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Book Review

How to Change Your Mind:
What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

By Michael Pollan
2018, Penguin Press, New York
ISBN-10: 9781594204227; ISBN-13: 978-1594204227
480 pages; 6.5 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
$28.00 ($37.00 Canada)

World famous author and journalist Michael Pollan entered the discussion of psychedelics in February 2015 when The New Yorker published his lengthy article “The Trip Treatment: Research into Psychedelics, Shut Down for Decades, is Now Yielding Exciting Results.” On that day the mycological community was buzzing and I knew that psychedelics, relegated to the back halls of scientific research for several decades, had now gone mainstream. I contacted Pollan and was surprised to learn that this story was part of a much bigger one, indeed a personal journey of his, that was to result in a full-length book. “Check back with my publisher in a year,” and so I did. Only to be told that it’d likely be a bit longer.

Out of the blue, many months later came another note saying that a review copy of the book was on its way. Along with the note was a brief introduction to How to Change Your Mind, by the publisher, that read: “When Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety, he did not intend to write what is undoubtedly his most personal book. But upon discovering how these remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life, he decided to explore the landscape of the mind in the first person as well as the third. Thus began a singular adventure into various altered states of consciousness, along with a dive deep into both the latest brain science and the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists. Pollan sifts the historical record to separate the truth about these mysterious drugs from the myths that have surrounded them since the 1960s, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists inadvertently catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research.” My interest was definitely piqued.

Known for his writing on plants and food—not drugs (however, the brilliant The Botany of Desire does spotlight cannabis and coffee)—Michael Pollan brings all the curiosity and skepticism for which he is well known to a decidedly different topic: psychedelic drugs. How to Change Your Mind focuses primarily on lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin—compounds naturally produced by certain distantly related fungi. Pollan also discusses a few other psychedelic tryptamine compounds like 5-MeO-DMT (aka “the toad”), DMT (including ayahuasca) of many plants, mescaline, and MDMA (“ecstasy”). The discussion includes discovery of these compounds and traditional uses of them, if any, as well as recent research into these powerful compounds as safe and sane medicines to treat a number of diseases including drug addiction. In addition to being a balanced piece of journalistic science writing, this work is also part memoir, as Pollan searches for meaning in life as he enters his early 60s.

Originally hailed as miracle drugs by psychiatrists, LSD and psilocybin, both were first purified from fungi and then synthesized by the chemist Albert Hofmann in the Swiss Sandoz Laboratories in the 1930s and 40s; both became linked to the American counterculture movements in the 1960s. This association would ultimately sour public perception, ending the scientific studies of these compounds for decades. Advances in brain-imaging tools and other techniques have recently enabled more quantitative studies of consciousness, reinvigorating interest in psychedelic drugs as possible treatments for depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other afflictions. How to Change Your Mind beautifully updates and synthesizes the science of psychedelics, with a highly personalized touch. Pollan captures the dilemma of attempting to use the scientific method to investigate psychedelic drugs, describing the importance of having the right “set and setting” (e.g. social context) for psychedelics to be therapeutically useful. Studies on patients are difficult to initiate; results from patient studies have been extremely encouraging but are often dismissed by other clinicians in the field. The idea of conducting a double-blind study is likewise complicated. Recounting a 1962 study in which 20 divinity students were dosed with either psilocybin or a placebo, Pollan notes that telling the subjects apart was not difficult: “[T]hose on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like ‘God is everywhere’ and ‘Oh, the Glory!’”

Pollan’s narrative is peppered with many interesting anecdotes that chart the ways in which psychedelics have influenced recent human history. He writes, for example, about how LSD may have catalyzed the Silicon Valley tech boom. Bob Jesse, a leader of the software giant Oracle factors heavily in Pollan’s story. Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, tells Pollan that at one point LSD “gave us permission to try weird shit in cahoots with other people.” Brand further credits an LSD experience with having provided the impetus for a campaign he began in 1966 to get the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to photograph the entire planet. “It occurred to him [while on LSD] that when we think of Earth as flat, as we usually do, we assume it is infinite, and we treat its resources that way,” writes Pollan. A picture of a round Earth, Brand reasoned, would convey the finite nature of the planet and compel people to be better stewards of its precious resources. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was impressed with his own experiences with LSD and back in the 1950s had sought to get the drug incorporated into treatment programs. (Flash forward to current research at several institutes like the University of Alabama where clinicians are having astounding success using psychedelics to successfully treat a number of drug addictions including opiates, nicotine, and alcohol.)

Throughout the book, Pollan makes it clear that he does not advocate illegal drug use. He cites other ways that humans have reached transcendent mental states, including through techniques such as breathing work and meditation. Ever the thorough journalist, he would not be satisfied with mere talk about these compounds, he experienced them firsthand. While he clearly did not enjoy his experience with “the toad,” he seemed to speak very favorably about his experience with other psychedelics.

I have read all of Pollan’s previous books and know him to be a terrific writer. I expected to enjoy How to Change Your Mind but because I’ve read pretty extensively on the topic, I was not expecting to learn anything new. Pollan adeptly discusses the history of discovery and recent research successes (for example in Roland Griffiths’s lab at Johns Hopkins University), all of which I’m very familiar with. However, Pollan did bring many very fascinating pieces to the story for which I was unaware, including the very successful treatment of thousands of patients in Canada during the 1950s (and discussed in a wonderful book Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus by Erika Dyck, which I’ve now subsequently read). Citations to original sources are provided throughout the book, are wonderfully useful (as I just pointed out) but they don’t break up the flow of chapters, and a separate section of notes and references allows the reader to easily check the works that underpin Pollan’s arguments. I highly recommend this book, and commend Michael Pollan for bringing this topic to an entirely new audience.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi