How To Change Your Mind by MICHAEL POLLAN
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.