Reviews of Books (For Reviews Only)

Review: The Trip of a Lifetime

At the root of each case study is a pair of questions: the first asks why, as a species, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to propagate and disseminate these consciousness-changing molecules, and the second is why they are subject to paranoia and regulation in differing degrees.

This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan — drugs of choice

His descriptions of London’s coffee house culture and Honoré de Balzac’s barbarous habit of ingesting dry coffee grounds to fuel all-night scribbling sessions are worth the book’s price alone.

Michael Pollan Explores the Mind-Altering Plants in His Garden

In his new book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” Michael Pollan wagers “that the decline of the drug war, with its brutally simplistic narratives … has opened a space in which we can tell some other, much more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants and fungi with which nature has blessed us.” Taking this as his cue, Pollan then turns to his own narratives of gardening and self-experimentation. As he does, he also masterfully elevates a series of big questions about drugs, plants and humans that are likely to leave readers thinking in new ways.

Nonfiction Book Review: This is Your Mind on Plants

Pollan (How to Change Your Mind) centers this lucid exploration of the psycho-social impact of mind-altering plants on his personal experiences with opium, mescaline, and, most intensely, caffeine. He starts with an extended version of his 1997 Harper’s piece about brewing opium tea from poppies, which produced mild euphoria—“the tea seemed to subtract things: anxiety, melancholy, worry, grief”—apart from his apprehension over the DEA’s crackdown on poppy horticulture. The second chapter, an expanded version of a piece first published as an Audibles Original, describes a monthslong abstention from caffeine, which precipitated persistent feelings of mental dullness, and his triumphal return to coffee drinking (“Whatever I focused on, I focused on zealously and single-mindedly”).

This Is Your Mind On Plants [Starred Review!]

Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce. The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially. A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Brimming with X

In his new book How To Change Your Mind: The new science of psychedelics, Michael Pollan sets out the twentieth-century history of the use of “psychedelic” substances with clarity, insight and humour. He does his fieldwork – with appropriate trepidation. He goes mushroom hunting. He consumes four different psychedelic tryptamines under suitably controlled conditions – LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca (active ingredient N, N-dimethyltryptamine, sc DMT), and, with shattering results, 5-MeO-DMT, the smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad Incilius alvarius – and tells us, as well as he can, what happens. He ends with two chapters laying out the latest neuro­scientific speculations and describing the extraordinarily fruitful renaissance of the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy in the 1990s.

’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky

In 1938 Albert Hofmann, a chemist at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, created a series of new compounds from lysergic acid. One of them, later marketed as Hydergine, showed great potential for the treatment of cerebral arteriosclerosis. Another salt, the diethylamide (LSD), he put to one side, but he had “a peculiar presentiment,” as he put it in his memoir LSD: My Problem Child (1980), “that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations.”

A Guide for Psychedelic Virgins and Skeptics?

When Pollan agrees to take psychedelic drugs, he presents himself as a stand-in for the skeptical reader; he is an LSD-virgin turned “psychonaut” for the purposes of journalistic and scientific inquiry.

How to Change Your Mind: Michael Pollan on How the Science of Psychedelics Illuminates Consciousness, Mortality, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Psychedelics, Pollan argues, eject us from our habitual consciousness to invite a pure experience of reality that calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s notion of “active surrender” and Emerson’s exultation in “the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Pollan arrives at this conclusion not only by surveying the history of and research on psychedelics, but by conducting a series of carefully monitored experiments on himself — he travels the world to meet with mycologists, shamans, and trained facilitators, and to experience first-hand the most potent psychedelics nature and the chemistry lab have produced, from the psilocybin mushroom to LSD to the smoked venom of a desert toad.

Equipment for Living: Losing and recovering oneself in drugs and sobriety

In December of 1934, an unemployed stockbroker named Bill Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He had a habit of consuming more than two quarts of whiskey per day, and his wife had implored him to get help. The doctor gave Wilson an extract of belladonna, a plant with hallucinogenic properties, which at the time was an experimental treatment for alcoholism. That afternoon, the “room blazed with an indescribably white light,” Wilson later wrote. A vision of a mountain came to him. “I stood upon its summit where a great wind blew…. Then came the blazing thought, ‘you are a free man.’”