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 | 2019

An essay by Michael Moreau

Michael  Pollan

How Ergot, Mushrooms, Cactus Buds, Toad Venom, and Magical Plants Can Alter Consciousness

The first time I took LSD I was with my best friend. We had had gone up into the mountains, down into a canyon, across a stream and into the woods—far from the sounds of the city. The friend took out a small square of waxed paper to which a tiny tablet was attached. He told me to pull it off and place it under my tongue. I waited several minutes but was soon transported into a vision of the world both within and without that was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

For most of the next six or so hours I stood on a rock and marveled at the spectacular luminescence and the pulsating vegetation and water flowing around me, and by the equally pulsating and vibrating eyes of my friend whose face would change from that of his 18-year-old self to something of an ancient prophet.

He stayed with me while I remained speechless, transfixed by the visual beauty around me and feeling a sense of harmony with Eternity, as if I could see back into the beginning of things and that I was part of a divine continuum. This blissful feeling lasted for several days, gradually fading with the quotidian life for a freshman college student with two part-time jobs.

My second trip with a psychedelic drug wasn’t so pleasant. At a raucous New Year’s party with a girlfriend, I swallowed a tab of what I was told was mescaline and foolishly augmented it with several cups from a punchbowl that was laced with more of the drug.

I was never certain about what I had ingested, but my brain played scary tricks with me. My girlfriend and I had sex in a bedroom that seemed like a crowded bus and am I wasn’t sure how it was for her, but her face kept changing into that of previous girlfriends.

We later sat in the living room where the Velvet Underground’s banana-cover album played over and over. The driving chords of “Heroin” floated out of the speakers and rippled toward and then right through me. The trip left me exhausted.

The last time I took acid was on a cliff overlooking the ocean near Mendocino. It was a mild dose and I read R.D. Laing’s Politics of Experience as the drug wafted through my brain. I read the last line of the book over and over: “If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, If I could tell you I would let you know.”

That was in 1969. I didn’t take psychedelics again and smoked pot only occasionally over the ensuing decades. But I have found myself reading more about psychedelics and was intrigued by author Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day experience with micro-dosing LSD, a practice that she said helped her with depression in a way that prescription drugs eluded her. I too had only so-so results with antidepressants.

As I read more, I came to see that psychedelics, like so many things, are perhaps wasted on the young.

Michael Pollan, the venerated journalist and most recently author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma has written the most comprehensive book to date on psychedelic drugs. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence, traces the use of psychedelics (the word derived from the Greek for “mind manifesting”) back to ancient cultures and through landmarks such as in 1938 when the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the molecule that he named for its composition lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD.

Pollan retells the tale the Sandoz Pharmaceuticals researcher who unwittingly absorbed a large dose of LSD through his skin in his lab and rode his bicycle home finding himself engaged in a not-unpleasant state of transfixed consciousness. Hofmann wasn’t trying to create a psychoactive drug. He was experimenting with ergot molecules to find a cardiovascular stimulant. What he found instead, his friend the Swiss physician and poet said at Hofmann’s 100th birthday celebration was “the only joyous invention of the Twentieth Century.”

This of course would be challenged over the ensuing years when the drug was used indiscriminately in the wrong circumstances. “Set and setting” would become the credo of more circumspect advocates of the use of psychedelics. By “set” is meant the mind-set and expectations that a person brings to the experience and “setting,” the outward circumstances, the physical setting or environment. The consensus now is that any powerful psychedelic should only be taken with a knowledgeable guide and in the safest of physical environments.

In this brilliantly written and researched book Pollan finds that psychedelics, aside from the chemically produced LSD, go back thousands of years and were routinely used in spiritual rites and—though this is only speculative—may have even been central in the religious practice of the first Christians. There is something vitally human in seeking consciousness expanding experiences, whether through drugs or through chanting, controlled breathing, or meditation. It is a drive to experience what Freud called the “oceanic experience,” that is “a sensation of eternity”: the mystical state.

The theological scholar Huston Smith said that “psilocybin can occasion genuine mystical experiences.” Psilocybin is derived from mushrooms. Psilocybin, long banned in the U.S., has just been decriminalized in Denver and Oakland.

The search for these optimal experiences has driven people to extraordinary lengths. A fascinating account in Pollan’s book is the journey of R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president of J.P. Morgan, who in the mid-1950s traveled to the jungles of southern Mexico to find the isolated Indians who practiced rituals with sacred mushrooms. He met curanderas [healers], who invited him into their ceremonies, and he partook of the sacred plant. “We chewed and swallowed this acrid mushroom, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck,” Pollan quotes from Wasson’s writings. On his return to the U.S. Wasson was given fifteen pages in Life Magazine to report on his experience. (It turned out Time-Life Chairman Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce were devotees of LSD). A headline writer for the magazine coined the term “magic mushrooms.” About his experiences in the jungle, Wasson said, “I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view.”

It was just a few years later that young people began routinely eating magic mushrooms and peyote buttons (the cactus from which mescaline is derived) and taking LSD. Harvard professor turned LSD evangelist Tim Leary was labeled by President Richard Nixon “the most dangerous man in America,” and the federal government banned all psychedelics. The Drug Enforcement Administration classified psychedelics schedule I, which prevented them for decades from being used in medical research.

