Book of the week
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Author Michael Pollan is just the person to undertake a reassessment of psychedelics, said John Williams in The New York Times. “He is, to judge from his self-reporting, a giant square,” but he is also a writer who demonstrated, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his other best-sellers about food culture, a capacity to keep you turning the pages “even through his wonkiest sections.” Here, he shines a light on the mounting evidence scientists have been gathering in recent years that LSD and other psychedelics banned nearly a half-century ago could offer safe, effective treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction. “A psychedelic revolution could be closer than we think,” said Jason Diamond in The New Republic. “And Pollan might be one of the thinkers to help usher in this new era.”
The heart of Pollan’s book points to potential benefits for almost any user, said Laura Miller in Slate.com. Depression, anxiety, and addiction, after all, are caused by patterns of thinking that become habitual, but we all fall into similar ruts, and psychedelics appear able to pull people out of them. As Pollan explains, the drugs suppress activity in a brain system known as “the default mode network”—the site of the ego and of default patterns of thought. As he explores how the experience of an acid trip might aid in finding a way out of unhelpful mental grooves, he’s making relatively small claims compared with what Timothy Leary and other past proselytizers made. But “if How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will,” it will do so because Pollan is breaking the drugs’ association with youthful rebellion and instead pitching the benefits to older readers.
“But the dangers are real,” said Nick Richardson in Harper’s. Pollan eventually tries LSD, psilocybin, and a compound found in toad venom—each in a controlled setting—and does himself no harm. But people under the influence of psychedelics are so suggestible that the CIA once used the drugs for mind-control experiments. And even users who escape having their vulnerability abused are taking a risk. I’ve walked into traffic while tripping, and I have a friend who is in a psychiatric hospital after apparently failing to shake off LSD’s lingering effects. It’s crazy to think patients should be dropping acid and trusting therapists to coach them through. “The default mode network can be disarmed less riskily through meditation and exercise.” ■