What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
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What do you think when someone mentions the word ‘psychedelics’? Do you imagine a world of fantasy and irony? Or do you get skeptical immediately?
Psychedelics have been cast under that kind of light. This bleak light comes from decades of hysteria, negative reviews and punitive legislation. However, that’s not how the story has always been.
The author of the book, Michael Pollan, was born too late to partake in the acid trips that Woodstock is famous for. He was also young enough to get a taste. This was before the mass hysteria and legislation cast an image of psychedelics as the devil’s agents.
Pollan’s journey begins with a paper he had ignored earlier. It led him to take a deeper look into the scientific study of the effects of psychedelics.
The meat of this book starts when the study of psychedelics and their uses was highly condemned. At the time, Pollan decided to gather first-hand experience of their usage. While he had put little thought into such substances and their effects, this was a chance to satisfy his curiosity.
How to Change your Mind is an inspired look into the effects psychedelics have on the mind. The exploits back up the mystical experiences of those who took psilocybin in a controlled test. These experiences increased Pollan’s interest in the subject.
About Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan is a storied journalist whose work has covered periphery topics that many don’t think about or find absurd.
Even then, his insights are eye-opening in most cases. His recent book, This Is Your Mind On Plants, is a remarkable collection of such insights.
Although Pollan’s roots are in journalism, his fame grew through his books. Pollan is also a Knight Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and writes articles on science and the environment.
Pollan has earned both accolades and criticisms from scientists, therapists and medical professionals. Most notably, in 2015, he was a recipient of the Washburn Award.
StoryShot #1: Psychedelics Went Through a Renaissance
Let’s start with three significant events in the history of psychedelics research. The first was a centennial celebration of the birth of the Swiss chemist responsible for discovering LSD. The second was a landmark case in which the US Supreme Court accorded Indigenous religious groups the use of Ayahuasca tea. The third was a paper by a well-respected scientist that straddled the divide between science and spirituality. This was particularly notable as the two disciplines have traditionally had opposing views.
Roland Griffiths was everything you’d expect of a revered scientist. His work on the effects of drugs, opiates, and hypnotics is notable. It even led to an entry in the “Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” This is a manual that advises on various conditions and treatment options. His work centered on Caffeine Withdrawal Syndrome.
However, Griffiths’ introduction to Siddha Yoga was a turning point. Despite being a scientist, he believed in phenomenology. His experience led to a curiosity that his current routine and network couldn’t fulfill. A call from a friend then provided an outlet for his interest.
A Cascade of Talent
The phone call led to a host of other individuals being involved in changing the outlook on psychedelics. Bob Jesse is a computer scientist and vice president at Oracle. He came up with a plan to use science to change how the scientific community approached psychedelics. Rick Doblin is a scientist who strongly believes in using MDMA to bring about world peace.
Bob spoke of his encounter after taking a hefty dose of LSD. Pollan couldn’t help but wonder what sort of conviction drove people to have such a belief. He concluded that this altered state of mind allowed people to peek into the truth that ordinary consciousness could not fathom.
Bob’s case led him down a path to discover individuals who had been silently studying psychedelics. His discovery brought him to various institutes such as Esalen in California. The founding of the Heffter Research Institute was a significant moment.
This new beginning was a rebirth for the psychedelic research community. They needed to organize. In 1999, an ad appeared in the papers announcing the return of scientific testing.
StoryShot #2: Psychedelics Had Potential to Revolutionize Natural History
The journeys by volunteers in the Johns Hopkins lab after consuming psilocybin raised questions. The queries were philosophical:
- How did a mushroom evolve to affect human biology in such a profound manner?
- How can a fungus change consciousness and cause mystical experiences?
- Are gods nothing more than chemically-induced figments?
- If cerebral molecules can induce transcendence, plant, and fungi, is nature as quiet as science puts it?
To get answers, Pollan contacted Paul Stamets. Stamets is a world-leading mycologist who contended that fungi form sentient membranes. That is how they affect entire ecosystems and become an oracle for nature.
Stamets’ work prompted Pollan to go deeper. He studied psilocybes, the potent mushrooms. A psychedelic trip that cured Stamets’ stammering problem inspired this work. It was also the catalyst for his lifelong work in mycology.
The research went further into the past. A vice president at J.P. Morgan introduced psychedelic mushrooms to the U.S. This was through publications of his exploits and answers to various questions. Pollan could see that Stamets was the rightful heir. He would help carry the burden of this research forward.
