How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelic Drugs Teaches Us (Nonfiction)
By Michael Pollen
Have you ever felt trapped in your mind, repeating the same depressing thoughts and longing for fresh eyes and a new perspective? This is one good reason people like to travel. In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollen (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) suggests a different kind of “trip” using psychedelics drugs to refresh your spirit and expand your mind.
As a child of the 60’s I’d heard all the horror stories about hallucinatory drugs: bad acid trips, ugly flashbacks, and Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping out of a window because she’d taken LSD (toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs in her system). Pollen says due to the vilification of psychedelics and their association with other addictive and dangerous drugs, for over 40 years the medical community lost sight of their astonishing therapeutic value. That changed in 2006 when a landmark clinical study demonstrated how these drugs have the potential to positively affect our life experience.
Some fascinating chapters in the book are devoted to Pollen’s own first-time experience with hallucinatory drugs at the age of 60. His plan was to be a part of the drug trials undertaken at John Hopkins University and NYU (but first he had to check with his cardiologist to make sure his heart would tolerate the “trips”). A self-described non-religious journalist, Pollen testified that he experienced altered states of consciousness and a type of spiritual awakening under psychedelics. More importantly, the drugs enabled him to disengage from his ego, allowing a remarkable feeling of well-being. As cliched as it sounds, Pollen says he felt and understood in new, profound ways the significance of love.
I liked the last third of the book best, the chemistry and analysis of why and how these drugs might help people dealing with addictions, depression, and imminent death. I had no idea that “Bill W,” the founder of AA, took a hallucinogenic, Belladonna, to help him with his alcoholism. Nor did I know that the research in the 1950’s and 60’s on psychedelics lead to the development of SSRI antidepressants. Pollen also reveals that in the NYU and Hopkins trials, “ . . . 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin (magic mushroom) session.”
Pollen’s book is exhaustively researched and full of the colorful characters that people the history of psychedelics, including well-known figures like William James, Aldous Huxley, and Timothy Leary, as well as lesser known scientists and researchers like the Swiss discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, and one of the country’s leading experts on the genus Psilocybe (hallucinatory mushrooms) Paul Stamets.
Though I currently have no addictions, no cancer diagnosis, and am not depressed, Pollen’s book made me curious how hallucinatory drugs might help us. I’d never considered how psychologically tyrannical and destructive our ego can be, how instrumental the ego is in the repression of joy. Portions of Pollen’s book is too detailed and ponderous for my taste. But other parts are not only fascinating, but wise and thoughtful. He’s an excellent writer. This book is well worth the read.