Famed journalist Michael Pollan turned on, tuned in – and profoundly changed his mind
By Lou Fancher
Credit an 80-year-old molecule, magic mushrooms, toad venom and counterculture figure Timothy Leary for leading writer Michael Pollan to the topics in his new book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” (Penguin Press, $28, 465 pages).
The decades-old compound synthesized from a molecule at Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz was LSD. Psilocybin is the “magic” in tiny brown mushrooms discovered thousands of years ago in Central America. “The Toad,” otherwise known as 5-MeO-DMT, is a fast-acting psychotropic derived from the Sonoran Desert toad. Leary, uttering in 1966 the infamous “turn on, tune in, drop out” rant, launched LSD users into orbit, split generations and sent 1950s and 60s clinical trials showing LSD’s efficacy in treating alcoholism into a tailspin. Pollan in his book suggests that underground, Leary-led former LSD users might be today conducting or funding the renaissance of promising psychedelic research in the scientific community.
In what appears at first glance a detour, the Bay Area-based writer takes an experiential and uniquely personal dive into the history, science, spirituality and culture of psychedelics. Included are intriguing, quirky real-life characters, vivid descriptions of four “trips” Pollan took (one each on LSD, psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT and ayahuasca, a less-researched psychedelic), compelling case study narratives and sturdy, investigative journalism.
Pollan, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is widely recognized for his articles, essays and best-selling books on food, agriculture, health, culture, science and the environment “(Cooked,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “The Botany of Desire”).
Century-spanning scientific stepping stones and psychedelic’s powerful impact on society led Pollan to explore psychology, consciousness, mysticism and related topics he’d previously avoided. While writing an article on psychedelics published in 2015 by The New Yorker, Pollan developed an eerie sense that at age 60, he’d become mentally stagnant, complacent. He wondered, was his consciousness perhaps too smooth? “I realized the article was just scratching the surface, and I was getting curious about having the experience myself. I knew a book would have to be different in tone than the straight-up science piece,” he says in a phone interview.
Articles written in the 2000s introduced Pollan to new studies at New York University, Johns Hopkins Medical School and research centers. The work of brain scientist and therapists expanded the long ago alcoholism trials to address anxiety, depression, addictions and compulsive, cyclical thoughts suffered by people with cancer, PTSD, eating disorders, smoking addiction, chronic depression and other conditions.
He attributes the literary decision to toggle between science journalism and personal perspectives to writer George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion.” The participatory sports book, he says, highly influenced his writing style. “He completely renovated sports journalism by getting on the football field. If you think about it, he took greater risks than I did with my trips. By doing that, you provide the reader with the fish-out-of-water experience, more humor, depth.” The choice put his ego on the chopping block. “But that’s what I do with all my books,” he says.”Not having the experiences would leave a big hole.”
Stepping beyond the facts—”Change Your Mind” is chock full of them but rarely bogs down in narrative-stalling detail—was a lark. “As a journalist, it’s fun to have facts, but it’s also confining. The facts often get in the way of a good story,” says Pollan. “Here, the guard rails were very different. It’s more personal, exposed. I thought it would be harder than it turned out to be. Once I found the voice of being in it and outside of it at the same time, I found it more like fiction writing, like an intra-psychic movie.”
The trips were transformative, even though the immediate, cognitive glow faded after a few months. Altered awareness forever changed how he reads mystical literary passages written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he says he now understands Alfred Lord Tennyson’s letter describing “waking trance” consciousness. Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites will never sound the same, due to four grams of psilocybin he ingested. “It’s possible to study spirituality scientifically. Some people believe spirituality means a bearded guy in the sky. The key thing is that my understanding changed. The opposite of spiritual isn’t “scientific”, it’s ‘egotistical.’”
His research for a chapter on neuroscience was for Pollan most eye-opening. “(Psychologist) Alison Gopnik, a colleague of mine, made a connection between a child’s consciousness and psychedelic consciousness. As we get older, we have a tendency to predict. Our brains aren’t interested in the full picture – they just want to leap to a conclusion. We basically use our senses as error-correcting machines to make sure we get it right. Children see things more actually. It caused me to rethink so much about the way we operate.”
Pollan doesn’t skirt or minimize the problems or dangers related to uncontrolled use of psychedelics. He emphasizes the importance of the trained guides who supervised his journeys. Although the Schedule 1 drugs are not addictive, clinical trials face obstacles: The set and setting influence a user’s experience and skew the results; “blind” placebo-controlled trials aren’t practical because it’s impossible to mask the mystical, hallucinatory state of participants who receive LSD.
Even so, the most moving episodes, other than Pollan’s own trips, come from people who’ve benefited from the clinical trials. Uplifting stories have arisen from people overcoming addictions, finding self-acceptance, no longer fearing death, or, in one person quoted, surfacing from depression to see, “I was everybody, unity, one life with 6 billion faces.”
Pollan doubts a moral panic will again push psychedelics underground. “Now, the conversation is about helping people who are suffering. That’s compelling. The need is urgent. Designing ways to deliver psychedelics safely is what’s happening. It’s a new model. You can look at that as a hurdle or something really exciting.”