The Trip of a Lifetime: Michael Pollan explores what LSD and other psychedelics can do for the no longer young.

By Laura Miller

Before Timothy Leary came along, psychedelic drugs were respectable. The American public’s introduction to these substances was gradual, considered, and enthusiastic. Psilocybin appeared in an article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in a 1957 issue of Life magazine. The author of this first-person account of consuming mind-altering fungi at a traditional ritual in a remote Mexican village, R. Gordon Wasson, was a banker, a vice president at J.P. Morgan. The founder and editor in chief of Time-Life, Henry Robinson Luce, took LSD with his wife under a doctor’s supervision, and he liked to see his magazines cover the possible therapeutic uses of psychedelics. Perhaps most famously, Cary Grant underwent more than 60 sessions of LSD-facilitated psychotherapy in the late 1950s, telling Good Housekeeping that the treatment made him less lonely and “a happy man.” This wasn’t a Hollywood star’s foray into the counterculture, but part of an experimental protocol used by a group of Los Angeles psychiatrists who were convinced they had found a tool that could make talk therapy transformative. And they had the science—or at least the beginnings of it—to back up their claims.

Then came Leary and his Harvard Psilocybin Project. In his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan recounts how nascent but promising research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs in the 1950s and early 1960s went off the rails. Leary, with Richard Alpert (who would later rename himself Ram Dass), conducted research in a methodologically haphazard and messianic manner, eventually alienating the university’s administration, who fired them. Leary then went on to become a guru (his term) for the hippie movement, urging America’s youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” LSD came to be associated with the anti-war movement, free love, and a general rejection of Middle American mores, and the authorities no longer looked kindly upon it. By 1970, with the Controlled Substances Act, LSD, psilocybin, peyote, DMT, and mescaline were classified as Schedule I drugs—defined as substances with a high potential for abuse, with no currently accepted medical value in the U.S., and unsafe to use even under medical supervision. For four decades, psychedelics were associated with burnt-out cases shambling around college towns like Berkeley and Cambridge, chromosome damage, and the suicide of the daughter of TV personality Art Linkletter.

How to Change Your Mind is not your average pro-psychedelic book, of which there are multitudes. The recently-published Trip by Tao Lin, a player on the small-time literary hipster scene, is more typical. It resembles the sort of predictably eccentric title people used to buy in head shops or order off the classified ads in High Times, albeit updated for the internet age. No doubt it’s difficult to make a case for psychedelic drugs without sounding like a kook. One of the defining qualities of a powerful trip is the sense that mere words can’t do justice to it. By the end of Trip, Lin, who during a period of weaning himself off of various pharmaceuticals became a devotee of the late psilocybin advocate Terence McKenna, has become both a bit happier and a bit daffier, in a decidedly hippie-ish mode. He expounds on the dubious goddess-worship theories of Riane Eisler and Marija Gimbutas, and maintains that daily doses of turmeric have enabled him to crack his knuckles for the first time. He believes that by consuming only plant-based psychedelics (which he doesn’t even consider to be drugs), he has established communication with “nature.” Just how much of this quirkiness can be attributed to using the substances isn’t clear; Lin reports, for example, that even before he began using psychedelics he suffered from a lifelong obsession with the belief that his teeth and tongue were too big for his mouth, signs of what he now regards as “degenerate” jaw formation caused by modern diets.

On its surface, Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day, published in 2017, is the polar opposite of Trip. A middle-class mother of four (her husband is the novelist Michael Chabon), Waldman constructs her book around a diary she kept while experimenting for a few weeks with microdosing LSD. Microdosing, all the rage in Silicon Valley, involves taking small amounts of the drug (10–20 micrograms, about one-tenth of the dose consumed by most recreational users) every three days. Unlike Lin, Waldman has no desire to get high; the effects of LSD at this dosage are considered “subperceptual.” Instead, she wants to level out her mood swings, stop fighting with her husband and kids, and work more productively. But despite their differences in method, what Waldman and Lin want is essentially the same: to be less miserable, to form better emotional connections with the people in their lives, to pry themselves out of self-defeating patterns of thought, to be happier.

Can psychedelics do this? That’s one of the questions Pollan tackles in How to Change Your Mind. Figures like Leary and McKenna often claimed that widespread use of the drugs would lead to social, political, and even scientific revolution. McKenna reported that a paraphysical entity he called “the mushroom” possessed “the knowledge of hyperlight ships and how to build them.” This sort of nonsense doesn’t inspire much confidence in the average person, and even those of us who don’t think psychedelics ought to be Schedule I substances—even those of us who have taken the drugs occasionally ourselves—have learned to roll our eyes and check out of conversations where psychedelics are touted as tools of cosmic enlightenment. Nevertheless, Waldman’s modest expectations seem a bit timid. Surely Cary Grant counts as an equally reliable source, and he found LSD revelatory, not just a mood leveler. As the 2017 documentary Becoming Cary Grant, incorporating excerpts from the actor’s unpublished autobiography, testifies, the experience profoundly changed his life.

Pollan’s book is the baby bear’s bed in this triad: Neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. Like his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s a mixture of history, profiles, first-person reportage, and wonder-struck rumination.

Read the full review here.