I got Michael Pollan’s book “How to Change Your Mind” because I am interested in how hallucinogenic drug use influenced the counter-culture of the 1960s.
From the full title of Pollan’s book, you know it's an ambitious work. “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence” barely fits on the front of the soft cover edition released in May. And even that doesn’t fully describe what’s inside.
“How to Change Your Mind” has three distinct parts: the history of hallucinogens, descriptions of the author’s experiments taking LSD, magic mushrooms and, yes, the venom of the Colorado River Toad, and then accounts of recent research on using hallucinogens to treat addiction and depression and to help terminally ill people lose their fear of dying.
That’s a lot to cover in one book.
Pollan was at his best writing about the history of LSD. Pollan reports that early research found LSD was a promising treatment for alcoholism. I was surprised to learn that Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, credited his sobriety to a mystical experience he had on a hallucinogen administered to him in a hospital in 1934. Bill W. was impressed with later research on treating alcoholics with LSD. According to Pollan, he argued that LSD could cause the spiritual awakening necessary to get sober. But others on the board of Alcoholics Anonymous were against recommending any mind-altering substance.
The early history of LSD has largely been blotted out by the antics of Harvard Psychology Professor Timothy Leary, who famously told America’s youth to Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out.
Like Leary, Pollan did a lot of first-person research on the effects of hallucinogens. His trips were sometimes disappointing. Recounting one, he complained that he got some insight on his family relationships, but never felt that he had been propelled into the lap of God.
Pollan’s trips often followed the patterns of trips described by people who had life-changing experiences while on hallucinogens. The simplest way he described it was the realization that Love is Everything. He wrote that words fail to convey how profoundly one feels that truth while on LSD.
The final part of the book is on the limited research the U.S. Government allows on hallucinogens. Pollan said that because hallucinogens have shown such promise for addiction and other mental health disorders, patients have been clamoring to get into these studies.
“How to Change Your Mind” left me feeling better informed about the history and promise of hallucinogens. But I felt Pollan was too glib about recreational use. He seemed to downplay the danger of hallucinogens, which can be particularly bad for people who are pre-disposed to schizophrenia.
I think anyone who wants to take a second look at hallucinogens should read “How to Change Your Mind.” I also recommend a companion book, “The Only Dance There Is” by Ram Dass. It explains how eastern mystics attain the same transcendence, but without ever taking a drug.
Cindy Simmons is a professor in the College of Communications at Penn State University Park.