One of my favorite books of the year is Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”. While reading it I nearly wore the skin off the tip of my pointer finger highlighting entire passages on my Kindle.
Don’t let the length of How to Change Your Mind intimidate you. It’s a page turner and I breezed through this book as quickly as any novel I’ve read. It reads like three books in one: A history of psychedelics, the neuroscience behind them, and Pollan’s personal accounts having taken them for the first time in his 60s. A common theme throughout the book is the potential for psychedelics to enhance the well being of those suffering from things like depression, anxiety, and addiction, as well as allowing for “the betterment of well people.”
The book is littered with gems such as the story of Oscar Janiger, a pioneer in LSD research, who personally administered the compound to Aldous Huxley and Cary Grant. Later, Grant would credit psychedelics for ridding him of his sadness and vanity.
“I’ve had my ego stripped away. A man is a better actor without ego, because he has truth in him. Now I cannot behave untruthfully toward anyone, and certainly not to myself.” –Cary Grant
While the stories of famous figures were especially fun to read, the part that piqued my curiosity most had to do with the changes in the brain that psychedelics actuate.
Research being done at Johns Hopkins on patients suffering from anxiety due to life-threatening cancer suggests that a single experience with a high-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) is enough to lessen their fear of death, with many people reporting that it was completely eradicated. Scientist’s believe this has to do with the psychedelic’s ability to quiet a person’s default mode network, the part of our brains we often refer to as the “ego” that’s responsible for self-related thinking and mind wandering. An over-active default mode network leads to obsessive self-reflection and negative patterns in thinking that are common in addicts and people suffering from depression.
Shutting down the default mode network for a period of time can be terrifying, as the ego will attempt to remain in control for as long as it can. But if you’re willing to surrender, you can experience a sort of ego death that allows for wonderful things to happen. As Pollan explains…
No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.
What separates How to Change Your Mind from the rest of the literature on psychedelics is his detailed research and skeptical eye. His isn’t the conversion story of Allen Ginsberg, who, having taken psilocybin with Timothy Leary, “got on the phone and started dialing world leaders, trying to get Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong on the line to work out their differences.” His is a subtler shift. He advocates for the use of psychedelics in a controlled setting, with someone trained to not only help you through the trip, but also make sense of your experiences and integrate them into your life after.
One of the biggest benefits Pollan sees with psychedelics is their ability to tell us something about our minds…
This, I think, is the great benefit of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness, the light they reflect back on ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.
I don’t know what the lasting impact of this book will be, but I can say that I’ve noticed a profound shift in the cultural conversation regarding psychedelics over the past few years, and especially in the months since Pollan’s book came out. I myself am hopeful that these compounds can be studied more widely in the future and the benefits people of different cultures have been experiencing for millennia will be used to help change our minds for the better.
For more from Michael Pollan, check out his talk with Tim Ferris on YouTube here:
…or download it on iTunes here…