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

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A brilliant and brave investigation by Michael Pollan, author of five New York Times best sellers, into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs--and the spellbinding story of his own life-changing psychedelic experiences

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 the experience of 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 Sixties, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research.

A unique and elegant blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, and medicine, How to Change Your Mind is a triumph of participatory journalism. By turns dazzling and edifying, it is the gripping account of a journey to an exciting and unexpected new frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and our place in the world. The true subject of Pollan's "mental travelogue" is not just psychedelic drugs, but the eternal puzzle of human consciousness and how, in a world that offers us both struggle and beauty, we can do our best to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.

465 pages, Hardcover

First published May 15, 2018

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About the author

Michael Pollan

73 books13.2k followers
Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, activist, and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism.

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,501 reviews
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books733 followers
April 11, 2018
Michael Pollan’s Brain – on Drugs

Neither LSD nor magic mushrooms harm you. They are not addictive, toxic, debilitating or destructive. They cause no illness and have no side effects. They seem to unlock receptors in the brain, causing mashups and unexpected connections (and therefore perceptions). They dissolve the ego by restricting blood flow to the Default Mode Network of the brain, which can cause users to lose the border between their persona/self/ego and everything else (eg. the universe).

They do not take over (unless you allow it). You can manipulate your bad trip as well as your good trip if you so desire. You can switch from love to hate, you can send demons away, and explore more of what you are appreciating. It’s something like directing your dreams, except you will remember everything, and it will change your outlook. Possibly for life.

Michael Pollan has done the research and tried four different psychedelics, always under the administration of guides, either underground/outlaws or in labs. They were psilocybin (mushroom), LSD (artificial chemical compound), DMT (the venom of the Sonoran toad), and ayahuasca (Brazilian plant compound). How to Change Your Mind is an exploration of the experience and the potential of these chemicals. From what Pollan has seen, it is all very positive. And he is not alone. Engineers, doctors and other researchers all seem to have one thing in common: once they’ve tried psychedelics themselves, they want absolutely everyone to try them too. No other drug has that rep.

The mind-expanding powers of psychedelics is a function of the infinite connections the brain goes through when its receptors are unlocked and the Default Mode Network (DMN) powers down. The DMN runs the core brain and defines the ego/conscious/persona. It fights to keep control and sends corrective signals to reinforce what it has learned over its lifetime, to the point of denying/correcting what you see in front of you.

We spend our lives specializing, becoming more expert in an ever-decreasing number of subjects. To the DMN, anything that diverts from that is irrelevant and a waste. The ego actively suppresses them. So we lose our childlike appreciation of most everything. We also become set in our ways and our perceptions.

By opening up to all the possibilities at once, users flood themselves with new appreciations and insights – to plants, animals, the planet, the stars, music – anything that pops into their minds during their trip. Instead of all inputs being directed to their appropriate receptors, it is possible for music to have shape and color, for rocks to become animated, for objects to melt into the scenery. And for the now borderless, bodiless self to merge with nature (“I was swimming in the ocean. I was the ocean” for example). Suddenly, absolutely everything is possible.

For all the dozens of trips Pollan describes, the most common change is being one with nature or the universe (for some it is seeing God). No one seems to have incredible sex or become fabulously wealthy. It’s not about peace on Earth, but merging with and appreciating the facets of the universe. And as Pollan found, “You bring a different self to the journey every time.” Perhaps disappointingly, he says, the most common takeaway from psychedelic trips is that love is everything. Trite, but that by itself seems to change everyone who tries them.

When directed by guides, psychedelics help the dying be relieved and appreciate their position and role in the universe. (Aldous Huxley had his wife inject him with one final dose of LSD on his deathbed.) It has stopped people from smoking because smoking is so superficial and irrelevant. It can reverse depression and anxiety. And it’s all quite illegal, thanks in large part to Timothy Leary.

There is a long tale of Timothy Leary in all this. He is reviled by the community for making such loud and obnoxious noises that all such compounds became illegal and research all but completely halted. Leary set back the discipline by decades, though at the same time, he made it known to the world. His gleefully unscientific approach (Tune in, turn on, drop out) remains a horror to medicine to this day. They’re still trying to live down that reputation.

Pollan is not the most economical of writers. The book could have been a hundred pages shorter and still imparted the same information. There is a lot of description, history, speculation and self-questioning that becomes a little tiresome. It often reads like an infomercial, with endless testimonials from satisfied customers – including Pollan – that on television would be followed by an 800 number. But the information he delivers is valuable. He dispels myths, corrects wrong impressions and sets the record straight.

The science of the brain is fascinating. We are still just cracking the code. Importantly, Pollan shows how seriously beneficial such compounds can be, and how seriously research scientists take them. There is a huge future for psychedelics in medicine. How to Change Your Mind tackles the small-mindedness (in every sense of the term) and beats it up pretty good.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,584 followers
July 1, 2018
This is an epic book about the history of psychedelics, and their potential for improving the human condition. My first thought on the subject was of people tripping on LSD, and making a mess of their lives. But, this does not have to be the case at all. Many mental illnesses could be cured with "psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy".

The first half of the book is about the history of psychedelics. Before 1965, Time-Life Publications were enthusiastic boosters of psychedelics. For example, in Life magazine in 1957 had an article by R. Gordon Wasson, a banker, who may have been the first white person in recorded history to eat divine mushrooms. Wasson hypothesized that some religions may have been inspired by a psychoactive mushroom. The Spanish had tried to crush mushroom cults in South America because they saw them as a "mortal threat to the authority of the church."

LSD was used in the 1950's and early 1960's to successfully treat thousands of alcoholics in Canada and the United States. Therapeutic sessions with LSD had success rates of 70% for anxiety neurosis, 62% for depression, and 42% for OCD. But sadly, this history has been all but erased. Experiments showed that success depended on the setting and environment of the treatment. Simply giving someone LSD in a sterile environment, without any discussion ahead of time or real-time guidance, is a recipe for failure.

The downfall of LSD in the 1960's was unintentionally assisted by Timothy Leary, a professor at Harvard. He did "experiments" that had little scientific value. He famously told a reporter, "Psychedelic drugs cause panic and temporary insanity in people who have not taken them."

LSD became illegal in 1966. All research was shut down, except for the large program at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center at Spring Grove. Research there continued to explore the potential of psychedelics to treat alcoholism, schizophrenia, and the distress of cancer patients.

I thought the following anecdote was hilarious. Andrew Weill was a young doctor working in the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in 1968. He saw a lot of bad LSD trips and developed an effective treatment. After examining a patient and determining that it was a panic reaction, he would tell the patient, "Will you excuse me for a moment? There's someone in the next room who has a serious problem." This was an immediate cure!

So, the real question is why psychedelics can be helpful for such a wide range of mental illnesses. Brain scans (fMRI's) have shown that the default mode network is turned off in people undergoing psychedelic sessions. The default mode network is the portion of the brain that is active when not actively thinking about anything. It acts as a filter on the fire hose of sensations that the body encounters, and also acts as a filter on the subconscious. The hypothesis is that the ego temporarily loses its dominion, and the unconscious, now unregulated, comes to an observable space. Brain scans show that psychedelics rewire the brain. Whether this rewiring is temporary or permanent is not known. It is interesting that the brains of experienced meditators look very similar to those on psilocybin. Both dramatically reduce activity in the default mode network.

The problem with performing scientific research, is that it is very difficult to perform double-blind studies that have become the foundation of testing for pharmaceuticals. The reason is that both the patient and the research can know almost instantly whether the medication is a psychedelic or a placebo. In addition, it is difficult to isolate a single variable. A psychedelic/therapeutic session is not simply a matter of ingesting a chemical; it is only successful with the proper guidance, and this can be a subjective matter.

A single guided psilocybin session is sufficient to remove depression from 80% of cancer patients. The fear of death is a function of our egos, and a psychedelic can suppress the ego. The resulting journey yields a "heightened sense of purpose and consequence." The journey can shed light on "how best to live the time left."

A study of smoking cessation found that most participants stopped smoking. Those who had the most complete mystical experiences had the best outcomes. But, pharmaceutical companies might not be interested in psychedelics. The LSD patent expired long ago, and psilocybin occurs in nature. And, if a single dose/session is sufficient, there may be little profit.

The author, Michael Pollan, has written another wonderful book. My attitude toward psychedelics is completely turned around. Hats off to a fascinating story!
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
June 8, 2018
"There is so much authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures."
- Roland Griffiths, quoted in Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind


"To fall in hell or soar Angelic
You'll need a pinch of psychedelic"

- Humphry Osmond


I have family that struggle with addiction, depression, PTSD, and anxiety. The idea that one group of compounds (psychedelics) could transform how we view and treat these various challenges to the human condition is VERY excititng. Pollan's book does a great job of juggling the memoirist experience with psychedelics (think of this partially as a 21st century version of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater) with a narrative nonfiction exploration of the history and current science surrounding primarily LSD, Psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (the Toad). Michael Pollan writes well (he's not quite, for me, upto the level of John McPhee -- but he's close). He both annoys and seduces at the same time. He reminds me of a well-produced TED Talk. He is both interesting and compelling, but also a bit like a worn and comfortable shoe (say a Birkenstock) that represents a group I already feel comfortable both simultaneously walking with and yes kicking.


Most of Pollan's book focuses on LSD and Psilocybin (which makes sense because that is where most of the history and science are). I was familiar with Leary, Ginsburg, Huxley, and even James' takes on mind-altering drugs and states, but it was nice to see it framed by Pollan. I was also thrilled to be introduced to a bunch of characters I had never heard before. I feel a movie could/should be made about JUSt Al Hubbard.