StoryShot #3: Society Initially Resisted Psychedelics Strongly
“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was a phrase popularized by Timothy Leary. It encouraged people to access their different levels of consciousness. However, different societal actors, including the government, viewed the phrase as a severe threat to social order.
In the 1960s, Leary received a 30-year sentence for attempting to bring marijuana into Texas from Mexico. The heavy crackdown was the fate many psychedelics projects faced in the 60s.
The field of psychiatry had long held a secret about the successful use of LSD to treat alcoholism. The cascading effects of such benefits led to significant research into psychedelics.
The promise that LSD held in the ’50s and ’60s was in the study of schizophrenia. It further led to the discovery of hormones such as serotonin and antidepressants (SSRIs). Dr. Humphry Osmond led the research. He also had the support of the Saskatchewan provincial government. The common theme among the reports was the same. LSD stripped away the ego and enabled the user to unite with the world around them.
By the time Timothy Leary got into LSD, it had been around for over a decade. He was a respectable researcher on gifted personalities. His reputation placed him in Harvard’s Social Relations department. His involvement in the multiple trials went well for some time – until it didn’t.
His rogue streak got him and another professor fired from Harvard. It also got him in trouble with the federal government which sentenced him to jail and named him an international fugitive. Leary’s story is far-reaching and illustrates the collapse of psychedelic science in the late 60s.
StoryShot #4: An Underground Tour Helped Pollan Understand Psychedelics
Pollan experienced an “underground” guided tour of a psychedelics research project. Before the tour, there were potential ethical, legal, and psychological troubles. Would these people accept a journalist in their midst?
Pollan wondered where his intellectual curiosity would ultimately lead. Would it be down a path he would regret? The “underground” researchers turned out to be professionals with acclaimed accolades and accomplishments. These guides eventually trusted him and his intentions.
They turned out to be descendants of the great psychedelic researchers of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Their research work was under wraps. No one knew how many people took part or what happened until 2010. That’s when a pioneering psychologist built an online roadmap. It led Pollan down the path to discovery. What experiences would he gain from using psychedelics?
StoryShot #5: The First LSD Trip Unlocked Wild Visions and Imaginary Encounters
Pollan’s first LSD trip came courtesy of someone who lived completely off the grid. His guide’s favorite quote was “Compared to LSD, Freud was a joke!” when exploring the depths of the psyche.
The trip entailed the guide evaluating Pollan’s breathwork. This was necessary to determine how he would handle an LSD trip. After falling into a trance, a steady music beat made it easier for him to slip into the trip and experience LSD.
His first trip was a ride on a black horse that felt fully in sync with him. It came with consequences. His AFib acted up for two hours, which then cooled down. A chat with the guide put his mind at ease, but the AFib didn’t clear until the morning.
Pollan intended to continue even though the situation could have turned life-threatening. This time, the music playing influenced his experience. Visions morphed from beachside to narrow mountain passes and men working in fields. Each time the music changed, his perception transformed.
However, the visions soon altered into an encounter with his family. Pollan later wrote that LSD measuring 100 micrograms had seen him fall into the lap of God.
His enduring lesson: Love is EVERYTHING!
StoryShot #6: A Second Psilocybin Trip Helped Strip Away His Ego
The first psychedelic trip Pollan experienced happened somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. The next time, he received the guidance of a Mexican Indian called Mary. Mary led Pollan into a Native American prayer. That prayer invoked the cardinal directions, plants and animals, minerals, and the elements.
The location was an altar adorned with Native American sacred items, floral patterns, and more because of Mary’s efforts. This was through all her years of spiritual reawakening.
The mushroom trip used a unique set of eye shades. Like the LSD trip, music influenced the visions. The electronica helped Pollan’s mind conjure up images of a deserted futuristic city at night. Even with a change of music, the cityscape did not go away.
To shake off the cityscape, he removed the eye shades. What he encountered, instead, was a new aspect bejeweled with light. This shimmering was an invitation to explore more, so he got up to investigate.
He attempted a psychological experiment, the Bayesian inferences. These images break down in schizophrenics and people in psychedelically induced states. However, the test didn’t work as hoped.
Upon taking a second dose and going under, Pollan experienced stripping away of his ego. He was present in reality around him but as something different. This is the point where people can let go of their desires, defenses, and fears.
StoryShot #7: 5-MeO-DMT Was an Explosive Experience With a Sweet Ending
One of the most influential psychotropics comes from the Sonoran Desert Toad’s venom. This opportunity appeared suddenly, and Pollan couldn’t let it pass. The guide was a Mexican therapist. She explained the potentially traumatic effects of smoking 5-MeO-DMT.
