A lot of names may come to mind when you think about psychedelics: Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Terence McKenna, Jerry Garcia, that one strange dude in high school...But how about Michael Pollan? Yes, that Michael Pollan, the bookish UC Berkeley professor who taught us the valuable lesson that undoubtedly changed our food system over the last decade -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants. Now, Pollan is tackling the way we look at, well, everything, in his latest book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”
Diving into psychedelics may seem like a departure from Pollan’s foodie icon status (because of his influence on our food system he was ranked one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2010), but at closer look, there’s more than a bit of overlap between food and psychedelics: for starters, we ingest psychedelics much in the same way one ingests anything else, and both psilocybin and LSD are produced from fungi -- psilocybin is found in mushrooms and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is synthesized from the fungus ergot.
But the connection goes much deeper than that as Pollan explores: the foods we eat change who we are. The more we’re exposed to certain types of food the more this is undeniably true. Kale salad instead of Big Macs, for example, lead us to a healthier body, and typically, a healthier relationship to food in general. Other levels of awareness often follow: greater concern for the farmers who grow our food, the food system at large, the way animals are treated, the environmental impact, and so on. How we relate to our own consciousness and the world around us affects us similarly after an experience with psychedelics, Pollan discovers.
Legal in the U.S. until 1966, scores of scientists, psychiatrists, and curious seekers experimented with psychedelics in the 1950s and ‘60s. Its impact influenced politics, art and culture, music, and even our food system -- many of the early organic farmers and producers were those who "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” -- leaving big cities and corporate jobs for quiet farm life.
In “How to Change Your Mind,” Pollan weaves through the history of psychedelics in the U.S. He highlights early on the curious experience of Robert Gordon Wasson, the first modern Westerner to partake in a native Mexican psilocybin ritual that he detailed for LIFE magazine in 1955. There's Al Hubbard who reportedly hid massive amounts of LSD in Death Valley, California, distributing it like a psychedelic Johnny Appleseed. He traces the use of mind-altering plants in all cultures of the world (except for the Inuit, although, living in the barren frozen Arctic Circle qualifies as psychedelic by my account). He even explores how animals reportedly seek out psilocybin and mind-altering plants.
But it's Pollan's fast-forward to the present that's most fascinating.
“I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths,” Pollan writes in the book’s introduction. But he heads deep into mystical terrain in “How to Change Your Mind.” His interest in the subject matter comes partly because in recent years a psychedelic renaissance has taken a foothold in several psychiatric therapies gaining approval to use the now-illegal drugs: from treating PTSD to helping terminal cancer patients come to terms with death, to “microdosing” -- taking very small amounts of LSD as a treatment for depression (as illustrated in novelist Ayelet Waldman’s intrepid 2016 memoir, “A Really Good Day").
Then, there’s the record number of Westerners (myself included) who’ve headed to South America to drink the DMT-containing plant brew called ayahuasca that brings about intense visions as well as reports of curing disease and depression. It's so popular that it's earned pop culture status, from Father John Misty lyrics to Chelsea Handler taking her Netflix show to Peru for several of the sacred ayahuasca ceremonies.
Pollan dives into the journey much in the same way he took on his dinner in 2006’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” where the author traces the food on his plate to an eye-opening degree. In “How to Change Your Mind,” the sixty-three-year-old confronts his own mortality, his relationship to consciousness and the world around him with the same infectious curiosity and clarity.
Psychedelics are more than just Burning Man shenanigans, Pollan posits, they can offer us a valuable journey into or out of wherever we may need to be at that moment in our lives. The magic lies not solely in the mushrooms themselves, but in what they allow our minds to experience. In clinical settings, Pollan notes, the users often experienced whatever the clinicians suggested: be it terrifying visions or intense “spiritual” awakenings. Even in the cases where subjects report having “bad trips” -- negative experiences under the influence of LSD or psilocybin -- there are rarely ever wholly “bad” experiences for the users. And often, the positive impact of the experience lasts decades for some subjects. Many describe it as the most powerful experience of their lives, even more than having children or losing loved ones.
“Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.”
Pollan tackling psychedelics does more than just validate them as potentially effective treatments for diseases plaguing modernity like depression or addiction. His journey takes us back into the mystery of the forests we tend to overlook in our busy city-focused lives; where he once hunted for food he now hunts for mushrooms with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets and looks for clues into what consciousness really means. If “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.” is the Pollan-ascribed mantra that ushered in a new wave of “conscious” eaters and food producers, then “How to Change Your Mind” is indeed the next logical step in our Pollan-led evolution. Because it’s not enough to just “eat better.” There are crises of increasing magnitude all over the planet -- whether it’s global hunger or global warming, plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance, human trafficking, animal poaching, corrupt politicians and Hollywood producers, these issues demonstrate our disastrous disconnect from the world around and within us.
Could psychedelics be the answer?
"Turn on, tune in, drop out" was Timothy Leary’s famous advice in 1966 that led to a rise in LSD use as well as a rise in Vietnam War resisters and a cultural revolution so significant its impact is still felt today. Pollan hasn’t quite distilled his message down to something as simple or sexy as Leary’s just yet, but there’s no question his exploration is opening a door closed on our consciousness for far too long.
“This, I think is the great value of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness,” he writes, “the light they reflect back on ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.”
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