How to change your mind

To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. 

Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. “How to Change Your Mind” documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, “The Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.

The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization, but not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis. 

Over the last two decades, medical centers, along with the U.S. government, have been allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”

Modern technology, specifically MRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation, or “set,” and guided circumstance, or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist. 

However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death. 

While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking … is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life. 

As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.