Books

Positively Tripping with Michael Pollan

That a highly respected professor would take a variety of illegal drugs so he can tell the rest of us what we're missing is a pretty enticing project.

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

Penguin Press

May 2018

Beloved and awarded food writer, Michael Pollan, has a new book on psychedelics. This is especially interesting because he's known for immersing himself in his subject, and the idea that a highly respected professor would take a variety of illegal drugs so he can tell the rest of us what we're missing is a pretty enticing project. It seems like the majority of Pollan's readership has probably not had a great deal of personal experience with acid, ayahuasca or magic mushrooms—let alone smoked the toad. If good psychedelic trips are truly wasted on the young, as it's often said, then Pollan is perhaps exactly the right guy to help kick off a new wave of popular interest in these drugs.

A resurgence of attention to psychedelics has already begun in earnest in several corners of the scientific world, and How to Change Your Mind makes the surprisingly long history of these adventurous research endeavors entirely comprehensible for a layperson. It's not all Timothy Leary. In fact, Leary is the recreational loudmouth at the end of a quiet medicinal revolution that was taking place long before mainstream backlash sunk his countercultural prospects and took genuinely astounding scientific studies down with it. Pollan does spend a bit of time on the end of the Sixties, but his overall approach is closer to his usual methods of reporting.

The book opens by confirming that a psychedelic renaissance is indeed happening, then proceeds to examine the drugs from several angles to show their history and why they still matter. There's a great chapter on the natural history of mushrooms. This isn't any kind of treatise on how to find wild mushrooms, but Pollan does convey a sense of the experience of doing so as well as introducing some colorful characters. As one might guess, a lot of the folks who have continued to carry the psychedelic torch underground are pretty weird. The author does a good job of focusing on each expert's unique qualifications as well as taking the weight and measure of their contributions to the field, but he also leaves space to contemplate their funny hats and secluded cabins in the woods.

After Pollan presents his travelogue from several different types of trips that more or less succeeded with relatively minor amounts of terror, he digs into the neuroscience behind trips and their implications for psychotherapy. The brain is a very complex machine, and although modern culture has generally construed tripping as an overabundance of thinking, the data shows that we've got that phenomenology backward. LSD and psilocybin help us get out of the ruts our brains carve in order to make the efficient predictions that allow us to keep functioning. These drugs helps us to color outside the lines of our usual thought patterns by temporarily dissolving these patterns. It's the difference between opening up a coloring book versus staring at a blank sheet of paper. During tripping, we make new connections on that blank sheet of paper and the effect of this temporary state can be incredibly healing.

The author identifies three promising avenues for the medicinal application of psychedelics: dying, addiction, and depression. A part of our brain called the default mode network keeps us attached to negative thought patterns, and by freeing up our brain to forge new pathways, many people suffering from varieties of existential dread and helplessness can come to a renewed optimism and contextualization of their feelings. At their best, these trips yield mystical experiences that empower psychonauts with enough positive vibes to overcome what ails them. Considering that the mental health profession has not put any serious dents in the mortality rate among its clientele, any solution with as much potential as this one deserves careful consideration. An experienced psychotherapist can help the afflicted to process their abstract hallucinations, integrating the fresh insights from a trip meaningfully into their sense of self.

Following this track, psychedelics may be on the same slow but steady path to legalization as marijuana. Pollan consistently points toward the broader—not to say "recreational"—uses of these medicines for improving the lives of people who are not unwell. He concludes in praise of neural diversity, strongly suggesting that one-time or occasional use of these drugs may hold massive potential for the betterment of regular people. An appropriately guided psychedelic trip may be exactly the thing for ordinary folks stuck in the rut of middle age.

How to Change Your Mind is targeted at the right audience in even-handed language designed to support the mainstreaming of these illegal substances. Because the possible benefits of tripping are as good as limitless, their adoption by mental health professionals may ultimately be inevitable. There's a missed opportunity in not reporting much on the wave of micro-dosing going on in Silicon Valley, but the author is focused on providing a thorough investigation of the effects of big mystical experience over the more modern and so far less well-studied applications for our productivity. Readers will come away from Pollan's excellent summary of what is at stake with a real sense that psychedelics deserve another look, both for individuals personally and for society at large.

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