As usual, this is a lightly modified version of a review posted on Goodreads.
NOTE: I'm successfully resisting the temptation to read others' reviews before posting this one, although I did see that a Goodreads & Facebook friend also gave this book a full five. Primarily, I wanted to see whether any readers found any problems with Pollan's forays into describing the research protocols or the neuroscience.
FULL DISCLOSURE: To my knowledge, I have never taken any psychedelic substances, but I am currently taking Wellbutrin (bupropion) daily for moderate depression.
So...there's mountains of scientific evidence that tryptamines like LSD, psilocybin, and DMT (found in ayahuasca tea and in your own brain) can be used to help conquer addictions, various mental disorders, and fear of death. Further, these chemicals have shown greater effectiveness than commonly prescribed medications like my current pharmaceutical friend Wellbutrin—and you need only take them occasionally, not every day.
But you don't just eat magic mushrooms at a party and magically quit smoking the next morning: It has to occur in the correct setting, with the correct mindset, and with a trained guide. Despite their well documented efficacy, the US government has made unauthorized possession of these substances a federal crime, and has put the research on hold for most of the last half-century. So science has had to unearth or reinvent parts of the wheel it had in production back in the 1960s.
Whether he knew it or not at the beginning, Prof. Michael Pollan undertook a most ambitious odyssey in producing How to Change Your Mind. His account of that odyssey combines:
There are more dimensions to it than that, of course. For example, the history of the research involves the complicating incident of new wonder drug LSD "jumping the fence" in the 1960s from the clinical setting to social and artistic realms. The research community blames/credits Dr. Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard for "liberating" LSD (and psilocybin), leading to the federal criminalization of these substances.
Ol' Tim, the true celebrity of psychedelic research, doesn't get many kind words in this tome, from the author or from the researchers interviewed for it. Leary's actions led indirectly to the brutal suppression of clinical research on psychedelics, up to and including the burial of published studies and renunciations by the journals that published them. The talented self-promoter Leary's record is not entirely negative, and his influence on culture cannot be denied: Leary turned on Allen Ginsberg, who turned on Bob Dylan, who supposedly turned on John Lennon, and so on, enriching music and art beyond measure.
But Pollan populates his book with dozens of less-renowned personalities on the forefront of psychedelic research and therapy, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann and his experiments with fungi in the 1930s to the present decade. Pollan's depictions of the physical and personal dimensions of these physicians, researchers, shamans, and psychonauts are as brilliant as his depictions of what tryptamines imparted to him. Even without all the trippy scenes, HtCYM is worth reading for Pollan's interactions with these folks.
My one complaint does not sway me from awarding this book five stars: Far too many of the "characters" are educated, middle-class to affluent folks with European surnames, presumably white and privileged enough never to have been busted for possession during their youthful experimentation. One scene toward the end brings this into sharp relief: Pollan's tale of a grandmother, living in a New Mexico trailer park, who volunteered for psychedelic therapy experiments to treat her hard-core alcoholism. I won't divulge the other details, but the story has the feel of somebody whose narrative skidded off the NPR Highway and fell into a ditch, then quickly drove back onto the highway as if nothing had happened.
However, the anecdote about the New Mexico grandmother appears shortly after the single most emotionally rewarding bit of reading I've done in years. Pollan relates his encounters with some cancer patients who volunteered for a study at NYU to see whether psilocybin can help allay fears and anxieties about one's imminent death. Minor spoiler: OMG, does it ever. The revelations these patients receive from their guided trips are so astoundingly beautiful, I found myself weeping convulsively.
I shit you not. I was literally shaking and could scarcely hold the book for more than a few paragraphs while trying to digest that section. In the preceding chapters, I had been able to read about psychedelic experiences with a degree of detachment and occasional chuckles. But the scenes with cancer patients hit me especially hard, perhaps because I have recently seen far too many friends and acquaintances losing their battles with cancer. (Oddly enough, the section on therapy with depressives did not affect me nearly as profoundly.)
Hence, five stars. Pollan's Lonely Planet guide to psychedelics transported me in ways I've never experienced, hitting me upside the ego at several spiritual and emotional levels. When I laughed, I laughed out loud and heartily, especially at Pollan's descriptions of his sometimes nebbish-y tryptamine experiences. When I cried, I was crying mostly over the revelations of the power of love and the oneness of all creation, but nearly as much over the way our Western societies and governments have used every means at their disposal to demonize these substances and the people who use them. And amid the laughing and crying, there was plenty of learning.
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