Pollan persuasively argues that our anxieties are misplaced when it comes to psychedelics, most of which are nonaddictive ... properly conducted by trained professionals—what Pollan calls White-Coat Shamanism—can be personally transformative, helping with everything from overcoming addiction to easing the existential terror of the terminally ill. The strange thing is we’ve been here with psychedelics before ... As is to be expected of a nonfiction writer of his caliber, Pollan makes the story of the rise and fall and rise of psychedelic drug research gripping and surprising ... Where Pollan truly shines is in his exploration of the mysticism and spirituality of psychedelic experiences ... Michael Pollan, somehow predictably, does the impossible: He makes losing your mind sound like the sanest thing a person could do.
Pollan’s complexly elucidating and enthralling inquiry combines fascinating and significant history with daring and resonant reportage and memoir, and looks forward to a new open-mindedness toward psychedelics and the benefits of diverse forms of consciousness.
Pollan’s initial skepticism and general lack of hipness work wonders for the material. The problem with more enthusiastic or even hallucinatory writers on the subject is that they just compound the zaniness at the heart of the thing; it’s all too much of the same tone, like having George Will walk you through the tax code. Like another best-selling Michael (Lewis), Pollan keeps you turning the pages even through his wonkiest stretches ... If Pollan’s wide-ranging account has a central thesis, it’s that we’re still doing the hard work of rescuing the science of psychedelics from the 'countercultural baggage' of the 1960s ... Pollan doesn’t give a lot of prime real estate to psychedelics’ naysayers. But given that those on LSD can appear to be losing their minds, and that the drug leaves one feeling emotionally undefended (a potential benefit as well as a profound risk), he does strongly recommend having an experienced guide in a proper setting when you trip. With those safeguards in place, he believes usage could be on the verge of more widespread acceptance, pointing out that plenty of other once widely derided practices redolent of the ’60s, like yoga and natural birth, are now common.
As 'a staunch materialist, and as an adult of a certain age,' Pollan has an abundance of skepticism. That moral panic, for him, has not fully subsided, and it renders How to Change Your Mind repetitive and hamstrung ... I get it and sympathize, to a degree, though I mainly find his ambivalence exhausting ... It’s also telling that while the reported 'spiritual' angle of psychedelics is what hooked him, Pollan had no interest in these drugs until they began receiving high-profile institutional approval, in the form of both Times coverage and university studies ... I bet you could cleave the lot of us fairly neatly between those who believe institutions have people’s best interests at heart—that they should be trusted to figure out the 'best' way to take drugs—and those who see institutional attention as a sign of dark developments to come ... I’m afraid drugs alone aren’t going to change much of anything.
It’s a rare take on psychedelics that does not come dressed up in a cheesy colorful montage and backed by the sounds of the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Pollan takes his time to show what LSD and 5-MeO-DMT (also known as 'The toad,' smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad) can actually do: He reaches for enlightenment, and drags us along for the ride. He documents the positive effects of these drugs, from curing addiction to bringing relief to cancer patients, and shares some of his own experiences. As America struggles to help people who deal with addiction and mental health issues, Pollan supplies ample evidence that substances like LSD and psilocybin could actually help—if we’d just move past what we thought we knew ... the most important thing Pollan does in this book is describe deeply his personal experiences of psychedelics in as relatable a way as possible ... How to Change Your Mind might not be a colorful, psychedelic mass love-in, in which we all become 'heads,' but a psychedelic revolution could be closer than we think.
Of the many trips Pollan describes — several in almost slavish detail — the most common takeaway is that 'love is everything.' While Pollan admits that this observation is Hallmark card banal, he can’t help but be charmed by it. Nor can we. But what Pollan sometimes neglects to make clear in this alternatingly fascinating and frustrating book, is that the experience of taking these drugs is very much a reflection of who we are, and what we believe. The drugs themselves do not increase creativity or generate insights, or even truly provoke them ... Such quibbles aside, Pollan’s deeply researched chronicle will enlighten those who think of psychedelics chiefly as a kind of punchline to a joke about the Woodstock generation and hearten the growing number who view them as a potential antidote to our often stubbornly narrow minds.
