Review by Peter Reason
‘The soul should always stand ajar.’ It is fitting that Michael Pollan introduces his latest book on the resurgence in interest in LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics with this epigraph from Emily Dickinson. For, as he concludes in this entertaining and informative book, exploration of alternative states of consciousness can have considerable value. Psychedelic experience helps open the mind from the narrow limits imposed by a repressive ego and may loosen the ‘bounds between self and world that the ego imposes’. Psychedelic therapy, it now seems, may have an important place in the treatment of alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and the care of the dying. But more than that, they can make a positive contribution to the development of a healthy psyche. So why is it that psychedelic drugs developed the reputation of threatening to rip both soul and society apart? Current research is re-evaluating this judgment and rediscovering the potential healing these drugs may bring, if administered with skill and care.
Michael Pollan is celebrated for his carefully researched non-fiction books aimed at the general reader. His first focus, in Second Nature, was on gardening; then, in A Place of My Own on self-building; more recently he has written about food and food production—for example The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire. His work is meticulously researched and elegantly written, bringing new ideas to a general readership; his topics are usually a little edgy but not too controversial. His willingness to turn to an exploration of psychedelics may mark a turn into more contentious topics.
The history, briefly, goes like this. Psychedelics—notably psilocybin and ayahuasca—have been used for millennia for physical and spiritual purposes in indigenous communities worldwide. In the West, they gained new attention with an accidental discovery by Albert Hoffman in the 1930s, while working for the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz: he found that a drug he had synthesised five years earlier had strange effects on him in what turned out to be the first ‘acid trip’. Not knowing what its clinical use might be, Sandoz made the drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, available for research into the treatment of mental health disorders. This provoked considerable interest in the psychiatric professions: ‘For most of the 1950s and 1960s, many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD and psilocybin as miracle drugs’.
Since LSD was widely available, it was also taken up by young people who identified with the counterculture and its values, helping create a youth culture that was antagonistic to the values of grown-up society. I remember, as a graduate student in America in the mid 1970s, gathering with a group of friends around a gramophone listening to a long-playing record (yes, it was that long ago!) of Timothy Leary’s colleague Richard Alpert, describing his first LSD trip (Leary and Alpert were Harvard professors involved in what became some of the most notorious experiments with LSD). We laughed nervously when he described, as the drug took hold, the terrifying experience as his body disappeared, one limb at a time, remarking laconically, “This was what you might call a ‘bad trip’!” Both men were sacked from Harvard. Leary continued to be notoriously active in the counterculture. Alpert gave up psychedelics, went to India to study with a Hindu guru and returned to the US; he still is seen by many as a great spiritual teacher. They were both hugely influential: some of my friends certainly explored psychedelics, although I decided that simply living in America was a big enough trip for me.
The term ‘counterculture’ was coined by sociologist Theodore Roszak to describe a loose movement that linked student radicals resisting the Vietnam War and ‘hippie dropouts’ in both the USA and Europe. Politically, it encompassed the civil rights movement and the second wave of feminism as well as war resistance; in Europe the student protests of the late 1960s. Culturally, it included the ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco, Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Allen Ginsburg and the beat poets. The psychedelic metaphor, if not actual drug experience, had an important place, maybe most notoriously in Timothy Leary’s injunction to, ‘Tune in, turn on and drop out’.
All this alarmed the American establishment and more conservative Americans, who looked on in horror at what seemed like the disintegration of all that they valued: authority and order were deeply threatened. I remember that the taxis in Cleveland where I lived had ‘America, love it or leave it’ inscribed on their doors.
Was this enthusiasm for psychedelics, as Hoffman believed: ‘an understandable response to the emptiness of … a materialist, industrialised, and spiritually impoverished society that had lost its connection with nature.’ Or was it just an unwarranted threat to the order of things? The establishment clearly thought the latter. Just as psychedelic drugs had been embraced, there was a turn against them in a ‘full moral panic’. Reports appeared that people had stepped off high buildings, blinded themselves by gazing at the sun, killed their teacher, all under the influence of LSD. Richard Nixon called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America’. Senate hearings were held. Sandoz withdrew LSD and in 1966 the Federal Drug Administration banned further work on the drug.
Pollan paints Leary as the ‘bad guy’ in this story, careless in his research, who seized attention with his wild outbursts, overshadowing the serious and careful work that others were undertaking. But his broader view is that this conflict was a manifestation of the old archetypal tension between an Apollonian strain in Western culture that ‘erects distinctions, dualities and hierarchies and defends them’; and the ungovernable Dionysian force that ‘blithely washed all those lines away’. We may understand the turn to conservatism in the Thatcher/Reagan era as a reaction to the counterculture. Of course, use of the drugs did not disappear, it just went underground, embraced both by the continuing counterculture and by groups of academics, mental health professionals, spiritual explorers who were not prepared to let go of what they saw as the important spiritual and psychological benefits of psychedelics. It was not until the first decade of the twenty-first century that a new interest was kindled, with conferences and academic papers suggesting once again that the psychedelics could make an important contribution to mental health.
