A revival in the scientific study of psychedelics prompts a journalist to take a trip

Known for his writing on plants and food, Michael Pollan, in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, brings all the curiosity and skepticism for which he is well known to a decidedly different topic: the psychedelic drugs d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin. In addition to being a balanced piece of journalistic science writing, this work is also part memoir, as Pollan searches for meaning in life as he enters his early 60s.

Originally hailed as miracle drugs by psychiatrists, LSD, synthesized by the chemist Albert Hofmann in the Sandoz Laboratories in 1938, and psilocybin, a naturally occurring prodrug produced by a variety of mushroom species, became linked to the American counterculture movements in the 1960s. This association would ultimately sour public perception, ending the scientific studies of these compounds for decades.

Advances in brain-imaging tools and other techniques have recently enabled more quantitative studies of consciousness, reinvigorating interest in psychedelic drugs as possible treatments for depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other afflictions. How to Change Your Mind beautifully updates and synthesizes the science of psychodelics, with a highly personalized touch.

Pollan captures the dilemma of attempting to use the scientific method to interrogate psychedelic drugs, describing the importance of having the right “set and setting” (e.g. social context) for psychedelics to be therapeutically useful. “Western science and modern drug testing depend on the ability to isolate a single variable,” he explains. “[B]ut it isn’t clear that the effects of a psychedelic drug can ever be isolated, whether from the context in which it is administered, the presence of the therapists involved, or the volunteer’s expectations.”

The idea of conducting a double-blind study is likewise complicated. Recounting a 1962 study in which 20 divinity students were dosed with either psilocybin or a placebo, Pollan notes that telling the subjects apart was not difficult: “[T]hose on the placebo sat sedately in their pews while the others lay down or wandered around the chapel, muttering things like ‘God is everywhere’ and ‘Oh, the Glory!’”

Pollan’s narrative is peppered with interesting anecdotes that chart the ways in which psychedelics have influenced recent human history. He writes, for example, about how LSD may have catalyzed the Silicon Valley tech boom. “‘It gave us permission to try weird shit in cahoots with other people,’” Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, tells Pollan at one point.

Brand further credits an LSD experience with having provided the impetus for a campaign he began in1966 to get the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration to photograph the entire planet. “It occurred to him [while on LSD] that when we think of Earth as flat, as we usually do, we assume it is infinite, and we treat its resources that way,” writes Pollan. A picture of a round Earth, Brand reasoned, would convey the finite nature of the planet and compel people to be better stewards of its precious resources.

The book also contains interesting accounts of scientists who had their own experiences with the mystical. Roland Griffiths, for example, was a successful researcher studying caffeine addiction at Johns Hopkins University when a friend introduced him to Siddha yoga at age 50. An experience that occurred during his subsequent meditation practice introduced him to “something way, way beyond a material worldview,” he reveals to Pollan. Griffiths ended up switching his research program to the scientific study of psilocybin and went on to publish a landmark double-blind clinical study of the psychological effects of the compound in 2006.

Pollan crosses that barrier of objectivity when he decides to take three psychedelics—LSD, psilocybin, and a smoked toad venom containing 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), sometimes known as “the spirit molecule”—himself. The raw travelogue, as he calls it, reveals his struggle with experiences of the spiritual, if not supernatural, as induced by exogenous chemicals. “A phrase like ‘boundless being,’ which once I might have skated past as overly abstract and hyperbolic, now communicated something specific and even familiar,” he writes, reflecting on the profundity of his collective “journeys.”

Throughout the book, Pollan makes it clear that he does not advocate illegal drug use. He cites other ways that humans have reached transcendent mental states, including through techniques such as breathing work and meditation. Citations to original sources are provided throughout the book, but they don’t break up the flow of chapters, and a separate section of notes and references allows the reader to easily check the works that underpin Pollan’s arguments.

Pollan ultimately concludes that psychedelic compounds appear to allow people to relax their brains’ inhibitions and abstracting powers—to let go of their egos—so as to see the world afresh. Such experiences can allow a person to achieve balance between too much rigidity and too little structure in their thinking, he argues, which many believe to be the cornerstone of productive creativity.