How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is the book that put psychedelics back into the mind of the general public. His excellent writing, good research, and vivid personal experiences make it one of the must-read books for people new to this field. The book takes you through the history (first wave, underground, recent research, therapeutic potential) of psychedelics and leaves you changed afterward. A deep-dive into the psychedelic experience.
“When LSD was first discovered in the 1940s, it seemed to researchers, scientists and doctors as if the world might be on the cusp of psychological revolution. It promised to shed light on the deep mysteries of consciousness, as well as offer relief to addicts and the mentally ill. But in the 1960s, with the vicious backlash against the counter-culture, all further research was banned. In recent years, however, work has quietly begun again on the amazing potential of LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Could these drugs in fact improve the lives of many people? Diving deep into this extraordinary world and putting himself forward as a guinea-pig, Michael Pollan has written a remarkable history of psychedelics and a compelling portrait of the new generation of scientists fascinated by the implications of these drugs. How to Change Your Mind is a report from what could very well be the future of human consciousness.”
Prologue – A New Door
“The impact of the two molecules [lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD, psilocybin] is hard to overestimate.” Pollan describes the link to neuroscience and the changing view that mental disorders aren’t exclusively psychological in origin. Psychedelics found their way into psychotherapy (as they are doing again now/soon).
But a backlash was soon approaching. After the 1950s followed the 1960s where “the exuberance surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic.” Then in the 1990s, a small group of researchers picked up the batton, the renaissance of psychedelics research was ignited.
Pollan makes the reader aware of set and setting. “Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place.” And he gives an explanation of why no two experiences (even for the same person) are alike, “… because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.”
His interest in writing the book was partly inspired by the study that administered psilocybin to people with cancer (see paper analysis here). “What was most remarkable about the results … is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives …” Pollan is struck by the observation that the “temporary dissolution of one’s ego” may be the key (versus the pharmacological effect) to changing one’s mind (thus the title).
As a species, we’ve been changing our consciousness for as long as we can remember. Psychedelics are one of the safest (you virtually can’t overdose on LSD, it’s not addictive) and interesting ways of doing this. But that doesn’t mean they are without risk, Pollan mentions bad trips and people behaving stupidly (i.e. walking into traffic) when high.
Habits are what make our life possible. If we don’t run on autopilot for much of the day, we would be exhausted by the afternoon. But psychedelics “shake the snowglobe” and temporarily break us free from our habits, they “… block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful.” And as he reflects on his life – his habitual life – “The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.”
Pollan describes his normal awake consciousness as a “default mode of consciousness”, a reference to the Default Mode Network (DMN, large scale brain network linked to executive functions) to which he comes back later.
Chapter 1 – A Renaissance
Pollan dates the renaissance at somewhere in 2006 because of 1) Albert Hofmann‘s 100th birthday, 2) the exception for a religious group to use ayahuasca in the US, 3) research done by Roland Griffiths and colleagues.
The second is about the U.S. Supreme Court who allowed a religious group to import ayahuasca (that contains DMT). The religious group itself is a Christian sect that, translated, is called the Union of the Plants. Although momentous, it’s not most likely that this is how psychedelics will become more accepted.
The third event is the paper: Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance by Griffiths and colleagues. “[It] was the first rigorously designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in more than four decades – if not ever – to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic.”
Pollan then gives a bit of the (personal) background of Griffiths. We then meet another heavyweight, Rick Doblin (founder of MAPS). His goal is to “[incorporate] psychedelics into American society and culture, not just medicine.” And “Doblin believes fervently in the power of psychedelics to improve humankind by disclosing a spiritual dimension of consciousness we all share, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof. “Mysticism,” he likes to say, “is the antidote to fundamentalism.” “
Bob Jesse is a more behind-the-scenes type. He describes his time at Bell Labs, Oracle, and his interest in psychedelics. The ego dissolution (dissolution of the subject-object duality) is amongst the experiences that led him to sponsor/help/kickstart much of the ongoing research.
There are more than a thousand papers on psychedelics from before 1965. “But few of the studies were well controlled by modern standards, and some of them were compromised by the enthusiasm of the researchers involved.”
One of the reasons much of the research is being done on psilocybin (and not LSD) is that it “carried none of the political and cultural baggage of LSD.”
Pollan also meets the psychologist Bill Richards, who is quoted saying “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered.” He also argues that psychedelic experiences (or those elicited from fasting and other rituals) are the basis of religion. The ‘out there/One Mind’ is in line with what Aldous Huxley proposes in The Doors of Perception, but not something that is common among researchers today (but the idea that consciousness itself is a fundamental part of the universe is something that can be found in panpsychism).
The psychedelics research all but stopped at the start of the 1970s. Government funding dried up, the counterculture had embraced it, no research could be done anymore.