Like his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s a mixture of history, profiles, first-person reportage, and wonder-struck rumination ... Pollan took a couple of research trips himself in the course of writing How to Change Your Mind, with results that are interesting only to the extent that they help him make sense of other people’s accounts of their own journeys. The meat of the book is its chapters on the neuroscience of the drugs and their evident ability to suppress activity in a brain system known as the 'default mode network' ... If How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will, it will be by capsizing the long association, dating from Leary’s time, between the drugs and young people ... If psychedelics can help cure the midlife crises of disaffected baby boomers and Gen Xers, then it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to pick them up with a prescription at our local pharmacy.
Pollan corrects the misapprehensions by performing his signature trick on both the history and current status of study on LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT (the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad). As in his previous books...there are few corners of the matter into which he doesn’t peer ... Hippy-dippy claptrap has long attached itself to psychedelics, remedied here by Pollan with plenty of quotation from eloquent and moving personal narratives, including his own ... those frequent reports of a mystical sense that the ego has exploded or that one has merged with the infinite/nature/all-encompassing love: the DMN has simply gone 'offline.' It’s where our stories about the 'I am that I am' reside. No wonder temporary freedom from that short leash feels ecstatic. So does reading a book this generous, fascinating, and necessary. It’s enough to get you high.
How much you swallow from this new work depends on your receptivity to his honeyed writing, your tolerance for his self-preoccupation and your alignment with his skeptical but beckoning stance. Pollan, born 63 years ago on Long Island, has a robust ego. In this book he vacillates for long stretches about relinquishing that ego for even a few hours to the vagaries of mind-altering chemicals ... More solid is Pollan’s work here as a journalist, reporting the colorful history of psychedelic research and the scientists who animate it. The author brings news of a potential renaissance for their powerful organic compounds ... Sharp-eyed readers will note that the unwieldy subtitle about psychedelics shedding light on consciousness, dying, addiction, depression and transcendence is crashing the purview of religion. Pollan clearly knows this, but can exhibit a tin ear; he repeats a jab at Holy Communion as a 'placebo sacrament.' Such things are not his bag.
In How to Change Your Mind, Pollan explores the circuitous history of these often-misunderstood substances, and reports on the clinical trials that suggest psychedelics can help with depression, addiction and the angst that accompanies terminal illnesses. He does so in the breezy prose that has turned his previous books — these include The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked, the inspiration for his winning Netflix docuseries of the same name — into bestsellers ... Ever the diligent reporter, Pollan has recently tried several psychedelics himself (with help from experienced guides) ... LSD and psilocybin will have to be better understood, and this enlightening book figures to play an important role in that conversation.
How to Change Your Mind is Pollan’s sweeping and often thrilling chronicle of the history of psychedelics, their brief modern ascendancy and suppression, their renaissance and possible future, all interwoven with a self-deprecating travelogue of his own cautious but ultimately transformative adventures as a middle-aged psychedelic novice. In other words, this is a serious work of history and science, but also one in which the author, under the influence of a certain Central American toad venom, becomes convinced he’s giving birth to himself. Improbably, the combination largely works. It is to Pollan’s credit that, while he ranks among the best of science writers, he’s willing, when necessary, to abandon that genre’s fixation on materialist explanation as the only path to understanding. One of the book’s important messages is that the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, for the dying or seriously ill, can’t be separated from the mystical experiences to which they give rise.
Despite my generation...I approached this pro-psychedelics book by the American food writer Michael Pollan with something worse than scepticism; I approached it full of prejudice. And there was plenty there to keep my jaundice alive ... When I put it down I had become very interested in what Pollan had told me. Then I started following some of his footnotes and the characters and science he had introduced me to, and I became increasingly intrigued. The book was having an after-effect. I was changing my mind. How did that happen? Not easily, especially since the early part of the book is not an easy read ... Finally, though, I had to admit that Pollan’s arguments against total prohibition, in favour of developing the therapeutic use of psychedelics, and indeed in favour of personal experimentation in controlled circumstances, had won me over, despite myself. I may even give it a go ... One caveat, though. If we are to make more use of psychedelics, please don’t make the rest of us sit through the ramblings of day-trippers describing their euphoric micturations, or how nothing is everything. That would be too high a price.
His trip reports are presented not as hedonistic adventures or what skeptics might describe as 'mental masturbation,' but as Pollan’s practical way of testing the claims of psychedelic enthusiasts and the conclusions from the clinical trials conducted at NYU and Johns Hopkins ...
