Best Weller's pick for May-June: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
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Reviewed by Tony Weller
To fall in hell or soar Angelic
You’ll need a pinch of psychedelic
This couplet, sent to Aldous Huxley by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1956, coined the word we use to describe mind-expanding drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin. With Greek words for “spirit” and “manifesting,” Osmond made the word psychedelic. It had nothing to do with wild designs or bright colors but was offered by Osmond to express what was experienced and understood to happen to persons affected by these substances before a slew of social rents and fears grew to the hysteria that halted research and access in the mid-1960s.
In his courageous new book, food writer and activist Michael Pollan applies his careful, skeptical mind and intimate personal writing style to the complicated history, the reality, and the astounding potential of psychedelic drugs. Pollan tells how a few fortuitous events aligned early in the millennium, permitting doors of research to be reopened. Recent discoveries in neuroscience refute a few old myths but, to a compelling degree, support observations and understandings from past eras. How to Change Your Mind is an encouraging and aspirational book. For ourselves and our planet, let’s hope psychedelics can escape their badly perverted reputation and senseless incarceration.
Michael Pollan was not part of the psychedelic craze in his youth. Clear information was hard to find between urban myths and reactionary propaganda. Like most inexperienced persons, he accepted stories of lunacy and chromosomal damage. His scientific mind inured him to the more magical hippie stuff but, following his own psychedelic experiences and despite his avowed secular skepticism, his psychedelic trips took him as close to what one might call spiritual consciousness as anything he ever experienced. Pollan is not alone. But the effects of psychedelics are harder to predict than other mind-altering drugs.
Psychedelics produce more subjective results than any other known psychoactive substance. Effects are as variable as personalities and hard even for subjects to anticipate since psychedelics loosen the divide between the conscious and subconscious mind and the subconscious mind is as unpredictable as dreams and potentially as scary as nightmares, but seldom more harmful. The worst reports came from early military experiments involving unwitting subjects and unreasonably high doses. Unprepared victims felt like they were going crazy. They had no idea what was happening - the military was investigating psychedelics as a truth serum or chemical weapon. No responsible guide or researcher would do that today. But scary stories of the terrible outcomes of these tests spread rapidly during the 1960s and fueled the reactionary and ignorant war against psychedelics.
Psychedelics work by inhibiting parts of the brain that are responsible for rapid judgments we make using experience and knowledge. This makes us efficient adults, but also hasty judges, and dull creatures of habit. Small children don’t do this - they almost can’t. The open perceptual mind and free imagination of youth - the reason kids learn and adapt so rapidly - is largely gone by adolescence. We trade lucid perception and loose creativity for perceptual, psychological and social efficiencies. The parts of the brain that control the ego and culture aspects of self are referred to by some brain scientists as the default mode network (DMN). Pollan identifies the six parts of the brain that comprise it. Like water running down a mountain carves ruts that become landscape, our habitual perceptions, thoughts, judgments and feelings do the same in our brains. This is how the old become set in their ways, implacable, stubborn, bored and dull. This is how we quit learning by knowing. Psychedelics don’t make things happen, they inhibit the mental filters that enable us to focus and get things done. These filters grow slowly, feel like confidence and define habits. They also narrow sensitivities, and dull perception.
Michael Pollan is not a metaphysical thinker. He cringes at magical descriptions of the psychedelic experience, which has often been associated with spiritual and cosmic thinking. Nonetheless, he can’t avoid using the word, ineffable to describe the transcendent intense, proto-linguistic, yank-you-back-to-toddler effects of a psychedelic trip - it is nearly impossible to describe. Words can’t really do it, somewhat like a person pointing at and describing a faraway mountain.
I am enthusiastic about the potentials presented in this book. Pollan critically examines prominent personalities, researchers, and events in the evolution of psychedelics. He drops acid, eats mushrooms, and “smokes the toad,” which means toad venom. He brings in neuroscience to which predecessors like Huxley, Hofmann, and Leary had no access. His work encompasses theologians, psychiatrists, anthropologists, shamans, and therapists and arrives at the exciting conclusion that psychedelic drugs have great and barely utilized therapeutic value, and, as promoted by contemporary founder of The Council on Spiritual practices, Bob Jesse, a more portentous and provocative revolution for “the betterment of well people.” Jesse’s group brought together data from hundreds of research projects from the 1950s through the 70s that show very high therapeutic potential with minimal risk, much less than we accept from a plethora of legal, including over-the-counter, medicants. But more exciting is the prospect of overcoming ancient human problems originating in ego-delusion that manifest in tribal defensiveness. It is a common after-effect of psychedelics that users feel dissolution of the ego and symbiotic connectivity with life as the subject/object divide fades. That’s right - the doors of perception that open in a mind on psychedelics could lead to a leap in human consciousness that could have beautiful results. You have to read Pollan's book!
It is somewhat reckless, maybe even foolish, to try to impart the profundity of the psychedelic experience. It is credited with relaxing the ego, which helps persons with over-active Default Mode Networks that cause repression, depression, and other states that occur when habitual patterns gain influence over perception and creativity. Psychedelic trips are likened to spiritual epiphanies. Weakening subject and object conceptualizations leads to more trusting and connected relationships with others and the Earth as the user sees herself as a piece of the whole. LSD and psilocybin mushrooms restore the kind of unfiltered perception that is largely the estate of children who, without learning and experience-shaping sensibilities, actually see more, hear more, feel more, and think more freely than grown-ups.
Psychedelic drugs have nearly no medical risks and are probably super-efficient antidotes for psycho-emotional problems resultant of obsessive personalities. At least as exciting is that they apparently can help almost anyone to become less egocentric and to feel deeper, more compassionate connections to others and the whole wonderful world. These experiences are valuable to all but likely most beneficial to older, more gooked-up minds.
Michael Pollan treats early psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary fairly. This quote of Leary's seems a good way to wrap up a complicated topic while giving pause to habitual DMN reactions.
“Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity…in people who haven’t taken them.”