There is a huge part of me that finds the idea of psychedelic experience very compelling (I've got friends who are well-respected doctors, writers, and attorneys who feel the same way). However, my issue with most drugs (especially pot), is most people take them to GET close to where I feel I am already. I have a lot of awe, wonder, don’t get depressed, feel no guilt, exist with very low anxiety, etc (although I’m absolute shit at meditation). I think I do a pretty good job of hanging in the present (while being able to look both forward and back when needed). So, I'm not sure I would be seeking LSD or Psilocybin (or smoking the Toad) for any reason except curiosity and [gasp] recreation. That's the draw. The reason I am skeptical still is I'm not sure I trust most of the product (clarification, after reading this I trust the product more than say the manufacturer, deliverer, source). I'm a bit suspect of taking candy OR street tacos from complete strangers so "smoking a Toad" that I didn't catch and milk myself doesn't exactly seem like something I'm going to run off and do anytime soon. But, if the practice comes above ground, standardizes, or I'm dying -- all bets are off. Bring me the TOAD.
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,076 followers
August 12, 2020
Don’t expect any “nicety of style” here, to use E.M. Forster’s phrase, though the book is well organized. Nor does Pollan possess much wit, though I will not call him entirely humorless. These propensities make the reading more work than it should be. Moreover, he flattens and homogenizes his experiences with psychedelics so they’re almost nothing. He incapable of evoking moods. The opportunity is given to him to tell us about his life in the context of these psychedelic experiences. He remains guarded. As a result, this book is a missed opportunity for both the author and the reader. But we can thank him for one thing: other more daring authors shall surely follow in his path, just as he follows Huxley et al. For that he deserves our gratitude.

The book starts with background on the relatively recent resurrection of research into psychedelics after the 1960s federal suppression of it on grounds—I’m serious—of national security. Historically, psychedelics, which induce in the seeker an unequivocal belief that one has experienced nothing less than a view of the fundamental non-dualist nature of the universe, created an unprecedented generation gap.
Normally, rites of passage help societies knit together as the young cross over hurdles and through gates erected and maintained by their elders, coming out on the other side to take their place in the community of adults. Not so with the psychedelic journey in the 1960s, which at its conclusion dropped its young travelers onto a psychic landscape unrecognizable to their parents. (p. 216)

It turns out that the early suppressed research, roughly a thousand clinical papers, showed how psychedelics might be used to treat addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety and other maladies. Most of this valid research, according to Pollan, though tainted at times by over-enthusiasm on the part of investigators, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that psychedelics could be a viable pharmacological tool. Yet out of fear and destestation of those experimenting with the drugs in those days, who were young and vehemently anti-war, the findings were suppressed so that, yes, millions might suffer without the alleviation psychedelics would surely have provided them. This suppression of science is a national disgrace and reason, as if we needed more, to heap further opprobrium on past leaders.

Pollan writes about this era of Cold War suppression, but focuses mainly on figures like Bob Jesse, Roland Griffiths and others who have been instrumental in spurring recent research into psychedelics. In addition to a description of the history, present day research, and neurological functioning of psychedelics, are the author’s own experiences with LSD-25, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT, or Sonoran Desert toad venom.

In addition to the failure to use the form of memoir to explode the nonfiction constraints of this book, it becomes ever more amorphous as it winds along. The late conclusion that “children are basically tripping all the time” strikes one as specious because it’s so inadequately argued. I know writing about the brain is no simple task. But then I suppose Oliver Sacks’s too genial model has spoiled me. This book, while at times informative, doesn’t come close to serving adequately its subject matter or its reader. It is, however, a milestone in publishing terms; it’s been a great commercial success. It’s my hope more adroit writers will follow.
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books375 followers
November 2, 2021
Michael Pollan said at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute in 2019 that researchers had told him, “sometimes very explicitly, sometimes less so, that these molecules have the potential to change the world. This was kind of stunning to me …To solve the environmental crisis. To end war. Bring peace.” 

“If only we could get Trump to trip,” Pollan added. 


On the path to the Murti-Bing....

Pollan was born the same year I was, which makes us what I call mid-Boomers. As he says himself, we were too young to be part of Haight Ashbury, The Summer of Love and Woodstock.

But I had two older siblings who were on the front end of the Boomer generation and experienced it all. I paid close attention to what happened to their cohort. My older brother was destroyed by drugs, including psychedelics, and died at age 39.

There's a kind of evangelistic fervor in this book that I found rather slanted. Instead of taking a realistic look at the 60's, for example, he hammers Timothy Leary page after page. Meanwhile, Ken Kesey gets no more than a couple of limp paragraphs. Oddly, the author's hero is one Al Hubbard, a huckster who dresses in military fatigues and packs a sidearm. (Hubbard made me think of Walter Sobchak, the John Goodman character in the 'The Big Lebowski') Hubbard is equally hostile to Leary. To me, these rants against Leary prove nothing and are pretty weird. But this seems to be the author's way of dismissing what actually happened back then, which can't be ignored. Meanwhile, Hubbard ended up broke, living in a trailer park in the Arizona desert.

I feel I have read some version of this book several times before written by different people. As people in my Boomer generation moved away from, or out and out rejected, traditional religious structures they began searching for alternatives that continued into the 70's. This New Age quest led to distorted versions of Eastern religion and even cults. Techniques abounded. Now that Boomers are older, and staring death in the face, it's not surprising that they're returning to these questions no matter how successful or wealthy they've become. (The author is a self-described "scientific materialist," looking for more, including a kind of safe passage to death under the influence of psychedelics).

In my experience, flexible intelligence, openness to change, willingness to take risks, and to forgive others, do not require mind-bending drugs, but humility and an open heart.


A dark side of psychedelics that Pollan doesn't cover---how the CIA used these drugs on unsuspecting victims who suffered severe brain damage, or even death, in the agency's quest to see if the drugs could be used for mind control or to extort confessions. It didn't work, but the casualties were horrible.



What is the Murti-Bing?

Profile Image for Sarah Jane.
170 reviews4 followers
June 10, 2018
I thought the writing was great but the more I read, the less interested I became in this topic. One description of someone’s trip was fine, by the tenth description I was bored.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews388 followers
October 25, 2021
A cursory glance at the cover of Michael Pollan's new book examining the science of psychedelics manages to say a lot with very little. There are no vivid colours arranged in mandalas, no kaleidoscopic landscape, no face with eyes replaced by swirls of sickening colour combinations. Instead, a black, text-laden page is only broken up by the not-quite-square dimensions of a window that looks out onto a blue sky. In one sense, this encapsulates the book perfectly: it is an attempt to reorient the reader from the counterculture, 1960s, Timothy Leary-infused legacy of LSD and psilocybin to the scientific and social future of psychedelics. It may not be of a comparable level to the cognitive expansion made possible by psychedelics, but this book certainly opened my mind to the potentials and pitfalls of this science undergoing its second go-around.

As in The Omnivore's Dilemma, a favourite of mine from last year, Pollan acts a superb narrator and a stellar scientific journalist. While reading or listening to some nonfiction and scientific journalism can feel like your most dry undergraduate course, Pollan always manages to write in a fashion that is compelling, thoughtful, and mindful of narrative. Part of what makes this book work so well is that Pollan tackles his own hopes, misgivings, and flagrant disbelief in a way that endears the reader to his quest to understand psychedelics. Additionally, I couldn't help but be excited to listen to Pollan talk about his own trips on several different psychedelics. His attempt to lay structure upon ineffable experience is admirable, interesting, and emotionally honest.

Of course, it helps Pollan that his subject matter is controversial and, at least to me, inherently interesting. If you've ever wondered about the limits of consciousness or been curious about the trips induced by psychedelics, then this book is definitely going to pique your interest. I was taken in by Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD and its brief journey through the halls of science before being derailed and made publicly available by figures such as Timothy Leary. It was compelling to hear the accounts of researchers devastated by the public consumption of substances they were still trying to understand, and having that quest for understanding cut short by the government.

Following the account of several of Pollan's trips, the medical and neurological research ongoing into psychedelics makes for a smooth landing of a difficult to pilot vessel. I was perhaps most taken by the psychedelic experiences of palliative cancer patients, who reported decreased or absent existential dread about their death after their guided experiences on psychedelics. These and other avenues of psychedelic research are all guided by trained psychologists or physicians, which seems a far-cry from the dreadlocked, Burning Man, tie-dye psychedelic experience you might expect. It is in these chapters that Pollan makes both his most compelling argument for continuing the study of psychedelics while distancing them from their tumultuous childhood.

Leaving the book, I'm definitely more curious about psychedelics than I was beforehand. Pollan lays out potentials and pitfalls of the future of psychedelics. There will be a precarious balance between entrenched public perception (held by many people: most of my family and friends with whom I discussed the subject quoted myths and prejudices discussed by Pollan), the possible danger of these molecules, and their therapeutic potential. I really enjoyed this book and was impressed throughout by Pollan's ability to remain objective even when dealing with the most zealous anecdotes. This is a great one: expand your mind with a listen!
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
May 23, 2018
I read the Pollan essay in the New Yorker about psychedelics and so I picked this up right away. And I'm convinced. I totally want to try this! Wish it wasn't illegal.

What was really brilliant about this book is his exploration of the ego and how that leads to so much stuckness and unhappiness. The book is a sober, in-depth account of a radical idea.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
622 reviews2,037 followers
August 23, 2018
What a great book. What a fun book. What a wonderful, interesting, informative and even transformative read.

I loved it, not because of the novelty of the subject, but because of the absolutely appropriate caution, charming naivety and utter lack of pretense with which the author Michael Pollan handles the subject.

