In Depth

How Michael Pollan’s latest book changed my mind about psychedelics

How Michael Pollan's latest book changed my mind about psychedelics thumbnail
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It may sound odd, but one of the things I enjoy most in life is being completely wrong about something. Changing my mind.

It sounds so simple, but one of the rarest and most difficult things for us adults to do is change our minds.

With age comes mental rigidity, well-worn paths in our neural infrastructure. These paths make it easier for us to navigate and function in a massively complex world, but they can also keep new adventures and discoveries out of our reach.

Our personal truths are a powerfully intoxicating compass, even if they don’t point to true north.

Why do I love to change my mind?

Changing my mind means I was able to be open and humble enough to absorb information that dislodged previously wrong beliefs. Knowing that I was wrong before also makes me more likely to be open to future opportunities for mental exploration and growth.

One of the principles I try to live by is this: anything I think I currently know or believe can either be confirmed, improved, or disproved by new information. If I’m using my brain responsibly, I should be regularly improving or disproving currently held beliefs as part of my life-long quest for growth and understanding.

My ultimate aim is to try to scratch the surface of what is actually true, rather than to screen out new information that challenges what I want to be true.

Another principle: when I’m wrong or when I discover something that I think is enormously important or helpful for other people, I should share it.

My previous beliefs about psychedelics 

In case you’re unfamiliar, “psychedelic” was a word coined in the 1950s that translates to “soul and mind manifesting.” Psilocybin mushrooms, peyote cactus, DMT, and LSD, are perhaps the best known psychedelics, but countless varieties of psychedelic substances are used by cultures around the world — and have been since the dawn of humanity.

A rendering of ancient cave art depicting the "Algerian Tassili mushroom shaman," 6,000-9,000 B.C.E. in Tassili - Ajjer (Sahara Desert). Psychedelic mushrooms appear in early human art, monuments, and carvings around the world. Psychedelics

A rendering of ancient cave art depicting the “Algerian Tassili mushroom shaman,” 6,000-9,000 B.C.E. in Tassili – Ajjer (Sahara Desert). Psychedelic mushrooms appear in early human art, monuments, and carvings around the world.

One year ago, I knew next to nothing about psychedelics other than I’d never used them, nor did I have any interest in using them.

I’m a very disciplined person who “lives in my brain,” so why would I want to take a brain-altering substance? In my mind, psychedelics were just like other drugs – a dangerous tool used to either escape from or diminish the brain’s connection to reality, not a tool that could help explore and understand reality better.

I’ve long kept my drug use simple. I have my cup of caffeinated tea each morning. On the weekends, I enjoy an alcoholic beverage while taking time off with The Tyrant. (She makes the most delicious drinks with our homegrown citrus and produce, so the discipline it takes not to have a drink every night is pretty extraordinary.)

What are the most dangerous drugs?

Last year, I’d reduced my alcohol consumption from the previous year’s 3-5 drinks per week. Why? Alcohol dulled my mind and made me feel physically worse, not better.

One delicious homemade drink on a Saturday night was (and still is) an ideal amount of alcohol for me.

Ironically, by drinking alcohol, I know that I’m partaking in the most dangerous and deadly drug in the US – a drug far more dangerous than cocaine, cigarettes, and even opioids. According to the NIH, alcohol is responsible for 88,000 deaths per year and comes with a societal cost of about $250 billion dollars per year. Compare that to opioids, with 47,000 deaths and a societal cost of $79 billion.

Despite these numbers, there aren’t a lot of headlines about the “alcohol crisis.”

What about psychedelic drugs? As I’ve since learned from Michael Pollan plus many months of reading various research studies, psychedelic drugs actually cause no physiological harm and are non-addictive. In fact, they’re being used to treat substance addictions, and deaths from psychedelics are so astonishingly rare that no national numbers of deaths from psychedelics exist in any country. This despite 32,000,000 “lifetime psychedelic users” in the US alone.

So why did I have such a negative perception of psychedelics and where did my internal bias against them come from?

Given the relative dangers, why can you go to a store to buy alcohol and cigarettes or go to your doctor to get opioids (all highly addictive and dangerous), while completely non-addictive, non-deadly and medically useful psychedelics are currently illegal — classified as Schedule I drugs?

What’s the story here? Or more aptly, what’s the book?

Book Review: How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan  

In Michael Pollan’s latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, I discovered answers to these and many other questions.

Video: Pollan presenting the key points of his book to Google employees in Palo Alto, CA. A little known fact is that a significant portion of Silicon Valley workers “microdose” with psychedelics to boost their productivity and creativity. Tech luminaries such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs also used psychedelics.

For the record, Pollan is my favorite contemporary author, so I’m predisposed to loving anything he writes. You may have read his other books, which include The Omnivore’s DilemmaFood Rules: An Eater’s ManualIn Defense of Food, and The Botany of Desire, among others.

