smoking and abusing alcohol. (The founder of AA supposedly got sober after a mystical experience on belladonna.) And those stuck in depression showed improvements both in the 1950's Canadian experiments and in more recent trials. The drug allows a sort of "reboot" that allows the brain to snap out of highly entrenched and destructive patterns.
The author obviously did his homework on this complicated topic. He covers the history of hallucinogens and those who pioneered their usage. He also looks at the biochemistry and tries to explain why scientists think these drugs work the way they do. This book is an eye-opener on a subject that gets rarely discussed.
I had no idea of the number of famous people who have used these drugs to help with creativity and spiritual growth. The list is long- Ram Dass, Stephen Jobs, Bill Gates, The Beatles, Cary Grant, George Carlin, Jim Morrison and Jack Nicholson to name a few. Plus many others who tried it and didn't go public. There are Facebook groups devoted to psychedelics, and the 60 minutes piece was a great signal that more people are taking this seriously.
My one misgiving about the book is that it is mostly anecdotal stories. I wish there was more scientific data on the effectiveness of LSD and the risks. No drug is perfect. But the mental transformations detailed in the book are promising, especially given that the mental health field has been struggling to find new ways to help people as current drugs and therapies have not progressed much in the past few decades. Mental illness is often caused by deeply held beliefs that are hard to challenge, even in the safe space of therapy. Hallucinogens are in a way like electroshock therapy- giving the mind a chance to repair faulty beliefs and rewire itself- with the assistance of a skillful guide.
Science has a hard time measuring improvements in mental health, and is useless when it comes to spiritual experiences, but before this kind of treatment can become more available and not just at Johns Hopkins, some reasonable protocols and precautions need to be made available. There are many obstacles in the way- Big Pharma will resist, as will many of the therapists who depend on regular appointments from patients. But hopefully if the information in this book is correct and pans out, things will evolve for the benefit of everybody involved.