I’m 50, I grew up in a university town, and my parents and our family fiends and acquaintances came of age in the swingin’ 1960’s.

So needless to say, far (far far far) too much of my youth was spent listening to baby boomers ballyhoo endlessly about psychedelics, leftist politics and new age spirituality.

I have quite a bit of personal experience with each of those endeavors, including many of the magic molecules that are the protagonists of this text.

But all of my youthful excursions occurred in the opaque cognitive and cultural shadow cast by said boomer evangelists, and consequently, many of the conclusions I came to regarding the meaning and value of these experiences were heavily influenced by that particular set and setting.

In contrast, Michael Pollan is 60 something, but he’s kind of a square, and as it were, he’s one of those guys who never did acid, not even in college. So he takes to the psychedelic venture rather late in life, with a fully developed critical facility, coupled with a beginners mind refreshingly free from the aforementioned hippy hyperbole.

In other words, he trips with the sober, curmudgeonly skepticism of a smart, responsible ‘saving for retirement’ type ‘dad guy’, mixed with the curios, open and friendly here n’ now enthusiasm of a good natured golden retriever.

Pollan somehow manages to render the quintessentially ineffable psychedelic experience into something rather sensible and perhaps even effable (Harris, 2018).

It’s a very different, more grounded, more responsible, less contrived, more skeptical, more broadly considered take on the subject than what we’ve come to expect from the likes of Huxley, Alpert, Leary and Kesey.

My previously mentioned personal experiences were a wonder to be sure. Absolutely enriching without a doubt. But I have labored as an adult to put their lasting value into precise language.

My sense was that these were immensely valuable and formative introductions to the expanded mind, but beyond that, the experiences remain rather implicit, as opposed to explicitly understood and usefully integrated.

In yet another autobiographical example of youth wasted on the young, I was more enamored with the splashy perceptual effects of the drugs than the subtle lessons they can facilitate regarding self transcendence.

But my interest in introspection was sparked, and this ultimately led me to meditation.

Like many of my boomer predecessors, I began my serious meditation practice working in a Hindu tradition, with the psychedelic experience as my most proximal frame of reference.

Analogously, I spent too much time and energy in this stage chasing cathartic spiritual ‘fireworks’ rather than digging in and drilling down to their source.

The catharsis was valuable, but again, not explicitly or clearly useful in any practical sense.

My later life meditation practice occurred in the Buddhist context, and this is when all of the introspective practice really took hold and provided traction in life.

Bringing concentration, clarity and equanimity to absolutely ‘butt normal’ experiences enabled real life progress, reduced suffering and facilitated a more flexible, less binding sense of self.

I entered the field of psychotherapy in order to share this fantastically liberating way of being with anyone who cared.

The problem is, it’s really hard to do, and almost nobody cares.

Most people don’t want subtle. Most people desperately want those cathartic epiphany and release experiences, and look at you like you’re a total dick if you challenge that even a little.

And maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe people just need a little thunder and lighting in order for the rain to come and soften the ground for new growth.

This book helped me realize how helpful those early psychedelic experiences were. They captured my youthful imagination, and slaked my thirst for the numinous, while concurrently providing the foundation for more subtle work later on.

Plus they we just plain giggly wiggly fun.

I’m still WAY more interested in what good therapy combined with really good meditation instruction and practice can do for a person.

But after reading this book, I’m slightly more open to how (precisely) a psychedelic experience, occurring within a therapeutic context, can jump start, or even rocket boost a process of personal exploration, radical acceptance and spiritual growth in a reasonably stable and sufficiently mature individual.

I’m not interested in groovy acid orgy deadheaded pestilence, or teeth gnashing, amphetamine fueled dance party revelry, or burning man dehydration festivals, or shamanic shitlock crystal pleasures, or anything of the sort.

I have WAY been there and TOTALLY done that.

It’s really fun, but it’s kids stuff, and when the party is over, it’s not so cute.

At this stage of life, my fundamental concerns are: freedom, connection, health, well-being, and meaningful accomplishment.

Ultimately, it’s my assumption that you have to be pretty dang sober to get all of those things in a durable and lasting way.

But I’m a grumpy old man who has the benefit of some truly adventurous, borderline degenerate youthful life experiences to draw from.

My current relative rigidity was something I developed, rather late in life, out of sheer necessity.

Sobriety, sober community and structure are my magic at this particular juncture of my ‘one wild life’.

But if someone is languishing in a state of icy, turgid, spiritual paralysis (many many good examples come to mind), than I can absolutely see how a little molecular magic, in the proper set and setting, could defrost and ignite the engine of enlightenment.

This book really helped me warm up to this exciting frontier of therapy. Thank you Michael Pollan :-)
Profile Image for Liza Fireman.
839 reviews148 followers
August 23, 2018
This is probably the most boring book of someone telling about his experience of smoking toads and using psychedelics in general. It got a little bit better towards the end, and it was interesting to read about psychedelics therapy, but I can't say that I would be reading it again or that it was a revelation.

There was a lot of history in the book, and actually not enough science. The main thing is that were some stories, that I am sure could be told in a more engaging way. I also felt that it was very repetitive and the two words that I remember the most is psychedelics and Aldous Huxley.

I did like the spotlight vs lantern consciousness allegory, which is actually not a Pollan thing, but that's the first time I encounter that. In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik draws a useful distinction between the “spotlight consciousness” of adults and the “lantern consciousness” of young children. The first mode gives adults the ability to narrowly focus attention on a goal. In the second mode—lantern consciousness—attention is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in information from virtually anywhere in her field of awareness, which is quite wide, wider than that of most adults. (By this measure, children are more conscious than adults, rather than less.) While children seldom exhibit sustained periods of spotlight consciousness, adults occasionally experience that “vivid panoramic illumination of the everyday” that lantern consciousness affords us. To borrow Judson Brewer’s terms, lantern consciousness is expansive, spotlight consciousness narrow, or contracted.

So overall, too much anecdotal 'evidence', and not enough engagement on my side. About 2.5 stars.
Profile Image for David Katzman.
Author 3 books474 followers
May 20, 2019
I knew that in the 1960s some research had been performed that demonstrated the highly successful use of a psychedelic drug called Ibogaine to disrupt alcoholism and cocaine and nicotine addiction. One of the most interesting facts that I learned from this book was how extensive the addiction research had also been using psilocybin and LSD. And these psychological studies have actually been revived legally in university settings today.

How to Change Your Mind, was an interesting journey that explored numerous aspects of the use of psychedelics and the psychedelic experience, which appears to be enjoying a resurgence in social and psychiatric use. Pollan reviews the history of psychedelic use in the history of the U.S.—with Timothy Leary looming large here but featuring other key figures as well. He explores the results as well as the challenges of past and present scientific studies, the beliefs of psychedelic users, and the diverse variety of psychedelic experiences. In this latter regard, while writing this book Pollan himself took a number of psychedelic drugs and related what occurred. He also spends some time considering how plants with psychedelic effects may have evolved with such capabilities.

He spends quite a great deal of time evaluating the idea that many psychonauts come away with (but by no means all) that they have experienced something mystical. And by mystical, I mean something “out there” rather than only “in here.” That somehow a psychedelic experience puts you in touch with something trans-personal. You touch “God.” Timothy Leary was a big proponent of this philosophy, but while some theology students have taken psychedelics to achieve a personal meeting with God, for the most part, these psychedelic experiences seem to counteract any belief in religious Fundamentalism. That is to say, the universal love and oneness that some individuals experience on psychedelics is a non-denominational ego-less state that doesn’t welcome specific doctrine or dogma. There is too much oneness-of-all-things to make room for parochial belief in written books purporting to explain what God wants. When you experience it first hand, you little need anyone else’s explanation.

I found he spent too many pages on this belief. But I suppose it’s out there and has been promoted by so many New Age crackpots, including Leary, that it was good for him to evaluate it. Debunk it is the attitude that I would have, but Pollan is far more open-minded than I am. He cites the fact that so many psychonauts come away from their experiences absolutely 100% convinced that they encountered something greater than themselves, which makes it worth evaluating. I think that point of view is no more worth evaluating than it is to set two Fundamentalists against each other, a Christian Fundamentalist who believes Jesus was God and a Muslim who believes Allah was God and let them try to convince each other that because they are 100% convinced for sure absolutely that they are correct that…well, they are correct. Is it worth the debate? It’s not. That said, he does point out some interesting reasons why it might be the case that psychonauts come away feeling that psychedelic experiences are different from dreams, relating to certain centers of the brain connected to critical thinking.

I have had several very bizarre, very intense psychedelic experiences in my life. And I never considered them to be in any way mystical nor even what I might call spiritual. They don’t connect you to a magical realm “out there” like the fantasy realms of heaven or hell or Middle Earth or the 5th dimension in spacetime. However, they can—and I say “can” carefully because they certainly don’t always—unlock increased powers of imagination and creativity. These bizarre experiences can shatter conventional thinking and allow you to achieve visions of not only artistic works but also new ways to live and be. They can make you aware of how habit and convention and social constraints and cultural struggles have entombed our species into the diverse traps laid for us by wealth and privilege and power. They encourage your mind to ask, What If and Why Not and How? It’s not hocus-pocus religious magic and god; it’s a spark or catalyst for mental empowerment. I am convinced it can produce powerful, personal insights that can be gleaned on one’s own or in a therapeutic setting. And also, because extremely powerful psychedelic journeys also initiate a dissolution of the ego, I have found that these trips can increase a feeling of empathy and sympathy for others, which can contribute to a more enlightened political view as well as richer art. Lastly, I do feel that these experiences have the capability when used in the proper context with a proper guide to improve psychological well-being and break addictions. The research isn’t conclusive but generally does show much faster and more effective recovery. Some studies have also shown that terminally ill patients come away from psychedelic experiences with much less anxiety and greater peace of mind about dying. There is value to be tapped if use and study becomes further legalized.

