A neuroscientist reviews Michael Pollan's 'How to Change Your Mind'

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A neuroscientist reviews Michael Pollan's 'How to Change Your Mind'

The book shines new light on the revitalized field of psychedelic medicine

It's safe to say that very few book advances have been spent the way Michael Pollan spent his most recent one: traipsing around the country sampling psychedelic drugs under the guise of "research."

Fortunately for them, and for us, his travels culminated in the newly released book, How to Change Your Mind, in which he recounts both physical and spiritual excursions in order to shine new light on the revitalized field of psychedelic medicine. The book is strikingly personal and, even without using psychedelics to treat any specific disease, by the end Pollan has adopted the same awed tones used by patients, researchers, and advocates he interviews who believe that these hallucinogens are the keys to understanding and salvation. However you may personally define that tricky piece of business, he does do a remarkable job convincing us these devotees may be on to something, interweaving their modern success stories with the history and science of this class of substances.

His dual theses are first alluded to in the clever double meaning of the title. At first glance, How to Change Your Mind refers to the drugs’ reorganizing effects in the brain, their ability to “shake the snow globe” and provide relief from mental illness or an avenue for personal growth. But the title also directly addresses the deeply held cultural stigma against psychedelics, one that conjures up thoughts of hippies and brain damage instead of a licensed therapist’s office. Pollan’s stories then provide a map to change our cultural mind. He reports on his new personal experiences with these hallucinogens, and lends his voice to leaders of the psychedelic renaissance such as Roland Griffiths, Robin Carhartt-Harris, and Paul Stamets, those researchers rapidly providing scientific and therapeutic rationale to reexamine the tie-dyed contents in history’s dustbin.

Penguin Random House

At first, there was no stigma associated with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), just one in a series of molecules extracted from ergot fungus by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. Even after accidentally ingesting some and embarking on the world first acid “trip” in 1943, Hoffman never felt he’d stumbled on a path to hedonic pleasures. Instead, he recognized the value of this mind-altering drug to the bourgeoning field of psychiatry, and shipped out as many free samples as possible to any researcher who asked. As Pollan traced the resultant scientific shockwaves around the world, he explicitly tries to return the reader to this mindset, before the “light-bending prism of the ‘Psychedelic Sixties’” to see if together “we can recover some of that knowledge and the experience that produced it” within the revelatory first wave of research. Unfortunately, most of this research, and there is a LOT (psychedelics in the 1950s had “forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers”) remains colored by the part that came next, when LSD escaped the laboratory and shook the snow-globe of an entire generation.

Exactly why these drugs caused such a moral panic in the 1960s is a complicated question with social, cultural, and historical overtones. Even for the contemporary leaders in psychedelic medicine that Pollan interviewed, “’Its far too easy to blame [Timothy] Leary,’ [they said] before proceeding to do exactly that.” But Leary, the “flamboyant psychology professor with a tropism bending him toward the sun of publicity” too loudly encouraged American youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and the social upheavals threatened by psychedelics proved too much for the country; all hallucinogens were banned for consumption and research by 1970.

Against this backdrop, Pollan introduces readers to a scientific vanguard, “a small group of scientists, psychotherapists, and so-called psychonauts, [who] believing that something precious had been lost from both science and culture, resolved to recover it.” Researchers like Roland Griffiths operate in a field most of us would find overly ripe with conflicts; legality versus progress, science versus spirituality. In 2006 Griffith’s team at Johns Hopkins published the first academic publication using the psychedelic psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) in over 30 years, demonstrating with scientific rigor its ability to induce “mystical experiences” with long-lasting life benefits to their volunteers. Many of these subjects reported the experience was among the “most meaningful” of their lives, and months later find themselves happier and open, changed forever.

The success of this study turned the research trickle into a flow. Griffiths is now involved in experiments at multiple institutions besides Hopkins (NYU, UCLA), picking up the torch of psychedelic research from where it was prematurely halted and demonstrating to modern scientific standards how valuable therapeutically-guided psychedelic experiences can be for a range of disorders, from sufferers of addictionto those faced with the existential distress of a terminal diagnosis.

