How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
It’s often said there’s something “ineffable” about the nature of one’s mind on LSD, magic mushrooms, or other psychedelic plants or drugs.
How, then, are we to write about a state of consciousness that, by definition, cannot be described with words?
The modern quest begins with Aldous Huxley, the towering British writer whose extended essay, The Doors of the Perception, attempts to describe a mescaline trip at his home in Los Angeles in the spring of 1953.
Sitting in his study in the Hollywood hills, Huxley looked at three flowers and saw “a transience that was yet eternal life.” The folds of his corduroy trousers and draperies glimmered with “the miraculous fact of sheer existence.”
Huxley and the Canadian doctor who guided him on his first trip, Humphry Osmond, would in a few years coin the term “psychedelic,” which means “mind-manifesting.”
In a series of letters, they’d try out a few other words in verse, picking the winner after Osmond came up with the couplet, “To fathom hell, or soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic.”
In his attempt to describe his experience, Huxley, a mystically inclined British polymath, seized on some words from William Blake. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” the poet wrote, “everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Huxley’s hugely influential essay was passed down as a template for countless others to interpret the psychedelic experience in the 1950s and into the 1960s. You never have to have heard of Huxley or Blake to have been influenced by this exchange.
The author of Brave New World and Island also thought the psychedelic experience could be understood through the writings of a theosophical text called The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Huxley—who knew Walter Evans-Wentz, the theosophist who “discovered” that text—passed his ideas onto a Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, who used them as the basis for a 1964 book about how to take an acid trip. That book, The Psychedelic Experience, inspired the Beatles to “go psychedelic,” somewhere between the albums “Rubber Soul” (1965) and “Revolver” (1966), blossoming into full psychedelia with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967).
This is why, even today, one finds Eastern mystical kitsch in head shops and copies of Be Here Now (written by Leary’s sidekick, Richard Alpert/Ram Dass) in yoga supply stores. You can trace it all back to Aldous Huxley, largely because our experience on psychedelics are powerfully influenced by what psychologists call “expectancy effects” and the “radical suggestibility” of a mind stoned on acid.
When Huxley published The Doors of Perception in 1954, it had been just a decade since the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann stumbled upon the powerful mind-altering effects of LSD, a discovery that would revolutionize our understanding of the biochemical underpinnings of the human brain and that slippery thing we call “consciousness.”
For about 25 years, from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s, psychologists and brain scientists led the first wave of research and experimentation into the therapeutic use of psychedelics to treat depression, alcoholism, and various disorders of the mind.
Most of that research and therapy was shut down and criminalized following an explosion of “recreational” LSD use and “abuse” by hippies, freaks, and other baby boomers coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Leary, the messianic Harvard psychologist and self-described “high priest” of the psychedelic counterculture, is often blamed for the backlash, although the story is by no means that simple.
Over the last 20 years, the U.S. government, universities, and medical centers have slowly opened up and allowed a new wave of above-ground research into using still-illegal drugs like MDMA (Ecstasy) and psilocybin (the active ingredients in magic mushrooms) along with talk therapy to treat depression, addiction, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This re-branding of psychedelics has been aided and abetted by a long series of mostly positive newspaper articles, magazine stories, and books about the possible de-criminalization of psychedelic-assisted therapy, a practice that went underground for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
Better late than never, the bestselling writer and food activist Michael Pollan now enters the fray with his own treatise on this mind-expanding terrain, a big book titled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.
Pollan recounts this history, adding a long and wonderfully lucid account of his own experiences with underground guides administering psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca (a psychedelic tea brewed from two Amazonian plants) and 5-MeO-DMT (a blast into the outer reaches of the cosmos courtesy of the dried venom of a Sonoran desert toad).
You can hear echoes of Aldous Huxley in Pollan’s description of his first magic mushroom trip in his garden. “I was no longer the alienated human observer, gazing at the garden from a distance, whether literal or figural, but rather felt part and parcel of all that was transpiring here.”
Some of the book’s most insightful material comes at the end when Pollan describes in non-technical terms what neuroscientists are now learning about how the brain responds to psychedelic drugs, which resembles in some ways what happens to our consciousness and sense of self during deep meditative states.
For example, some scientists believe that a series of connections in the brain called “the default mode network” is at the root of the mood disorder we call “depression.” This may be the same thing Freud was talking about when he described the “ego.”
An overactive default mode network, these scientists theorize, leads to excessive rumination and “self-referential processing.” This leads to “an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thinking.”
Pollan interviews researchers who suggest that we compare the brain to one of those festive holiday snow globes. In the pre-shaking scene inside the globe, we see deep sled tracks down one mountain slope behind the ski chalet. Those tracks in the snow are the grooves of negative or obsessional thinking.
Psychedelic drugs shake up our brain like a vigorous shaking of that snow globe, giving us at least for a brief time a glistening field of pure white—and limitless possibilities to ski down the mountainside of perception.
This is a bit like Huxley’s idea of the normal brain as an conceptual “reducing valve” that allows us to make sense of and navigate through a world that would otherwise overwhelms us with sensory input. Psychedelics blow open that valve, allowing us to see things and make connections in ways that can be inspiring (good trip) or terrifying (bad trip).
One of the main advantages to tripping with an experienced therapist/guide is that the patient/explorer works through the “bad” trip and gains insight or psychological healing from it, while also finding ways to extend the lessons and the wonder from the “good” trip.
“For the well, psychedelics, by introducing more noise or entropy into the brain, might shake people out of their usual patterns of thought,” Pollan writes. “For the unwell, the patients who stand to gain the most are probably those suffering from the kinds of mental disorders characterized by mental rigidity—addiction, depression, obsession.”