Although there were many times while reading How to Change Your Mind where I was frustrated and thought Pollan was reporting some ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, in the end, his evaluations were relatively reasonable. And there was much of value (and interest) throughout the book.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews593 followers
March 28, 2018
Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn't reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of ourself but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more open-hearted and altruistic – that is, more spiritual – idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.

How to Change Your Mind dovetails so nicely into my reading interests about the brain and consciousness and picks up some related threads that other recent reads wove for me (in particular, What Are We Doing Here by Marilynne Robinson and Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich), and continues a course of inquiry that I left dangling decades ago (with reads like Zen, Drugs, and Mysticism by R.C. Zaehner and The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda) – left dangling because, as someone raised on shocking Afterschool Specials, the flashback scene in Go Ask Alice, and the horror story of kindly Art Linkletter's tripped-out daughter jumping off a building because she thought she could fly, I knew that I would never consume acid or 'shrooms or peyote as a shortcut to enlightenment; institutionalised fear worked its trick on me. How odd to have been sent this ARC of a book by Michael Pollan – whose only previous work I had read was The Omnivore's Dilemma, back when I was interested in the philosophy of food – just at the time that other books started talking about the resurgence of research into psychedelic therapy. This book came at such a good time for me, and so perfectly suits my interests, that's there's some danger of me overrating it; I'm giving it five stars anyway. (Usual caveat: As I read an ARC, quotes may not be in their final forms.)

How to Change Your Mind is divided into sections covering the history of research into and the eventual banning of psychedelics (and especially the invention of LSD and the introduction of psilocybin – the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms” – to the West, which both occurred in the mid-twentieth century), Pollan's recent personal experiences with psychedelics, a brief section on neuroscience and how psychedelics impact the brain, and the uses to which these chemicals are being put to therapeutic study today. As a journalist first, Pollan is present in each part of the book – interviewing subjects and describing his own experiences – and every bit of it was interesting to me.

Pollan writes that nearly every culture on earth has used psychedelics – the exception being the Inuit, who simply don't appear to have access to the right chemicals in their environment – and with reference to the “Stoned Ape” theory (that prehistoric experimentation with psychedelics might have shocked the brains of early hominids into becoming us; although this theory isn't widely accepted, at any rate, these early visions of “the divine” might explain the persistence of religious belief throughout human civilisations), he makes the case that their use has been widespread throughout time and place. There are, of course, nonchemical ways of achieving a psychedelic experience: the characteristic dissolution of the ego can be attained through meditation or hypnagogic breathing techniques; the nineteenth century Romantics – Emerson, Whitman, Tennyson – were so in awe of nature that they became one with it and wrote about it in language that prefigures the accounts of acid trips; Appollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell describes his sudden mystical experience when viewing the Earth and its place in the universe from space:

Suddenly I realized that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of my spacecraft, the molecules in the bodies of my partners, were prototyped, manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. [I felt] an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness...It wasn't 'Them and Us,' it was 'That's me! that's all of it, it's one thing.' And it was accompanied by an ecstasy, a sense of, 'Oh my God, wow, yes' – an insight, an epiphany.

I can't help but think that if most of us can't achieve (or won't put in the work to train ourselves to achieve) spontaneous mystical experiences that have the potential to show us that all of humanity is connected and deserving of love, then what's the harm in guided recreational use of psychedelics? On the other hand, you can kind of see why there was such a backlash against Timothy Leary in the Sixties: if everyone does tune in, turn on, and drop out – if everyone suddenly sees the pointlessness of their worker bee lives – then who will keep the lights on and the grocery stores stocked and streets ploughed while the rest of us are seeking higher consciousness? It feels ironic to read of Aldous Huxley's enthusiasm for widespread LSD use so many years after writing Brave New World, where he seemed to be advocating for the more authentic life lived by the savages in the wild who weren't blissed out on Soma. One way or the other, psychedelics are making their return to respectability:

So maybe this, then, is the enduring contribution of Leary: by turning on a generation – the generation that, years later, has now taken charge of our institutions – he helped create the conditions in which a revival of psychedelic research is now possible.

Recreational (or religious/shamanic) use of psychedelics has never gone away – and Pollan was easily able to find trained and experienced guides to help him safely use LSD, psilocybin, and “the toad”. I was impressed by the level of attention that all of these guides paid to preparation (the set and setting that primes the mind), their care of Pollan during the experiences, and their training in helping him make sense of his trips after the fact. I was also impressed by Pollan's efforts to describe the ineffable, as well as his apparent transparency in sharing what seems such private encounters with himself. These guided trips seem to be like compressing years of therapy into a weekend (it can be Freudian or Jungian, depending on how you prepare your mind beforehand), and that sounds valuable.

Even more remarkably, there are reputable institutions currently conducting research into using psychedelics to combat depression, addiction, and obsessions (what all of these seem to have in common are brains that are stuck in destructive modes of thinking that can literally be rebooted – like shaking a snowglobe – by a single acid trip.) Terminal cancer patients who are given psychedelic therapy discover their loving place in the universe and accept death as nonthreatening, smokers realise that their habit is pointless, people with depression (so far, temporarily) see the beauty in life – even Bill W, the founder of AA who had quit drinking after tripping on belladonna, is said to have wanted psychedelic therapy available to alcoholics; his philosophy of fellowship and surrendering to a higher power comes directly from what he experienced on his own psychedelic trip.

Love is everything. Is a platitude so deeply felt still a platitude? No, I decided. A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To re-saturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deepest of truths, hidden in plain sight. A spiritual insight? Maybe so. Or at least that's how it appeared in the middle of my journey. Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious.

Pollan is careful not to conflate the metaphysical with “God” – even avowed atheists who could only describe their experiences as having been “bathed in God's love” still assert that they don't believe in God after it's over – but as the common experience seems to be seeing oneself as a part of all creation, and as this fosters a feeling of love for all humanity, it's hard to see what governments are afraid of by banning the recreational use of psychedelics (except for that whole needing the worker bees to keep the lights on and the grocery stores stocked and the streets ploughed). Full of history, science, and personal experience, How to Change Your Mind suited me and my interests perfectly.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
December 23, 2018
Over 400 pages of psychedelics: its history, its big players, its experiences, its possibilities, its science. No one could do it justice, probably. No one but Michael Pollan. If you want to talk technical merit, this is a 5-star product, start to finish, even if you're only 4-star enjoying it as a read.

Chiefly Pollan deals in magic mushrooms (here referred to more technically as psilocybin), LSD, and 5-MeO-DMT (a.k.a. "The Toad," and don't ask, but it's something out of a giant gland that you squeeze out of a special live toad so this gunk sprays out onto a mirror, where it dries up and... er... let's hop to another topic, shall we?).

After the history and an awful lot of Timothy Leary, a happy villain to the psychonauts-that-be, we get to Pollan's trips themselves. Now there's a good journalist: sacrificing himself in the name of literature.

Pollan takes three trips on the aforementioned drugs, all under the watchful eyes of "guides" who are experts, all in controlled conditions. If you're keeping score (for him, anyway), the shroom definitely wins.

After tripping, we get some science, which brings us back to that last frontier (space, you thought?), the brain. Still, with all the science flying around, we get a lot of mysticism too. Just to keep the scientists honest and all.

Finally, Pollan chronicles how these drugs have made a long and tortured climb back to respectability (asterisk) in that researchers are now seriously working on their helpful effects for the dying, the addicted, and the depressed.

Need a change of mind? Voila. Need to take your mind off your impending death? Nothing like being detached from your ego, for no one has ever experienced ANYthing like they do when tripping. The only thing one has to fear is fear itself (even though one expert posits that man fears three things: death, other men, and their own brain).

If you're hesitant because you remember the egg in the frying pan ("This is your brain on drugs."), this book is just the ticket to loosen you up. Sure, marijuana is going recreational left and right, but that's child's play compared to where these things will take you. All you need be is careful. Real careful. And do as Pollan does. Proceed carefully and educate yourself. Leave Alice to the Dormouse.

Still (Timothy) Leary of it all? Change things up. Give the book a go. It's a long haul and not equally interesting in all sections, but it surely is...unique. I only read it because it made the New York Times's "Top Ten Books of 2018*." If that's good enough reason for you, too, "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...."

(* Those book lists. Such delightful trips!)
Profile Image for 8stitches 9lives.
2,854 reviews1,644 followers
June 10, 2018
I have such a wide range of non-fiction reading interests that sometimes, until I actually see the book and its subject, not even I knew that I wanted to read it! But if it is something I am eager to know more about, I know right away.

Let me start by saying, the only drugs I have even taken are those prescribed for me by a doctor, so I have no idea about other drugs, including psychedelic ones. What I do know about is how strong painkillers (morphine, fentanyl, buprenorphine, oxycodone etc) can certainly have a big impact on the way your mind works while taking them, so this book intrigued me in that respect.

In "How to Change Your Mind", Michael Pollan aims to discover whether psychedelic drugs can alter your worldview. When LSD was discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. The sort that would lead to groundbreaking discoveries on consciousness, as well as bring relief to addicts and the mentally ill. But in the 1960s all research was banned. However, in recent years this work has begun once again on the potential LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Pollan bravely volunteers as a guinea-pig and writes a remarkable history of psychedelics that paints a compelling portrait of this extraordinary world.