Robin Carhartt-Harris, another leader of this new research wave, asks mechanistic questions, like why does this molecule that looks just a little bit like serotonin have such dramatic effects on people? His answers are complicated, but his findings have scientists reimagining how the brain produces consciousness. Pollan starts out as green to the topic as his readers, and he walks us through some very high-minded publications. Our brains are driven by survival instincts to constantly seek order, sometimes imposing patterns where there are none, Pollan explains. It's why we see a “man in the moon” and not just random craters.

But even the best guesses our brains make are not always correct, and mental illnesses such as depression and addiction may result from getting stuck in these thought ruts. “This is where psychedelics come in. …these compounds can loosen the grip on the machinery of the mind, ‘lubricating’ cognition where before it had been rusted stuck,” Pollan summarizes. This increased fluidity and connectivity is responsible for the mind-expanding effects, both acute and subjective as well as long-term and therapeutic.

The many interviews which form the basis of the story are really where Pollan’s reporting shines. His descriptions of each researcher, patient, or advocate bring their visage and demeanor right into the mind’s eye, and he explains their findings (or revelations) interestingly, regardless of our previous understanding of neuroscience or spirituality. Fortunately for us, his well-honed bullshit detector pings when appropriate, helping to distinguish evidence-based facts from the rumors and conspiracies which swirl endlessly around the topic.

For example, Paul Stamets is an all-around mushroom aficionado, undoubtedly one of the world’s foremost experts on fungi, hallucinogenic or otherwise. Pollan is clearly impressed by Stamets’ role as “mycological Virgil,” describing his many talks as “a beguiling (often brilliant) mash-up of hard science and visionary speculation.” Stamets perfectly reflects the perceptional problems the whole field is up against. His work, like that of Roland Griffiths, applies an often overlooked and stigmatized tool to complex challenges of the day, such as bioremediation after oil spills and understanding the “wood-wide web” in forests.

But in these same talks, he proclaims his belief that the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis,” an unprovable and contentious (to be generous) idea that our simian ancestors were given their first nudge down the evolutionary hallway to becoming Homo sapiens by none other than psilocybin mushrooms. By synthesizing his impressions and personal research, Pollan sifts through many of these more remarkable claims to clarify what really is being proposed, and the likelihood of us readers eventually seeing real evidence in the pages of scientific journals.

One of the most common attributes of a mystical experience, whether occasioned by psychedelics or encountered “naturally,” is their ineffability, the inability of words to accurately reflect what a person has actually experienced. Fortunately, Michael Pollan is rarely caught without the right words. After having his curiosity piqued by researchers and patients, Pollan seeks out the “psychedelic underground,” a hidden network of therapists and healers who never gave up treating patients with “the medicine,” and he recounts each of his three journeys.

His descriptions are both beautiful and personal – “the flood tide of compassion overflowed its banks and leaked in some unexpected places, like my [teacher in] fourth grade music class." These takeaway messages may read as trite without context, but “some platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth. Love is Everything.” Pollan is taken in by the same psychedelic gravity which pulls in patients and researchers as advocates the world over. He recognizes that as individuals and a culture, we all occasionally need to adjust our consciousness, to shift our mental state for specific benefits, whether therapeutic or spiritual, and he now believes psychedelics may serve as the tools enabling this growth.

No matter how different the stories, I can’t help but draw comparisons between How to Change Your Mindand Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both authors offered firsthand accounts of their experiences with mind-expanding drugs, but the "set" and "setting" for each could not have been more different, and so too were their individual reactions. I find that these changes nicely reflect our own changing attitude towards psychedelic acceptance. In 1971, when Thompson was writing Fear and Loathing, the US government had just cracked down hard on hallucinogens and the counterculture, and the hippy wave of love and acceptance was already receding. It’s little wonder his trips read more like psychotic breaks than spiritual explorations.

Now, though, Pollan's "set" has been updated, and his experiences are written entirely differently. Psychedelics are still illegal and culturally stigmatized, but there appears to be change on the horizon. Driven primarily by the accumulation of hard-won evidence that these drugs are both safe and helpful for the sick and well alike, people’s minds are changing, and cultural acceptance may follow closely behind.