A. J. Lees
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change by Tao Lin
How to Change Your Mind:
What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan.
Penguin, 465 pp., $28.00
Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change by Tao Lin.
Vintage, 308 pp., $16.00 (paper)
In 1938 Albert Hofmann, a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, created a series of new compounds from lysergic acid. One of them, later marketed as Hydergine, showed great potential for the treatment of cerebral arteriosclerosis. Another salt, the diethylamide (LSD), he put to one side, but he had “a peculiar presentiment,” as he put it in his memoir LSD: My Problem Child (1980), “that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations.” In 1943 he prepared a fresh batch of LSD. In the final process of its crystallization, he started to experience strange sensations. He described his first inadvertent “trip” in a letter to his supervisor:
At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition, characterized by extremely stimulated imagination. In a dream-like state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.
After eliminating chloroform fumes as a possible cause, he concluded that a tiny quantity of LSD absorbed through the skin of his fingertips must have been responsible. Three days later he began a program of unsanctioned research and deliberately ingested 250 micrograms of LSD at 4:20 PM. Forty minutes later, he wrote in his lab journal, “Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” He set off home on his bicycle, accompanied by his laboratory assistant. This formal trial of what Hofmann considered a minute dose of LSD had more distressing effects than his first chance exposure: Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa . . . . I was taken to another world, another place, another time.
A doctor was summoned but found nothing amiss apart from a marked dilation of his pupils. A fear of impending death gradually faded as the drug’s effect lessened, and after some hours Hofmann was seeing surreal colors and enjoying the play of shapes before his eyes.
Further experiments conducted on animals in his laboratory showed that LSD had unusual effects. It made mice lick repetitively and affected how spiders built their webs. When it was administered to cats, it made their hairs stand on end; they ignored or took fright at mice let loose in their cage. “A caged community of chimpanzees,” Hofmann wrote,
reacts very sensitively if a member of the tribe has received LSD. Even though no changes appear in this single animal, the whole cage gets in an uproar because the LSD chimpanzee no longer observes the laws of its finely coordinated hierarchic tribal order.
None of the animals exposed to LSD suffered any detectable lasting harm. Further clinical studies in the psychiatry clinic at the University of Zurich, including self-experimentation by the head of the department, Werner Stoll, confirmed that LSD was a “phantasticum”—it had effects on the mind similar to those already reported with mescaline.
In 1947 Sandoz offered vials of LSD free of charge, under the trade name Delysid, to mental health professionals in the United States on the condition that they write up their findings. An estimated 40,000 patients suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and alcohol dependence received the drug over the next twenty years, often paying their therapists considerable sums for the treatment. Some patients with neuroses improved noticeably when LSD was combined with psychotherapy, but Sandoz was unable to advise practitioners on the ideal dosage or how frequently the drug should be administered. At the same time, psychiatrists and scientists were investigating LSD’s use as a simulator of madness and referring to the molecule as a psychotomimetic rather than a hallucinogen. Aldous Huxley knew that if the “elixir” continued to be associated with schizophrenia it would acquire a bad name. “People will think they are going mad,” he said, “when in fact they are beginning, when they take it, to go sane.” The need to rebrand the drug was obvious. In a letter to Huxley, Humphry Osmond, the psychiatrist who had first given Huxley mescaline in Los Angeles in 1953 and had used it to treat alcoholics in Saskatchewan, came up with the winning couplet:
To fathom in Hell, or soar Angelic
You’ll need a pinch of psychedelic.
Osmond’s neologism, which combines two Greek words, roughly translates to “mind manifesting.”
Albert Hofmann despaired that a substance that, in his view, should be as respected as the sacred plants of ancient civilizations had become a casually consumed recreational drug. But it was “the beautiful people” who had provided many of the best descriptions
of the effects his compound had on the human mind. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an account of the psychedelic experiences of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Tom Wolfe wrote:
But these are the words, man! And you couldn’t put it into words. The White Smocks liked to put it into words, like hallucination and dissociative phenomena. They could understand the visual skyrockets. Give them a good case of an ashtray turning into a Venus flytrap or eyelid movies of crystal cathedrals, and they could groove on that, Kluver, op.cit., p. 43n. That was swell. But don’t you see?—the visual stuff was just the décor with LSD.
Hofmann believed that the true value of LSD lay in providing chemical support for spiritual contemplation. He had chanced on LSD and in a sense it had discovered him. Right up to his death at the age of 102 in 2008, he was unable to explain why he had gone back to investigate an apparently unpromising molecule after a gap of five years. The recent release of Hofmann’s Sandoz papers (to the University of Bern) is likely to show that there is more to the story of LSD’s discovery than the version he recorded in LSD: My Problem Child.
Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind comes to its readers with a warning from its publisher: “This book . . . is not intended to encourage you to break the law and no attempt should be made to use these substances for any purpose except in a legally sanctioned clinical trial.” But in the course of his investigations into the history of psychedelics as a creative force, Pollan defies this advice. After reassurance from his cardiologist, his mind-expanding experiences with the tryptamine psychedelics—acid, magic mushrooms, and bufotenine (“the toad”)—lead him to conclusions that resemble those of the mystic chemist. “For me,” he writes,
the psychedelic experience opened a door to a specific mode of consciousness that I can now occasionally recapture in meditation. I’m speaking of a certain cognitive space that opens up late in a trip or in the midst of a mild one, a space where you can entertain all sorts of thoughts and scenarios without reaching for any kind of resolution.