The narrative is accessible and will appeal to researchers, scientists, doctors and the general public alike. Pollan is clearly a guy that takes pride in his work, even taking psychedelics himself in order to make this study as reliable as possible. It's testament to his character that he chosen to do this, where others may have merely consulted those who have experience of taking the drugs.

Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for an ARC. I was not required to post a review and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Theresa Alan.
Author 10 books1,044 followers
May 7, 2019
I’d read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so when a friend bought this book for me, I already knew that Pollan was a respected journalist. I’d read a couple news articles about how LSD and psilocybin may be able to help with addictions. Since I believe the ridiculously high rates of incarceration the United States engages in since the war on drugs began with Nixon in the ‘70s, primarily because of people who battle substance abuse but aren’t violent criminals, I’m for anything that can help folks get free of their addiction. It’s at least something we should study.

There were serious studies regarding these drugs in the fifties and early sixties as to how it could help folks stop smoking cigarettes or drinking alcoholically. One of the things that blew my mind was reading that Bill Wilson, a co-founder of AA, was an advocate of people taking psychedelics to help conquer alcoholism after he’d had a mystical experience on belladonna. He wanted to include it in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, but others felt that would muddle their message of being clean and sober. Also, some AAers don’t want sober alcoholics to take any drugs, including anti-depressants or sleep aids.

Think how many lives could be saved, how many emergency room visits averted by bringing down the number of people who battle drugs and alcohol. When it comes to addiction, we need to use every tool possible and not let the cultural backlash of the free love 60s thwart research into any area that can help. There have also been studies on how these drugs, when administered in a safe environment with a doctor who is not high, can help with depression and anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Because LSD is a Schedule 1 drugs (along with marijuana, ecstasy, and heroin), it’s been hard to get funding for research. A serious danger is that, for people who might had a predilection for schizophrenia, it has been known to cause psychotic breaks.

In the ‘60s the flamboyant advocate for LSD Timothy Leary, as well as the free love era in which lots of our young men did not want to fight a war in Viet Nam that they did not believe in, infuriated Nixon, who wanted his young people docile and compliant.

This book has more history on magic mushrooms and LSD than I ever needed to know. Because there have been so few studies on how these drugs can help people overcome other addictions, it’s largely anecdotal. The studies that have been taking place since 2006 are limited.

It seems counterintuitive that someone battling substance abuse should take a drug. The theory is that the addicted mind keeps doing the same thing over and over. Like if you go sledding and someone went sledding before you, your sled is naturally going to want to take the same route through the snow that the other sled made. Your mind goes through the same grooves of thinking patterns that are well worn. LSD and psilocybin are not addictive, and they get you to let go of your ego and see the world differently. For some people, just doing them once had a profound change and they were able to quit smoking or drinking or shake off the worst of the depression. For others, it might be something that needs to be repeated every six months or so.

I’ve never wanted to take acid or magic mushrooms. It sounds terrifying, even though Michael Pollan described his own personal experiences, and, for the most part, had good things to say about the experiences. If I drink too much, at least I know exactly what will happen (mostly, I’ll hate myself in the morning and feel like hell). But with both marijuana and LSD, if we can help folks with anxiety disorder or substance abuse, we need to look into every avenue that can help, and not let prejudice or ignorance stop legit research.

For more reviews, please visit http://www.theresaalan.net/blog
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,855 followers
December 22, 2018
Nature's miracle products reveal many immediate healing options. Perhaps they even made the incarnation possible aka "stoned ape theory".

Please note that I have put the original German text to the end of this review. Just if you might be interested.

The pharmaceutical industry has a logical aversion to non-industrial medicines. As a result, coverage of all alternative therapies is always biased and described one-sided negative. One of the favorite arguments is the lack of exact dosing and varying agent concentration in all natural substances. Apart from the fact that these are often not life-threatening fluctuation margins, the advances in plant breeding and genetic engineering will improve accuracy.

It would be a losing business for the pharmaceutical industry if everyone could breed their toads at home or grow a variety of fungal cultures in a hypothetical cultivation set. The resistance to cannabis legalization was primarily driven by competitiveness. As with the eco-social market economy, the various sharing concepts, decentralized energy production, etc. Everything that makes people self-sufficient and independent of manufacturers and thereby ensures that they are lost as customers. When often only one dose with long breaks in between is sufficient for the healing process.

Because the elimination of the ego in the brain, worries, addictions and even fear of death is recognized as irrelevant. People trained in meditation for life have similar brain functions as people under the influence of certain drugs. This higher level of consciousness can first be achieved in a stoned state of mind and the wisdom from this experience transferred to the sober, expanded, healthier and better life. Once the brain has functioned freed from the burden of subjective impressions and limitations, the restored consciousness has matured.

The "stoned ape theory" is a daring hypothesis. But if one sees the restrictive and often self-damaging ego as a drag, the dissolution of it in the animal ancestors could have caused an evolutionary boost. According to the mantra "use it or lose it", a flood of substances that open up new functional mechanisms, experiences and interconnections is a great workout. Perhaps without the many more or less psychoactive substances in food, brain development would have progressed much more slowly.

Indeed, there is an individual risk with any medicine because one often doesn´t understand the exact mode of action. The chemists know the effect that is triggered in the body. But nobody knows exactly how and why. Therefore, every conventional and approved drug is part of a vast experiment with uncertain long-term consequences.

A differentiation between severe addiction and the healthy dose would be socially necessary. Rather than kicking the door in with a SWAT Team for the possession of all alternative substances, a distinction should be made between a reasonable dose for healing purposes and substance abuse. But that would require a social consensus and an open dialogue. And not a sterile hospital environment, but a pleasant and personal atmosphere when treated with the help of an empathic trip-sitter.

This raises the question of why individualized medicine is not forced. Because not only the exact dosage of active ingredients is essential. But also that one determines how fast or slow a patient metabolizes. There are slow, normal and fast metabolisms and everyone would need a separately calculated dosage. This would be done a one-off with a more and more affordable test, and then the dose of each drug could be adjusted to it. But it would mean that the slow metabolizers would need less medication, which would be a loss for the industry.

One knows too little about the effects, as that one could demonize or glorify something. More extensive basic research is urgently needed. Or at least the consistency and honesty, to par the severe side effects of conventional and legal drugs with the possible, much rarer negative consequences of psychedelic substances.

Part of the fascination is the fact that unexplored chemicals enter the not understood brain in unknown ways and change something. Tiny parts are known, but most stay a mystery. Same thing with the plants, animals and fungi that produce substances that cause such reactions in mammals with huge heads. And that many great discoveries of human history were probably only made possible under the influence of various drugs. It could be hypothesized that it was this combination of genius and the vehicle of mind expansion that made milestones possible.

Die Wundermittel der Natur offenbaren viele unmittelbare Heilungsmöglichkeiten. Vielleicht machten sie sogar "stoned ape theory" die Menschwerdung erst möglich.

Die Pharmabranche hat eine logische Aversion gegen nicht industriell herstellbare Medikamente. Von daher ist die Berichterstattung über alle alternativen Therapien immer voreingenommen und einseitig negativ. Eines der Lieblingsargumente ist die mangelnde Dosierbarkeit und Wirkstoffkonzentration in allen natürlichen Stoffen. Abgesehen davon, dass es sich dabei oft nicht um lebensbedrohliche Schwankungsbreiten handelt, werden die Fortschritte in Pflanzenzucht und Gentechnik die Genauigkeit verbessern.

Es wäre ein Verlustgeschäft für die Pharmabranche, wenn sich jeder selbst daheim seine Kröten züchten oder in einem hypothetischen Kultivierungsset diverse Pilzkulturen züchten konnte. War doch der Widerstand gegen die Cannabislegalisierung zu großen Teilen auch nur vom Konkurrenzdenken getragen. Wie auch bei ökosozialer Marktwirtschaft, den diversen Sharing Konzepten, dezentraler Energieerzeugung, usw. Alles, was Menschen autark und unabhängig von Herstellern macht und dadurch dafür sorgt, dass sie als Kunden verloren gehen. Wenn oftmals nur eine Dosis mit langen Pausen dazwischen reicht.

Weil durch die Ausschaltung des Egos im Gehirn Sorgen, Süchte und selbst Todesangst als irrelevant erkannt werden. Weil ein Leben lang in Meditation geschulte Menschen ähnliche Hirnfunktionen haben wie Menschen unter Drogeneinfluss. Diese höhere Bewusstseinsebene kann zuerst unter Drogeneinfluss erreicht werden und die Weisheit aus dieser Erfahrung auf das nüchterne, erweiterte und bessere Leben übertragen. Wenn das Hirn einmal befreit von der Last der subjektiven Eindrücke und Einschränkungen funktioniert hat, ist das wieder zurück gekehrte Bewusstsein gereift.

Die "stoned ape theory" ist eine gewagte Hypothese. Aber wenn man einschränkendes und oft für sich selbst und andere schädliches Ego als Hemmschuh sieht, könnte die Auflösung dessen in den tierischen Vorfahren wirklich einen Evolutionsschub bewirkt haben. Frei nach "use it or loose it" ist eine Flutung mit Stoffen, die neue Funktionsmechanismen, Erfahrungen und Verschaltungen eröffnen, ein super Workout. Vielleicht wäre ohne die vielen mehr oder weniger psychoaktiven Stoffe in der Nahrung die Hirnentwicklung wesentlich langsamer voran geschritten.

Sicher ist ein gewisses Risiko bei jeder Medizin, weil man die genaue Wirkungsweise häufig nicht versteht. Die Chemiker kennen den Effekt, der im Körper ausgelöst wird. Aber wie und teilweise warum genau, weiß keiner. Von daher ist auch jedes konventionelle und zugelassene Medikament Teil eines großen Experiments mit ungewissen Langzeitfolgen.