Then at the end of the century – in 1999 – the first research was again started. This was done by Roland Griffiths (and colleagues) with the support of Bill Richards (amongst others).
Pollan describes some of the results from the first (new) studies into psychedelics and the quality of the experience during the sessions. The positive results on smoking cessation, end-of-life anxiety, and other studies have reignited the fire under the scientific study of psychedelics.
Chapter 2 – Natural History: Bemushroomed
The second chapter takes a look at the early history of psilocybin, the one where it’s still in a mushroom (versus synthetic version now being used in research). One must note that LSD has a similar origin (from ergot).
To research the botany of the mushroom, Pollan meets with Paul Stamets (mycologist and author of several books on psilocybin).
Mushrooms can have various uses (next to being eaten by us), and Stamets is one of their biggest advocates. His research looked at cancer (stimulating our immune response), cleaning up pollution, protection against diseases, insect infestation, and more.
Stamets also argues for the intelligence/consciousness of mushrooms and their active involvement in their environment.
“Psilocybes are saprophytes, living off dead plant matter and dung.” This is the type (specifically Psilocybe azurescens) that Pollan and Stamets will be looking for in the woods.
The rest of the chapter is both a combination of the history of Stamets, their search for the mushrooms, and some of the theories and that Stamets has.
There is also some discussion of the ‘Stoned Ape Theory‘, but Pollan also states that it’s hard to refute (falsify) it in the first place.
Psilocybin might have arisen as a defense mechanism for the mushroom, or as a way to get its spores spread out more widely (‘high’ animals might wander further away).
The end of the chapter is where Pollan describes his own experience with taking the mushrooms he had gathered. Although he didn’t have the experience of ego-dissolution, he does describe his senses mixing (synesthesia), interesting visuals, and a generally positive mood.
Chapter 3 – History: The First Wave
Timothy Leary was the one who recommended kids to “turn on, tune in, drop out” advice that would get him in trouble with the authorities. But the early time of psychedelics wasn’t only rooted in counter-culture, “There had been forty thousand research participants and more than a thousand clinical papers.” The research into psychedelics was a blossoming field between 1949 to 1966, but few remember this.
Sandoz (a pharmaceutical company) was the one making the LSD and providing it for researchers. The first finding of those researchers was that LSD seemed to change the minds of their participants (“losing their minds”). This is also where the first idea of a chemical basis for schizophrenia comes from.
LSD can be directly linked to the discovery of serotonin (a neurotransmitter to which it binds) and the class of antidepressants known as SSRIs.
One of the experiments done in the first wave looked at LSD to help alcoholics stay sober. The results were very promising, “… in roughly half the cases, they reported, the treatment worked: the volunteers got sober and remained so for at least several months.” Hoffer (a researcher) also mentions that they didn’t only look at the chemicals, but also at the subjective experience (phenomenology) as a key factor in the treatment.
Early on, they found out that an engaged and empathetic therapist was crucial for guiding the trip, to shape the experience. When the positive results of the alcohol cessation studies were being replicated without this guidance, they failed utterly (and thus the Canadian government wasn’t onboard).
Bill Wilson (Alcoholics Anonymous) was another proponent of LSD. The ‘higher power’ aspect of AA is said to have originated from an LSD trip.
One vice (or at least a complication) was the use of LSD by the researchers themselves, often with other intellectuals in their homes.
Pollan also dedicates some pages to explaining that LSD (or psychedelics in general) can be seen as ‘active placebos’. It’s an interesting take, it argues that they ‘activate’ processes, but that much of it is ‘self-generated’.
The therapeutic method (Hubbard method) now being used with psilocybin (in current research) is also first mentioned here: “… typically involved a single, high-dose session, usually of LSD, that took place in comfortable surroundings, the subject stretched out on a couch, with a therapist (or two) in attendance who says very little, allowing the journey to unfold according to its own logic. To eliminate distractions and encourage an inward journey, music is played and the subject usually wears eyeshades.”
We then meet Al Hubbard, hear about his backstory and learn the following, “[He] would introduce an estimated six thousand people to LSD between 1955 and 1966.” Many of them were people in positions of power. His goal was to “shift the course of history.”
Hubbard would later set up alcoholism treatment facilities in Canada (where they used LSD).
LSD also found its way into Silicon Valley. One of the stories recaps the experiences of James Fadiman (The Psychedelics Explorer’s Guide) and the use of LSD for enhancing creativity and problem-solving.
The narrative returns to Timothy Leary and his experiments. The Concord Prison experiment (to see if psilocybin might help prevent recidivism) didn’t turn out to hold up (Rick Doblin later analyzed the study), but the Good Friday Experiment did show that “psilocybin can reliably occasion a mystical experience.”
In 1969 more than 2 million Americans had taken LSD, but the public opinion was about to change. Some might blame it on Leary, but Pollan argues that without him, the same backlash would have happened. Next to the cultural problems, the research into psychedelics was difficult (if not impossible) to double-blind and “too close to shamanism for comfort.”
