Review of Michael Pollan's How To Change Your Mind

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Michael Pollan recently published How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. It is a remarkable work of participatory journalism not only because it highlights the recent renaissance of what had been a very promising field of psychiatric research prior to government backlash against the counterculture of the 1960s, but also because it suggests a broader understanding of how we might define ourselves and thus live happier, more meaningful lives, something relevant to each of us, afflicted with mental illness or not. While the book’s title is certainly a reference to the extraordinary capability of psychedelic compounds to allow the user to view his life and the world around him from a vantage point inaccessible to our normal state of consciousness, it also could be said to refer to the book’s ability to change our mind about psychedelics, from believing they only offer meaningless, drug-induced altered states of consciousness, to understanding they can be used to effectively treat a wide variety of mental illness, and perhaps even engender insights into the meaning of spirituality. To Pollan, after various experiments with these compounds, that meaning is both profound and simple – we can see that egocentric ways of living our lives are harmful to ourselves and our loved ones, and “spirituality” means recognizing life is much bigger and more mysterious than it appears from our vantage-point of everyday awareness. Opening up to that mystery entails a greater sense of connection to our loved ones and even to all of humankind and the natural world.

How to Change Your Mind is an immersive journalist’s depiction of a fascinating moment in modern history, researched and written at the cusp of that moment. His exploration is populated by colorful characters ranging from legendary figures of the first wave of research, to psychiatrists working today on controlled clinical trials, to underground therapists who have been providing psychedelic journeys for clients consistently since being trained in the 1960s. What makes the book most endearing is Pollan’s willingness to put his own fears aside and plunge himself into the unknown territory of the psychedelic experience, and to write about his most intimate thoughts, perceptions, and feelings, as much as these could be conveyed in words. It is a gift to the research community and to the lay reader to have such a skilled author narrate this personal journey, set in the midst of his journalistic approach to the subject matter. The closing chapters provide us with the latest neuroscience related to psychedelic research, followed by accounts of research subjects’ experiences and subsequent transformations. The book concludes with Pollan and other key figures reflecting on how far research has come, and looking toward the future of psychedelic therapy and the effects this potential revolution in mental healthcare could have on society as a whole.
Throughout the book, Pollan offers both his own thoughts and those of other players on some hypothetical implications of the psychedelic experience. To say the least, this is an intriguing and elusive subject; consider the title of one of the studies at Johns Hopkins – “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” Not a typical title for a peer-reviewed research article, it was one of the catalysts for Pollan’s decision to do the research and write the book. He states in the book that he is a staunch materialist, yet within a sentence or two of that statement he confesses he isn’t opposed to the idea of having a “spiritual” experience on psychedelics, even if it seems like a mildly egotistical desire. By the end of the book, we have travelled with him as he has become experienced, and rather than bolstering his ego, he has found it entirely possible to know states of consciousness utterly free of the sense of ego or self.
Early in the first chapter Pollan recounts listening to Bob Jesse, once a vice-president of Oracle, now a behind-the-scenes player of the psychedelic renaissance, speak about his own mystical experience on psilocybin in his mid-twenties. Jesse says that, insofar as he regards the experience as “veridical,” about which he still retains some doubt, it signifies that consciousness is primary to the physical world. Pollan asks Jesse if he agrees with the point of view of the Dalai Lama that the idea that brains create consciousness is not a scientific fact, but is an assumption. Jesse confirms this is what he is implying, and that it “changes everything.”
I read the rest of the book hoping Pollan would return to this idea that the mystical experience offered by a high dose of psychedelics (and by meditation, a crossover which is mentioned several times) reveals not only that we are capable of knowing states of being which transcend the point of view of the ego, but that our very worldview of scientific materialism – the view that an objective, material universe exists independently of consciousness – may indeed be mistaken. While this may seem like an outlandish proposition in a world where science is regarded as the authority on the nature of reality, it isn’t so unusual to someone who has either had some experience with psychedelics and found resonance in eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta, or who has progressed in the art of meditation to a point of allowing the mind to drop back into a state of non-dual awareness from time to time. Whether in conversations Pollan had with researchers or therapists, or in the context of reflection upon his own altered states, or in pondering the significance of these compounds to humankind as a whole, there were several occasions when I anticipated him connecting those dots – a simple one, in my view – from the recognition of at least one mode of consciousness as a non-dual, knowing awareness, limitless in its scope, to the possibility that materialism, truly a bleak outlook on the nature of reality, is a mistaken assumption. I wanted terribly for him to point out how much happier we could be individually and collectively if we shed this confining conception of the universe. That, to me, is the great undertaking of this time in history – to recreate our society into one where it’s understood that consciousness isn’t a branch of science (one which can’t even come up with a cause!), but is the nature of whatis,and what appears as matter is the reflection of consciousness to itself, consciousness knowing itself through minds experiencing a creative universe. Before I veer into too many New-Age-sounding locutions, we should remember that Buddhism and other traditions have expressed this worldview for millennia. Unfortunately, today they are all but silenced by the pervading view of scientific materialism.
Alas, Pollan didn’t go there…until…the last two paragraphs.There his language flirts with a sort of panpsychism (the philosophy that consciousness is a quality of many all things), which may be acceptable to materialists, as they would only have to nudge their stranglehold on our worldview over enough to allow their universe of matter to also have the quality of consciousness. He also mentions quantum mechanics with its suggestion that matter doesn’t exactly exist in the absence of a perceiver. He says he still believes consciousness is confined to brains, but he is less sure of it after his experiences. All this speculation is still a far cry from the Heart Sutra’s seemingly paradoxical statement “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” taken to mean whatever appears in the empty void of awareness has the same empty nature as awareness. In other words, the forms, thoughts, and sensations the mind knows and perceives do not exist as independent objects, though our language, and indeed those materialist assumptions about reality, make it seem as if they had their own existence. To a Buddhist or to a proponent of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, this non-dual nature of the universe, awake and illuminated in the awareness in which it is appearing, is a direct realization, not an assumption about reality. But if you grew up in a culture entirely sold on the worldview of materialism, the sudden plunge into that vast awareness which may occasion a high dose of psychedelics can certainly seem like a world-shattering, mystical experience. Unfortunately, such an experience is usually co-opted by the dominant worldview, relegated to a bizarre “drug experience,” and claimed as part of the story of the ego, the one who believes all of this is happening to him. It’s ok, we’ll forgive Michael Pollan that much; he warned us at the outset he was a staunch materialist. We shouldn’t forget he has done a great service in publicizing the new wave of research into psychedelics, especially considering what dark times we’re living in and how easily psychedelics can kick-start a person’s interest in living a more enlightened, loving life.
Anthony Minetola lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his two children. His website is