Eine Differenzierung zwischen schwerer Suchtkrankheit und der gesunden Dosis wäre gesellschaftlich notwendig. Anstatt bei allen alternativen Stoffen die Tür einzutreten, sollte zwischen einer vernünftigen Dosierung zu Heilungszwecken und Drogenmissbrauch unterschieden werden. Was aber einen gesellschaftlichen Konsens und einen offenen Dialog voraussetzen würde. Und ein nicht eine sterile Krankenhausumgebung, sondern eine angenehme und persönliche Atmosphäre bei der Behandlung mit einem empathischen Tripsitter.

Es eröffnet sich die Frage, warum die individualisierte Medizin nicht forciert wird. Denn nicht nur die genaue Wirkstoffdosierung ist wichtig. Sondern auch, dass man eruiert, wie schnell oder langsam ein Patient metabolisiert. Es gibt langsame, normale und schnelle Stoffwechsel und jeder bräuchte eine separat berechnete Dosierungsmenge. Das wäre mit einem, immer günstiger werdenden, Test einmalig zu bestimmen und dann könnte die Dosis jedes Medikaments darauf angepasst werden. Aber es würde bedeuten, dass die langsamen Metabolisierer weniger Medikamente brauchen würden, was ein Verlustgeschäft wäre.

Man weiß noch viel zu wenig über die Auswirkungen, als dass man etwas verteufeln oder verherrlichen könnte. Längere Grundlagenforschung ist dringend notwendig. Oder zumindest die Konsequenz und Ehrlichkeit, die schweren Nebenwirkungen von Psychopharmaka und anderen Medikamenten auf eine Stufe mit den möglichen, negativen Folgen von psychodelischen Stoffen zu stellen.

Die Faszination macht aus, dass unerforschte Stoff auf unbekannten Wegen das unverstandene Gehirn entern und an den Rädchen drehen. Das Pflanzen, Tiere und Pilze Stoffe herstellen, die in Säugetieren derartige Reaktionen verursachen. Und dass viele große Entdeckungen der Menschheitsgeschichte erst unter dem Einfluss diverser Drogen entstanden. Man könnte die Hypothese aufstellen, dass erst diese Kombination aus einem genialen Geist mit einem Vehikel zur Bewusstseinserweiterung Meilensteine ermöglicht hat.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
811 reviews1,269 followers
December 14, 2018
Trippy Mushroom GIF - Trippy Mushroom Psychedelic GIFs

Prior to reading this book, I didn't know much about LSD or other psychedelics. If you'd asked me about them, I'd have furrowed my brow, bit the bottom corner of my lip, and remarked, Umm..... The Grateful Dead? So of course when I saw this book, realising it's something I knew nothing about, I wanted to read it. Seeing all the raving reviews about it, I wanted to read it even more. Sadly, I didn't love it as much as I expected I would and most others do.

Some of the history of LSD and psilocybin was interesting, but for the most part I found it tiresome as there was so much detail about the various people who had researched/is researching it. There is also quite a lot about both the author's trips and those of study subjects, and reading about them made me incredibly anxious. Why? Because just imagining having my brain do that was enough to disturb my control freak brain! Why anyone would willingly take something to hallucinate and be out of control of one's brain is beyond me and yet people do it all the time. And love it! So perhaps I'm just weird or maybe what I need is a good trip to loosen up my need for control?

The one chapter I absolutely loved was "Neuroscience". Learning how psychedelics work on the brain (at least as far as we know so far) was incredibly interesting. If the book had only been about that, I'd give it 5 stars. Sadly, the rest of the book was only 2 and 3 stars for me. I love the way Michael Pollan writes but this just wasn't the book for me.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 30 books98.6k followers
January 6, 2020
Fascinating. I love Michael Pollan's work. I have to say, his account made me want to try psilocybin as part of my research . I'm not sure how one goes about doing that. If you have any suggestions, email me.
Profile Image for da AL.
371 reviews373 followers
September 17, 2019
Fascinating info about LSD as well as mental illness, and philosophical musings on how the mind works -- past, present, future. Moreover, a first-person account by a respected science journalist!
Profile Image for Sarah.
328 reviews156 followers
March 5, 2021
WOW! Sometimes you read something that is so eye opening and this is most certainly one of those books for me. Having always been intrigued by psychedelics and their effects on brain chemistry in particular - this was an unbelievably interesting, informative study. Especially from a philosophical and psychological viewpoint. It is easy to be fearful of these types of drugs and the effects they can have on people - nobody wants to experience a bad trip.
Also, this opens up a great discussion about how science and spiritualism can go hand in hand and balance each other out to gain a greater understanding of the human psyche.

The first chapter discusses the birth of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) by Albert Hoffmann. It is then discussed how the drug was used in the 1950s by the CIA for the infamous ”MK-Ultra” “mind control” experiments. Then the huge boom of LSD use in the 1960s, particularly the 1967 Summer Of Love, yet it had already been made illegal by 1966 (made a federal crime for possession by 1968).
This was assisted by Timothy Leary, a Harvard Professor, whose own experiments had little scientific merit.

Michael Pollen is a novice to the world of psychedelics - having taken mushrooms in his youth and being yet to try LSD. Before trying them for this very book, he trips on frog venom and believes that he has given birth to himself.

How To Change Your Mind asks the question if psychedelics could (in measured doses) help to improve certain mental illnesses, such as decreasing anxiety, and improve quality of life?
It makes one wonder how many more advancements would have been made if psychedelic drugs hadn’t been made illegal. Especially considering the success rates of some of the experiments recorded. This is a debate worth having.
There is evidence that psilocybin can alter a person’s perception and outlook on life as a whole from the experiences they have whilst taking it. Also it has been used experimentally to treat addictions to alcohol and smoking.
People who volunteered to take psilocybin were told they may experience the ”death/transcendence of your ego or everyday self” but this is ”always followed by Rebirth/Return to the normative world of space & time. Safest way to return to normal is to entrust self unconditionally to the emerging experience.”

A particularly interesting paragraph highlights how, at UCLA, microdoses of MDMA have been used to treat patients with PTSD and also social anxiety in autistic adults.

Aldous Huxley’s The Doors Of Perception is referenced throughout. I have been meaning to check this title out for many years, and shall be doing so soon.

”Mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism.” 🍄✨🖤
Profile Image for Yaaresse.
2,045 reviews16 followers
July 28, 2018
Once again I seem to be in the minority. Oh well, I'm used to that. Having read The Omnivore's Dilemma and Botany of Desire. I had fairly high expectations for this book. Those high expectations were only slightly dampened by the tidal wave of praise for this book, which these days is more often a sign of brilliant marketing and/or controversial content than a sign of brilliant writing/content.

Three are three sections to the book:
1. A very brief history of psychedelics' use through time and a less brief history of research on psychedelics (mostly LSD and psilocybin, less on MDMA and others.) I thought this was the most interesting and best organized part of the book, but it was still fairly bare bones. And for someone who claimed they weren't going to spend a lot of time talking about Timothy Leary, he spends a hell of a lot of space on Timothy Leary.
2. Descriptions of Pollan's experiments with LSD, mushrooms, and toad venom. The actual descriptions are fairly brief. Most of the time is spend with him freaking out about preparations and worry about not being able to control every aspect of the experience, then later lamenting how it was all so much less than he expected. This was my least favorite part of the book. His "I paid my money, and I want my safe, easy, permanent instant enlightenment right NOW...even though I don't believe in any of that nonsense." Typical western attitude: I want it all, I want it now, and I don't want to have to put in any time or effort to get it. OK, I get it. He's a content atheist. But the constant snark about all things religious or with what he felt had any religious-spiritual trappings got old fast. The more he snarked, the more peevish and arrogant he seemed.
3. Current research on use of psychedelics to treat addiction and depression, also to treat anxiety in end-of-life. He said he was going to talk about the neuroscience in this section, but there's very little of that. Most of it is anecdotes, which get repetitive quickly. This section had the most potential given our society's near-epidemic of opioid addiction and long-term use of anti-depressants. Unfortunately, it didn't really deliver much hard information. I suspect he has subscribed to the Gladwellian formula of "keep the science light and shove in a lot of anecdotes that that support your pet points."

The book is a defense for the use of psychedelics, so don't expect objectivity or balance. Pollan is clearly a fan of the stuff. And that's fine except it puts the book squarely in the "preaching to the choir" club. Those inclined to agree with him will praise it. Those who don't agree will probably not bother to read it.

Pollan does make one depressingly good point -- although it's made almost in passing and he doesn't explore it at all -- when he notes that no drug company is going to invest in psychedelics as treatment because there is no money in it for them. The patent on LSD has long expired. Mushrooms can be grown by almost anyone with a little training. Most of all, drug companies are far more interested in maintenance drugs than single or rare-use treatments. If Pfizer (or Lilly or Glaxo) can keep people on a med for life, they have no interest in interrupting that revenue stream.

Basically, this book was just interesting enough to make me realize how much better it should have been and just informative enough to make me want to read something more in-depth (and far more objective) on the subject.
Profile Image for Cathrine ☯️ .
633 reviews349 followers
October 9, 2018
5 🍄 🍄 🍄 🍄 🍄
You can’t always get what you want but you just might get what you need.
Among many others, what do Anaïs Nin, Jack Nicholson, Stanley Kubrick, André Previn, James Coburn, Aldous Huxley, Bill “W”, Ram Dass, Andrew Weil, Ethyl Kennedy, Steve Jobs, and Cary Grant have in common? Psychedelic therapy.


