Despite the rave reviews, I initially skipped reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. Having already read a fair deal on psychedelics, I figured I knew enough on the subject. But the author’s interview with Tim Ferris intrigued me, so I gave the audiobook a try. And I’m glad I did. It was definitely the best book I read in all of 2018, and there’s been takeaways that have stuck with me now more than a year later.
Psychedelics is a subject loaded with mania, fear, and political baggage, and Pollan handles the subject with what feels like the right mindset: skeptical curiosity and cautious reverence. Regardless of how it handles its taboo subject, How to Change Your Mind is a good book in its own right; I found it difficult to put down. Michael Pollan is an exquisite writer, and his beautiful narration in the audiobook only adds to the book’s richly felt, considered prose. I recommended the book to a few friends (including one not previously sold on psychedelics’ merits), and they loved it.
What stuck with me most was Pollan’s description of how psychedelics forge new neural connections. He likens this phenomenon to tracks in snow:
On ground covered by fresh snow, you chart your path freely. But as the snow becomes more and more well-traveled, trenches of tracks appear that you’re likely to follow. As the snow rises and tracks become deeper, it becomes quite difficult to veer from the well-worn paths.
Similarly, your thoughts and actions tend to follow the same neural pathways over and over. For example, you experience an unpleasant situation and immediately light up a cigarette. Your well-trodden neural path goes from the awareness of anxiety to the impulse to fumble for matches. You could do something else, but the path is so well-worn that it takes heroic effort to forge an alternate route.
Interestingly enough, one study showed that a psilocybin session was more effective than other treatments for smoking cessation. One participant in that study said she stopped smoking because in the session she realized: “My lungs are precious” (such seemingly stupid platitudes are common takeaways from psychedelic experiences). Finding a fresh perspective could make sense in light of the idea that psychedelics form new neural connections deep in the brain, and a new neural connection could give you the sense of a new understanding or new way of looking at things.
The other thing that stuck with me was Pollan’s description of what type of dispositions psychedelics are most helpful for. The human psyche ranges from overly open to rigid. Schizophrenia falls on the open side, anxiety and depression are on the rigid. From the current research, psychedelics appear to be most immediately helpful for issues on the rigid side of the spectrum. Perhaps this is related to how psychedelics may cease activity in the part of the brain associated with identity.
Before Michael Pollan tackled the subject, it seemed like the conversations around psychedelics were either, “Everyone should take psychedelics! Put them in the water! Utopia is nigh!” or “Psychedelics make you crazy! Ban them and investigate these evil-making drugs no further!” But psychedelics are a whole realm of nuance, and the correct approach is likely somewhere in between. Since this book came out to high acclaim, it’s felt like the conversations around psychedelics are evolving past that black-and-white thinking. As so many members of our society have mental and emotional problems that aren’t successfully addressed with currently available treatments, it seems worthwhile to explore what solutions psychedelics could provide.