The web site for Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a for-profit drug treatment company, calls LSD “a very potent illegal drug that has no legitimate medical uses.” And it says that “it is possible for a person to become psychologically addicted to LSD after regular use.” Neither of these statements is true. There is no indication that psychedelics are addictive. And as for medical uses, the research before the widespread ban and the more current limited research allowed under loosened government guidelines, indicates that psychedelics, and especially psilocybin, may be valuable medications in treating depression and addictions to nicotine, alcohol and drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
There was a crack in this ban in 2006 when a confluence of events occurred. One was a Supreme Court decision that allowed psychedelics, namely ayahuasca, to be used in religious ceremonies, and especially with the publication of a paper titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”  The study was conducted by Roland Griffiths, Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In his study Griffiths reported that “volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes consistent with changes rated by community observers.”

At Johns Hopkins Griffiths had received a government exemption to study psilocybin effects in treating severe depression and alcohol addiction. His report, Pollan says, was the “first rigorously designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study…to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic.” It generated extensive coverage in the press. It was everything that Tim Leary and Richard Alpert’s “research” at Harvard was not. It followed the protocols of a solid scientific study.

Pollan visited Griffiths at his lab at Johns Hopkins where experiments are conducted with a synthetic version of the psilocybin molecule (named by Albert Hoffman in the late 1950s)—the active psychoactive ingredient of mushrooms. Griffiths, who has himself taken the drug, believes that psilocybin can change lives for the better. He has seen it in his lab.

In this book Pollan is both an inquiring journalist and a psychic explorer.

After talking with Griffiths the writer wanted to know more about mushrooms so at the doctor’s suggestion he visited Paul Stemets in Washington State. Stemets, considered perhaps the most knowledgeable mycologists in the country, wrote the book Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World. Stemets, whose Ted Talks can be found on YouTube, considers the range of mushrooms, which grow plentifully in the Northwest, to be intricately connected with lives of humans. Among other things, mushrooms clean up the debris of dead trees and plants in the world’s forests. But “mushrooms are bringing us a message from nature,” he tells Pollan. Stemets has a painting of Albert Hoffman over his fireplace.

During his visit with Stemets the mycologist taught him how to find the psilocybin-bearing mushroom (there are a variety of them). Pollan took a few home with him where he ate them with his wife, Judith. He describes the experience in vivid detail. Looking back, he calls it a “walking dream.”  He says: “I honestly don’t know what to make of this experience…. I felt an opening of the heart, toward my parents, and towards Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. …I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence.”

Pollan later went to London where Robin Carhart-Harris and colleagues have done extensive research with LSD and particularly its action on the default mode network or DMN. The DMN forms a hub of activity within the brain that links parts of the cerebral cortex with memory and emotion. It processes our perception of the world and categorizes and classifies things. Thanks to the DMN “We are forever cutting to the chase, basically, and leaping to conclusions, relying on prior experience to inform current perception.” This is both good and bad. Good because it helps get us through the day, and not so good in limiting us from fully experiencing the world around us. Under the influence of psychedelics, those certainties partially dissolve. Carhart-Harris believes we pay a price for achieving order and certainty. It “constrains cognition” and exerts “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.”

Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, posits in her book The Philosophical Baby that the infant child “approaches reality with the astonishment of an adult on psychedelics.” It is that loss of astonishment derived from the acquired default mode of habit which Carhart-Harris says binds us to “a more reality-bound style of thinking, governed by the ego.” It is the breaking down of the ego that forms the mystic experience sometimes reached by yogic training or Buddhist meditation or through psychedelic drugs.

“The urge to escape from selfhood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all of the time,” Aldous Huxley says in The Doors of Perception, the book derived from his experience with mescaline. “The urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood is, as I have said, a principal appetite of the soul.”

The therapeutic value of the psychedelic experience, researchers tell Pollan, is that they can temporarily break the brain out if its default patterns offering new, more productive thought and behavior. They have the power, says Carhart-Harris, to “shake the snow globe.”

Pollan apparently wasn’t afraid the shake the snow globe (well, maybe a little) because to complete his research he took all of the psychedelics he reports on in the book: mescaline (in the form of peyote), LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, 5-MeO-DMT (derived from a toad venom) and ayuhuasca, which is made from a combination of plants found in Amazon basin. And though he sought out the best guides (set and setting) to lead him through these experiences, he says that he was fearful for the night before and leading right up to the trip. Could the snow globe be shaken too hard?

He was pleasantly surprised.

In the end Pollan believes that the mystical and clinical fruits born by the psychedelics are inseparable.

But his research has led him to have a cautious attitude about these powerful substances. He believes that broad legalization may be moving along too swiftly. In an op-ed in the New York Times in May he says “I look forward to the day when psychedelic medicines like psilocybin, having proven their safety and efficacy in FDA-approved trials, will take their legal place in society,” but he’s not sure ballot measures are the best way to go. We need to know more about the power of these substances and to step up government-approved research. These drugs aren’t for everybody. Pollan also worries widespread uncontrolled use of the drugs could lead to a backlash like that of the late 1960s that would proscribe the important research that should be done.

He says a cautious but steady approach is needed to figure out “how to make the most constructive use of these astonishing gifts of nature.

Michael Moreau is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review

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