Leave it to Michael Pollan, with his free-ranging curiosity, to take on the strange and troublesome history of psychedelic drugs. Playing to his strengths as an investigative reporter, Pollan draws on a solid body of research to create an impressive—and immersive—work of journalism. The result, HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND, challenges decades of misunderstanding.
Early on Pollan places psychedelics in a well-known political context—the 1960s when the drugs’ mind-altering nature and counter-culture use terrified an entire country. LSD, in particular, became the national boogeyman until it was classified as a Schedule I substance and banned in 1971.
The ban came despite what Pollan shows was promising research into LSD’s use for treating addiction, anxiety, and depression. Sadly, the research never had the time to yield definitive answers—as Pollan puts it, LSD “escaped the lab” far too soon. For that you can blame Timothy Leary, and many do.
But you could also go back several years before Leary and point a finger at the media. Pollan recounts how glowing headlines, in the mid- to late-1950s, hyped the mystical “trips” taken by the nation’s elite—celebrities, intellectuals, and anyone wealthy or connected enough to get their hands on LSD or psilocybin (mushrooms). Before Leary urged hippies to “tune in, turn on, drop out,” LSD had already become part of the national consciousness.
Pollan divides his book into three sections—a history of psychedelic use, culturally and in the lab; a personal account of his own experimentation while researching the book; and a scientific exploration of how psychedelics work on our brains. The latter is especially fascinating because learning how psychedelics operate has shed important new light on how our brains operate.
Also of interest are the vivid accounts of trips taken under the supervision of researchers at Johns Hopkins during the 1950s and ’60s. Subjects reported the stereotypical mystical experiences—the dissolution of the ego, a merging and oneness with the cosmos, an onslaught of vivid imagery, and synesthesia, the state in which “numbers take on colors, colors attach to sounds.”
Even years later, when interviewed by Pollan, many of the Hopkins research subjects tell the author that their transcendent experiences changed them forever. Not to paint too rosy a picture, however, less lucky subjects reported terrifying paranoia, and some completely unremarkable trips.
So why have humans, as far back as primitive times, been so attracted to mind alteration? That, too, is a question Pollan explores with his typically probing insights. Don’t miss this remarkable book: as always, the author makes diving into complicated subjects—neuroscience for one—deeply pleasurable. Believe me, How to Change Your Mind will expand your universe.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.