Pubdate: Tue, 15 May 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: John Williams


Microdosing is hot. If you haven't heard - but you probably have, from
reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman's
memoir "A Really Good Day," from dozens of news stories - to microdose
is to take small amounts of LSD, which generate "subperceptual"
effects that can improve mood, productivity and creativity.

Michael Pollan's new book, "How to Change Your Mind," is not about
that. It's about macro-dosing. It's about taking enough LSD or
psilocybin (mushrooms) to feel the colors and smell the sounds, to let
the magic happen, to chase the juju. And it's about how mainstream
science ceded the ground of psychedelics decades ago, and how it's
trying to get it back.

"How to Change Your Mind" is a calm survey of the past, present and
future. A book about a blurry subject, it is cleareyed and assured.
Pollan is not the most obvious guide for such a journey. He is, to
judge from his self-reporting, a giant square. In the prologue, he
describes himself as someone "not at all sure he has ever had a single
'spiritually significant' experience," a pretty straitened admission
even for an avowed atheist. "I have never been one for deep or
sustained introspection," he writes later. You often find yourself
thinking: This guy could really use a trip.

And he takes one. More than one. He learns things from them, but he
also doesn't overplay his experiences, admitting that he never felt
his ego had "completely dissolved," as some others report happening.

Pollan's initial skepticism and general lack of hipness work wonders
for the material. The problem with more enthusiastic or even
hallucinatory writers on the subject is that they just compound the
zaniness at the heart of the thing; it's all too much of the same
tone, like having George Will walk you through the tax code.

Like another best-selling Michael (Lewis), Pollan keeps you turning
the pages even through his wonkiest stretches. We get history,
starting with Albert Hofmann, who first synthesized LSD in 1938 and
embarked on "the only LSD trip ever taken that was entirely innocent
of expectation"; profiles of current-day proselytizers and mushroom
hunters; analyses of brain-scanning technologies and government policy.

If Pollan's wide-ranging account has a central thesis, it's that we're
still doing the hard work of rescuing the science of psychedelics from
the "countercultural baggage" of the 1960s. Timothy Leary and his
tuning-in, dropping-out crowd so successfully branded the drugs as
accouterments of hippie culture that in the mid-60s "the exuberance
surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic," and soon after
that "the whole project of psychedelic science had collapsed."

Before collapsing, though, that project discovered in psychedelics the
same potential that scientists are exploring as they reclaim it today:
possible help in treating addiction, anxiety and depression, and
"existential distress" - common in people "confronting a terminal
diagnosis," which of course, broadly speaking, is all of us.

 From 1949 to 1966, the pharmaceutical company Sandoz dispensed free
amounts of "however much LSD any researcher requested" to conduct
trials. In 1957, before Leary had even tripped for the first time, R.
Gordon Wasson, a New York banker, published a lengthy essay in the
far-from-radical Life magazine about taking mushrooms in Mexico.

In Mexico and elsewhere, experiences with naturally occurring 
hallucinogens predated Hofmann's discovery of LSD by a long, long time. 
The wonderfully named but factually dubious "stoned ape theory" posits 
that great evolutionary leaps were made when early humans ingested 
psilocybin. It's unlikely that tripping led directly to, say, the 
development of language, as some proponents of that theory claim. But 
more convincing conjectures include the one Wasson made about mushrooms 
in Life: "One is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not 
have planted in primitive man the very idea of a God."

Like many who claim to encounter the divine, trippers often come back 
with knowledge comically difficult to convey. Plenty of testimonies 
cited in "How to Change Your Mind" are nontransferable mental checks. "I 
became the music for a while," one person recounts after a trip. 
Another: "I don't know why he's yellow and lives in my left shoulder." 
And Pollan himself: "It suddenly dawned on me that these trees were - 
obviously! - my parents."

You get the point(lessness). But unlike people drunk or high who feel
compelled the next day to shake their heads at what they did or
thought under the influence, psychedelic users often feel the
opposite, as if it's important to keep a foot in the place they were
while gone. They might not credit the man in their shoulder, but their
philosophical revelations about self and relationships and need and
perspective last longer than you might expect. Pollan writes: "The
traces these experiences inscribed remain indelible and accessible."
William James, whose openness to mystery makes him one of the guiding
lights of Pollan's book, once wrote of the substantial aftermath of
mystical experiences: "Dreams cannot stand this test."

In all of this is an assumption that the true value of psychedelics is
not the experience of them - the grooviness of the moment - but the
sediment the experience leaves behind.

It's possible these effects can be chalked up, in part, to the drug's
effect on the brain's so-called default mode network, especially the
part associated with self-referential thought. Pollan grants, if
briefly, that turning off the network - truly getting over yourself -
might also be achieved through "certain breathing exercises," or
through "sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming
experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences and so on."

Pollan doesn't give a lot of prime real estate to psychedelics'
naysayers. But given that those on LSD can appear to be losing their
minds, and that the drug leaves one feeling emotionally undefended (a
potential benefit as well as a profound risk), he does strongly
recommend having an experienced guide in a proper setting when you
trip. With those safeguards in place, he believes usage could be on
the verge of more widespread acceptance, pointing out that plenty of
other once widely derided practices redolent of the '60s, like yoga
and natural birth, are now common.

There is a notable amount of talk in the book about metaphors; so much
so that trips start to feel like textual events as much as physical
ones. Pollan writes of emerging from psychedelics or meditation with
"usable ideas, images or metaphors." One researcher says that
describing his own mystical experience involved "metaphors or
assumptions that I'm really uncomfortable with as a scientist."

Perhaps the hardest thing for the more skeptical and less mystically
inclined of us to accept is that mulling these metaphors often turns
people into, in Pollan's handy phrase, "fervent evangelists of the

Yet you end the book wondering if obvious things are all that bad.
Aldous Huxley wrote of feeling, on psychedelics, "the direct, total
awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and
fundamental cosmic fact."

These words, Huxley continued, "of course have a kind of indecency and
must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle. But the fact remains."
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MAP posted-by: Matt