[Pollan] masterfully elevates a series of big questions about drugs, plants and humans that are likely to leave readers thinking in new ways ... Most of the background in Caffeine can also be found in stand-alone books on coffee or tea. What Pollan contributes is expert storytelling and a second big idea in the form of a question: Do coffee and tea have a mutualistic relationship with human society? ... Invariably, the challenge of personal stories about self-experimentation is that the experiences the writer is relaying are ones the reader does not share. By the end of the book, Pollan convinced me so fully of the relativistic effects of mescaline that I was left wondering what sort of general truth his own story represents. Can we generalize from his own drama? Surely his experience does not tell us much about the Native American use of peyote, a culturally contextualized practice that he was told by Native American interviewees 'had done more to heal the wounds of genocide, colonialism and alcoholism than anything else they had tried' ... Pollan seems to bet, and he is probably right, that readers will relate to his dabbling with drug plants because of one aspect of their usage that does happen to be nearly universal. To varying extents, we are all trying to negotiate the challenging interplay between our own brain’s chemistries and a number of converging factors ... Ultimately, Pollan does not answer whether individual readers should partake in the plant drugs he discusses; this is not part of his project. But he does skillfully achieve what he set out to do. He has left the reader with some 'more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants,' stories likely to trigger new debates and discussions as well as, no doubt, a fair amount of illicit gardening.
While not as revelatory as Pollan’s major works, this is a wonderful and compelling read that will leave you thinking long after you set it down ... Pollan is an astonishingly good writer, at times intimate and vulnerable, at times curious and expository, always compelling and credible. Reading his writing can be kind of like taking a psychedelic—a literary onomatopoeia. When I put the book down I felt temporarily smarter, more capable of deeper perception of myself and the world around me. It’s a wonderful and important gift ... After coming down from my reading high, though, I have a couple of reservations. First, Pollan’s interests are wide-ranging, but he seems most taken with brain sciences and sometimes flirts with a soft form of pharmacological essentialism—that is, a tendency to reduce drugs’ social and political complexities to the interactions between chemicals and brains ... I also have concerns about Pollan’s drug policy critiques. He can be effective here, skewering the absurdities produced by an irrational and arbitrary war against plant drugs ... When Pollan bridles that drug laws limit his freedom, and when he ridicules the foolishness of lumping him and his cozy garden with fearsome 'addicts' and criminals, he unintentionally reinforces this pernicious drug war logic ... These political qualms didn’t keep me from enjoying This Is Your Mind on Plants. It’s a lovely book by a deep thinker and a masterful storyteller. I can’t help but hope that such a powerful ally will wade as deeply into drug politics as he does drug neuroscience.
Pollan is a gentle, generous writer, so it is to his credit that he realises that an account of how he felt when he stopped drinking coffee for a few months was hardly likely to provide narrative drama. That doesn’t stop him doing it, with predictably tedious consequences, but he constructs a nice chapter all the same out of other bits of information.