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Summary of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
What Is the Book About?
In 2018, Pollan wrote How to Change Your Mind, a book about the history and future of psychedelic drugs. He argues that psilocybin and LSD are not drugs that make people crazy, which he calls the biggest misconception people have about psychedelics, but rather drugs that can help a person become “more sane” by, for example, eliminating the fear of death.
The book explores the renaissance of scientific research into these compounds and their potential to relieve several kinds of mental suffering, including depression, anxiety, and addiction. It also delves into the rich history of psychedelics in America, tracing the promise of the early research in the fifties and how a moral panic about LSD in the mid-sixties led to decades of suppression, just now ending.
About the Author
Michael Pollan was born on February 6, 1955, and he is an American author, activist, journalist, and professor of journalism at the UC Berkely Graduate School of Journalism.
He is the author of seven previous books, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he also teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world.
Some of Pollan’s books have been adapted into television series—Netflix based a four-part documentary on Cooked in 2016, PBS premiered documentary adaptations of The Botany of Desire (2009) and In Defense of Food (2016). Pollan is currently the Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer and Professor of the Practice of NonFiction at Harvard University.
Book Summary of How to Change Your Mind
Whether it be coffee, cannabis, listening to music, dancing, etc. Every day people are taking the substance or doing something to alter their state of consciousness. Psychedelics seem to be a class of mind-altering substances that open to the mind to a greater awareness.
Although there are a variety of different types of psychedelics; The main psychedelics mentioned in the book include psilocybin – also known as magic mushrooms – Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and 5-MeO-DMT.
How to change your mind by Michael Pollan is a reintroduction of public conversation on the use and potential of psychedelic drugs. The book is broken into parts: First, it’s the cultural and natural history of psychedelics and then the author’s personal experiences with the substances, his own personal trips, and lastly, the use of psychedelics and its potential for medicine.
The cultural and natural history of psychedelics
Michael Pollan goes into detail about what went on in the 1950s and the 1960s and also the key people. From the first American experience of a psilocybin trip in Mexico to Elbert Hoffman, creating the synthetic version known as LSD by accident and taking the first-ever LSD trip. Also, the research and trials being done during that time, but ultimately having to be shut down during the counterculture movement.
One of the big names mentioned during the natural history of psilocybin is Paul Stamets. Stamets is a well-known figure in the field of mycology, which is the study of fungi. He believes that fungi have the potential to save the planet.
Michael Pollan thought it would be no good for a journalist to write about a book about psychedelics without having any personal experiences with psychedelics. So at the age of 60, during the course of writing this book, he seeks out safe places to journey underground, starting with psilocybin, because it is still illegal. He had to go underground where there are professional medical facilities, but they’re doing it under the table.
So he started with psilocybin, then he took an LSD trip, and lastly, he took a 5-MeO-DMT trip. He described his journeys as best as possible, and somewhat poetic.
Pollan mentions that the words do not do any justice to a person who has not experienced a psychedelic experience. The experiences are too great or too extreme to be expressed or described in words. Therefore, they are ineffable.
Pollen had intended to volunteer for a study, to have a guided psychedelic journey in the company of trained professionals close by a hospital emergency room. However, the above-ground researchers were no longer working with “healthy normals”. This meant any journey would have to take place underground – to the network of trained therapists, who also work with psychedelic compounds.
When Michael Pollan, had his first LSD experience, his guide was Fritz, a German man who was part of a three-day retreat that was designed to provide the best possible experience. On the first day, Fritz guided Pollan through a session of breathing exercises; on the second day, the actual LSD trip took place; and on the third day, they talked about the experience.
What Pollan also discovered is that an LSD experience is not necessarily what you’d expect. Pollan’s mystical experience began with the first day’s breathwork. Fritz encouraged the author to breathe deep and fast while giving special effort to the exhale. After doing this for some time, Pollan found that his body began to continue breathing that way automatically. Amazingly, the author then had a vision of himself riding a horse, and, for the first time in his life, he felt truly and fully connected to his body. When the session was over, he’d been breathing intensely for over an hour, and he felt absolutely radiant.
As for the LSD experience, it wasn’t a crazy trip. Instead, Pollan felt like he was being guided through a psychological exploration of his family. During his trip, he witnessed images from his son’s life and then his father’s life. By the time it was over, he’d developed a new sense of compassion and love for them both.
Believe it or not, Pollan felt somewhat underwhelmed after his first LSD experience. While the trip had encouraged him to be emotionally open to others, it wasn’t as transformative as he’d hoped.
So now he found himself ready to move on to another substance and to try a more mystical guide. This time it was psilocybin mushrooms, and the guide was a woman named Mary who lived on the East Coast.
At first, Pollan found all the mystical trappings related to psychedelics a bit hokey.
Inside Mary’s house, there were lots of plants and feminine symbology. And in the room where the trip took place, there was an altar covered in purple fabric displaying a heart-shaped amethyst, a purple crystal candle holder, a branch of sage, a huge mushroom and the wing of a crow. It immediately reminded Pollan of everything he distrusted about mysticism.
Meanwhile, Mary was saying prayers that invoked spirit animals and other beings from the natural realm. But while this all seemed corny at first, it almost immediately changed as the psilocybin began to take effect. Now, Mary’s rituals seemed completely natural to him as she handled her role as a guide with poise and assurance.
Ultimately, this psychedelic experience was extremely powerful.
Having eaten the entire mushroom, Pollan had taken the equivalent to two grams of psilocybin. This was an average dose, but it was more than he’d taken in his LSD trip with Fritz.