So, the use of psychedelics went underground, and that is where Pollan takes us in the next chapter.
Chapter 4 – Travelogue: Journeying Underground
Pollan finds multiple underground psychedelics therapists/coaches and has a session there (LSD/psilocybin/DMT). He finds it both very interesting but is also bothered by some of the ‘woo-ha’ surrounding the experience (e.g. the music).
The music is one of the aspects that is now being studied as something that guides/shapes the psychedelics experience. Classical music is – for now – the most popular choice when doing research. Pollan vividly describes how he is moved by Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites: “Though ‘listen’ doesn’t begin to describe what transpired between me and the vibrations of air set in motion by the four strings of that cello. Never before has a piece of music pierced me as deeply as this one did now. Though even to call it ‘music’ is to diminish what now began to flow, which was nothing less than the stream of human consciousness, something in which one might glean the very meaning of life and, if you could bear it, read life’s last chapter.”
Pollan’s LSD session starts with holotropic breathwork. During his session, he takes 150microgram (a medium-high dose). Although he never has a mystical experience, he does describe it as following: “A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight.”
For his trip with psilocybin, he consumes 4 grams of mushrooms (grown by someone who learned it from Paul Stamets). He tries an experiment and refers to how our brain works as a Bayesian inference machine. “So rather than starting from scratch to build a new perception from every batch of raw data delivered by the senses, the mind jumps to the most sensible conclusion based on past experience combined with a tiny sample of that data. Our brains are prediction machines optimized by experience …”
During this trip Pollan does experience ego dissolution and remarks: “Yet this by itself strikes me as a remarkable gift: that we can let go of so much – the desires, fears and defenses of a lifetime! – without suffering complete annihilation.” He also refers back to Huxley and his ‘Mind at Large’, meditators, and Buddhists who might also have this type of non-ego experience more often.
For his third trip, Pollan smokes the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (5-MeO-DMT). This trip was the most overwhelming and any sense of ‘I’ was lost to Pollan. At the height of the experience, there was no body, no shapes, no language, just about nothing that he can relate back into words. There was the feeling of one-ness, of being part of something larger. When he came down (which takes only a few minutes but could experientally feel much longer) he felt a great sense of gratitude.
The last point he touches upon is death. Through his experiences he feels less afraid, less scared of there being nothing, of not being an ‘I’. This, of course, also links back to the research being done with psilocybin and cancer.
Chapter 5 – The Neuroscience: Your Brain on PsychedelicsThis chapter explores the neuroscience behind psychedelics. Pollan observes that psilocybin, LSD, and DMT all are tryptamines – just like serotonin (a neurotransmitter). They all have a strong affinity for the serotonin (5-HT)2a receptor. Because of the potency of LSD (being more ‘sticky’ than serotonin itself), research was started that lead to the SSRI antidepressants.
Research with psychedelics is also shedding new light on how consciousness itself works. Neuroimaging (whilst under the influence of psychedelics) can highlight in what way the brain processes information. Many of the characters we’ve met before are leading this research (David Nutt, Robin Carhart-Harris, and also Amanda Feilding).
“[Carhart-Harris] would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging technologies to build a foundation of hard science beneath the edifice of psychanalysis.”
One (at that time surprising) result from the neuroscience is that the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) is reduced. “… the [DMN] is most active when we are engaged in higher-level ‘metacognitive’ processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (such as the self or ego), moral reasoning, and ‘theory of mind’.”
So, when the activity here is reduced, there is less mind wandering, less (or no) ego (and so providing people with a perspective that without it you are still there – non-duality). Other ways of achieving the same result are meditation, holotropic breathwork, fasting, sensory deprivation, prayer, extreme sports, etc.
Another concept that is brought up again is “the brain as a prediction-making machine.” With psychedelics, you may be doing less of the efficient filtering and organizing, thus bringing in more information (less top-down, more bottom-up). “Carhart-Harris thinks that psychedelics render the brain’s usual handshake of perception less stable and more slippery.” More of this is explained in the following papers:
After discussing some more of the neuroscience, Pollan returns to what the long-term effects can be. Many parts of the experience may just be fools gold, many things that feel significant may turn out to be useless. But in many cases, the experience yields results in long-term happiness, resolving real (underlying) issues, more creativity, etc.
“For the well, psychedelics, by introducing more noise or entropy into the brain, might shake people out of their usual patterns of thought … in ways that might enhance well-being, make us more open and boost creativity.”
“As for those unwell, the patients who stand to gain the most are probably those suffering from the kinds of mental disorders characterized by mental rigidity: addiction, depression, obsession.”
“It seems plausible to me that the psychedelic experience could help us get out of those [obsessive] states, create an opportunity in which the old stories of who we are might be rewritten.”
