Review: How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan — turn on, tune in and lick a toad

By David Aaronovitch

Despite my generation, I was never a big drugs person — people on drugs (and I knew a few) bored me. So I approached this pro-psychedelics book by the American food writer Michael Pollan with something worse than scepticism; I approached it full of prejudice. And there was plenty there to keep my jaundice alive.

Here is one taker of LSD describing his experience: “Over and over again I had the overwhelming sense of infinity being multiplied by another infinity.” No, mate. Infinity is infinity. If there are multiples of it, it isn’t infinity, OK? Then: “Reality appeared to fold in on itself, to implode in a kind of ecstatic catastrophe of logic . . . I remember repeating to myself again and again, ‘Nothing matters, nothing matters any more. I see the point. Nothing matters at all.’ ”

The point is nothing matters? Then there is no point. I heard a lot of this stuff in my teens and I associate it with bad art, worse hygiene and endless woo. When Pollan (who, like me, is 63) begins taking a series of psychotropic drugs, his picaresque adventures require him to meet “Jungians, Reichians, Gestalt therapists and ‘transpersonal’ psychologists; energy healers; practitioners of aura-work, breathwork and bodywork; EST, past-life and family constellation therapists, vision-questers, astrologers and meditation teachers of every stripe”. One stripe would suffice for me, and that’s without the shamans, druids and Zen monks.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, “LSD devotees” every year celebrate Bicycle Day, the day when the Swiss discoverer of lysergic acid diethylamide, Albert Hofmann, took a trip on a bike. Bicycle Day was April 19, 1943. Google it. It’s also the day German forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto. I mean, totally how out of it can you be?

However, I ended the book differently. When I put it down I had become very interested in what Pollan had told me. Then I started following some of his footnotes and the characters and science he had introduced me to, and I became increasingly intrigued. The book was having an after-effect. I was changing my mind.

How did that happen? Not easily, especially since the early part of the book is not an easy read. Pollan writes a lot for the New Yorker magazine and the editors there tolerate what you might call “completism”. On such-and-such a day this bloke you’ve never heard of met that bloke you’ve never heard of who introduced him to a third bloke, who worked at some university with a fourth bloke, and together they write a groundbreaking paper with a boring title. And so on through the obscure (and bloke-heavy) history of psychotropic drugs.

The only people I’d heard of in Pollan’s account were the American High Priest (his own words) of the acid movement, Timothy Leary, and those he converted to the world of psychedelics, like the hairy poet Allen Ginsberg. It was Leary who minted the slogan of the Sixties — turn on, tune in, drop out — that seduced the youth of San Francisco at the 1967 Human Be-In, but which palled in the wake of the Manson murders.

By the time Leary dropped out of his job at Harvard to turn on as many Americans as possible, the official face had been set against psychedelic drugs and they were banned. In the book various pro-psychedelic people give different and implausible reasons for the prohibition — it was about Vietnam, it was about social control etc etc. As I recall it was much more about a moral panic — kids thinking they could fly from fourth-floor windows, having psychotic breakdowns and so on.

Since Pollan concedes that “no one with a family history or predisposition to mental illness should ever take [psychedelic drugs]”, and given that a significant proportion of us fit those categories (quite a caveat), the concern is understandable. Look how antsy we are, half a century later, about what kids do with phones.

Forty years on and psychedelics were back. By the Noughties some scientists were studying LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and other “mind-altering” drugs. They were writing earnest papers about how these substances might, properly studied, tell us much more about our brains and even offer relief to sufferers of certain conditions. Pollan, impressed, decided to put his mind where his mouth was. Courageously he decided to drop some acid, chew some shroom and lick some toad (the venom of the Sonoran desert toad, when crystallised, is a powerful psychotropic).

Seventy pages of the book chart Pollan’s experiences. With LSD he tripped in a yurt under the supervision of “Fritz”, a German who once, while making tantric love with a woman in Germany shared an out-of-body experience “that allowed them to observe themselves from the ceiling”. Pollan rode a black horse, thought he was having a heart attack, then walked through a fantastic forest landscape before feeling a “cascading dam of love” (I think he means waterfall).

On psilocybin mushrooms (assisted by Mary, a Buddhist) Pollan inhabited a futuristic city, peed diamonds — “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen” — then realised that “the sovereign ego . . . was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing”. With the toad venom he experienced ten minutes of utter terror when “rushing back through 14 billion years, I watched the dimensions of reality collapse one by one until there was nothing left, not even being”. But then came serenity, in which “I felt something squeeze out from between my legs, but easily and without struggle or pain. It was a boy, the infant me.” As Pollan says, describing such “transcendent” experiences is hugely difficult. Yet, as he also argues, they closely resemble the ecstasies of mystics down the ages.

They are, however, very “now”. In the past decade, as Pollan shows, there has been a psychedelic renaissance led by scientists. Working in places such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Imperial College London, they have been studying the brains of those given psychedelic drugs in controlled situations, and their hypotheses are fascinating — although they are still hypotheses. Professor David Nutt at Imperial, for example, believes that what the trials are revealing is the existence of an inhibiting, efficient shortcut he calls the “brain’s default network”, or DMN, which, when switched off by psychedelics, allows the mind to wander into extraordinary places.

I found this section of the book challenging and fascinating and at first I resisted it. It is, for example, a problem that all research into psychedelics appears to be conducted by people who are already converts to their benefits. Finally, though, I had to admit that Pollan’s arguments against total prohibition, in favour of developing the therapeutic use of psychedelics, and indeed in favour of personal experimentation in controlled circumstances, had won me over, despite myself. I may even give it a go.

It is interesting enough that, according to Pollan, “people who are colour-blind report being able to see colours for the first time when on psychedelics” — a kind of limited Jesus effect. Far more useful would be the possibility that clinical deployment of psychedelics could “treat a variety of indications, including anxiety and depression in cancer patients, addiction to nicotine and alcohol, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and eating disorders”. Which sounds a bit like “goodbye snake-oil salesman, hello toad-venom vendor”, but from what I can see, scanning the literature available, the claims are plausible. There really could be something to it.

One caveat, though. If we are to make more use of psychedelics, please don’t make the rest of us sit through the ramblings of day-trippers describing their euphoric micturations, or how nothing is everything. That would be too high a price.

Michael Pollan