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

This fascinating book focuses on the new research that has been done in the last decade or so in the field of psychedelics. On the way, the author visits various institutions where studies are being carried out and interviews scientists, therapists, and subjects. He also recounts the history of psychedelic research since Albert Hofmann first discovered and synthesized LSD in 1938. He describes the research done by various labs in the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA experiments on mind control known as Project MXULTRA, the widespread use of the drugs for recreation during the hippy era, and Timothy Leary’s outlandish antics that eventually brought about the classification of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelics as Schedule I dangerous drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act, which led to the elimination of virtually all research for decades. The author also goes into the neuroscience of psychedelics and a description of the use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression, addictions, the trauma of approaching death for cancer patients, and other mental disorders.

One of the most interesting facets of this book, and what elevates it several grades above a mere history or science study, is that Pollan adds memoir by trying LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics and then writing about his experiences. This all adds a heightened level of verisimilitude. For his own safety and peace of mind, each time he uses the drugs he does it in a controlled setting with an experienced guide. This is a method that he endorses throughout the book. He argues that since psychedelics are so powerful and volatile, it is imperative to use them in carefully crafted surroundings with people who know how to help you out if you become discomfited.

Early on in the book, Pollan mentions that in his opinion psychedelics might be one of those experiences that are wasted on the young, and that they might be more valuable to people later in life that need further navigation to go the distance. I know that when I started taking psychedelics when I was a teenager I was totally unprepared for what transpired during my trips. I took them as casually as I did any other drug such as marijuana or alcohol, and my experiences often deteriorated rapidly into chaos and paranoia. I stopped taking them entirely for awhile. Later, when I was slightly older, I took them occasionally, but I was more careful about the surrounding environment and who I took them with. Pollan emphasizes the importance of careful selection of setting and companions, and I have to say that I agree. My best psychedelic experience was when I was visiting Katmandu in Nepal. I dropped LSD with a German traveler, and together we took a path up to the summits of the foothills surrounding the city where we had a breathtaking view of countless snow-covered Himalayan peaks. It was truly a transcendental experience.

Pollan is at his best when he is writing as a journalist or a memoirist. The book is fascinating throughout and only lags a bit at the end when he tries to summarize his findings and come to some conclusions. Because the new psychedelic research is still in the fledgling stage, he goes into a lot of speculation that is not much more than guesswork.

The book definitely advocates the controlled use of psychedelics for the treatment of anxiety about death, addictions, and depression. Pollan is a bit more ambivalent when it comes to using psychedelics for recreation, but encourages them as a means of spiritual enlightenment.

I have to admit that as I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder what a psychedelic trip would do for me now, at this age and in this stage of my life. Although creativity is a profoundly important part of my existence, I have settled into certain grooves and habits of thought and behavior that seem very repetitive and counterproductive. Pollan explains that neurologically, psychedelics help break people free of their default mode network, or DMN, which causes them to follow predetermined courses, and opens them to new paths and possibilities. Researchers have found that neurological patterns of people on psychedelics are similar to the patterns of children under five years old. The egos that have shaped their adult behaviors have been eliminated, allowing them to view the wonder and brilliance of the cosmos unimpeded. I could use some of that; a fresh perspective would be good for me.

Of course, for me the possibility of trying psychedelics again is a mental exercise; it would take a profoundly safe and serene setting and an excellent companion or companions around for me to attempt it. However, for those suffering from various mental afflictions, psychedelic therapy may offer great hope. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, a veteran who was stationed in Iraq diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. She told me that psychedelic therapy is available for veterans with PTSD. I was surprised but heartened at the liberality of the veteran’s administration in this regard. It could very well be that the current research being done with psychedelics will harbinger a new era of treatment based upon the inherent value of the pharmacological substances rather than fear of the imaginary boogiemen of the past.

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