How to Change Your Mind

In college, when friends decided to take in the premiere of Apocalypse Now and return to the campus farm to drop acid, I was dissuaded from joining. “Your personality is not a good bet,” my pals predicted darkly. I suddenly imagined myself trapped in a fever dream of nausea and monsters, which would then recur at unknowable intervals for the rest of my life.

In fact, as I belatedly learned from Michael Pollan’s  How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, his far-ranging look at psychedelic drugs, mine was exactly the personality that might have benefited from a little neurological vacation. New research demonstrates these chemicals possess promise that may exceed known treatments for a host of psychologic ills, from alcoholism to depression and OCD to the “existential distress” of a terminal diagnosis. My reticence was based on a hoary, and hairy, narrative promulgated by politically motivated demonization of these drugs—“LSD as threat”—that was by then many years out of date. Uncountable thousands of happy, fruitful trips may have already been taken by “psychonauts” worldwide, with a growing body of literary, anecdotal, and clinical evidence for the transformative effects of hallucinogens, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency fact sheet still sounds like a frightened square circa 1965. It maintains that LSD “has a high potential for abuse, but currently has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and can make the user susceptible to personal injury as well as acute anxiety and depression as well as flashbacks, not to mention psychosis and possible death. How to Change Your Mind is a 400-page, deeply researched and even more deeply felt refutation of every aspect of this governmental disinformation, a holdover from the time when psychedelics became the enemy of the state because they were a badge of the counterculture.

Pollan corrects the misapprehensions by performing his signature trick on both the history and current status of study on LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad). As in his previous books—considerations of our relationship with food as well as the plants they once were (The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma), among others—there are few corners of the matter into which he doesn’t peer. What is left to be known about psychedelics must perhaps remain forever ineffable, one of the more common descriptors affixed to the experience of taking them. Comprehensive as How to Change Your Mind is, its subject is uniquely unfathomable. What goes unsaid could fill a hallucinogenic library: shelves expanding into an infinity that may exist inside our brains. Or that our brains may be able to know only under their influence.

Psychologist and hallucinogen proselytizer Timothy Leary—who in Pollan’s memorable characterization had “a tropism bending him toward the sun of publicity, good or bad”—is partly to blame for bringing LSD out of the clinic and into the streets before it was ready. Up to the time of his forced departure from Harvard and its Psilocybin Project, more sedate research elsewhere had produced no fewer than a thousand papers on trials with a combined 40,000 participants. But after 1963, with Leary’s disgrace and the threat of a generation urged to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” a whole body of research was effectively suppressed. Scientists who have lately undertaken new study into the many potentials of these chemicals were sometimes surprised to discover they had predecessors at all.

Pollan introduces readers not only to the revived research on psychedelics, but more entertainingly to those conducting it: mycologist and myco-mystic Paul Stamets, British aristocrat Amanda Feilding and her Beckley Foundation, Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College London, and David Nutt, who lost his job on England’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in 2009 after claiming “alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis and that using Ecstasy was safer than riding a horse.” The author also conducts some experiments of his own.

Turns out Pollan had been likewise daunted by state-sanctioned myth, so that by the time he was old enough to check it out, LSD “had already completed its speedy media arc from psychiatric wonder drug to counterculture sacrament to destroyer of young minds.” As he began writing this book he was approaching his sixtieth year. Time to make up for lost time.

For a writer, anything done in the name of research compels one to overcome personal antipathy. In a book where pages fly by, none speed faster than those of the chapter titled “Travelogue.” A first-person account of Pollan’s recent experiences with LSD, mushrooms, and toad venom, it puts the hype (the possibility of seeing God, becoming one with the universe, transcending selfhood) to the test. If it’s possible to give a clear-eyed account of having your mind blown, Michael Pollan has done it.

On mushrooms, under the eye of a trained guide, he finds he needs to use the facilities.

Inside, the bathroom was a riot of sparkling light. The arc of water I sent forth was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, breaking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light. This went on for a pleasant eternity. When I was out of diamonds, I went to the sink and splashed my face with water, making sure not to catch sight of myself in the mirror, which seemed like a psychologically risky thing to do.

After taking a booster dose, he fell apart. Or, rather, he experienced the temporary dissolution of the ego that is considered the gift and the clinically mediating hope of psychedelic drugs: “ ‘I’ now turned into a sheaf of little papers, no bigger than Post-its, and they were being scattered to the wind. But the ‘I’ taking in this catastrophe had no desire to chase after the slips and pile my old self back together. No desires of any kind, in fact. Whoever I now was was fine with whatever happened.”

As for me, I no longer need LSD after reading this book’s section on neuroscience. Learning about the default-mode network is all the trip I want. Seat of inhibitions and maker of snap judgments (those biologically advantageous predictive shortcuts), the DMN is the neural circuit suppressed by these chemicals. Hippy-dippy claptrap has long attached itself to psychedelics, remedied here by Pollan with plenty of quotation from eloquent and moving personal narratives, including his own. But in this section he finally presents a more “parsimonious” explanation—the favored test of this admirably skeptical author—for those frequent reports of a mystical sense that the ego has exploded or that one has merged with the infinite/nature/all-encompassing love: the DMN has simply gone “offline.” It’s where our stories about the “I am that I am” reside. No wonder temporary freedom from that short leash feels ecstatic. So does reading a book this generous, fascinating, and necessary. It’s enough to get you high.