I’ve been an admirer of the work of Michael Pollan since reading The Botany of Desire, in which he suggests that four plants (potatoes, tulips, apples and marijuana) have ensured their survival by generating a strong desire for them among humans. So when I noticed that he had taken on the topic of mind-altering drugs in How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics, my curiosity was piqued.
As someone for whom the hippie era was extremely formative (the long hair may be gone from the top of my head but the idealism’s still inside), I was intrigued to find out what has changed about the psychedelic experience during the last fifty years. It was the word ‘new’ that jumped out at me from the title; I wondered what modern scientists are making of substances I once thought could change the world.
The book is divided into three sections. Firstly, Pollan recounts the history of the use of psychedelic drugs in the West, beginning with Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938. The second part relates his own trips (part of his research, as a ‘psychedelic virgin’) on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and even inhaling the venom of a particular toad through a vaporizer. The third section of the book deals with the ‘new science’, describing recent experiments with LSD and other psychotropics to alleviate the suffering of terminal cancer patients, addicts of all sorts and the severely depressed.
While I was fascinated by the first two parts, as I never knew anything about the history of these drugs, and it’s always interesting to read other people’s accounts of ‘tripping’ as it’s such a difficult experience to put into words, I found the last part rather predictable. The scientists involved are all looking for a way to legitimize the use of LSD, so the experiments are set up with favourable conditions, the volunteers are carefully selected to produce positive outcomes, and Pollan reports only those cases that resulted in miraculous recoveries.
Nevertheless, reading the book brought back memories of some ecstatic states that I experienced myself many moons ago, and it reminded me that much of my euphoria then was due to escaping a sense of self (‘dropping the veils to reality’) and merging with the natural world. It also brought me back to my interest in Buddhism, which encourages us to attain a state of ‘non-self’ and to ‘be here now’, both of which are characteristics of the psychedelic experience.
Finally, it was fun to read about some of the strange activities humans are up to these days that I wasn’t aware of, such as holotropic breathwork and microdosing. The former is a type of hyperventilating that can apparently take the mind into a state similar to that caused by psychedelic drugs, and the latter involves ingesting LSD (or any other psychotropic) in tiny quantities to facilitate creativity in the brain, which is all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Meanwhile, I haven’t had a mind-bending experience in years; anyone got any mushrooms?
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.