‘Enter the illness and see with a madman’s eyes, hear with his ears, and feel with his skin.’
The above is Pollan quoting Humphry Osmond, a psychiatrist practising in the early sixties, who felt it was only fair to take LSD before giving it to patients, when he believed the psychedelic drug triggered a state of chemically induced psychosis akin to schizophrenia. By nineteen-sixty nine LSD was made illegal and as a result, nearly all scientific and medical research into psychedelic drugs was stopped and shelved. Now, as the book explains over its four hundred plus pages, the research has been uncovered and medicine is on the verge of a massive second-wave of psychedelic drug use in therapy to cure or help alleviate all kinds of mental illnesses. Cue How to Change Your Mind, injected right into the mainstream of non-fiction in twenty-eighteen.
It’s difficult to summarise this work into a succinct review because it simply contains so much information over its eight chapters, with many names, terms and ideas to digest and memorise. However, in the first three chapters Pollan takes care to translate and repeat definitions and so guide the reader into this psychedelic world he himself is new to. And each chapter dances around the other without stepping on any toes, all whilst bringing a new angle and widening the picture until the complicated culture and history of psychedelic research is manageable.
Throughout the chapters, for a piece of non-fiction, Pollan’s and even the scientific researchers’ turn of phrase is impressive. Perhaps, thanks to the spiritual and artistic connection to psychedelics it came naturally, but nevertheless there’s only enjoyment to be had from language like: ‘But there are words that don’t yet exist. We’ve got crayons when we need fifty thousand different shades’ or the famous, ‘turn on, tune in, drop out.’
Each chapter feels fresh too- the origin and composition of psychedelics from fungi, the cultural moral panic they sparked and the effect they have on the brain. A Latin term or two may have gone over my head, but Pollan addresses the subject like a person from the outside looking in, even after he’s been inside, so there’s a certain rapport he builds by being friendly, but not patronising. He feels like an old friend you’ve gone on a weird little trip with. He maintains this tone for the length of the book, keeping the mood intellectually serious, but light, simple and impactful- always a “really? Is that true?!” moment to be had.
He also does well to retain his objectivity, whilst clearly impressed by the results of the research, refusing to tell the reader what to think or to go out and picket parliament for drug reform. But even as I say this, I must contradict myself, but for good reason because chapter four contains an interesting caveat and one that takes this book a notch higher than most. Pollan gets a little gonzo with his journalism. He’s previously dived headfirst into understanding a subject, from food to nature, building his own writing house and baking his own bread; but Pollan, as a nearly sixty year old man, ingests LSD, nibbles on psychedelic mushrooms and smokes toad venom to try and understand what psychedelic drugs can do (snuck in the last chapter as a bonus is his experience with ayahuasca). You might assume, regardless of his age, he must be a sort of Steve-o type middle aged wild-man clinging onto cranes for the orcas, but he isn’t. He repeatedly explains his intense anxieties and sleeplessness over his decision to undertake the endeavour, his general boringness and firm stance as a materialist possessing little spiritual thought. He undertakes the task with the help of underground therapists and guides so it’s not a lark, but a worthwhile form of therapy. He includes trip reports- what happened, how he felt and the aftermath. As always, I won’t give it away, but: internal digital landscapes, morphing identities and a stream of glistening diamonds in place of the usual urine.
What’s most impressive about the book is Pollan’s commitment and his trip chapter is the metaphorical and literal centre of the book that it hinges on because there’s a straightforward arc to the whole book. The first three chapters contain hard facts and the fourth acts as the pinnacle before rolling home on the down curve. Seemingly, he’s comfortable that we understand what’s been said, but perhaps a little more convincing is needed so he rounds off the book with two chapters- a thirty page dedication to the effects of psychedelics on the brain and some moving testimonies and case studies.
Chapter six includes three sub-headings: ‘dying’, ‘addiction’, and ‘depression’. Each relates to case studies about psychedelic treatment and their immense success with each illness. A person could be directed to just this sole chapter and likely be shocked by the results, but after five chapters of history, research, and fact, it would be a tall order for any person to condemn psychedelic research as a waste of time. Especially when it gives a new lease of life to the dying, helps calm addiction and cure or relieve depression for a period of time. And to borrow Pollan’s statistic, ‘there are almost forty-three thousand suicides every year in America (more than the number of deaths from either breast cancer or auto accidents), yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment.’ Can anyone disagree something needs to be done?
It’s likely the pandemic has put a dent in the progress of the hands-on trial therapies occurring all over the world and it’s a shame. By the end of the book, it’s difficult to believe that a hiatus of several decades occurred, when the results are so promising. It’s even harder to not be convinced by the book and Pollan’s sheer commitment to it. I’d happily recommend How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics to anyone because it doesn’t lie, it does exactly what it says on the tin.