Not long after the drug had kicked in, the author went to pee and found the bathroom filled with sparkling lights. And when he urinated, the stream appeared to be made up of diamonds.
Then, when he returned to the room with the altar, Mary’s face had transformed into that of an elderly Mexican woman. But not just any woman – he recognized it as the face of Maria Sabina, the Mazatec Indian healer who many believe is the first to have given psilocybin mushrooms to Western travelers.
As the trip went on, Pollan’s ego dissolved. While he could still perceive the world around him, it was no longer from the usual perspective of his mind and ego. Instead, there was only an unbiased, unburdened consciousness. It was certainly a highly transformative experience for the author, to say the least.
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Your Brain on Psychedelics
Neuroscientists have recently looked into the effects of psychedelics and have found that they do cause the brain to be more interconnected.
In a 2014 study at the Imperial College in London, neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris and his colleagues used magnetoencephalography to get a more detailed look into the effect psilocybin has on the brain. This technique provided the researchers with a map of brain activity that showed how different areas interacted both normally and while influenced by the drug.
Many areas normally function more or less independently, such as the area that handles visual recognition or the one that deals with memory. But under the influence of psilocybin, the brain gets rewired in a dramatic fashion, and these areas start communicating with each other.
In other words, each specialized section becomes less self-contained, and the brain begins to function as a more integrated unit. Some neuroscientists believe this interconnectedness is what produces the seemingly magical experiences that occur during a drug trip.
So, when the areas devoted to memory, emotion and visual information all start to interact, the person may start to see things differently and experience strong emotions that are colored by memories. In the author’s case, this resulted in a visual hallucination of his guide turning into a Mazatec Indian.
Another typical psilocybin experience that can be explained by parts of the brain interacting is called synesthesia. This is when the senses fuse, so that, for example, a sound may be perceived as a color or a shape, and a taste may be associated with a physical sensation.
When the session is a positive one, this rewiring can lead to new insights and ideas, some of which can be transformative. For example, if someone is trying to break a bad habit, or if an older person is stuck in a limited way of thinking, psychedelics can be a useful way for them to rediscover a more flexible attitude toward life.
“The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network. This can be achieved any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation, as Robin Carhart-Harris and Judson Brewer have demonstrated, but perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises (like holotropic breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on. “
The Trip Treatment
The last part of how to change your mind goes into the clinical trials on psychedelic use as a treatment for the dying addiction and depression. What is it about death that we fear?
Pollen notes that our fear of death is a function of our egos, which would burden us with a sense of separateness that can become unbearable as we approach death. Our ego gives us a sense of self and when we die, we lose this sense of self. Psychedelics help people realize that the ego creates boundaries and during a mystical experience, a person breaks through all boundaries, which can seem like physical death.
All your identities are being stripped, which creates who you are in your mind. What psychedelics do is show you that these are just identities. Cancer patients seem to confront their cancer or fear of it while on a psychedelic trip. Also, they have the experience of giving birth or being reborn.
Michael Pollen conversed with people who were given psychedelics to treat their addiction to smoking, and one of the patients stated: “why quit smoking? Because I found it irrelevant. Because other things had become so much more important.” Other smokers had visuals of themselves looking like ugly creatures if they were to continue smoking or having a realization of the fragility of breath. Because without breath, there is no life.
Most of the smoking participants came back from the experience with a very simple quote: The dumb moments, which are such as eat right, exercise, and stretch.
If addiction represents a radical narrowing of one’s perspective and behavior and emotional repertoire, the psychedelic journey has the potential to reverse that constriction, open people up to the possibility of change by disrupting and enriching their interior environment.
― Michael Pollan #howtochangeyourmind
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The Treatment of Psilocybin And People With Depression
Depression is a response to pass loss, and anxiety is a response to future loss. Psychedelics could be seen as a reboot for people with depression. Temporarily lifting the veil from their eyes and experiencing oneness in the present moment with everything. After a couple of months, most of the people going back to old patterns, but with the new experience that doesn’t leave and becomes more like an idea. More than one trial seems to be necessary for people with depression because it is such a rooted habit.
As children, we have not yet created the boundaries that adults have. Children can make a castle out of the mud and create a whole world. As we age, we create boundaries, closing off our creativity and complying with the world. Psychedelics seem to reboot our minds back to how we were as children and give a person a chance to start new.
So far, the studies show that psychedelics are indeed effective at alleviating depression. Some of the first positive signs came from a 2016 study by the neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris at London’s Imperial College. The early tests suggest that psychedelics could be preferable to the pharmaceuticals currently being used, which generally call for daily usage and often have debilitating side-effects.
Again, more studies are currently underway to see if the benefits can be substantiated. But we already know that one of the ways psychedelics soothe depression is by allowing patients to find a new sense of connection in their lives.
― Michael Pollan #howtochangeyourmind
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1- The quality of a psychedelic experience depends upon the intention the user sets before the session and the setting the experience takes place in.
2- Psychedelics are not addictive and become less effective with frequent use. It is difficult, if not impossible, to overdose on the drugs.
3- Psychedelics treat disorders like depression and anxiety by interrupting compulsively negative self-reflection.
4 – Psychedelic drugs allow users to connect with simple truths on a spiritual level.
5- Most psychologists who practiced psychedelic therapy in the 1950s and 1960s personally experimented with LSD or psilocybin.
6- Psychedelic therapy practitioners continued their research underground after LSD and magic mushrooms were made illegal in the United States.
7- Studies involving psychedelic substances are difficult to replicate under normal scientific constraints.
8- Mystical experiences can be obtained through other methods besides drugs—for
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