HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan. Penguin Press, 465 pp., $28.
If you stopped reading right now and chewed some magic mushrooms (psilocybin) or popped a tab of LSD or smoked the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, you would follow in the wake of millions of Americans, yet it would be nigh impossible to predict what happens next.
These hallucinogenic agents might tip you toward ecstasy or psychosis. You might be pierced by ineffable music or suddenly lose your color blindness or crest into “an orgasm of the soul.” If you are a man, you might experience childbirth, as writer Michael Pollan did after smoking toad venom.
“I felt something squeeze out from between my legs, but easily and without struggle or pain,” he writes. “It was a boy: the infant me. That seemed exactly right: having died, I was now being reborn.”
If your eyebrows are now lost somewhere in your hairline, welcome to the bold terrain of “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
This is a book of big claims and sticky politics. With psychedelics, much hinges on the “set and setting,” particularly the therapist or shaman who guides the experience. For the reader, the guide is Pollan, who made his considerable reputation disrupting our notions about food. It began in 2006 with “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and flows through six more bestsellers.
How much you swallow from this new work depends on your receptivity to his honeyed writing, your tolerance for his self-preoccupation and your alignment with his skeptical but beckoning stance.
Pollan, born 63 years ago on Long Island, has a robust ego. In this book he vacillates for long stretches about relinquishing that ego for even a few hours to the vagaries of mind-altering chemicals. When he does, in a 70-page chapter called “Travelogue,” the descriptions are a bit boggy, like someone droning on about his dreams. His hallucinations feature sentient leaves gazing back at him and a vine that rises through bars to gesture toward freedom — perhaps not surprising in a man who loves botany.
More solid is Pollan’s work here as a journalist, reporting the colorful history of psychedelic research and the scientists who animate it. The author brings news of a potential renaissance for their powerful organic compounds. Here he is in the Oakland Convention Center in April 2017:
“What had been as recently as 2010 a modest gathering of psychonauts and a handful of renegade researchers was now a six-day convention-cum-conference that had drawn more than three thousand people from all over the world to hear researchers from twenty-five countries present their findings.”
In studies at Johns Hopkins and New York universities, the anxiety and depression of cancer patients dropped significantly after a single dose of psilocybin. LSD can work so well at disrupting alcoholism that for a while in the mid-20th century it was a standard treatment in Saskatchewan, a hub of psychedelic research. And one lifelong smoker told Pollan that the mystical experience of psilocybin so altered him that “smoking became irrelevant, so I stopped.”
Psychedelic molecules won’t kill you and aren’t addictive. Each is formed by two linked rings, one of six atoms and the other of five. They bear a striking structural resemblance to serotonin, whose receptors in our brains are the ones the psychedelics breach.
The phenomena isn’t limited to humans. “Several tribes around the world feed psychoactive plants to their dogs in order to improve their hunting ability,” Pollan notes. Closer to home, in Silicon Valley, Pollan reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Sharp-eyed readers will note that the unwieldy subtitle about psychedelics shedding light on consciousness, dying, addiction, depression and transcendence is crashing the purview of religion. Pollan clearly knows this, but can exhibit a tin ear; he repeats a jab at Holy Communion as a “placebo sacrament.” Such things are not his bag.
But the author’s flirtation with mind-altering chemistry has long roots. In a 1997 Harper’s Magazine piece about his garden titled “Opium Made Easy,” Pollan wrote, “I am in fact forty-two, a family man (as they say) and homeowner whose drug-taking days are behind him.”
Ah, well. Pollan’s epigraph comes from Emily Dickinson: “The soul should always stand ajar.”