What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
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DISCLAIMER: This is for entertainment purposes only. Please consult your doctor and check your local laws before taking any drugs.
Michael Pollan’s Perspective
Michael Pollan is a storied journalist who requires no introduction to several audiences. His journalistic work has seen him handle periphery topics many don’t think about or find absurd.
Even then, the insights he blesses us with tend to be eye-opening and mind-blowing in most cases. His recent book, “This Is Your Mind On Plants” is a remarkable collection of examples.
Although Michael’s roots are in journalism, his fame has been through the books he writes. Together with the trips, he takes us via his novels. This writing may be why Michael Pollan is a Knight Professor at the UC Berkeley School of journalism. He writes science and environmental articles.
Further, he has earned accolades and criticisms. They were for exploring areas seldom in the general public’s consciousness. Any professional should expect that. As a recipient of the Washburn Award in 2015, his outstanding contributions will shape the views of generations for decades to come. They include scientists, therapists, and other medical professionals.
Mentioning psychedelics makes two things happen. First, it primes the listener that they’re now stepping into the realm of fantasy and irony. Second, it raises some concern for the mental well-being of the person raising the topic.
That’s the kind of light psychedelics have been cast under. This bleak light is from decades of hysteria, negative reviews, and punitive legislation. However, that’s not how the story has always been. It certainly prevents exploration.
Michael 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.
It’s only natural to be curious. You require guts to try and experience psychedelics for yourself, then write first-hand a book about the experience.
The meat of this book starts when there had been a thick blanket of condemnation covering psychedelics, their study, and their uses. Michael Pollan then decides to gather some first-hand experiences of their usage. While he hadn’t put much thought into such substances and their effects, this was a chance to satisfy layers of curiosity he couldn’t pass on.
What Pollan has come up with 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. What’s more, these experiences all but served to increase Michael Pollan’s interest in the subject.
The real journey begins with a paper he had ignored months earlier. It led him to take a deeper look into the scientific study of the effects of psychedelics.
StoryShot #1: A Renaissance
This chapter looks at three significant events. They led to the crack in the ice that had blanketed research on psychedelics for more than half a century. The first was a centennial celebration of the birth of the Swiss chemist responsible for discovering LSD. It was followed by a landmark case in which the US Supreme Court accorded indigenous religious groups, the use of Ayahuasca tea. The third was a paper authored by a well-respected scientist. It straddled the divide between two disciplines that had always loathed each other. These are science and spirituality.
Roland Griffiths was everything you’d expect of a revered scientist. His work on the effects of drugs, opiates, and hypnotics is notable. It has 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 access is on the Caffeine Withdrawal Syndrome.
However, Griffiths’ introduction to Siddha Yoga was the turning point. This was despite being a scientist, he believed in phenomenology. Such an experience led to a curiosity that his current routine and network couldn’t fulfill. That was until a call from a friend provided an escape route for his interest.
A Cascade of Talent
The phone call leads to a host of other individuals. They involved themselves in changing the outlook on psychedelics. Bob Jesse is a computer scientist and VP at Oracle. He came up with a plan. It was to use science to change how the scientific community approaches psychedelics. Rick Doblin is a scientist who strongly believes in using MDMA to bring about world peace, of course.
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 perhaps this altered state of mind allowed people to peek into the truth. A truth that ordinary consciousness cannot begin to fathom.
Bob’s case led him down a path. This was to discover individuals who had been silently studying psychedelics. His discovery included various institutes such as Esalen in California. The founding of Hefter Research Institute was the loud crack in the ice.
This new beginning was a bat signal for the psychedelic research community. They needed to start organizing. In 1999, an ad appeared in the papers announcing the return of scientific testing. A host of new experiences came with it.
StoryShot #2: Natural History
The journeys by the volunteers in the Johns Hopkins lab after consuming psilocybin raised questions for Michael Pollan. 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?
If Pollan were to get answers, then Paul Stamets may have them. Stamets was a world-leading mycologist. He contends that fungi form sentient membranes. That is how they affect entire ecosystems and become an oracle for nature.
Paul Stamets’s work prompted Pollan to go deeper. He studied psilocybes, the potent mushrooms. The work itself was inspired after Stamets ran into a psychedelic trip. This is what cured his stammering problem. It was the catalyst for lifelong work in mycology.
The research went further into the past. A VP at J.P. Morgan introduced the psychedelic mushrooms to the US. 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: The First Wave
“Turn on, tune in, drop out” may seem like three simple phrases. Different societal actors viewed them as a severe threat to social order. The biggest was the government. It was the motivation that hit Timothy Leary with a 30-year sentence.
The term was for attempting to bring marijuana into Texas from Mexico. This heavy comedown was a fate other psychedelics projects across the country 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. As you’d expect, with loose terms around the title researcher.
The promise that LSD held in the ‘50s and ‘60s was in the study of schizophrenia. It further led to the discovery of hormones. For instance, serotonin and antidepressants SSRIs. Dr. Humphry Osmond led the research. He had the support of the Saskatchewan provincial government. The common theme among the reports was the same. It was stripping away the ego and becoming united 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. This reputation allowed him to emplace himself in Harvard’s Social Relations department. His involvement in the multiple trials went well for a time until it didn’t.
His rogue streak got him and another professor fired from Havard. It put him in trouble with the federal government. That included spending time in jail and becoming an international fugitive. Timothy Leary’s story is far-reaching. It illustrates an understanding of the collapse of psychedelic science in the late 60s.
StoryShot #4: Journeying Underground
As expected, the guided tour Pollan was to experience had to occur “underground”. There were potential ethical, legal, and psychological troubles. They were a few things no one wanted to get involved in. Would these people accept a journalist in their midst?
