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Review of Michael Pollan's Book, "How to Change Your Mind"

So for those of you unfamiliar with Micheal Pollan, he's a journalist, teacher, writer, and some might even say health/dietary activist. His recent book "How to Change Your Mind" is especially making waves among the health, psychiatric, New Age, and psychotherapy worlds as he explores something that's a little foreign to his usual terrain: the therapeutic use of psychedelics.

The majority of the book documents the early use of psychedelics since the discovery of LSD by Albert Hoffman in 1938 and the various people who continued to study it's effects in the decades following as well as the clinical trials of psilocybin mushrooms. There seems to be sightly less focus on DMT or the use of ayahuasca, but there's a strong presence of them none-the-less. And of course he's sure to sample all of these substances and document his own experience on them. Being the exceptional writer that he is, his own experiences in the book are placed just perfectly to keep the reader in anticipation of when they'll get to hear about them, usually after he's documented the history, chemistry, and use of the substance in question.

And what book of controversial science would be without the politics of research and the legality of using such powerful mind altering substances. Timothy Leary is credited more as promoting LSD to the masses rather than contributing to its research. Pollan describes how this is something that upset many of his peers documenting it at the time who felt that its popularization among the counter-culture arising in the 1960's thwarted their ability to do legitimate research. He also touches upon how the indigenous cultures religious use mushrooms and peyote was interrupted by the more metropolitan recreational users and how they saw it as a rude awakening, to put it mildly.

I was especially enthralled by this book because it seems to relate to an idea I expressed in an earlier blog I wrote called "Substance Abuse Society." In that particular piece, I suggested that different mind altering substances could have therapeutic properties if used sparingly and in the right context, but that many societies don't actually promote the use of them in that way. I didn't touch psychedelics in that one because, well, as Michael Pollan so clearly wrote in this book, it's not easy to document.

Pollan explains the clinical studies carried out since the 1950's demonstrated that LSD was a great way to treat alcoholism and in later decades, depression and anxiety. Not to mention that many of the subjects during the clinical trials had life changing experiences. He reinforces the point that if one seeks a therapeutic resolve from a psychedelic experience, an experienced guide is key, whether it be a psychotherapist or a shaman.

What holds the most weight of these claims is that Pollan himself is not a drug enthusiast, nor did he have a plethora of experience experimenting with drugs, even in his younger days. He also doesn't have the reputation of a New Age Guru, just a journalist and professor with a passion for health and improving food regulations. Furthermore, he's an atheist, not really seeking a mythical solution to unanswered questions. These factors allows him to write without the bias that one might expect from a more free-spirited or conservative writer.

His lack of education and experience with psychedelics prior to compiling the book actually strengthens a reoccurring theme in How to Change Your Mind. That is the fact that while scientists and medical professionals do their best to keep accurate clinical records of their test subjects, there seems to be experiences among the test subjects that has limited capacity for scientific measurement. These clinicians diagram the brain neurology of the test subjects as having an experience that they can only describe as a loss of ego, feeling of connection to the world, connection to God, and sometimes boundless love. How does one describe that without it sounding mystical, religious, or wu-wu?

Whatever the case may be and whatever one might feel about psychedelics, Pollan makes a strong case that it's hard to refute the potential of these substances and that they deserve more attention and research. Oakland California has recently legalized the use of psilocybin for recreational use, and it's likely more cities will follow suite. It would seem that we could be on the verge of a new era of therapy and drug regulations.

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