Book Review: How To Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

When I heard Michael Pollan was writing a book about psychedelics it was reminiscent of the joy I felt when I first saw that Jonathan Safan Foer had written a book about animal agriculture. He’s an author whose voice I already enjoy and it’s a subject I’m deeply passionate about so I was eager to read what he had to say on the matter and excited by how popular this book was becoming because I trusted that Pollan would handle this delicate subject with grace. I was actually about to read “The Omnivores Dilemma”, Pollan’s most well known book after putting it off for awhile, but then “How To Change Your Mind” came about and superseded that, along with a few others, in my line of what I planned to read next. This article is about the book and the impact it’s making not so much my thoughts on it’s subject, though I’m sure I’ll dive into psychedelics on here another time.

“[Psychedelics] would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study important processes that under normal conditions are not available for direct observation” – Stanislav Grof

Over the last few decades there have been many books written about psychedelics, but the ones that tend to reach the most eyes emphasize the cultural side of psychedelics, with “How To Change Your Mind”, Pollan takes a different approach. He focuses on the history of the clinical use of psychedelics. This is what makes the book so powerful. Talking about the overt cultural impact of psychedelics is an easy subject to go on about. It’s riddled with over the top stories, the characters are mythical and it had an undeniable impact on society. Continuing that conversation is well and fine, but it’s not going take these medicines forward. In fact, it could actually take them a few steps backwards. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, if that’s the case, then psychedelics are the exception to the rule. What happened in the 60’s may appear to be progression because these substances were brought into the mainstream light, but I, and many others, would argue that it was more of a regression.

In February I went down to Envision Festival in Costa Rica where MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and others at the frontier of psychedelic studies held lectures, workshops and panel discussions on the many facets to this extensive subject. The common thread throughout them was that they presented these substances with the upmost respect, carefully considering their potential and challenges, something that past proponents of psychedelics often ignored. Whether they were discussing the progression of MDMA into Phase 3 clinical trials or practical users tips like how to deal with looping, it was refreshing to hear these substances expanded on so thoughtfully. The presenters enable this, but the crowd carried responsibility as well. It’s like talking about digestion. Sure, there’s easy jokes to be made, but doing so during discussion doesn’t serve anyone. This is the same approach Pollen took with “How To Change Your Mind”. It’s not a book written for entertainment and for that I am grateful. If you want to read trip reports full of surreal accounts of what these substances may result in, head over to Erowid instead. Pollan does include a few personal accounts of trials with psychedelics and many from others, but all centered around the clinical aspects, not the “frills” of the psychedelic experience. Much like the talks at Envision, this book is able to convey certain ineffable themes with a more honed perspective because as the years go, our language for the subject develops.

“You have to imagine a caveman transported into the middle of Manhattan. He sees buses, cell phones, skyscrapers, airplanes. Then zap him back to to his cave. What does he say about the experience? ‘It was big, it was impressive, it was loud.’ He doesn’t have the vocabulary for ‘skyscraper,’ ‘elevator,’ ‘cell phone.’ Maybe he has an intuitive sense there was some sort of significance or order to the scene. But there are words we need that don’t exist. We’ve got five crayons when we need fifty thousand different shades”

– Bill Richards

Theres no way to erase the history of these substances. Timothy Leary, MK-Ultra and the excessive use of these substances within certain cultures (past and present) will always be a part of the lineage. Past missteps help to inform the path forward and Pollan clearly understood that by keeping the old cultural baggage out of the narrative. By discussing these substances without their stigma, he allows for a more objective outlook, something these medicines desperately deserve.

I believe “How To Change Your Mind” is coming around at the perfect time. As the discussion of mental health takes a rightfully prominent place in the public sphere, so does the analysis of our current means of treatment. Therapy is a vitally important aspect to emotional healing but pharmaceuticals, in a lot of instances, are a broken tool and sadly seem to be distributed as if they are miracle drugs of the modern age when they are actually generating their own host of issues.

In the past few years, stories related to mental health have exploded, along with the use of prescription drugs, but they don’t seem to be taking care of the issues because they act as a band aid rather than something to truly heal. In my experience with pharmaceutical drugs (SSRIs) as treatment for depression, it was like having a plumbing problem, say a leaking sink in your home, and fixing the leak by shutting off all the water. Yes, the problematic aspect is sort of taken care of but it negates the necessary elements of plumbing along with the troublesome one. Using drugs to suppress or dampen negative emotions is a road that leads to nowhere and people are waking up to this after years of anxiety and depression pills becoming a non-thought, something consumed without regard for all their effects. As pharmaceuticals are used more and more, our bodies build up tolerances to them like they do with antibiotics. Most anxieties or mental difficulties are a result of our own thought patterns. We may recognize them. Even despise them, but breaking out of them is easier said than done.

“[Robert] Carhart-Harris suggests that psychological “disorders” at the low-entropy end of the spectrum are not the result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order. When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing.”

– Michael Pollan

Psychedelics, when used properly, allow access to our emotional and spiritual core. With the defenses our ego constructs are taken down, we can work on our inner selves in an unfiltered way. Accessing these deep parts of ourselves is only one tenant of the experience though. If a large dose is being taken with a therapeutic intent, having a guide or companion with the user can help to work through the challenging parts rather than shy away from them. This is what therapy is all about whether it’s assisted by psychedelics or not.

“But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin… thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto a myriad of smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross-talk,” among it’s various neighborhoods.”

– Michael Pollan

Coupling psychedelics with therapy can seem like a short cut compared to other methods, and in some cases, I see how this could be the case, but if it genuinely can achieve the desired, lasting healing, I’m all for them, and so is Pollan. After nearly every psychedelic endeavor in my life, from a microdose to a more powerful, ego crushing serving, I wake the next day feeling like a snake that’s shed it’s skin. If these substances are taken for more than the fun side, it’s almost impossible not to learn something. The key is integrating the lessons and not relying on these altered states as the only means of emotional or spiritual growth.

Pollan does a fantastic job of covering the clinical merit of psychedelics without debating which types of therapy are best. He’s not really arguing anything in this book actually. He’s just expressing the benefits of these substances that have become so waterlogged with preconceived notions. Without content like this, it’d be hard for these substances to be allowed to even enter the discussion. Psychedelics don’t need to replace tried and true methods of therapy, they just need to be allowed a spot in the tool belt of healers, to be used when the patient, set and setting are appropriate. For decades psychedelics have been considered and studied for the treatment of mental health issues, but it’s the work of MAPS, Michael Pollan and many others truly making this a reality these days. As psychedelic assisted therapies blossom, “How To Change Your Mind” will be reflected upon as a pivotal factor in their rise and success. It’s books like this entering the mainstream that make me feel this third wave of psychedelic studies could be the one that breaks through in the way hoped for during the last two. With this book, Pollen is truly raising the global consciousness.

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