Are there other uses for mushrooms beyond sautéing them in butter, garlic, and dry sherry? Yes!
They can wipe out carpenter ant colonies, clean up pollution and industrial waste, and act as agents to fight bioterrorism. What else? That’s what some people want to find out.
I came of age after LSD was banned by the government (thanks in no small part to Timothy Leary) so my knowledge of it was primarily negative and I was definitely too scared to try it despite hanging out with people who used it freely. Come to think of it, they are probably why I was scared to try it.


But up until 1966 it was legal and there were 70 serious research programs at prestigious institutions throughout the 50s and early 60s exploring its potential to treat depression, schizophrenia, ease a person’s death journey, and help cure addictions to nicotine and alcohol. All these decades later there is renewed scientific and personal interest.

Oh, the potential. What if we could:

➤experience no doubt, know instead of just believe
➤experience the very worst of what life can throw at you, including death, and regard it objectively and accept it with equanimity
➤become more open at an advanced age when the grooves of mental habit have been etched so deep as to seem inescapable
➤go on a journey that could be among the two or three most profound experiences of your life


The author went above and beyond attempting to find some answers for himself and the reader. I have nothing but praise and respect for his efforts. This was #1 on our library’s most requested list for good reason. Fabulously researched, fascinating, and worth my reading time—and convincing? My mind has definitely been opened and changed and all I did was read the book.
You might be curious how many tabs I used writing this review—a lot let me tell you!
I’m talking about the little sticky colored ones to mark favorite book passages.
Would I like to sign up for a session? Tomorrow Never Knows 🎶

Profile Image for Elizabeth Theiss Smith.
304 reviews82 followers
June 6, 2018
Prepare to change your mind about the role of psychedelic drugs in western culture. Or, if you have experience as a psychonaut, get ready for a broad, expansive review of history, research, and the possibilities for public policy.

When LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and other psychedelic drugs first became known in the 1950s and 1960s, academic and medical researchers explored their potential for relieving depression, addiction, and other mental problems. The promising research results were abandoned when Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, began urging young people to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The federal government ultimately outlawed hallucinogenics for all uses, including research.

In the late 1990s, research on psilocybin and other mind-expanding drugs resumed and the results are rather stunning. The vast majority of subjects reported experiencing ego-shattering, transcendent trips that resulted in a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of themselves with the universe and a new openness to experience. Guided psychedelic experiences lead subjects to deep insights. For example, in a tobacco cessation program, participants describe feeling a deep realization of the destructive nature of tobacco and a powerful connection to the universe. Why would one disturb the life force that empowers them with the destructive force of tobacco? In research on the impact of LSD on existential anxiety in cancer patients was especially impressive. It allowed subjects to let go of narrow conceptions of materialistic death and embrace a more holistic sense of death as a transition to another state of being.

Confession: I am a child of the 60s who experimented with mescaline and LSD. I count these experiences as among the most formative of my life. I am a more creative, happy person because of them. I learned that humans are entirely intertwined among ourselves and every other animal, plant, and mineral on the earth. We are stardust. We are golden. Everything counts and yet nothing really matters in the context of the millennia. I read Pollan’s descriptions of his own forays into psychedelia with a sense of familiarity.

The potential of psychedelic drugs to change the world for people suffering from depression, existential anxiety attendant to life-threatening disease, and addiction seems settled. What stands in the way is Nixon-era prejudice and fear. The scientific community seems to have developed some consensus that psychedelics can play an important role in healing several resistant diseases of western civilization. Where public policy goes from here will depend on the policy community paying more attention to data and less to prejudice.
Profile Image for Kathy.
412 reviews4 followers
June 22, 2018
Tedious. Self-aggrandizing. I was drawn to the book by it's promise of "the new science..." If that is your interest, skip the first four chapters. Even then there is precious little content about this. "How to Change Your Mind"?? I can not understand how this title relates to the content of this book which time and time again emphasizes the illegality of the drugs and the incredibly limited number of experimental clinical trials with all their [necessary] constraints. If you are interested in a painfully detailed history of the use of psychedelics (including descriptions of items of clothing worn by individuals who promoted them) and the monotonous recounting of one journalist's personal experience of the nature of consciousness as revealed by these drugs - well then, this books for you. It wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Daniel Chaikin.
594 reviews54 followers
December 8, 2018
Now that I'm using audible.com I feel some responsibility to pick good books with good narration and I spent a lot of time struggling to come with a one this time and nothing seemed quite right enough, then I listened to this oddball title and Pollan won me over with his passion in the sample - he reads this himself. And, he also completely won me over with this book.

There was a time when psychedelics were a serious medicine under serious study, especially for alcoholics. Then Timothy Leary came in, decided everybody needed to experience these drugs, acted as if he had discovered the whole field and promoted them in such an attention-grabbing way to where everyone knows something about LSD...and also to the point that the drug become illegal, and study of it dropped to zero in the US, full stop. Of course, Leary got his message across and these drugs saw wide illegal usage especially in the 1960's...and also especially in silicon valley where, as a software developer put it, LSD helps you see patterns.

LSD is a powerful drug, but, in a surprise at least to me, it turns out it creates no health issues. The only danger with LSD is what someone might do while they are using it (like Charles Mason's group, maybe). But it doesn't have any impact on anything in our body except for it's temporary impact on the brain. And it's non-addictive, maybe anti-addictive. But it does have surprising benefits when used the right way. To frame this kind of the way Pollan does, research in NYU on terminally ill patients found spectacular results with patients using a psychedelic. Many said they had mystical experiences, and many lost their fear of the coming deaths and made peace with it. In some examples, people had the best parts of their lives, terminally ill, after their experience with psychedelics. It didn't work for everyone, of course.

So, what's going on? This is where the book gets especially fascinating. Recent study of brain activity has determined what is our default node network - that is, your brain activity when you're not doing anything. You're just day dreaming and filling in time. This activity is actually a big deal, it's your basic thought process, your default mindset. And you can't really change it very easily. Pollan uses a ski slope as an example. Imagine your brain as slope with a fresh cover of snow. Someone skis down and leaves tracks. As more people ski down, some tracks harden, and soon everyone has to ski down the same track, you can't get out of it. That's your brain, and track is the default node netwark - all your thoughts funnel down the well worn path.

This is actually an issue with everyone. Our brain tries to make things easier on us, and it forms these networks so we can focus on other things, but we lose some touch with reality, if you like. Instead of seeing things as they actually are, our brains make all sort of assumptions and we accept these as real without really knowing. We lose that childhood sense of exploring everything because everything is new. This breaks down when, say, we travel to a new country and all these assumptions start to fail. But, it becomes a serious problem for certain states of mind. Our brain has a structuring and the more structured we are, the most separated we from reality and more prone we are to various obsessive problems, like addiction of course, and OCD, but also depression and anxiety and other things. Essentially the brain becomes too rigid.

So, the big thing with psychedelics is that they shut down our default node network, our background brain, or ego. In the ski slope analogy, they provide, for short period, a fresh coat of new snow. Our brains are freed up to re-investigate the world around us with new eyes, like a child. And, the connections in our brain are free to follow new paths, and new connections, leading to some strange stuff, but also, apparently, to a completely new view of consciousness, or maybe even other consciousnesses. (technically you don't need the drugs, you can mimic this affect with meditation, for example). And, with the drugs, you don't lose the experience, but you remember everything. And anything you learn stays with you.

I know I'm getting wordy and maybe it's better to just read the book then read my review with all its oversimplifications, but this stuff has got me thinking so much. So, I'll add here that Pollan points out the experience doesn't work for everyone, that it's very dependent on the mindset and setting you are in when you take the drug, and whose around to guide you and help you if you get into trouble. And the affect wears off. And while the terminally ill tended to have inspirational life changing experiences, and nicotine and alcohol addicts had good rates of positive results (much better than, say, with AA), there were also those oddball experiences. There was the smoker who had such a powerful important insight, she made the guide with her write it down. When she came out of the high and checked on the message, it was...eat fruits and vegetable and exercise (but she kicked smoking)

Anyway, I recommend this one with all the enthusiasm expressed above.


63. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (audio) by Michael Pollan
reader: the author
published: 2018
format: 13:36 Audible audiobook (~377 pages equivalent, 480 pages in hardcover)
acquired: November
listened: Nov 15 - Dec 6
rating: 4½
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,387 reviews115 followers
June 24, 2019
Pollan’s research regarding psychedelics is all-encompassing—covering everything from the time LSD was first discovered in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss scientist working for Sandoz; to ingesting LSD, psilocybin and the crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert toad himself. Of note, Pollan is most interested in the medical studies of this class of drugs and their potential use in humans—and not their recreational use.

Psychedelic-aided therapy, properly conducted by trained professionals can help with: addiction to alcohol, treatment-resistant depression, and terminally ill cancer patients. The egoless realm of consciousness achieved by taking psychedelics helps to modify the brain so that it can pursue different pathways—even gaining a mystic or spiritual awareness. Of note, people who practice serious meditation can also experience this transformative state.

Pollan relates the experiences of many of those who have taken psychedelics. Surprisingly, their stories tend to run together and are rather boring. This comprehensive overview could have been shortened considerably.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,324 followers
July 11, 2018
A few weeks ago, I was raving here about the first book I ever read by participatory journalist Michael Pollan, 2006's The Omnivore's Dilemma which permanently changed the way I now shop at grocery stores; and now I can say that I've had an equally great experience with my second Pollan book, his newest, the 600-page behemoth How to Change Your Mind, which looks at all the latest post-hippie, 21st-century, Western-medicine research into the links between psychedelic drugs, mental health, mindfulness and Buddhist-style meditation.