Chapter 6 – The Trip Treatment: Psychedelics in Psychotherapy
Psychedelics research into how it can be used for therapy is “on a frontier between spirituality and science that is as provocative as it is uncomfortable.” The first description in the chapter, of a therapy room, doesn’t help the case is it is filled with traditional/shamanistic symbols. But the research that is being done is provocative and enlightening in the most scientific of ways.
Pollan describes the inspiration for and the actual psilocybin trials at NYU that looked at existential distress (and how psychedelics can help with it). At the time of writing the book (2018) there were only 80 people in the trials mentioned, the numbers have gone up slightly and the positive effects still hold up.
“So it may be that the loss of self leads to a gain in meaning.” and “These medicines may help us construct meaning, if not discover it.” Discovering meaning, letting go of your ego, finding universal love, were all reasons mentioned for the reduction in anxiety the patients felt with regard to their cancer diagnoses.
For addiction, a now-famous smoking cessation trial also showed promising results, one in which two-thirds still had quit smoking after a year. Read more about this study.
“Smokers know perfectly well that their habit is unhealthy, disgusting, expensive, and unnecessary, but under the influence of psilocybin that knowing acquires new weight, becomes ‘something they feel in the gut and the heart’.”
Pollan also makes the link to how Apollo astronauts saw the world, with ‘awe’. Through awe, people can broaden their perspective, become less self-interested (ego-istic), and feel part of something larger. “An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism.”
The third focus area for psychedelics is depression. It was the FDA that asked the researchers to “test whether psilocybin could be used to treat the much larger and more pressing problem of depression in the general population.” (An estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 7.1% of all U.S. adults. – NIH)
The main hypotheses as to why psychedelics might help those with depression are 1) it may help with lessening the disconnection they feel (because of an overactive DMN), and 2) may allow them to access difficult emotions.
Pollan does remind us that early research always looks most promising. It’s where the researchers are best, people are new to a type of treatment, the sample size is small. But that being said, it does look like psychedelics are targetting a mechanism that is underlying to many psychological disorders.
“ ‘The DMS [the psychology reference book] categories we have don’t reflect reality.’ Insel said; they exist for the convenience of the insurance industry as much as anything else. ‘There’s much more of a continuum between these disorders than the DMS recognizes.’ “ The analogies of a computer reboot or a snow globe that you give a new shake are apt ways of looking at how psychedelics work.
“The Hopkins researchers use a similar metaphor to make the same point: psychedelic therapy creates an interval of maximum plasticity in which, with proper guidance, new patterns of thought and behavior can be learned.”
In the final pages of the chapter, Pollan recounts how he uses a neural feedback tool (at a university, not something like a commercial headband) to watch is DMN in action.
Epilogue – In Praise of Neural Diversity
Pollan visits the Psychedelics Science conference in 2016 and is reunited with many of the scientists he had met before. The research is ever-expanding and the expectation is that therapies can be offered to patients as early as 2021.
A big open question is the business model, how will pharmaceutical companies make money on a pill (with psilocybin) that people only need to take once, maybe a few times tops.
“George Goldsmith [founder of Compass Pathways] envisions a network of psychedelic treatment centers, facilities in attractive natural settings where patients will go for their guided sessions.” This is mostly in reference to helping the ill, but the betterment of well people is also on the minds of many.
Guides are already being trained and now over a hundred people (soon more) are trained in guiding psychedelic-assisted sessions.
Pollan ends the book with a short description of his trip with ayahuasca. The final words are as follows: “… the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began.”
How to Change Your Mind makes many references to most of the people involved in the psychedelics (renaissance). Most, if not all, are mentioned in the analysis above.
- “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again” – New York Times (as inspiration for writing the book)
- Drugs Without the Hot Air (review) – David Nutt
- Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl
How to Change Your Mind is referenced in many different media, and even finds its way into newer research papers. It has inspired me to dive deeper into this field. Here are some talks/articles about the (content of the) book.
- Michael Pollan – Psychedelics and How to Change Your Mind | Bioneers (talk)
- Michael Pollan: “How to Change Your Mind” | Talks at Google (talk)
- Michael Pollan Drops Acid – and Comes Back From His Trip Convinced (review)
- How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)
- ‘Reluctant Psychonaut’ Michael Pollan Embraces The ‘New Science’ Of Psychedelics (interview/podcast)
- Michael Pollan — Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics (#365) (podcast) with Tim Ferriss
- Michael Pollan — Exploring The New Science of Psychedelics (#313) (podcast) with Tim Ferriss
- #127 – FREEDOM FROM THE KNOW (podcast) with Sam Harris
About the author
Michael Pollan is a prolific writer that has shaped our opinions on food (production, consumption, ethics) for decades. He is a professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard. His book How to Change Your Mind has given the psychedelics renaissance a welcome boost.