Embedded in a tiny mushroom the Aztecs referred to as “the flesh of the gods” is a molecule that produces life-changing experiences. During WW2, a Swiss chemist synthesized another molecule from ergot that can induce visions and entire journeys of the mind. These two molecules are psilocybin and LSD respectively.
“The impact of these two molecules is hard to overstate,” writes Michael Pollan. His latest book, How to Change Your Mind, is a deep dive into the mind-altering effects of these natural chemicals plus a few others. They are reported to produce an experience that is routinely referred to as “transcendent.”
Most people, myself included, relate mushrooms and LSD with wild times in youth. I took mushrooms with my Sri Lankan roommate and went to a Grateful Dead show in Irvine, California in 1988. It was fun, and I remember it pretty well. Neither the mushrooms nor the Dead were transcendent, however. Later, I chased real transcendence in intimacy, religion, running, yoga and other places. It has eluded me, though I found Pollan’s book to be “mind altering” in the sense that it has heightened my interest in these molecules.
Most hardcore foodies will be familiar with Michael Pollan and his many award-winning books about plants and eating. His attacks on the food industry and his defense of natural diets are based on decades of inquiry into the origin, nature, and ethics of human food consumption.
A hallmark of his writing is his emphasis on the co-evolution of the world of plants with the world of animals, specifically the human animal. Plants can do many things to humans other than nourish us and Pollan often writes on the subject from the point of view of the plant. Plants have a specific evolutionary purpose and, one might say, plan.
It is no wonder, then, given his earlier investigations, that he would reach the subject of psychedelics. These substances are illegal but they aren’t like other recreational drugs. As Tom Bissell observes in his review of the book for the New York Times: “They [psychedelics] don’t drape you in marijuana’s gauzy haze or imbue you with cocaine’s wintry, italicized focus. Psychedelics are to drugs what the Pyramids are to architecture — majestic, ancient and a little frightening.”
So, why would a 63-year-old successful writer and journalist like Pollan choose this subject and experiment with these substances? Pollan cites three points that piqued his interest and pushed him over the edge.
First, there was a story in the New York Times about doctors giving psilocybin to terminally ill cancer patients. It seemed like a crazy thing to do, give a psychoactive drug to people in a fragile mental state facing their own mortality, but the doctors reported that the experience helped patients accept their situation with less fear.
Second, Pollan met a practicing psychologist at a dinner party that spoke glowingly about her personal experiences with LSD. She reported on how the drug allowed her to get out of herself and see the world through the eyes of children. LSD dissolved her ego and allowed for true empathy.
Third, and most confirming, was an article emailed to him by a friend. It was a peer reviewed study published in Psychopharmacology that indicated that under a controlled circumstance, people given a high dose of psilocybin consistently had “mystical experiences” which dissolved the ego and allowed the subject to have the sense of merging with the universe and being at one with nature. These people were not just high and tripping balls (like I was at that Dead show in 1988).
Pollan’s journalistic instincts were triggered. He had stumbled onto a truly big story. After decades of taboo and fear, the very promising potential of psychedelic drugs was being investigated and the pioneering research from the 1950s, which had been sent underground in the aftermath of the counter-culture era, was being unearthed and extended.
In the book, Pollan tracks down and interviews a new generation of very sober researchers and scientists who are not prone to reporting positively on unmeasurable mystical experience. These scientists are using the drugs to treat alcoholics and others with clear mental disorders, but also “normals” or people who are not sick but seem to derive benefits from the state these elusive chemical components can deliver.
So, in true Hunter S. Thompson style, Pollan set out to take the major psychedelics himself and experience the effects first hand. Over the course of the book, he reports on his experience with LSD, psilocybin, DMT, and a couple of others. He chronicles his journeys as a sort of chemical travelogue, noting his dreams and impressions and how they relate to his seemingly perfectly normal and happy life.
The experiences he reports were different in many ways but the same in the most important way: the trips took him beyond himself and showed him another state of consciousness, of perception, that he was unlikely to experience any other way. The benefit was insight, which is its own special kind of health.
“We’re all dealing with death,” Pollan says, quoting Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researcher Roland Griffiths. “This will be far too valuable to limit to sick people.” He’s given TED Talks and advocated in multiple forums to make psychedelics legally available.
Research is being carried out on these drugs, but there is no real business model for folding them in to the medical establishment. Pharmaceutical companies can’t patent any of them, and they are not to be taken weekly, like a normal talk therapy session. Nevertheless, Pollan reports that the FDA has approved clinical trials of MDMA and psilocybin. They are emerging back into legitimate use after becoming collateral damage in the war between culture and counter-culture. Now, they are being treated as what they always were: tools given to us by the natural world to be used for good or ill, as our ethical codes determine.