Bookshot #123: How To Change Your Mind

I loved The Omnivore's Dilemma and enjoyed the heck of Cooked on Netflix, so getting me exited to read another book by Michael Pollan wasn't a hard sell. However, this particular book was driven more by his interview on the Joe Rogan Experience- when I had finished listening to it, I knew I had to track down the actual book and read it because it seemed like a fascinating and potentially important topic to learn more about. Happily, this hunch proved to be correct.

How To Change Your Mind is a fascinating look at the new and emerging science of psychedelics. Pollan, with his usual eye for detail takes the reader through the history of the drugs- tracking the discovery of LSD and the origins of things like psyilocibin and the extract derived from the Sonoran Toad, DMT- he also spends a lot of time tracking their rise and ultimately their fall from grace in the 1960s thanks to the fears brought on by the antics of Timothy Leary and the counterculture.

The research and use of the drugs went underground for a few decades and is just now beginning to emerge and be subjected to serious study again- with marijuana legalization spreading, we're starting to see some cities decriminalize psylocibin here and there as these drugs move further into the mainstream- not just for research and therapy but for personal use as well.

Personal use is where this book really gets fascinating: not content with merely exploring the history of these drugs, Pollan decides that to really understand them, he has to use them himself and thus treats the reader to his various 'mental travelogues' as he trips on mushrooms, DMT and LSD.  His experiences also underline a problem with the study of these drugs: how do you scientifically study the effects of these drugs when what people experience while on these drugs is so subjective and differs from person to person?

It takes some exploration on Pollan's part but he devotes a chapter on the neuroscience of what exactly happens to your brain when you're on these drugs. In my opinion, I think this chapter is the most important at revealing the potential for some of these drugs to help with mental illness, but especially depression. Imagine the traditional treatment for depression: therapy plus an anti-depressant-- the pill abates your symptoms, while the therapy helps you work through the underlying problem causing your depression- whatever it is. But now, imagine there's a treatment that acts as a giant reset button for your brain? That has to be more effective than the band-aid of a traditional pill/therapy combo, right? (There's more to it than that and it's a little beyond me, because well, I'm not a neuroscientist- but I got the gist of it and it backs up Pollan's assertion about the revolutionary potential of some of these treatments.)

The concept that I found most fascinating though, was probably the idea of ego dissolution. Part of me doesn't like that- you sort of shy away from the notion. If the ego is the very essence of your being, then the idea of being dissolved and submerged into nature/God/the universe or whatever is going to be an uncomfortable one, but you can also see why it becomes so helpful to help people find peace when facing a terminal diagnosis- and to be honest, if you're facing that, then I'm all for it. Whatever brings you comfort and helps you process what's coming. But, however hard it is to wrap your head around the concept of 'ego dissolution' there's also that sort of prickle at the back of your head: what would that be like? To experience that and then come back? That must be a hell of a thing.

Slotting in second place for 'things I found fascinating' was the surprising bit of knowledge that LSD was, at one point being explored as a treatment for alcoholism of all things- and the book is full of little side nuggets and anecdotes like that. It more than meets Pollan's usual standards of excellence and it's a quick read-- I'm not sure if I could call it 'couldn't put it down', but it wasn't a struggle to get through, which, given the density of some of the material explored is something of an achievement. Ultimately, though, I think this book provides a call for change- especially in the United States. It's blindingly obvious by this point that our mental health system is terrible. There's increasing suicide rates, general signs point to be people being unhappy a lot of the time- and the treatments and these drugs potentially point to a revolution that's been right under our noses this whole time. That fact alone makes this book important- and worth reading.

Overall: Another great one from Pollan. It's a long, strange trip- but one worth taking. My Grade: **** out of ****


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