Michael Pollan was born too late to participate in the psychedelic era of the sixties. “The only way I was going to get to Woodstock,” he writes, “was if my parents drove me.”
Eventually, the doors of perception opened for Pollan this millennium.
New science, old psychedelics
How to Change Your Mind is Pollan’s exciting travelogue of his own cautious, but mind-blowing adventure as a middle-aged psychonaut. In his latest book, Michael Pollan delves into the new science of old psychedelics. He explores the history of psychedelics, their rise and suppression, their renaissance and future. He carefully describes its phenomenology, neuroscience and therapy. In How to Change Your Mind, Michal Pollan masterfully guides the reader through the highs and lows of hallucinogenic drugs.
I have to admit, I was skeptical when the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam asked me to discuss psychedelics with an overexcited American psycho-naut. Addicts as well as addiction researchers usually have strong opinions about drugs, …their drugs. I remember that I moderated in the beginning of this year a fierce debate between Marc Lewis and Nora Volkow. To Marc Lewis, addiction was a bad habit, it was lack of discipline of the mind. To Nora Volkow, addiction was a severe and chronic medical condition, with its roots in the brain, addiction is a brain disorder. Habit or disease, mind or brain. Who is right?
I was wrong. How to Change Your Mind is not about addiction, it is not even about drugs.
“How to Change Your Mind” is a genuine and serious work of history and science, anthropology and philosophy, neuroscience and psychiatry. Actually, to me, this thrilling book is not even about psychedelics, it is about the boundaries of our current understanding of consciousness, it’s about the mind-brain problem, about how humans deal with meaning and understanding, about how we struggle daily with life and death.
To my surprise, while reading his book, I felt excited myself. As if reading “How to change your mind” itself was a huge trip, guided by Michael into a new wonderful world of extraordinary human understanding, crazy theories, serious scientific hypotheses, and deep philosophical reflections.
This weekend, I looked at my garden and I saw mushrooms that were lost as groups of friends loosely thrown into our lawn, for some strange reason, plentiful present this season. And for the first time, I tried to understand the meaning of there sudden appearance. I listened to the mushrooms, but they were quit and still are. But, …I was in my garden.
Eventually, I got so intoxicated by Michael’s book that my wife, yesterday night, in bed in the safe dark, under our blankets, begged me to be less enthusiastic about that science book, and its magic mushrooms, in the company of the children, … and I promised her to refrain from on condition that she agreed to join me on a trip travelling through space and time, next summer, in our garden. She did. I am excited.
The revival of psychedelics
In the last decade there has been a remarkable revival of psychedelics. Not only neuroscience but also psychiatry sees psychedelica as a potential treatment for mental disorders. Ketamine is one example of an old psychedelic drug that has recently been applauded for treating depression and suicide.
What are psychedelics? Psychedelic means being present or revealing the mind and is composed of ψυχή (mind) and δηλοῦν (revealing). The term was introduced by British physician Humphry Osmond who experimented with LSD in 1957 and wrote to Aldous Huxley: “To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic”.
A psychedelic experience opens the mind in a new, surprising and uninhibited way. It creates changes in sensory perception, changes thinking patterns, elevates to other states of consciousness, elicits mystical experiences.
The mind-expanding effect of psychedelics can only be understood if one assumes that the human mind itself is limited and limiting.
Our mind is limited because much of reality escapes us. The external world is only accessible to us through our senses. We hear, see, feel and smell only a fraction of what is to be heard, seen, felt and smelled. Do we have access to the genuine reality?
But the mind is also limiting because it preferably only shows us what we have experienced beforehand or what we pay attention to. People experience what they want to hear, see, feel and smell. A cheap wine tastes better in an expensive bottle. Experience is half of the experience. The other half is me, molding reality in accordance with my expectation. Real reality is inaccessible. In fact, reality is only a few buckets of paint that are ready to compose the painting of my individual expression.
But, we always are open to suggestions. That too is the power of psychedelics.
Psychedelics pose us the metaphysical question of what reality is and who we are as humans. If we experience so little of reality, what can we know of the world and the other?
If psychedelics have such an intense influence on our intimate experiences simply through chemical processes on neurotransmitters, what is man more than his brain? Are we not by definition locked in a chemical matrix that creates a virtual world?
Don’t psychedelics open the door to a world outside the prison of our mind? And is that world more pleasant, better, and cleaner? Do psychedelics unlock the good, the true and the beautiful?
Psychedelics appeal to the imagination but are also experienced as threatening. They undermine the conventional but sharp border between normality and abnormality and they confuse meaning and madness. Where does sense begin and end and when does sense tilt into nonsense or madness when one changes the mind?
They are threatening as well, because not infrequently psychedelic experiences are associated with psychotic phenomena such as hallucinations and delusions. But do we have the right to call them symptoms if they only broaden our thinking?
Not only the use of psychedelics is threatening, the users are also threatening. They represent a counter-culture and fumble at the moral lock of our society. Have the United States lost the Vietnam war to psychedelics? Because soldiers chose love over war and freedom over military discipline?
How should we understand the renewed interest in psychedelics? What do we need in 2018? It is not freedom, not sex, not happiness. It is meaning. Psychedelics offer meaning. The meaning-amplifying properties of psychedelics were already recognized in the sixties. Humans are slaves to meaning, as Victor Frankl noticed in the fifties. We need meaning as much as we need oxygen.
But how can we prevent psychedelics from being demonized and banned as then, in the sixties?
By including them in meaningful social context as we have done for thousands of years without any problem. Psychedelics derive their strength from the restriction of their use.
The use of psychedelics
In ancient cultures, they were only used temporarily and in community. The social context preserves and conserves psychedelics, but psychedelics my preserves and conserve a social context.
What do we need in 2018? It is not freedom, not sex, not happiness. It is social binding.
Perhaps psychedelics are not only mind-expanding but also community-expanding. Maybe their use will again force social cohesion in our individualistic society.
If psychedelics bring personal meaning and community-spirit, is our renewed interest in psychedelics a sign, a new event, a signal of change? Does a new era present itself?
An era of meaning, spirituality and connectivity instead of consumption, materialism and individuality.
Possibly. But then again, even then the question remains, when psychedelics change our mind, why do we want to change our mind?