He pondered on his introspection ability or lack thereof. Pollan wondered where his intellectual curiosity would ultimately lead. Would it be down a path he may regret? The “underground” people turned out to be professionals with dizzying accolades and accomplishments.
In his odyssey, he came to meet individuals involved in underground research. These guides learned to trust him and his intentions.
They turn out to be descendants of the great psychedelic researchers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Their work went on under wraps. No one knew how many people took part or what happened until 2010. That’s when a pioneering psychologist built an online road map. It led Pollan down a path to discovery. What experiences would he gain from using psychedelics?
StoryShot #5: Trip One – LSD
This trip came courtesy of someone who lives off the grid, to the point of growing his food. The guide’s favorite line was “Compared to LSD, Freud was a joke!” when exploring the depths of the psyche.
This expedition entailed getting some breathwork done. It was so the guide could determine how Pollan would handle an LSD trip. That work revealed to Pollan that putting him into a trance was simple. The steady beat made it easier for him to slip into the trip and start experiencing 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 kept acting until morning when it finally cleared.
Pollan intended to continue the journey even though the situation could have turned life-threatening. This time, the music playing influenced his experience. The visions morphed from the beachside to narrow mountain passes and men working in a field. Each time the music changed, his perception transformed.
However, the visions soon altered into an encounter. It was with his family, including himself. In his own words, attempting to write his experience seemed like a predictable venture. LSD measuring 100 micrograms had seen him fall into the lap of God.
His enduring lesson; Love is EVERYTHING!
StoryShot #6 Psilocybin
The psychedelic trip Pollan was to confront happened somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. This time, he was receiving the guidance of a Mexican Indian. The guide led Michael Pollan into a native American prayer. That prayer invoked the cardinal directions, plants and animals, minerals, and the elements.
The location was an altar. It was adorned with Native American sacred items, floral patterns, and more due to Mary’s efforts. This was particularly through all her years of spiritual reawakening.
The mushroom trip was organized and relied on a unique set of eyeshades. As before, the visions were influenced by music. In this instance, the electronica saw 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 eyeshades. 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.
At this point, he attempted a psychological experiment, the Bayesian inferences. These images break down in schizophrenics and people in psychedelically induced states. The test didn’t work as hoped.
On taking a second dose and going under, Pollan experienced a stripping away of his ego this time. He was present in reality around him but in the form of something different. It is a point where people can let go of their desires, defenses, and fears.
StoryShot #7 5-MeO-DMT (The Toad)
One of the most influential psychotropics comes from the Sonoran Desert Toad’s venom. This opportunity appeared suddenly, and he couldn’t let it pass. The guide was a Mexican therapist. She explained to him the effects of smoking 5-MeO-DMT. That they are immediate and can unearth traumas.
The journey started with smoking the crystals of 5-MeO-DMT. All it took was inhalation for reality to be stripped away by an explosive rush of energy. The terrifying experience could have probably been described as mysterium tremendum. 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, and other aspects of the universe. The ego and physical body returned.
The retreat to consciousness was the beginning. It was 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. This is the violent nature, the awful climax, and the sweet conclusion.
StoryShot #8: The Neuroscience: Your Brain on Psychedelics
Psychedelics result in mind-bending at the very least. They leave one with more questions and a thirst for solutions. How does a molecule have so much power over consciousness? What of the ability to influence or change one’s perspective on various issues?
The three molecules in question, though different, have one thing in common. They are tryptamines our bodies produce in the form of serotonin. When these tryptamines combine with serotonin receptors in the brain, magic happens.
They helped birth the field of neurochemistry. This was in addition to the study of SSRI antidepressants. These molecules, combined with serotonin receptors in the brain are one thing. They don’t explain the metaphysical experiences people undergo. At this point, the contents of consciousness have run circles around neuroscience tools.
Psychedelic drugs and their effect on alertness are vital. They can be the tool that may burst open the problems of consciousness. It may lead to a new peephole into the inner workings of consciousness. This can happen through several tools available to researchers. The Imperial College in West London’s Center for Psychiatry will substantially support this research.
StoryShot #9 Psychedelics in Psychotherapy
At New York University, a trial employing psychedelics can be the key. It might be crucial in helping terminally ill patients accept their passing away. This trial utilizes psilocybin rather than LSD. It is because it carries no political baggage compared to LSD.
The buried knowledge in the studies conducted in the 50s and 60s needs to resurface. It is critical for the efficient use of the currently limited resources. Note that today’s researchers must reprise the experiments according to today’s standards.
Psychedelic therapy may be a hard pill for modern medicine to swallow. This is especially since its effects fall under the spiritual category of definitions. However, this pill might be necessary. The prescribed way of treating psychological conditions is the leading contributor to disability. This country faces 43,000 suicides every year. Something has to give to fix the current broken system, particularly when it comes to mental health.
Final Summary and Review of How to Change Your Mind
The book is the culmination of superb work. Pollan fully embodied the work ethic of the people he studied and covered in the book. He put himself in the line of fire to test out possible treatment options or a new field of study.
Psychedelics are not a recent fancy for many researchers. The stigma society attached to them could have led to the modern medical complex missing out. Spirituality is a prominent part of the healing process.
Cultures worldwide have always incorporated a metaphysical component into their medicinal practices. In the Western world, its apparent spirituality and science are immiscible. That’s a rift of our own doing. Psychedelics could be the missing key, as Michael Pollan has demonstrated. They could unlock beneficial treatment of 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 awake. The book provides a guide on what it took to see the torch pass well into the future.
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“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. “
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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― Michael Pollan #howtochangeyourmind
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