Review: How to Change Your Mind

Journalist and author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma; Cooked) didn't consider taking LSD until he was nearly 60 years old. He had a mild experience with psilocybin mushrooms in his late 20s, but never had much interest in illegal drugs, nor introspection, religion or mysticism in any form. "But there are moments when curiosity gets the better of fear. I guess for me such a moment had arrived."

This curiosity resulted, among other more personal and intangible results, in How to Change Your Mind, a thorough and enlightening study of the history, science and personal experience of psychedelic drugs in the U.S. The invention of LSD in the 1950s sparked a revolution in brain science. Researchers discovered the role of neurotransmitters in the brain, and the neurochemical roots of many mental illnesses. Psychotherapists had remarkable results using psychedelic drugs in treatments. But as enthusiastic promoters of these substances spread them to the general unmonitored public, and the youth counterculture in particular, "the exuberance surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic."

They were outlawed, and medical research using them faded until the 1990s, when a new generation of scientists set out to revive their legitimate medical and therapeutic study and use. Researchers at respected institutions have studied the effects of psilocybin on religious professionals, and found remarkable results in trials to treat anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders and the fear of death. "It is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions--involving the temporary dissolution of one's ego--that may be the key to changing one's mind."

Pollan interviews old and young researchers and "guides," and, with a long disclaimer on the copyright page, he describes his transformative guided personal experiences with LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and 5-MeO-DMT (The Toad). Of his mushroom experience he writes: "I honestly don't know what to make of this experience... I had felt the personhood of other beings in a way I hadn't before.... There had also been... an opening of the heart, toward my parents, yes, and Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. Some of this openness has persisted. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence." Legal, expertly guided psychedelic therapies could be the future of mental health treatments and therapies, and of the exploration of human consciousness. --Sara Catterall

Shelf Talker: An entertaining and enlightening guide to the history, science and experience of psychedelic drugs.

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