Why do I love Pollan’s work? Because we all need heroes and he’s one of mine. I aspire to be as good of a writer and thinker as he is.

Pollan might be labeled as a “science and food writer,” but he’s much more than that. He’s highly skilled at understanding the connectivity within and between systems. Where one person might only see an isolated sea shell sitting on a beach, Pollan seems to have a stratospheric vantage point that allows him to see the dynamic, interconnected oceanic systems that fully explain the shell’s very existence – as well as where the currents might take the shell next.

I didn’t come to Pollan’s latest book on psychedelics out of the blue. Rather, there was a painful and traumatic journey that led me and The Tyrant to How to Change Your Mind.

A painful mind-changing journey 

Last year was the most difficult year of our lives.

It started when Susan (The Tyrant) lost her mother to cancer, which then led to a host of other family traumas. Then her sister, Dr. Lisa Durette, a highly regarded child & adolescent psychiatrist, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Susan spent many weeks at MD Anderson Cancer Center hospital caring for Lisa as she underwent tortuous chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

Lisa (left), Susan the Tyrant (right), and niece enjoying a summer hike in Greenville.

Lisa (left), Susan the Tyrant (right), and niece enjoying a summer hike in Greenville.

As Susan was trying to recover from those tragedies, we closed out the year by losing our 18 year old cat, Charlie, who we’d had since the first day we met and fell in love. Two weeks later, we lost Svetlana the duck, who we loved like our own child. The psychological assaults were relentless and the resulting mental anguish compounded.

I was a wreck, but I needed to be strong for Susan. Susan was beyond a wreck. She’s a remarkably strong person who comes by her nickname “The Tyrant” honestly, but by the end of the year, she was so stricken with grief that she could barely get off the couch or go more than an hour without uncontrollable sobbing.

No light was visible at the end of her tunnel. Every thought seemed to be a cyclical, negative loop in her mind that triggered a traumatic memory or feeling. Escaping or creating new thought patterns in those well-trodden mental circuits seemed impossible.

New knowledge 

Earlier in the year while Susan was serving as the caretaker for her sister, I’d listen to educational podcasts while I worked on the farm at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm. One day, I listened to an interview with Paul Stamets, considered the world’s foremost mushroom expert.

One topic he discussed was how he’d accidentally used psilocybin mushrooms to immediately stop his severe childhood stutter, and how he purposefully uses them today for self-improvement, creativity, and mental clarity. “Huh, that’s interesting, I thought.”

The next podcast I listened to: Joe Rogan’s interview with Michael Pollan in which the two discuss Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind.

“I love Michael Pollan, so I wonder what his latest book is about,” I thought to myself as I inoculated mushroom logs with oyster mushrooms and lion’s manes.

The Stamets and Pollan interviews not only left my mind changed, but blown wide open…

Months later, as Susan lay on the couch in a state of inconsolable grief bordering on depression, all I could think about was these interviews and the research studies I’d read afterwards wherein psilocybin mushrooms were found to be the most effective treatment tool yet discovered to treat depression — after a single use and with no addiction or physiological harm caused to the patients in the studies.

Since we regularly forage gourmet mushrooms for food, we often see psilocybin mushrooms on our walks. We’d never had any inclination to view them as anything more than a curiosity.

But what if there was a mental health tool growing right under our feet that we could both use to see the light at the end of the tunnel? To see our way out of ourselves? I was desperate to help Susan, to help us.

What we learned from How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan’s latest book

Pollan’s book is divided into three broad sections:

1. History of psychedelics 

In the first part of the book, Pollan provides an overview of the history of psychedelic medical research in the west and touches on the historical use of these substances by various cultures as well.

I came to learn that tens of thousands of people in the US and Canada were regularly prescribed psychedelics to effectively treat depression, alcoholism, and other addictions in the first half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, used psychedelics (the belladonna plant) to help break his own alcohol addiction and later to break his cigarette addiction and depression (LSD). He thought the substances were so important that he wanted psychedelics to be a step in the AA recovery program.

However, the research of (and legal access to) psychedelics was shut down in the 1960s largely due to a combination of overzealous psychedelic advocates (like Timothy Leary) and a hostile overreaction to characters like Leary plus the anti-Vietnam War/hippy movement.

Overnight, psychedelic research basically shut down and vanished from the medical records.

2. Experiencing the magic safely via proper set, setting, and dosage 

As Pollan is apt to do with any subject he writes about, he gets his hands dirty in the second part of his book.

“Method actors” in stage and film acting don’t just pretend to be their characters, they completely become their characters even when they’re not performing. That’s why method actors are the best actors in the world.

