Every once in a great while, you encounter a book that has the power to change everything—both in your personal life, and in the world at large. Michael Pollan’s latest, “How to Change your Mind,” is one such book.
Ever since it was published in May 2018, “How to Change Your Mind” has almost single-handedly brought the long-suppressed subject of psychedelics back into public consciousness with astounding depth and breadth. It not only gives readers a sweeping history of scientific research into psychedelics, but also reveals the author’s own experiences with LSD, psilocybin (the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms), and 5-MeO-DMT; digs into the neuroscience of the tripping brain; and examines how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy has been used in clinical trials at institutions such as Imperial College and Johns Hopkins to treat depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients.
Some people might be surprised to find the previously straight-laced Pollan venturing into the historically hippie-dippy territory of LSD trips, magic mushrooms, and other (currently) illegal mind-altering substances. After all, he’s a journalist, skeptic and science writer best-known for his incisive and influential food writing. Once you consider the thematic connections that psychoactive plants have to Pollan’s entire body of work (“The Botany of Desire” is about humankind’s symbiotic/co-evolutionary relationship with plants; “Second Nature” is about reconnecting with the natural world), the author’s interest in psilocybin—and in psychedelic science in general—starts to make a lot more sense. As The New York Times book review of “How to Change Your Mind” states, “Pollan remains concerned with what we put into our bodies, but we’re not talking about arugula.”
“How to Change Your Mind” couldn’t have come at a more opportune time in history. According to the World Health Organization, depression and other mental health disorders are on the rise globally, with more than 300 million people afflicted. Fewer than half of those suffering from depression seek treatment, and only about half of those who seek treatment ultimately respond to SSRIs or other psychiatric drugs. Those who are unresponsive to medication are labeled as having “treatment-resistant depression,” and aside from a new course of pharmaceutical drugs, their treatment options are few. This is why FDA approval for psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy would be the biggest advance in psychiatry in over 50 years.
Pollan’s new book gives readers a hopeful glimpse into this new mental health treatment paradigm during interviews with Robin Carhart-Smith, a neuroscientist who has been studying the impact of psychedelics on the brain at Imperial College in London since 2006, and with Carhart-Smith’s psilocybin study volunteers. Before their psilocybin experience, all of the volunteers reported that their depression kept them disconnected—from other people, their own feelings and sensations and nature. One volunteer said, “I would look at orchids, and intellectually understand that there was beauty, but not experience it.” After their psilocybin session, they reported overwhelming feelings of connection and emotional freedom:
“It was like a holiday away from the prison of my brain. I felt free, carefree, energized.”
“You’re not immersed in thought patterns; the concrete coat has come off.”
“Before, I enjoyed nature; now I feel a part of it. Before I was looking at it as a thing, like TV or a painting. You’re part of it, there’s no separation or distinction, you are it.”
“I would look at people on the street and think, ‘How interesting we are’—I felt connected to them all.”
“I was everybody, unity, one life with 6 billion faces. I was the one asking for love and giving love. I was swimming in the sea, and the sea was me.”
A week after their psilocybin session, all of the Imperial volunteers showed improvement in their symptoms, and two-thirds of them were depression free for the first time in years. Over half still showed substantial improvement after three months. After six months, half remained in remission; the other half had relapsed to some degree, indicating that the treatment may need to be repeated on a once or twice a year basis.
Study results such as these are astounding enough, but perhaps the most surprising thing about them is that they use science, which exalts rationality and objectivity, to validate highly subjective mystical states of consciousness. Pollan quotes Huston Smith, the celebrated religious studies scholar. “The Johns Hopkins experiment…uses science, which modernity trusts, to undermine modernity’s secularism. In doing so, if offers hope of nothing less than a re-sacralization of the natural and social world, a spiritual revival that is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism.”
If you or a loved one suffer from depression, anxiety, or addiction issues—and find treatment options currently available for such disorders woefully inadequate —please read this book. It just might change your life.