How To Change Your Mind by MICHAEL POLLAN

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON AN­DREW MASTER­SON is the news and re­views ed­i­tor of Cos­mos.

Pen­guin Ran­dom House (2018) RRP $28.00

AS READ­ERS FA­MIL­IAR with his pre­vi­ous books, such as Cooked, will at­test, Michael Pollan is a good per­son to have in charge of the ship.

An as­sured, un­fussy writer, and fas­tid­i­ous re­searcher, he is able to tease apart and stitch back to­gether com­plex, sprawl­ing sub­jects in ways that de­liver enough depth to be sat­is­fy­ing with­out get­ting too bogged down in minu­tiae.

In the spe­cific field of hal­lu­cino­gens (al­though the term is controversial), things are at their most insightful, or per­haps ad­dled, and Pollan’s ex­am­i­na­tion of psy­che­delic ex­per­i­ment is both timely and per­ti­nent. Today, af­ter a decades-long hia­tus, drugs such as LSD are again be­ing ex­am­ined as pos­si­ble ther­a­peu­tics in the treat­ment of men­tal ill­ness – and, of course, the use of hal­lu­cino­gens for per­sonal recre­ational and re­lax­ation prac­tices has never gone away.

The bio­chem­istry and neu­rol­ogy of psychedelics re­ceives com­par­a­tively brief treat­ment, but the long and strange tale of aca­demic in­ves­ti­ga­tion, clin­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion and com­mer­cial exploitation of, in par­tic­u­lar, acid and magic mush­rooms, pop­u­lates Pollan’s pages with an ex­tra­or­di­nary cast of colour­ful char­ac­ters.

Many of the pi­o­neers of the first wave of psy­che­delic in­ter­est in the US are still alive, and many of them con­sented to be in­ter­viewed. Most cer­tainly, not all of th­ese peo­ple were, or are, wigged-out age­ing hip­pies with a pen­chant for tie-dye cloth­ing and the mu­sic of the Grate­ful Dead. Many were, or are, se­ri­ous sci­en­tists and psy­chi­a­trists and psy­chol­o­gists – and many re­gret the in­volve­ment of flam­boy­ant icon­o­clasts such as Ti­mothy Leary.

Al­most all, how­ever, carry a strange con­vic­tion and cer­tainty – a self-de­scribed knowl­edge of Other Worlds – that arises from their own ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with psychedelics. Nec­es­sar­ily, Pollan moves be­tween science, his­tory and the­ol­ogy. The psy­che­delic experience, most of his in­ter­vie­wees say, is not sim­i­lar to re­li­gious ec­stasy – it is a gen­uinely trans­for­ma­tive spir­i­tual experience. It doesn’t just feel real, it is real – a glimpse into an ex­tant Other World in which life-spirit is uni­ver­sal and con­scious­ness sur­vives in­di­vid­ual death.

Pollan is rightly scep­ti­cal, and, af­ter much re­search and prepa­ra­tion, de­cides to see for him­self by tak­ing LSD, psilo­cy­bin and 5-MEO-DMT, a pow­er­fully dis­tort­ing chem­i­cal com­pound de­rived from toads.

At length, he re­mains ad­mirably am­biva­lent, un­sure whether he went on trans­for­ma­tive il­lu­mi­nat­ing jour­neys, or just got off his tits. Ei­ther way, like the rest of this book, it makes for great read­ing.

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