Ex­panded minds

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - ROB DOYLE

The psy­chi­atric prom­ise of psy­che­delic drugs

HOWTOCHANG­EYOURMIND: THENEWSCIE­NCEOFPSYCH­EDELICS MICHAEL POLLAN Allen Lane, 480pp, £20

been known to the West for a mat­ter of decades. LSD was syn­the­sised by the Swiss chemist Al­bert Hoff­man in 1938. Hoff­man be­came a life­long ad­vo­cate of the hal­lu­cino­genic molecule that en­gen­ders as­ton­ish­ment, in­sight, and unimag­in­able beauty. Like many oth­ers, he be­lieved that in a spir­i­tu­ally bar­ren moder­nity, LSD grants ac­cess to the sa­cred.

Psilo­cy­bin made it­self known to western science via a 1957 ar­ti­cle in Life magazine by Robert Gor­don Was­son, who trav­elled to Mex­ico to in­gest magic mush­rooms with tribes­peo­ple who use them as a sacra­ment. A my­co­log­i­cal un­der­ground has long thrived even in cul­tures which do not use psychedeli­cs for pub­lic re­li­gious pur­poses. Ev­ery au­tumn for­agers in Ire­land pick magic mush­rooms, though pos­ses­sion of them has been il­le­gal here since 2006.

As part of his re­search, Pollan un­der­goes psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ences with the aid of un­der­ground guides. His trip re­ports are rich and can­did. In­ves­ti­gat­ing both the first and sec­ond waves of psy­che­delic re­search, he learns that strong doses re­li­ably oc­ca­sion ego-dis­solv­ing, mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. Many peo­ple re­gard psy­che­delic trips as among the most mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ences of their lives. As psychedeli­cs re-en­ter the psy­chi­atric main­stream, re­search cen­tres such as Johns Hop­kins have suc­cess­fully used them to help peo­ple with ter­mi­nal ill­nesses come to terms with their ap­proach­ing deaths. Else­where, smok­ers quit smok­ing, alcoholics quit drink­ing, de­pres­sives be­gin smil­ing.

Per­haps the most tan­ta­lis­ing claim made for psychedeli­cs is that they are not only “mind-man­i­fest­ing” (as the word’s et­y­mol­ogy in­di­cates), but fa­cil­i­tate ac­cess to a “be­yond”, a tran­scen­den­tal re­al­ity that ex­ists in­de­pen­dently of the brain. Pollan ap­proaches this is­sue in an ad­mirably un­dog­matic man­ner, ex­am­in­ing the het­ero­dox idea that con­scious­ness is not a phe­nom­e­non gen­er­ated by brains, but a prop­erty of the uni­verse it­self, with brains serv­ing as its re­ceivers. If this is the case, psychedeli­cs may be a “tech­nol­ogy of con­scious­ness” that en­ables ac­cess to di­men­sions alien to ma­te­ri­al­ist or­tho­doxy. In­deed, Pollan en­coun­ters nu­mer­ous sci­en­tists whose re­search into psychedeli­cs has led them to per­spec­tives that feel “un­com­fort­ably un­sci­en­tific” – for in­stance, the pos­si­bil­ity that death is not the end, but “could be a be­gin­ning”.

Il­lu­mi­nat­ing even to sea­soned read­ers of psy­che­delic lit­er­a­ture, How To Change Your Mind ar­gues that we have much to gain, on both a per­sonal and so­ci­etal level, if we open our­selves to the im­pos­si­ble splen­dour of psychedeli­cs. It de­serves to be read not only by the al­ready-psy­che­delic and the psy-cu­ri­ous, but by the scep­ti­cal – in­clud­ing leg­is­la­tors and men­tal­health pro­fes­sion­als – whose minds it may in­deed change.

Ad­vo­cate

A more per­sonal book, Tao Lin’s Trip: Psychedeli­cs, Alien­ation, and Change, re­counts the au­thor’s en­gage­ment with the work of the bril­liant, out­ra­geously spec­u­la­tive ad­vo­cate of plant psychedeli­cs, Ter­rence McKenna.

An ex­pan­sion of Lin’s Vice.com col­umn, “The Tao of Ter­rence”, Trip bears sim­i­lar­i­ties to Daniel Pinch­beck’s post­mod­ern psy­che­delic-con­ver­sion nar­ra­tive, Break­ing Open the Head. Whereas Lin’s prior novel, Taipei ,wasa bleak and dis­so­cia­tive work, Trip in­di­cates that psychedeli­cs have opened vi­tal cur­rents for him as a writer and as a man.

His first work of non-fic­tion com­bines mem­oir with re­search on psychedeli­cs, and re­flec­tions on the philo­soph­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ques­tions they pro­voke. Lin’s some­times grat­ing man­ner­isms of style have (mostly) been set aside, and he writes en­gag­ingly about grow­ing up ill-nour­ished and spir­i­tu­ally starved in “de­gen­er­ate” Amer­ica. His trade­mark Web-ad­dled blank­ness is es­chewed in favour of a heart­felt en­gage­ment with the wis­dom of an­cient civilisati­ons and their en­theogenic “teacher plants”. Psilo­cy­bin, DMT, salvia, and cannabis are each sam­pled and in­ves­ti­gated.

The chal­lenge of writ­ing about psychedeli­cs is to render ex­pe­ri­ences that are pri­vate and in­ef­fa­ble in­ter­est­ing to the reader. Ter­rence McKenna’s ge­nius was that he never put a foot wrong in this re­gard – check out his mes­meris­ing talks on YouTube – whereas Lin is not al­ways so suc­cess­ful. Some sec­tions read like in­ter­minable Erowid trip re­ports, with Lin in­dulging druggy stereo­types that will con­firm the prej­u­dices of those who re­gard psychedeli­cs as “haz­ardous and un­in­ter­est­ing” (as Tao did be­fore he en­coun­tered Ter­rence). It is not par­tic­u­larly ed­i­fy­ing, for in­stance, to read about a blitzed Lin talk­ing to his bong.

The nar­ra­tive of per­sonal re­birth and the slough­ing off of a va­pid world­view, how­ever, re­deems Trip from stoner self-in­dul­gence. In a nov­el­is­tic epi­logue writ­ten in the third-per­son, Lin heads to Cal­i­for­nia for a plant-draw­ing work­shop with McKenna’s former wife, Kath­leen Har­ri­son. En route, he de­cides that his book will “trend to­wards the fem­i­nine”. Ear­lier re­flec­tions con­trast mas­cu­line, “dom­i­na­tor” cul­tures with the an­cient re­li­gions of the God­dess that they sup­planted. In short, the stakes are con­sid­er­ably higher than they were in Lin’s novella Shoplift­ing from Amer­i­can Ap­parel. For all the com­muning with bongs and spec­u­la­tions about its au­thor’s ex­trater­res­trial ori­gins, Trip is a sane book about be­com­ing sane, and Lin’s most valu­able work to date.

The surge of in­ter­est in psychedeli­cs to which these two books at­test is a cause for op­ti­mism. Half a cen­tury af­ter they first shook western civil­i­sa­tion, the un­fath­omable mol­e­cules con­tinue to tremble with awe­some prom­ise.

‘‘ Re­search cen­tres such as Johns Hop­kins have suc­cess­fully used them to help peo­ple with ter­mi­nal ill­nesses come to terms with their ap­proach­ing deaths. Else­where, smok­ers quit smok­ing, alcoholics quit drink­ing, de­pres­sives be­gin to smile

Rob Doyle’s most re­cent book is

■ Rit­ual

This Is the

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