How to Change Your Mind thus presents a sophisticated conversion narrative. A committed rationalist and staunch materialist (at least at the outset of the book), Pollan makes it his goal not to be seduced by the various psychedelic drugs he ingests. And yet he presents his reliable narrator self as ultimately powerless to deny the intensity and profundity of his mystical drug experiences. The dialogue between the committed rationalist and the reluctant mystic makes his narrative immensely engaging: the reader must weigh and juxtapose the author’s sober and dispassionate claims alongside the ecstatic reports from his first-person drug experiences ... many of Pollan’s loyal readers are likely to treat this book as an invitation: another gustatory exploration meant to entice.
Here’s the problem: reading about an acid trip is like listening to someone recount a dream. It’s far more interesting to the person who experienced it. Pollan is a uniquely gifted writer — his best-selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma changed the way many of us think about food — and he can make just about any topic engaging, but a deep-dive into hallucinogens stretches his talent. Do we really need another investigation into the transformative power of LSD? The result here is a mixed bag ... Pollan concedes that psychedelic experiences are difficult to render in words, but he does his best. We’re along for the ride as he drops acid, munches psilocybin, and ingests the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, transforming what could be a collection of vague ramblings and psychobabble into some genuinely moving passages ... In trying to describe hallucinations, the author poses a question: 'How do you put into words an experience said to be ineffable?' Unfortunately, you can’t. Michael Pollan made a valiant effort to dissuade this skeptic, but he wasn’t able to change my mind.
Pollan has also long demonstrated an enchanting facility with the English language and a knack for conjuring the offbeat characters he encounters in his research and reporting, from Johnny Appleseed to the entrepreneurs of organic farming. As opposed to Jamison’s quotable one-liners, his gifts manifest in a playfulness whose magic accretes over paragraphs. This virtuosity and charisma are less evident in How to Change Your Mind (starting with the title, which is no Omnivore’s Dilemma). Perhaps ironically, given the topic, the writing is more, well, sober. But it is always lucid, and there are parts—such as his portrayal of an eccentric mycologist who considers mushrooms to be a virtual panacea for the world’s ills—where his old mischievous charm reappears.
Pollan does justice to the contributions of Hofmann, Osmond, Huxley, and Timothy Leary but also emphasizes those of people like the physician Sidney Cohen, who warned that the use of LSD in psychiatry needed strict controls ... Pollan’s thorough investigation includes new insights about one of the most baffling and elusive figures to grace the field of psychedelic research ... Al Hubbard ... Hubbard believed in promoting LSD by using what he called the 'Eleusinian model'—turning on society’s elite to its consciousness-expanding effects first ... Pollan is also impressed with the encouraging preliminary results of another of the Imperial group’s experiments, in which they used psilocybin to treat nineteen patients with treatment-resistant depression ... Pollan’s enthusiasm for this kind of research is perhaps too unqualified ... But the human desire to alter consciousness and enrich self-awareness shows no sign of receding, and someone must always go first. As long as care and diligence accompany the sort of personal research conducted by Pollan...it has the potential to be as revealing and informative as any work on psychedelic drugs conducted within the rigid confines of universities.
Toward the end of the book [Pollan] declares himself more agnostic about mystical matters than he was before he experimented on himself, though it’s not clear that the drugs have really given him grounds for changing his convictions. The great claims he makes for the benefits of mystical experience seem to be based more on the testimony of others than on his own peregrinations ... Pollan gives a lively account of the rise, fall, and rise again of psychedelic research.
As Pollan describes, this altered state of consciousness can be spiritually enlightening, mind-opening and life-changing. It can also be terror-provoking. How to Change Your Mind chronicles the unusual power of these substances, instilling a better understanding of their capabilities in helping to discover, heal and change our minds. It’s a trip worth taking.
The author’s evenhanded but generally positive approach shoos away scaremongering while fully recognizing that we’re out in the tall grass—and, as he notes, though credited with psychological evenness, he’s found himself 'tossed in a psychic storm of existential dread so dark and violent that the keel comes off the boat,' reason enough to seek chemical aid. A trip well worth taking, eye-opening and even mind-blowing.
Food writer Pollan (Cooked) shifts his focus to other uses of plants in this brilliant history of psychedelics across cultures and generations, the neuroscience of its effects, the revival of research on its potential to heal mental illness—and his own mind-changing trips ... This nuanced and sophisticated exploration, which asks big questions about meaning-making and spiritual experience, is thought-provoking and eminently readable.