Likewise, Pollan fully partakes in the topics he writes about so he’s able to present both academic and experiential perspectives in his work. Thus, he intentionally and safely used the substances so he can describe their effects to his readers.

Pollan takes great pains to talk about how to use psychedelics safely and responsibly, a process which has been honed over decades of medical research. Set, setting, and dosage are all important:

  • Set is your intentions and mindset going in. Psychedelic experiences are “suggestible.” For instance, if you set out to figure out why you’re addicted to cigarettes and how to break the cycle, you’re very likely to have a profound experience centered on that intention.
  • Setting has to do with using psychedelics in a safe, comfortable place away from negative distraction and accompanied by an experienced guide. (A guide is especially important for your first experience, as in Pollan’s case.)
  • Dosage has to do with how much of the substance you take. There are profound experiential differences between different quantities of different psychedelics. Interestingly, research is showing that the more profound the experience (due to larger dose) the more profound and lasting the benefits (example: depression disappears and stays gone for months or years).

As the researchers Pollan interviews note, when set, setting, and dosage are all taken into consideration, there have been zero “bad trips” out of thousands of study participants. Pollan does repeatedly point out that these are not substances to be used wantonly without great care and respect, which is why traditional cultures built ceremonies and rituals around their use.

Integration & Synthesis 

Pollan and researchers note that synthesizing and assimilating what you learned from your psychedelic journey is also immensely important for creating enduring psychological benefits. Immediately after the journey, the guides/therapists talked through the experience with Pollan. One researcher says that “it’s like years of intensive psychotherapy condensed into a few hours,” so there’s a lot of information to unpackage.

No spoilers, but Pollan’s psychedelic experiences provided deep insights into himself, his relationships with his family members (living and dead), and his relationship with nature.

3. The science: how and why psychedelics work

In the final third of the book, Pollan dives into the modern psychedelic research being done in the US (and around the world) in order to better explain the science of how and why psychedelics work.

How can eating a handful of mushrooms dissolve PTSD in war veterans in a single afternoon? Permanently break the cycle of substance addiction? Turn violent criminals non-violent? Take away the existential dread of end-of-life patients facing the abyss of death? Help someone in the throes of treatment-resistant depression navigate their way out of the darkness?

Equally important, how are these substances able to be used for the “betterment of well people”? After all, psychedelic research on “normal” people (including “microdosing”) is showing remarkably promising results.

Is the answer simply the “magic” part of magic mushrooms and other psychedelics – something beyond our understanding and explanation? Or can modern science shed light on what’s happening in and to the human brain that’s undergoing a psychedelic experience?

Here, Pollan dives into what science knows and doesn’t know, thanks to solid, modern research and advanced equipment like magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) used to scan and create images of the brain in action…

Left: normal brain activity and interconnectivity between regions (each brain region represented by a dot). Right: brain activity and interconnectivity on psilocybin mushrooms. Psychedelics

Left: normal brain activity and interconnectivity between regions (each brain region represented by a dot). Right: brain activity and interconnectivity on psilocybin mushrooms. Image via Discover Magazine.

Hacking your “default mode network” 

Think deeply about this question: who are you? The answers that emerge from your brain as a response are a product of your default mode network (DMN), aka your “sense of self network”.

The DMN isn’t a specific brain region per say, it’s more the orchestra conductor that networks various brain regions together in order to give rise to your sense of “self.” Your DMN also allows you to focus on tasks essential to your survival (eating, working, etc) while completely ignoring the breathtaking beauty of a flower or of your very existence (distractions!).

Depending on the dosage, psychedelics either turn down or turn off your default mode network. And when the orchestra conductor is away, regions of your brain that never spoke or played music together suddenly start making extraordinary jazz.

New connections spark. A whole new universe is unveiled from within your own mind and the world around you, even as the arbitrary distinctions between “you” and “world” melt away.

It’s not all fun and magic though. Your DMN also serves as your “protector,” keeping past traumas and scars that you haven’t appropriately dealt with hidden from your conscious view (more distractions!).

Once your DMN is turned off, you’re looking squarely and clearly into the mirror of your life. Only now, in the face of these traumas that you couldn’t “fix” or even bear to think about before, you’re now equipped with a new toolkit that makes these problems safely and easily viewable and addressable.

How hilariously small those once-gigantic pains and problems now seem. How clear the paths through and around them. How mesmerizingly beautiful and wondrous to be able to experience it all, both the pain and the joy.

As a friend of mine who intentionally uses psychedelics for self-discovery and creativity recently said to me:

“Words really can’t explain the psychedelic experience to people who haven’t visited it themselves. You’re you, but you’re not you. You’re everything and nothing. You’re traveling through the universe and the universe is traveling through you. And when it sets you down, you’re free to write the story of who you are again. It makes no sense until you’ve actually experienced the mystery.”

