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”). Pollan connects these experiences to the importance of ubiquitous caffeine consumption during the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism. Less successful is Pollan’s final chapter, in which he imbibes mescaline during a Native American peyote ceremony, with the predictable outcome of maudlin, psychedelic emoting (“What follows forgiveness is gratitude, which I now felt break over me in a warm wave of tears”). Blending artful exposition of the evolution and neurochemistry of botanical drugs, erudite history, and (usually) precise and evocative prose, this is an insightful take on plants’ beguiling sway over the human psyche. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (July)