This book is organised around a series of themes. After describing this ‘Renaissance’ in interest in these drugs, Pollan traces both the natural history of psychedelics and the history of enthusiasm and repression I have just sketched. He then turns to his own personal journey with psychedelics—for he is of an age to have just missed the counterculture—describing how he carefully selected guides, experienced therapists in the ‘psychedelic underground’—to support him with experiences of LSD, psilocybin, and ‘The Toad’ (a natural psychedelic derived from the defensive spray of toads). His accounts of his experiences are detailed and engaging, and on the whole positive: ‘there was no question that something novel and profound had happened to me’. He has problems with any ‘mystical’ interpretation of this, although quite happy to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. He writes that his interpretation of the experiences is a work in progress but is happy with the idea that for a while his ego stepped aside so that ‘Wonders (and terrors) we’re ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness’.
The following chapter explores the neuroscience of psychedelics—what is going on in the brain, and does the psychedelic experience tell us anything about the nature of consciousness? Pollan visits and talks to leading researchers in this field, including a project at the Centre for Psychiatry on the Hammersmith campus of Imperial College under the overall direction of Professor David Nutt, who several years ago was sacked from the UK government Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for saying that LSD is less harmful than alcohol. The research there, conducted by Robin Earhart-Harris, is described in detail. It suggests that the impact of LSD is to help bypass the habitual, default networks of connections within the brain which create our mental constructs (including our sense of self); under the influence of psychedelics other connections can take place. Pollan writes, rather reductively, ‘the mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network’. The ego keeps us in our grooves. But clearly, there is a balance to be sought: too little order in the brain may lead to ‘atavistic thinking and, at the far end, madness’; yet the ‘grip of an overbearing ego can enforce rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive’ and may culturally and politically destructive too.
In the last section of the book, Pollan turns to explore the ways that psychedelics can be used in therapy, visiting therapists and researchers in several centres working with addiction, depression and those confronting death. Two themes emerge. One is that psychedelics, in bypassing the ego, allow people engaged in addictive self-harm a direct, irrefutable experience of a different reality that is manifestly more worthwhile: ‘The universe was so great and there were so many things you could do and see in it that killing yourself seemed like a dumb idea.’
The second theme, which has been well understood in the ‘psychedelic underground’, is that the context and environment in which the drugs are taken—the set and setting; and the qualities of the therapist who accompanies the person on the journey, are both absolutely critical in the outcome. Psychedelic therapy clearly has a place in the treatment of addiction and depression, and in helping those who are facing death, but their use challenges the traditional doctor-patient relationship.
Finally, Pollan writes an epilogue in ‘praise of neural diversity’. At the end of his journey, despite his avowed materialist worldview and his difficulties with the word ‘mystical’, he is quite sure that there is value in exploring altered states of consciousness. Further, he is clear that psychedelic experience should not be limited to ‘sick people’ but, with appropriate context and guidance should be widely available. As William James, the nineteenth century psychologist whose study of The Varieties of Religious Experience remains a classic in its field, wrote, ordinary waking consciousness is but one of many forms or consciousness: ‘Mysteries abide. But this I can say with certainty: the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew when I began’.
This book is so thoroughly researched and so well written that it is difficult to criticise. It will certainly fascinate those readers who have only heard the bad stories about psychedelics. I suspect it will also irritate some of those who have been exploring their use while they have been underground, for any view is necessarily partial. One of the problems with Pollan’s perspective is that, as he frequently asserts, as a ‘materialist’, he believes human consciousness arises purely within the human brain and body. Many serious scholars in the ‘psychedelic underground’ would have a different view, seeing the cosmos as a whole as the primary subjective field out of which human (and other) consciousness emerges. Maybe the most radical conclusion to draw is that psychedelics show us not only that the mind is vaster than we think, but that they show us that the cosmos, when we step outside our taken-for-granted assumptions, is vaster and stranger than we think. Pollan acknowledges that quantum physics, for example, gives us cause to wonder whether some form of consciousness figures in the construction of reality, but nevertheless asserts his belief that ‘consciousness must be confined to brains.’ I am not so sure. For, as Shakespeare has Hamlet attest: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.
The renaissance of interest in psychedelic drugs and therapy is clearly of great potential importance. There is so much more serious research to be done, both in mainstream mental health care and in developing alternative views of social development. But psychedelics failed to withstand the assault of right wing repression during the Nixon administration; I find myself wondering how the emerging reactionary political forces will respond.
Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics (Allen Lane, 2018). 978-0241294222, 4980pp., hardback.
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Peter Reason is a writer who aims to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. He is presently collaborating with artist Sarah Gillespie, drawing together words and images in ‘Love Letters to the Earth’. His two recent books, Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014) and In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage (Earth Books 2017) weave explorations of the human place in the ecology of the planet into the stories of sailing voyages. He writes a regular column in Resurgence & Ecologist; and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. Prior to retirement from academia, Peter contributed to the theory and practice of action research in writing, teaching and research. Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath, his on-line presence is through http://www.peterreason.eu/ and on Twitter @peterreason