BOOK REVIEW: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers an account of the activities of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during the mid-1960’s. Kesey is best known as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a best-selling novel that was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson. The charismatic Kesey led a group of nomadic hippies who came to call themselves “the Merry Pranksters.” There were many counter-culture strains during those years. Some looked East, and pursued spiritual traditions like yoga and Zen. Some were academics who sought to maintain scholarly rigor in adventures through the doors of perception. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters occupied more whimsical territory. As the “prankster” name suggests, taking things seriously wasn’t their way. Their mythology was in comic book superhero tales, and their moral code hedonistic. The titular prank had to do with spiking Kool-Aid with LSD (a.k.a. Acid) – not to be confused the Jim Jones cult which poisoned Kool-Aid and engaged in collective suicide over a decade after the events described in this book took place.

LSD plays a major role in the events of this book. While it’s not mentioned in Wolfe’s book, an interesting thing to note is that Kesey was introduced to hallucinogens through a program funded by the CIA’s nefarious MK-Ultra program. Kesey was working as an Aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, and he volunteered for a study on the effects of a number of psychoactive / hallucinogenic drugs. It seems that Kesey took a shine to these substances (most notably LSD) because he kept pursuing psychedelic experiences long after the study was over and even after he’d run afoul of the law (though his arrests were marijuana-related and not about hallucinogens.)

Tom Wolfe used beat-poetic prose to convey the feel of Merry Prankster life. There are even a few free verse poems in the book as well. And, of course, the dialogue conveys the tone of this community. The language is often fun and trippy in a way that contributes to the story. Wolfe put an author’s note amid the book’s back matter that explains his desire to not only tell people about the events but to convey the atmosphere, and I felt he did a nice job in that regard.

The central story hinges on Kesey faking his death (not skillfully) and fleeing to Mexico to evade punishment on his initial marijuana charges, and then — after some time in Mexico — he returned to the US, ultimately doing his time. Over the course of the book, the Pranksters develop a rapport with the Hell’s Angels, they cross paths with the likes of Beat giant Allen Ginsberg and the founders of the Grateful Dead. While it’s nonfiction, and thus not meant to follow a story arc approach beat for beat, Wolfe does tie things up with a nice bow, ending with the Prankster “Graduation” which would see the end of that group before Kesey went off to serve time on his combination of marijuana and evading justice charges. We see a change in Kesey in the last couple chapters as he’s advocating pursuit of the psychedelic state of mind without the use of drugs. It’s hard to say how much of this is trying to cooperate to get better terms, how much it was just growing up, and how much it was a true change in his core beliefs.

I enjoyed this book. It’s fun to read and offers insight into an era with which I wasn’t particularly familiar. I’d only known Kesey from his blockbuster book and a vague reference to his being a participant in a MK-Ultra funded program, and so it was interesting to learn about the intriguing life of this author.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for AmericaThe Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America by Don Lattin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The title and subtitle say it all when it comes to Lattin’s controversial thesis that four individuals who were at (or — in Smith’s case — “near / working with”) Harvard University single-handedly (octa-handedly?) gave birth to the sixties’ counterculture through their research and advocacy of hallucinogenic substances (first psilocybin and later LSD.) Before I obtained a copy, I was perusing the reviews, and one overarching criticism stuck out amid a sea of generally complimentary comments. Having now read the book, I’d have to agree with both that criticism and much of the praise.

The criticism is that Lattin arbitrarily lumps four individuals together and emphasizes their connection to the prestigious Harvard University in order to support a [sub-titular] claim whose reach exceeds its grasp. Now, some critics may be defending their alma mater. No matter one’s perspective, Harvard gets a black eye from the story of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass.) For some people, that black eye results from the fact that the pair of psychologists were able to carry out such wild and woolly experimentation in the first place. For others, it results from the fact that the university ultimately fired the two and ended research into the benefits and hazards of hallucinogenic substances [and how to tap the former without succumbing to the latter] — a line of research just starting to show results. (To be fair, the CIA’s shenanigans with hallucinogen experimentation [i.e. MK ULTRA] likely did more to kill this line of research than did the firing of Leary and Alpert.)

As one can see, tying the stories of Leary and Alpert together is reasonable. They were faculty members who worked together, were ultimately fired together, and for a while after said firing they continued to work together to advance their agenda outside the constraining halls of academia. Smith and Weil have roles in this story, but presenting them as though they were working shoulder-to-shoulder to advance psychedelic substance use is a bit of a stretch. While Weil’s work eventually suggested that marijuana wasn’t particularly harmful and could be beneficial, as his story intersects with the Leary / Alpert story his role was adversarial. As an undergraduate and writer for the school newspaper, Weil was the one who broke the story that Leary and Alpert were giving at least some undergraduates hallucinogenic substances (a big no-no as per their agreement with Harvard.)

Huston Smith’s story is yet more tenuously connected. While he was on faculty at MIT, he worked with Leary and Alpert on a study with divinity students to determine how psychedelically-induced mystical experiences compared to ones that weren’t influenced by mind-altering substances. While Leary followed his own advice to “drop out,” becoming a counterculture / hippie bad boy, and Alpert went on to pursue the mystical life of a spiritual seeker under the alter-ego of Ram Dass, Smith had a long career as a mainstream academic – retiring as Professor Emeritus from Syracuse University. Weil had some karma pains early in his career, being marginalized by his colleagues for his work with controlled substances as Leary and Alpert once had been, but ultimately he became a health food / holistic medicine celebrity and co-director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona.

While I agree that Lattin overstates his case on the book’s cover, once one delves into its pages, I think he does some intriguing and honest reporting of the stories of these four men. It’s certainly a story with a lot of tension. There’s the strained relationship that ultimately develops between the polar-opposite partners of Leary and Alpert. The two psychologists’ differences were complements in some ways, but the partnership was ultimately doomed. Of course, both of the above men had a problem with Weil, and the latter’s attempts to reconcile with them is integral to the post-Sixties part of the book. As suggested above, Smith’s is a side story that exists outside this drama, and only really has the one point of intersection.

This book kept me reading. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were only vague pop-culture references to me, and I knew nothing of Weil or Smith before reading, but the overarching story (as well as the individual ones) is a fascinating one. While these four men may not have birthed the Sixties into being, they did have interesting stories while living through an interesting time. I’d recommend this book if you want to learn about the early civilian (i.e. transparent) research into hallucinogens (note: there is only a small reference to the parallel, secretive, government-sponsored work on LSD, and this isn’t the book to learn about that subject.) It’s also a good book to get a view of how the sixties unfolded, and the states of mind that led to it. As I said, these four men weren’t particularly integral to the Sixties being what it was. Aldous Huxley’s essays were out there; the Vietnam War, political mistrust, and other ingredients of the counter-cultural tide were all present. But, while the Sixties might have transpired without a glitch if none of these men had ever been born, they did have front row seats to what was going on, and one sees in their actions (drug use, spirituality, radicalism, etc.) the era in miniature.

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