How To Change Your Mind: The best book I've read this year (and why it pisses me off)

Austin, TX

I finished reading Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind this evening, just in time for me to list it as the best book I read in 2018. It’s been a strange year from a reading standpoint. There of the standouts for me have been in the non-fiction category: How To Change Your Mind, Why We Sleep, and Other Minds. I don’t recall my favorites being quite so lopsided in this regard in the past, but there you have it. It was a good year for reading about brains, I suppose.

Back to Pollan’s book, because I really cannot recommend this one enough. Not only have I never used psychedelics, but I came to this book almost completely ignorant of their history and the research that’s been done to figure out how they work and if they can serve a therapeutic purpose. If you’re already pretty well versed in these things, then I don’t know that it will be as thrilling for you, but I wouldn’t rule it out. My therapist is reading it for the third time and I suspect she’s not unfamiliar with some of the contents.

The first section of the book discusses the history of these molecules, starting with Albert Hoffman and his accidental discovery. Within ten years or so, psilocybin was also introduced to the U.S. (at tremendous cost to the woman who let us in on the secret). At the time, psychedelics were not only legal but even somewhat respectable. A tremendous backlash, the blame for which Pollan lays squarely at the feet of one Dr. Leary, caused the cessation of psychedelic studies until the 1990s when they started to make a return to the “legitimate” medical community.

The middle section describes the author’s own experiences with psychedelics, which he hadn’t tried prior to his 60s. He details how he navigated the underground community and had the opportunity to try LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO DMT (“the toad”).He details his trips in about as engaging a fashion as one likely can, but nonetheless, they’re still descriptions of someone else’s drug experiences. I found this section the weakest of the book, but nonetheless you couldn’t write this book without this telling these stories.

The final section concerns current research and goes into detail describing studies using psychedelics to treat the terminally ill, the addicted and the depressed. The results of the tests are cause for cautious optimism. The terminally ill aren’t cured, but their quality of life over their remaining months can apparently be markedly improved by treatments including these drugs.

Of course, you can’t just give someone LSD and cure their smoking habit. That’s where it gets weird and it explains why scientific trials are so difficult. It’s not the drugs that help so much as the experience you have while on them. That means, for it work, you have a guide, and a setting, and you discuss intentions, and all kinds of quasi-shamanic stuff. It is really odd, and odd in a way that science struggles with.

For me, a person who’s never tried anything like this, I found the entire book fascinating. There’s so much history and science to go along with the drug talk that I felt like I was learning new things on every page. It helps that Pollan is both skeptical and grounded, so he doesn’t come across as someone advocating for people to go out and start shoving mushrooms down their gullets. He’s also a fine writer, which always helps when you’re writing a book.

The only thing that pisses me off, and it’s a big one, is this: These treatments would seem to be exactly what a couple of friends of mine, dear friends, could have used. It’s too late for them, and of course, I can’t know that treatment involving psychedelic drugs would have made any difference, but it might have, and that’s made it hard to sleep these last couple of nights.

Anyway, it’s a great book. It’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read and I would recommend to it pretty much anyone who has any curiosity about the mind and consciousness, or really any curiosity at all.

-RK