Take a Dose of Michael Pollan’s Latest Batch,
How to Change Your Mind
– Book Review by Will Bahr – August 24, 2018 –
Penguin, 2018, $28.00 US, $37.00 CA
Michael Pollan’s latest book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. If the book’s title seems a mouthful, so are its contents a headful: it’s hard to recollect the trip on which the book took me in full, some scenes wafting from memory in acid-comedown-fashion. The comprehensive work covers the botanical and cultural history of psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin and DMT to their usage by individuals (namely himself) to their potential re-adoption by the medical world. There is an immense amount of ground to cover, ground which Michael Pollan spends a significant amount of time under: the subject matter is, of course, illegal, and it’s exciting to watch this established, respectable author navigate psychedelics’ clandestine world. The book transcends the hype of bad behavior, though, on which it certainly leans for eye candy but is by no means reliant.
Long-time acolytes of Pollan’s, who won their favor with the likes of The Botany of Desire (2001) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) will be familiar with his style. For my part, I’d remained a straightedge to him until recently, awaiting my first bout in anticipation like a kid in a smoke-filled circle. I’d heard good things, and Pollan delivered. He carries the torch of New Journalism high, marrying his reporting style with a novelist’s imagery, conjuring sentences like, “you can almost hear in [Allen Ginsberg’s] words the 1960’s being born, the still-damp, Day-Glo chick cracking out of its shell” (p. 193). He also struggles with simplicity—describing the afterglow of his first psychedelic experience (LSD, at age 60), he states, “all that day and well into the next, a high-pressure system of well-being dominated my psychological weather” (p. 254). Read: “I was happy.” This is glaring especially because of his musing, just a few pages earlier, on the import of the simplicity, platitudes (i.e. “love is everything”) and ineffability of the psychedelic drug experience (p. 251). As he puts it himself, “the mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious” (p. 71). For all its verbosity, though, it was hard not to find something in Pollan’s prose that had me turning on and tuning in—both his research and writing impress, and frequently.
Of other struggles, Pollan is more conscious. Psychedelic drugs represent novel ground for the empirical journalist, and not just because he never did them as a teen—the experience they provide, is, again, notoriously indescribable. Pollan’s very stock-in-trade is at risk, in part due to the difficulty of accessing research on the drugs and in part because of their transcendent nature. Aware and honest of this, however, he rises to the challenge, summing it up thusly:
“my default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens… That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive” (p. 12).
So Pollan acts as a proxy for the reader, adopting the skeptic’s lens. At his side, we come to learn that skepticism may be just as dangerous as some of the title’s more harrowing ailments, like depression and addiction; perhaps it is another form of addiction itself. That we are stuck in our ways and can use psychedelics as a solvent to this adhesive is a notion found in both camps Pollan explores. One is psychedelics’ medical potential as treatment for a spate of struggles, a challenge largely failed or made worse by pharmaceuticals. The other, as he calls it throughout the book, is the “betterment of well people.” This latter camp focuses on such existential quandaries as the fear of death, the dissolution of the ego and the unity of humankind with nature. Each camp, both currently and in days gone by, have seen profound success with a little help from their chemical friends.
Needless to say, while reading both Pollan’s work and a review of it, doubts will arise. Psychedelics come with enough baggage to dismay any bellhop, and Pollan is sure to do his own unpacking. He demonstrates the normalcy of psychoactive drug use, naming the Inuit as the sole “culture on earth… that doesn’t make use of certain plants to change the contents of the mind, whether as a matter of healing, habit, or spiritual practice” (p. 13). He stresses just how time-honored and effective the drugs’ therapeutic use is: “there [have] been more than a thousand scientific papers on psychedelic therapy before 1965, involving more than forty thousand research subjects” (p. 104). He argues that such drugs were propagandized since the 1960s, their danger criminally overplayed: “psychedelics are far more frightening to people than they are dangerous… It is virtually impossible to die from an overdose of LSD or psilocybin… and neither drug is addictive” (p. 14). Such insights, provided as much for housekeeping purposes as for information, are only a mere buzz of the high Pollan’s research brings—to spoil its revelations here would truly be a harshing of mellows.
How to Change Your Mind asks some big questions, and, as to be expected of interrogations of the cosmos, doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. One thing is certain, however—while Michael Pollan doesn’t stagger from the book’s pages as a fried-out, paranoid shell, nor rise from its ink an enlightened monk, his mind has changed. On grounds both chemical and habitual, his mental status quo was fundamentally challenged, and we’re right alongside him throughout the long, strange trip. Whatever your prior opinions about psychedelics, consciousness, life and death, How to Change Your Mind is all but guaranteed to change yours.
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