Experiencing the ineffable

Michael Pollan, one of the world’s most gifted wordsmiths, was left nearly speechless from his own psychedelic experiences. The word the study participants use (and that Pollan borrows repeatedly) is “ineffable,” too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words. 

If you’ve ever experienced the pain of grief or depression, imagine being lifted out of yourself to such a heightened vantage point that your pain — and even your notion of you as an individual — is washed away like a tiny grain of sand enveloped by an ocean of pure joy and love. The pathways in your brain that kept you stuck in that negative loop are instantly and easily vacated, as better alternate routes become easy to see and navigate like roads on a map.

You can go where you want to in your own brain and in your own life. You can make new choices. The roads to joy are now as deeply etched into your mental maps as the roads to pain once were, and you can navigate as you wish — the captain of your own marvelous existence.

Like a mental amulet, the experience of that ineffable wonder is something you can return to in your mind whenever you need a reminder or are in danger of going back to those dark places.

Neural plasticity 

People often use alcohol, opioids, and other deadly and addictive drugs to dull their senses and escape the pains of life. In addicts, the connective tissue between their “self” and the broader world is missing or broken, and their craving for a false replacement, a surrogate reality, soon becomes a damaging or deadly addiction.

Conversely, as Pollan and researchers in his book repeatedly point out, psychedelics cause no physiological harm and are non-addictive. In fact, the last thing you want to do after a psychedelic experience is have another psychedelic experience. Your brain is stuffed full of life-changing information to digest, and is in no way hungry for more.

Psychedelics open you to the wonder and oneness of life that an overactive or malfunctioning default mode network may have hidden from your awareness. They provide a sense of rebirth into a self full of potential and a world to which you are profoundly and deeply connected. They don’t dull pain and hide traumas from you; they simply give you the mental tools and actual experience(s) needed to navigate around them — neural plasticity.

Remarkably, psychedelics physically change the connectivity of your brain regions, helping you change your mind (and your thinking) for the better. As a recent study published in Cell Reports summarized:

“…serotonergic psychedelics are capable of robustly increasing neuritogenesis and/or spinogenesis both in vitro and in vivo. These changes in neuronal structure are accompanied by increased synapse number and function, as measured by fluorescence microscopy and electrophysiology. The structural changes induced by psychedelics appear to result from stimulation of the TrkB, mTOR, and 5-HT2A signaling pathways and could possibly explain the clinical effectiveness of these compounds. Our results underscore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and, importantly, identify several lead scaffolds for medicinal chemistry efforts focused on developing plasticity-promoting compounds as safe, effective, and fast-acting treatments for depression and related disorders.”

A changed mind  

I was wrong about psychedelics. From a position of ignorance, I perceived them to be highly dangerous drugs with no benefits. Thanks to scientists, mycologists, podcasters, and writers like Michael Pollan bringing accurate information to the public sphere, I’ve changed my mind.

Do I think everyone should use psychedelics? Absolutely not.

This book review article is in no way intended to promote the use of psychedelics/entheogens. These are incredibly powerful substances that should only be used by adults with the utmost care paid to set, setting, and dosage – ideally in a clinical setting administered by a medical professional (especially if you’re already taking subscription Rx for mental disorders).

The Tyrant and I are currently in talks with mental health experts and doctors we know in Nevada and North Carolina who also want to help legalize psychedelics for medical research and controlled therapeutic/medical use. Israel just approved compassionate use of MDMA to treat PTSD. Multiple cities and states in the US are currently considering de-criminalizing and medically legalizing certain psychedelics. The FDA just fast-tracked psilocybin mushrooms as a “breakthrough” drug for treating depression, meaning after many promising smaller studies a large-scale international study is currently underway with medical legalization likely within the next few years.

Have we used psilocybin mushrooms ourselves? I’d prefer to avoid answering that question. I’ll simply say that I love Susan more than my own life, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect her and nourish her potential.

We took a walk in nature recently. There we saw a familiar fungal life form that we once simply viewed as a curiosity. Since that day and with the help of an experienced guide, the world was made new again and that dark tunnel is a distant memory for Susan.

The pain and trauma she experienced in 2018 are still very much a part of her new self. However, now she understands them better and has organized the information in a way that gives her strength rather than diminishing her strength.

Expressing gratitude for a changed mind

I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to those who changed my mind, and express profound hope for those whose minds are yet to be changed.

As with the brave scientists on the forefront of psychedelic research, Michael Pollan put his professional reputation on the line in writing his latest book about a “taboo” subject because he viewed the topic as too important to leave in the shadows. Thank you Michael, and thanks to the other luminaries, both named and unnamed.

It’s a beautiful world. A beautiful life. I see it clearly again, for the first time.

I’d highly recommend reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

For the betterment of well people and those in search of healing…    

Aaron & Susan   

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