Michael Pollan on Psychedelics

Mind-blowing. That’s the only word for Michal Pollan’s new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. I’m hearing lots of conversation about this book (on the West Coast … more on that later). And for good reason. In case you need reminding, the world is a pretty scary place these days … that person in the White House, worldwide environmental devastation, here in California FIRE everywhere … and a book that tells us we can shake up our snow globe, at least internally, is damn good news.

Pollan_howAs one who came of age in the late ’60s–early ’70s, recreational drugs were everywhere. I smoked pot before I ever had a beer. And for many of my generation, psychedelics were part of the picture that included anti-war sentiments, general rebellion, and wanting to be part of the counterculture. Of course, there were those who over-indulged. I recall sitting in the Fillmore East at a Dead concert next to someone who’d clearly taken a rather large dose of LSD. He was standing on his chair shouting lines from Hamlet. I heard he didn’t make it back from that trip..

But I digress. The point is, misguided as we may have been, we were looking to expand our minds. And we were young and felt immortal. Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping out a window (which turned out to be an urban legend, by the way) had nothing to do with us.

Timothy Leary was a hero, the guy who’d taken LSD out of the lab and brought it to us. What a wonderful place the world would be if everyone could experience the new perspective psychedelic drugs afforded. Peace and love.

Pollen’s book turns almost everything I thought I knew on its head. Long before Timothy Leary et al. started experimenting with LSD, important research had been taking place. And it wasn’t about getting high. LSD and psilocybin were being studied for their therapeutic value, in treating addiction, depression and anxiety, with special emphasis given to terminal cancer patients. The results were very encouraging.

It was Leary’s role in making psychedelics available to the masses (and his genius for publicity) that helped shut down the research. The psychedelics became part of the culture wars and the medical and political establishment didn’t want anything to do with those damn hippies.

Fast forward 50 years and the pendulum is finally swinging back. Quietly and underground (at least for now), important trials are taking place with these drugs.

Michal Pollan documents and talks to many of the seminal figures working in the field of psychedelic therapy back then and those currently involved in research and trials. Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, Aldous Huxley, AA’s Bill Wilson (who thought LSD held great promise for alcoholics)—they’re all in there as well as those conducting sanctioned trials today.

As a responsible journalist, Pollan feels compelled to eat some mushrooms and drop some acid himself, and the detail and perspective with which he describes his trips is impressive. To my mind he goes a bit overboard when he “smokes the toad”—you’ll have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about—but undoubtedly it’s all in the name of research.

He makes a convincing argument, as do many of the top scientists in the field, that psychedelic therapy needn’t be restricted to those suffering from chronic disease. Pollan at 60 has some aspects of his psyche that he’d just as soon not be burdened with for what remains of his life … overinflated ego, unresolved family issues, low-grade anxiety, and the like. What a concept to think those aspects that we consider part and parcel of who we are could change!

I expect there are critics who feel Pollan paints far too rosy a picture of these therapies. But considering our lousy record with treatment of mental illness and chronic addiction, not to mention how we deal with end of life, it seems clear that guided psychedelic therapy offers a promising alternative.

As for the East Coast/West Coast divide I mentioned earlier, most of my friends out here knew of Pollan, most had heard of the book, many were reading it. All found his ideas intriguing. For my east coast pals, not so much. They were aghast at the idea. I’m so happy to live in California.