You don’t have to be an acid-tripping hippie to drink the LSD Kool-Aid. In fact, it’s that fallacy that Michael Pollan turns on its head in his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. In a blend of journalism, memoir, and travel writing, he takes the dense, complicated topic of psychedelics (primarily focusing on LSD, psilocybin, and DMT) in science and culture, and, in true Pollan fashion, dives deep into the subject matter. He, himself, even embarks on multiple drug trips to offer first-hand accounts, in addition to providing the reader with an almost encyclopedic breadth of knowledge that is not only informative, but also comprehensible and entertaining.
Throughout the 450+ pages, Pollan takes the reader on a ride of intellectual, spiritual, and societal curiosities. From exploring the woods of the Pacific Northwest hunting for mycelium to offering biological histories of the psycho-actives, to the various factors leading to LSD’s downfall in the research community and a first-hand account of the horror and subsequent paradigm-shift brought about by DMT, you’ll likely be surprised by what you read.
The amount of research that has been conducted for decades is more extensive than what’s been portrayed in mainstream culture, and you simply can’t ignore how groundbreaking their findings will be for science — and potentially, the world at large.
For instance, Pollan discusses a study at Johns Hopkins University in which participants were given a dose of psilocybin and monitored for 30 minutes as they wore eyeshades and listened to music. Afterwards, the participants said it was the most meaningful experience of their entire life. As in, more meaningful than the birth of their child or meeting of their spouse — noting a significant dissolution of the ego and a heightened spiritual connection unlike anything they had previously encountered.
This is just one example of how science and the seemingly intangible realm of spirituality are coming together as these studies look into the mystic experience, using these psycho-actives as a catalyst to get there.
In addition to transcendental investigations, scientists and doctors are looking into psychedelics as a therapeutic tool for those in need of healing from issues like trauma, depression, and addiction. In fact, LSD-facilitated psychotherapy was popular back in the mid-20th century with participants including Ethel Kennedy and Cary Grant (amongst others)!
Ultimately, you’ll walk away from this book more educated on what could very well be the next frontier in psychology. One researcher even makes the argument that what the telescope was for astronomy, psychedelics will be for the mind. It’s quite the claim indeed, but after reading Pollan’s book, I have to say, it doesn’t sound too far off.
3 things to know before cracking this book open:
1 | Pollan didn’t decide to write this book because he was already into psychedelics. He was, rather, a self-proclaimed novice and simply intrigued by the scientific and medical potential of the recent renaissance of psychedelic study.
2 | The cultural stigma held against psychedelics is fairly understandable as they’ve been taken out of ritual usages and are often used carelessly. What Pollan is looking at in this book is not so much dropping acid at a house party, but rather experimentations and ceremonial uses of the drugs in a more controlled and therapeutic environment. This usually includes screenings for test subjects and patients prior, and looking out for psychological issues that could put them at risk for greater problems.
3 | If you’re not familiar with Michael Pollan, he is well known for his long-form journalism, particularly looking at the food industry. In addition to serving as a journalist in various publications, he also has five New York Times bestsellers.
How is the book relevant?
Government sanctioned psychedelic research began in the 50’s, went dormant after the 70’s, and, due to a resurgence in funding and a shift in the cultural mindset is currently back in the forefront, resulting in breakthrough findings related to consciousness, spirituality, and mental health. In fact, in August of 2017, the FDA designated MDMA, known by the street name “Molly,” as a ‘breakthrough therapy’ for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and could even be made available for medical use by the year 2021. While Pollan didn’t dig into MDMA like he did the other drugs, this news (along with the recent widespread legalization of cannabis) — is still a sign of the direction in which science is headed.
So, why should I care?
The research on which Pollan reports is bringing spirituality and science together like never before. To paraphrase another well-known psychonaut, Dennis McKenna, these substances are being used as a catalyst to wake up to the interconnectedness of all things. If you’re someone interested in the exploration of human consciousness, psychology, general well being, spirituality, or are simply looking to educate yourself on what will likely be a significant topic of conversation in culture, you’ll find this book hard to put down.