In the 1967 Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit,” Grace Slick sings a two-minute psychedelic update of the Lewis Carroll classic, filled with mushrooms and pills, and closes the song with the advice to “feed your head.” In Michael Pollan's latest book,How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, two images of brain scans—one with a placebo and one of a person fed the naturally occurring psychedelic compound psilocybin—demonstrate vividly the power of psychedelics: The placebo brain image shows a few neural connective routes but quite a bit of blank space (think air space routes over the poles), whereas the brain image awakened by the psilocybin is as awash in brain connections and brain activity as air routes into LaGuardia.
This weighty book brings the underground activity of psychedelic activity and research aboveground onto the cultural table of conversation—just as Pollan’s earlier work, such as Omnivore’s Dilemma,spawned, in many ways, the locavore and farm-to-table movements. This latest book, in some ways, serves not only as a continuation of an interest in nourishment—of the soul, of the mind, of consciousness—but also a return to some of the interests addressed in The Botany of Desire (2001), in which plants hijack humans as a means to propagate the species.
“Botany of Desire was the wellspring for much of my work, addressing all these human desires plants have evolved to gratify,” Pollan says. “The most curious is the universal desire to alter consciousness.”
Botany, then, was the bud to this new work (pun intended). How to Change Your Mind evolved from Pollan’s research for a New Yorker article. When he’s between books, Pollan likes to write a series of articles to learn whether his interest in a topic is strong enough to continue writing about that subject. “I found what I was learning about this research on psychedelics to be utterly fascinating and also implausible,” he says. He learned, for example, that cancer patients who took psychedelics were able to “shift their perspective” on dying. “How could that be?” he asks. “They were arriving at an enviable place as they approached death—and I wanted to learn more about how that process worked for them.”
Pollan discovered, in fact, that there had been an entire body of research in the 1950s and early 1960s (some of which continued into the 1970s until government funding ultimately dried up), after the discovery of the LSD molecule in the 1930s, to examine the treatment possibilities of psychedelics on alcoholism and other addictions as well as on depression and a variety of psychiatric disorders. This secret history of psychedelics as a promising mental health treatment option has largely been hijacked by the Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) narrative of the psychedelic ’60s (“turn on, tune in, drop out”).
Pollan’s book is not primarily a cultural examination of psychedelics (little mention is made, for example, of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the acid tests or the Grateful Dead), but, rather, it’s focused on the scientific potential of mushrooms, LSD, and other psychedelics. Nonetheless, Pollan takes some glee in the notion that the CIA experiments of the 1950s on the capabilities of LSD as a weapon or as a means of mind control by dosing people like Ken Kesey led directly to the psychedelic ’60s—which he calls “a CIA mind-control experiment gone bad.”
In talking about the potential of psychedelics on human consciousness and as a mode of treatment, Pollan quotes the scientist Stanislov Grof, a key historical figure in How to Change Your Mind, who worked as “a scholar in residence at Esalen” and who boldly stated that “psychedelics ‘would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy.’ ”
“I started off,” Pollan muses, “thinking that was hyperbole, but now I think he may be right.”
Pollan points out that there is a mental health crisis in America, with rates of depression, suicide, and addiction increasing; antidepressant medications have plateaued. “Many respected doctors think these [psychedelic] treatments will spark a revolution in the field,” he says.
There’s also a personal reason for Pollan’s interest in this research. He dedicates How to Change Your Mind to his father, who was dying of cancer while Pollan was writing the book. (Pollan’s father died in January.) That experience compelled him to think more deeply about the conversations we need to have in America about how people die. He also points out that he was at a place in his life “where I felt a bit stuck in my routines and behaviors—a natural process of aging. I was intrigued by the possibilities of a drug that seemed to break down these habits and help people escape these destructive grooves.”
Indeed, Pollan himself became a subject of research. In the book, he describes participating in several guided psychedelic experiences; he works to describe these mental journeys as concretely as he can, a risk for a couple of reasons. Obviously, taking psychedelic drugs is illegal. The other risk is less legal, more literary: “Writing about your psychedelic experience is a bit like telling other people about the dream you had last night: It’s only of interest to the teller,” he says. But he adds that writing about his trips was “great fun.” “It was, in fact, liberating once I found a voice for writing about it. I found a writerly stance—both inside and outside of the experience—that allowed me to bring the experience to the page.” For example, on a guided trip on mushrooms, Pollan sees a series of “faces of the familiar dead” passing before him: “aunts and uncles and grandparents, friends and teachers and my father-in-law—with a voice telling me I had failed to properly mourn all of them. It was true. I had never really reckoned the death of anyone in my life; something had always gotten in the way. I could do it here and now and did.”
“I had had little personal experience with psychedelics and don’t normally like to delve into my deepest fears and fantasies on the page,” Pollan confesses. “But these molecules force you to look inward; they bring aspects of your unconscious fears and desires into your awareness.”
Pollan did not consider himself a particularly spiritual person before his experiments with psychedelics. Yet, as the book’s subtitle suggests, transcendence is also at the heart of the psychedelic experience, whether undertaken for therapy or consciousness expansion. In fact, Pollan’s outlook on spirituality shifted as a result of his own psychedelic experiences: “I had thought of a spiritual experience as an otherworldly sense of the divine that would be a rebuke of a materialist understanding of nature—my usual perspective. Instead, I developed a consciousness of myriad other consciousnesses in the world—a conviction that there are many more subjectivities out there besides our own.” This thinking, then, led Pollan further: He knew from his earlier work that humans aren’t the only intelligent beings on Earth, but did he really understand that? “I knew this truth intellectually, but these psychedelic experiences allowed me to feel what I had previously only understood intellectually,” he says. And these journeys have led Pollan to be more devoted to meditation and to become better at the practice.
Pollan’s research into psychedelics does connect with his well-known writing on food. Writing about food, Pollan learned much about public health and the environment, “a crisis that was not being addressed,” he says. “Food opened a window on those pressing problems.” And psychedelics open a window on the mind and have the potential to provide relief to the millions who suffer from mental illness.” He acknowledges that getting the medical establishment to prescribe psychedelics will be a “challenge,” but the research he writes about in the book is “encouraging enough to suggest psychedelics could be a part of mental health care in the near future,” he says.
Not only is there potential for treating those afflicted with mental disorders; there’s promise even for the everyday neurotic. “Important as it is, the ego,” which is diminished in these psychedelic states (as it is during meditation), “is the root of much unhappiness, and quieting its voice can be therapeutic,” Pollan says. That’s a pursuit perhaps not envisioned by our Founding Fathers but one that might offer an important lesson in the midst of so much cultural buzz and chatter in the daily news: Turn off the news feed and feed your head.
J.W. Bonner writes regularly for Kirkus and teaches writing and humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina. His appreciation for the writer Allan Gurganus is forthcoming in the North Carolina Literary Review.