To make my biases clear right away, back in my early twenties I did LSD in college a handful of times, mostly in a mindful and deliberate way (although admittedly a couple of times at raves for fun too), thus making it natural that I would be interested in what Pollan had to say; and he essentially takes this mindful, medicine-type approach too, presenting not just an exhaustive history of the subject as it first became known in the US in the 1920s and '30s, blooming into national mainstream popularity and then just as quickly burning out in the 1960s, but also concentrating just as much on the quiet, more sober research that's being done in our current age, where contemporary doctors and scientists are looking at the ways that LSD and psychedelic mushrooms might in fact be a "magic cure" of sorts for such mental conditions as depression, anxiety and addiction.

It all boils down to a term that's suddenly been gaining a lot of mainstream traction recently, called the "Default Mode Network;" as we're learning with more and more certainty, this is the part of the brain that essentially acts as the "CEO" or "orchestra leader" of all the other parts of your brain, the section of the brain that's most active precisely when you're doing nothing particular at all, and the section that allows you to think about the past, to anticipate the future, to project a sense of "self" to yourself, and basically all the other activities that we've typically associated over the centuries with what is conveniently called the human "soul." Modern MRI research is showing us that, when someone is on psychedelic drugs, its main effect is to shut down the default mode network; that basically lets the other sections of your brain talk to each other in unexpected and random ways, which is what produces the "hallucinations" so commonly associated with the drug.

And since it's the default mode network that directly causes mental disorders like depression (obsessive worrying about the past) and anxiety (obsessive worrying about the future), research is showing more and more that psychedelic drugs can act as essentially a way to "reformat a corrupted hard drive," and to let people with unhealthy behaviors towards the past and future basically reset and permanently change their behaviors. And, incidentally, it turns out that this is the same exact process the brain goes through during mindfulness-based meditation, which is why it's no coincidence that Buddhism and psychedelic drugs are so closely associated with each other in our society, and why Buddhist-style meditation has been shown in recent years to work even better than anti-anxiety drugs on PTSD-suffering veteran soldiers.

Pollan's book is about all kinds of other things too, including his own first-person forays into psychedelics and what exactly occurred to him during his "trips;" and as always, it's written in his engaging if not often opinionated conversational style, which I love but I learned during The Omnivore's Dilemma drives other people crazy, so be warned. An illuminating and fascinating book that will (here we go again) permanently change the way you think about psychedelic drugs, meditation, and mental illness, it is so far the one book in 2018 that I most recommend general audience members picking up. Destined to make my top-ten list at the end of the year, if not come in at the number-one spot altogether.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
432 reviews1,387 followers
November 8, 2019
How to Change Your Mind is a great book, addressing psychedelics from a variety of angles and demystifying a topic with a whole bunch of mystery surrounding it. Michael Pollan, best known for his books about food and farming, delves first-hand into the world of LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca, and a number of other well-known and more obscure drugs (5-MeO-DMT, anyone?). He describes the historical context, when these compounds were discovered, their stigmatization and eventual outlawing, the practices and ritual surrounding them, early pioneers of research, the influence of polarizing figures like Timothy Leary, the conflation with 60s counter culture, the current figures advocating for further research, churches and individual guides who licitly and illicitly administer them, the physical mechanisms of neural pathways and blocked (or activated) receptors in the brain, and the personal experience of being turned on, tuned in, and dropped out.

This latter challenge remains the unattainable goal: putting into words precisely that which defies and often bypasses the language centers of the brain. Pollan does an admirable job of this. Having tried ayahuasca myself, I found a lot of truth and overlap in Pollan's description of a psychedelic experience, such as how an oft-repeated truism like "all you need is love" or "we are all connected" suddenly takes on an all-consuming, powerful sensation of conviction and reality, which continues to resonate in the sober aftermath of the days and even years that follow. Pollan also outlines many possible benefits these compounds might impart, from dealing with depression and end-of-life angst or addiction (ironically, this class of drugs might help with quitting other drugs) to, as the title suggests, literally changing our minds to think in new and creative ways and be less factional and competitive. The common sense case for reclassifying many of these drugs (almost all are schedule 1), funding further research, and opening up avenues for recreational use is well made, with equally common sense provisos about some unexpected effects, overdoses and bad trips. Pollan's accounts make me curious to try some of these other compounds, but I'll have to work on getting my wife's permission first.
Profile Image for Numidica.
386 reviews8 followers
January 9, 2019
Additional comment 1/9/2019: I've shared this review with non-Goodreads friends and got a bit of side eye. So I'd like to share some context. I have never taken LSD or mushrooms, or for that matter any non-prescribed drug other than a minuscule amount of pot in college. So my point here is not to promote psilocybin because I use it, because I never have, but rather to provide a review of a very interesting book.

How to Change Your Mind is an investigation by journalist and writer Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Botany of Desire) into the history, use, and benefits of psychedelic compounds. I probably would have passed over this book had I not previously read Omnivore’s Dilemma; I know the quality of Pollan’s research and writing, and that convinced me to give this book a try. I’m glad I did! It turns out that most of what I thought I knew about psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and LSD (the pharmaceutical version of the mushroom) is wrong.

LSD and psilocybin have been illegal in the US since the ‘60’s, and are classed (along with heroin) as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. As Pollan describes in his book, the idea of LSD or psilocybin as dangerous is mostly an artifact of ‘60’s anxiety about the counterculture rather than being based on actual evidence of danger from the drug / mushroom. Psilocybin is not addictive, and the number of “bad trips” resulting in injury or death is vanishingly rare. The major concern about psilocybin use is for people who have psychotic tendencies or schizophrenia, because in a few cases the drug may further unhinge them. Many of the reasons that were cited to categorize LSD / psilocybin as a Schedule 1 illegal drug are simply without factual basis. For instance, one claim, which I remember from my youth, is that LSD “damages chromosomes”; there is simply no evidence for this.

Pollan reviews, at length, the history of the drug, and the research done on LSD in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, and he shows that scientists then believed that LSD was a promising treatment for depression and addiction. Unfortunately, most of this research was filed away or flushed when the government made LSD illegal and cut off research funds, and even before that scientists were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the promotion of LSD by Timothy Leary and others as a recreational “consciousness-expanding” drug. And yet, expansion of consciousness is apparently one of the real values of psilocybin / LSD.

Pollan describes the experiences of many, many peoples’ “trips”, including his own, and the words various people use to describe the experience are remarkably similar: a description of diminution or elimination of the ego; a visual review of their lives, sometimes meeting long-dead relatives or friends; an overwhelming feeling of love and empathy toward other people as well as toward plants and animals; and in some cases the feeling of meeting or being one with “God”. Pollan delves deep into the biological basis for this effect, and the general sense is that the drug increases neuroplasticity on a temporary basis, though some of the effects last for months or longer. Pollan expands upon this later in the book, explaining that the default mode network (DMN) of the brain, which allows rapid processing of new information based on prior experience, is temporarily off-line, and so each new experience, whether it is seeing a leaf, or an insect, or a person, seems as new and wonderful or strange as it would to a young child. Hallucinations also occur, as is well known.

And all of the above might be interesting reading with a sort of “so what?” conclusion, if not for the evidence of some truly astounding results in improving outcomes in a number of otherwise intractable conditions. In a study involving smokers who wanted to quit, use of psilocybin resulted in an 80% cessation rate. For those of you who have known smokers trying to quit, this is amazing, to say the least, and it is a better result than any other known approach. Among people suffering from “treatment-resistant-depression”, results appear to be equally high compared to other treatments. A preliminary study of alcoholics treated with psilocybin showed >50% success. One of the most moving stories in the book is about the use of psychedelics to treat anxiety among those with cancer. In many cases, people simply lost their fear of death, and in others it was greatly reduced, and this allowed the cancer patients to have a much better and loving engagement with loved ones, and an improved quality of life as the end grew near.

And why does this happen? It appears that the experience of ego dissolution allows people, during, and for a while after their trips, to view themselves truly objectively, while enhancing their love and empathy toward others. The answers people gave to the question, “what happened?”, seem banal or obvious, but they gain profundity through the changed behavior of the post-psilocybin-using patients. When one person who quit smoking was asked how she could do it, she said, “Smoking was no longer relevant”. Others said things like: “I could see now that this was bad for me – so why would I continue?” All these were things that they knew intellectually prior to their trips, but after the trips they knew and they believed. Other effects cited by Pollan, though harder to quantify, are increased creativity, renewed interest in one’s career, and increased love and empathy for others.

Pollan makes an enlightening comment about some of the more obscure assertions of 18th & 19th Century writers about transcendence, trance-like states, etc. – maybe they were achieving an ego-less state via meditation, breathing exercises, or some other trance-inducing mechanism; perhaps even psychedelic substances. The same goes for some of the more obscure statements in the Bible, like God speaking from the burning bush. This could have been a psychedelic experience. Almost all cultures have some sort of substance that brings on psychedelic experiences.

As the NYT points out: “You don’t necessarily need drugs to enter this strange, egoless realm of consciousness: Near-death experiences, meditation and fasting can get you there, too.” But the psychedelic drugs get people there reliably. Many people, after their trips, begin a meditation regimen which allows them to partly regain the ego-less state and some of its benefits. Experienced meditators, observed in scientific studies, exhibit similar brain function as people who take psilocybin.

All in all, this is a very interesting book, highly recommended. Psychedelics are beginning to be studied again at various universities, so I expect we will hear more on this subject in the coming years.

P.S. The only reason I did not give this five stars is that Mr. Pollan, god bless him, really does go on at length about certain things that could be dealt with more succinctly. But I love that he has obviously done his research.
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