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. Cohen recommended that patients be screened for psychotic tendencies and for their vulnerability to potential abuses of power by therapists. Pollan also mentions Ronald Sandison, a Scottish psychiatrist who studied the “psycholytic” effects of LSD at Powick Hospital in the English countryside. 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, known to his associates as “Cappy,” was a fabulously wealthy Roman Catholic with a mystical bent. His past was a closely guarded secret, but he told a few close confidantes that he had been born poor in the hills of Kentucky in 1901 or 1902 and had been imprisoned as a young man for smuggling. When he came under investigation by Congress for shipping heavy armaments to Canada and the UK before the US entered World War II, he fled the country, became a Canadian citizen, and founded a charter boat business in Vancouver.
Willis Harman, an engineer who became heavily involved in psychedelic research, recounted that Hubbard once told him that an angel had appeared before him on a hiking trip:
She told Al that something tremendously important to the future of mankind would be coming soon, and that he could play a role in it if he wanted to. But he hadn’t the faintest clue what he was supposed to be looking for.
Later, in 1952, Hubbard managed to acquire a dose of LSD from a scientist who was testing it on rats. Under the influence of the drug, he had the most spiritual experience of his life and realized what the angel had meant. Using his considerable political and business connections, Hubbard was able to persuade Sandoz to supply him with an immense quantity of Delysid. By the time he embarked on his quest to liberate human consciousness, he was in his early fifties, short and stocky with a crew cut. He dressed in khakis and carried a Colt .45 in a holster on a belt studded with bullets. Despite the appearance of a small-town sheriff, he was a man of the world who could open doors closed to the rest of the psychiatric community. Over the next fifteen years Hubbard approached leading figures in government, business, the arts, and religion. Many of them willingly consented to take a trip with the Good Captain, although a few, including J. Edgar Hoover, declined.
Hubbard believed in promoting LSD by using what he called the “Eleusinian model”—turning on society’s elite to its consciousness-expanding effects first. His screening tests for potential subjects included such questions as “Where do you think you actually came from?” and “What do you think about the cosmos?” Among the early subjects was Myron Stolaroff, a gifted engineer working at Ampex, one of the first technology companies in what would later become Silicon Valley. He and Hubbard ran a program to explore whether LSD could make Ampex employees more open-minded, flexible, and efficient at solving problems. This would be the first of a series of episodes that linked the use of psychedelics with the tech boom, and that would eventually lead Steve Jobs to say that “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” Although Cappy never considered himself a therapist or a shaman, he left a strong impression on most who met him. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had grasped the importance of what was later referred to as “set and setting”—careful preparation of an individual’s mindset, expectations, and environment in order to favorably shape the psychedelic encounter. Some suspected Hubbard might be passing information to the CIA as part of its MK-Ultra program, in which people were given psychedelics—often unknowingly—in universities, prisons, pharmaceutical company premises, and hospitals. He was also regarded as the hidden force behind the 1959 experiments with LSD at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, for which Ken Kesey had volunteered as a paid normal subject. By the mid-1960s Cappy had become a strong opponent of the San Francisco counterculture. In 1968 Willis Harman, a futurist and leading light in the “human potential” movement, lured him out of semiretirement to work as a special investigative agent at Stanford Research Institute, ostensibly to keep tabs on drug use among the students. In fact Hubbard was running LSD sessions for engineers and academics. On his office wall hung a large photograph of Richard Nixon inscribed “to my good friend Al, for all your years of service, your friend, Dick.”
Pollan is enamored of recent attempts to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how the brain behaves under psychedelics by tracking changes in blood flow to cerebral neurons. He interviews Robin Carhart-Harris, a life scientist and psychedelic researcher at Imperial College London, who explains that the cerebral networks dealing with vision, attention, movement, and hearing become far more interconnected after an injection of seventy-five micrograms of LSD. At the same time, Carhart-Harris and his colleagues found that LSD reduces blood flow to a network of different brain structures called the default mode network, which he compares to the screensaver on a computer. When the brain has no tasks to solve, it does not shut down but gravitates toward an idling state that may assist forward planning. After some of this research appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016, the psychopharmacologist David Nutt, a former adviser to the UK government on drugs, told a journalist that the Imperial College group’s findings were “to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics.”
A number of neuroscientists have written skeptically about studies that they think overextend these sorts of imaging methods, for instance by using them to look for spots in the brain associated with religious belief or romantic love. And although the quality of papers describing brain-mapping studies is improving, the researchers’ conclusions are still not always justified by the data. Even if Carhart-Harris’s results can be reliably and consistently reproduced (which is not certain, since some of the first brain-mapping trials with psychedelics had contradictory outcomes), it will be difficult to determine their wider clinical significance until we find more ways to test the effect of psychedelics on the brain.
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 treatmentresistant depression. The patients’ improvement in mood was found to correlate both with peak “mystical experience” and with reduced blood flow in the amygdala. As Timothy Leary pointed out, though, it is impossible to double-blind patients with a placebo in clinical trials using psychedelics, and no matter how carefully selected and prepared they might be, they will have markedly different expectations. Pollan’s enthusiasm for this kind of research is perhaps too unqualified. Pollan also learns that clinical investigations of the use of psychedelics to treat substance dependence and endof-life existential dysphoria tend to use psilocybin—not because of its superior pharmacological effects but because it meets with less institutional resistance than LSD or DMT. This leads him to muse over what biological function the psilocybin molecule might serve for the little brown mushrooms that produce it naturally. Paul Stamets—a self-taught mycologist from Washington State and the author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World—becomes his guide. Stamets believes that the vast web of mycelia— thin, branching parts of fungus under the soil—is Earth’s natural Internet, an intricate, self-repairing, reticulated system that connects vegetation over enormous distances. “Mushrooms are bringing a message from nature,” he
Adrian Piper: LSD Self-Portrait from the Inside Out, 1966; from ‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,’ a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. The catalog is edited by Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker and published by MoMA.
Dr. Harry Williams and Dr. Carl Pfeiffer conducting an LSD experiment, Emory University, Atlanta, 1955