Take a hit of acid and call me in the morning

By Ellen Ruppel Shell

Philosopher William James, widely considered the father of American psychology, famously believed that the mind was capable of reaching beyond the state of simple awareness we think of as rational consciousness. To stimulate his own “mystical states of consciousness,” James inhaled nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and concluded from the experience that it was possible — and desirable — to transcend our work-a-day mental state. “No account of the universe in its totality,” he wrote, “can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

In “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan makes it clear that he could not agree more. If “everyday waking consciousness” is “but one of several possible ways to construct a world,” he writes, “then perhaps there is value in cultivating a greater amount of what I’ve come to think of as neural diversity.” By “neural diversity” Pollan seems to mean a broad, embracing experience of the human mind and its links to the universe at large, an experience largely unconstrained by “heuristics,” the cognitive shortcuts that allow us to solve problems and make quick judgments but that also sometimes lead us astray.

There are of course several ways to cultivate this openness of mind, notably meditation and prayer. But in this blend of memoir and history Pollan focuses on the medicinal, specifically a trinity of psychoactive drugs: LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.

The term “psychedelic,” coined in 1956, derives from the Greek “mind manifesting,” and Pollan contends that it is precisely this that these substances hold the power to do. That is, by releasing us from the grip of our frail yet blinding egos, the drugs expand our minds and worldviews, opening us to all sorts of wondrous insights.

Pollan takes no credit for this epiphany, but rather traces it to the late 1930s and the work of Albert Hofmann. A young scientist on the payroll of drug maker Sandoz Laboratories, Hofmann was assigned to synthesize certain molecules produced naturally by ergot, a fungus known to infect grains and to contain toxic alkaloids. When baked into bread consumed by humans, these toxins can provoke a sort of madness marked by hallucinations and neurological anomalies, and in extreme cases, also a loss of limbs and even death. And yet, surprisingly, ergot has its upside — it can help stave off bleeding, for example, or speed up a lagging childbirth. Sandoz scientists isolated a dozen ergot alkaloids in the hope of finding a few that might prove therapeutic. One of these Hoffman dubbed lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. Testing LSD in animals, Hoffman noted little of interest and quickly moved on to other things.

But in 1943, feeling an inexplicable urge to reinvestigate, Hoffman exposed himself to LSD and experienced “unusual sensations’’ that developed into a two-hour “stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” A decade later, Hoffman’s rhapsodic vision of the world being “newly created” through a single dose of a powerful mind-altering medication was vividly reprised by the author Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception,’’ a book-length essay detailing a single afternoon of “sacramental visions” brought on by a mere four-tenths of a gram of mescaline.

In the decade that followed, psychedelics were used primarily in research, partly in the hope that they would serve as a model for studying psychopathological conditions such as schizophrenia. While this didn’t pan out, the drugs did show some promise in the treatment of various mental disorders. Some researchers went so far as to experiment on themselves, and not a few enjoyed the experience. By the 1960s, reports of these experiments had become common in the popular press, most notably those of Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, whose outspoken (and increasingly outrageous) championing of LSD made him the most visible spokesman for the psychedelic movement.

Leary and his merry band of followers claimed that psychedelics brought mystical and spiritual enlightenment and also a cure for any number of psychological “afflictions,” from alcoholism to homosexuality. At the same time, Leary’s slogan “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” explicitly linking drug use to the rejection of societal norms and obligations, alienated not only worried parents, but many of his soberer scientific colleagues. In 1965, the federal government escalated its crackdown on the drugs, and by the end of the decade, some scientists had condemned the use of psychedelics as both physically and psychologically dangerous.

These dangers turned out to be terribly exaggerated. Still, therapeutic interest in the drugs, after peaking in 1970, quickly fell out of favor for what Pollan argues were all the wrong reasons. Unlike so many other mind-altering elixirs, psychedelics are not addictive, and in otherwise healthy users seem to have few if any permanent deleterious effects. Meanwhile, research suggested — and continues to suggest — that the drugs do in fact hold significant promise as a treatment for alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and a number of other psychological disorders.

All of which begs the question: How do they actually work in the brain? In what is perhaps the book’s most engaging and informative passage, Pollan introduces the work of Alison Gopnik, a brilliant developmental psychologist who explores the way young children come to know the world around them. Gopnik suggests that the mind of a child constitutes what we might consider an “altered state,” unconstrained by what adults are hardwired to believe is true. Children, Pollan writes, approach reality with the wide-eyed “astonishment of an adult on psychedelics.”

In an effort to achieve a similar state, Pollan experimented with various psychedelics, always under the supervision of carefully chosen “guides.” The book offers detailed descriptions of his experiences, as well as the experiences of others, the vast majority of them quite positive. Here, for example, is a “trip” report from a woman in her forties: “ . . . there was this light, it was the pure light of love and divinity . . . I was in the presence of this absolute pure divine love and I was merging with it, in this explosion of energy.” Pollan attributes the mind-expanding powers of psychedelics largely to their ability to override the ego, that he describes as the “inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show . . . and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle.’’

Of the many trips Pollan describes — several in almost slavish detail — the most common takeaway is that “love is everything.” While Pollan admits that this observation is Hallmark card banal, he can’t help but be charmed by it. Nor can we. But what Pollan sometimes neglects to make clear in this alternatingly fascinating and frustrating book, is that the experience of taking these drugs is very much a reflection of who we are, and what we believe. The drugs themselves do not increase creativity or generate insights, or even truly provoke them. At best they open our psyches and make the unconscious conscious. While this can be of benefit in the moment, there is little evidence that—for most of us– the effect is lasting, or for that matter, life changing. As Harvard psychologist David McClelland once observed of the psychedelic enthusiast: “Many reports are given of deep mystical experiences, but their chief characteristic is the wonder at one’s own profundity.”

Such quibbles aside, Pollan’s deeply researched chronicle will enlighten those who think of psychedelics chiefly as a kind of punchline to a joke about the Woodstock generation and hearten the growing number who view them as a potential anecdote to our often stubbornly narrow minds.