The journey started with smoking the crystals of 5-MeO-DMT. All it took was inhalation for reality to get stripped away by an explosive rush of energy. The terrifying experience was mysterium tremendum – the fear of the overwhelming unknown.
This trip felt more like a drop tower ride in a category five storm with a side of the big bang in reverse. All the elements were stripped away, and only space remained. Then, the reverse happened. There was a reconstitution of time, space, as well as other aspects of the universe. The ego and physical body returned.
The retreat to consciousness was the beginning. Pollan experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude for existing and having people he loved in his life. Going through that realization still did not take away the effects of the escapade. Over the course of the trip, he experienced the violent nature of 5-MeO-DMT, an awful climax, and a sweet conclusion.
StoryShot #8: Psychedelics Can Create Important Inroads in Neuroscience
How the mind functions under psychedelic conditions
Psychedelics result in mind-bending at the very least. They leave you with more questions and a thirst for solutions. How does a molecule have so much power over consciousness? How does it influence or change one’s perspective on various issues?
Though different, the three psychedelics Pollan experienced have one thing in common: They are tryptamines our bodies produce as serotonin. When these tryptamines combine with serotonin receptors in the brain, magic happens.
They also helped birth the field of neurochemistry and the study of SSRI antidepressants. These molecules, combined with serotonin receptors in the brain, are one thing. But they don’t explain the metaphysical experiences people undergo. The contents of consciousness have run circles around neuroscience tools.
Psychedelic drugs can lead to a new view into the inner workings of consciousness. The Center for Psychedelic Research leads important research on their use as therapeutic tools. Housed under Imperial College London, it is the world’s first dedicated psychedelic research center. To date, it has completed studies on the potential of psychedelics to treat various mental health disorders.
Psilocybin is particularly effective for depression patients. Brain imaging data found that psilocybin can break cycles of excessive self-consciousness. In addition, Ayahuasca also had meaningful therapeutic benefits. Research showed that it altered the user’s waking brain wave patterns to produce a ‘dreamlike’ state while awake. This state enhanced the user’s creativity and ability to think by activating occipital, temporal and frontal areas.
StoryShot #9: Psychedelics May Get Used in Psychotherapy in the Future
At New York University, a trial employing psychedelics may be key to helping terminally ill patients accept death. This trial uses psilocybin rather than LSD as it carries no political baggage compared to LSD.
The buried knowledge from studies conducted in the 50s and 60s needs to resurface. It is critical for the efficient use of currently limited resources. Today’s researchers must reprise the experiments of the past according to today’s standards.
Psychedelic therapy may be a hard pill for modern medicine to swallow since its effects fall under the spiritual category. However, this pill might be necessary. The prescribed method of treating psychological conditions is the leading contributor to disability. The United States faces 43,000 suicides every year. Psychedelics have the potential to fix the current broken system, particularly for mental health.
How to Change Your Mind Final Book Summary and Review
Pollan fully embodied the work ethic of the people he studied and covered in the book. He also put himself in the line of fire to test out viable treatment options or a new field of study.
Psychedelics are not a recent fancy for many researchers. Spirituality is a prominent part of the healing process. However, the stigma society attached to psychedelics has led to the modern medical complex missing out on many of its benefits.
Cultures worldwide have always incorporated a metaphysical component into their medicinal practices. In the Western world, though, spirituality and science are immiscible. That’s a rift of our own doing. Psychedelics could be the missing key, as Michael Pollan has showed. They can unlock beneficial treatments for various medical conditions and influence personal growth.
This book forms a manual for researchers to study and understand the history of psychedelics. It also pinpoints the people involved in keeping the study alive. The book provides a guide on what it will take to see the torch pass into the future. Let’s recap some of the top takeaways below:
- Psychedelics went through a renaissance.
- Psychedelics had the potential to revolutionize natural history.
- Psychedelics initially met with strong initial resistance.
- An underground tour helped Pollan understand psychedelics.
- The first LSD trip unlocked wild visions and imaginary encounters.
- A second psilocybin trip helped strip away Pollan’s ego.
- 5-MeO-DMT was an explosive experience with a sweet ending.
- Psychedelics can create important inroads in neuroscience.
- Psychedelics can be used in psychotherapy in the future.
We rate How to Change Your Mind 4.3/5.
How would you rate Michael Pollan’s book?
This unofficial analysis was first published in April 2021. It was updated and revised on 28/01/23.
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