A. J. Lees

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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

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