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How to Change Your Mind
What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
Michael Pollan
read on February 14, 2019

I loved this book. I don't have a lot of experience reading books about drugs, but my suspicion in doing so would be that the author of any such book has had their lives so influenced by it that they've lost any objective perspective on things - that the book would be more of a confabulated defense of their own lives. I've not read Pollan before, but I really enjoyed his perspective throughout the book. He had never tried psychedelics, and didn't even feel strongly that he should, he just saw a lot of discussion and growing interest in this topic, and was genuinely curious to learn more about it - and in that process, ended up trying 3 different drugs (in safe, controlled ways, for the most part). His curiosity and skepticism are great, and the effect of the book is to really be on a journey with him, rather than just reading an essay. It's very interesting, and I suspect I'll be returning to it someday.

Some other thoughts/notes:

  • "Noetic quality" is the term used for the conviction that a physcadelic trip is a genuine revelation of truth, and not just a random hallucination like a dream. All acid trips tend to have this effect.
  • Some light discussion on the nature of consciousness. Is it a phenomenon created in the brain, or is it something that exists in the universe, and that brains are like radio antennas that just pick up a consciousness signal? Pollan didn't dig too deep on this, but it was interesting.
  • Native S. American word for mushrooms was 'flesh of the gods', a direct challenge to christian sacrament. "It took an act of faith to believe that eating the bread and wine of the Eucharist gave the worshiper access to the divine, an access that had to be mediated by a priest and the church liturgy. Compare that with the Aztec sacrament, a psychoactive mushroom that granted anyone who ate it direct, unmediated access to the divine". 
  • Psychedelic compounds (mushrooms and then LSD) were discovered in the late 50's. Other than a small group in central America, no other humans had experienced these drugs before. The effect of them is primarily one that reduces/dissolves the sense of ego and individuality, and leads to a more harmonious feeling with others. At the time, the US Gov was instituting a draft to get young people to go fight and die in a proxy war that they really didn't care about. These drugs were extremely dangerous to that effort, and its pretty clear that they were banned only on this basis - not for any material concerns about the effect they had/have on individual health. They are dangerous to society.
  • In the last 20 years, and especially the last 10 or so, these drugs have re-entered the mainstream in academic circles, and have been undergoing a lot of human testing. In particular, they have been extremely helpful for terminally ill patients to accept their prognosis and live out their remaining time with a sense of happiness and purpose.
  • There is a series of brain functions/activity that is typically firing for all humans called the Default Mode Network. While under psilocibin/LSD that activity tends to quite down. The same is true of advanced mediators.
  • The term psychedelic was coined by Humphy Osmond, in a letter to Aldous Huxley. They were trying to name these drugs using novel words inserted into poems, and Osmond landed on: "To fall in hell or soar Angelic, You'll need a pinch of psychedelic." The word is a portmanteau of "mind manifesting" in Greek.

Author Bio:

For more than thirty years, Michael Pollan has been writing books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in our minds. He is the author of the new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence and five New York Times bestsellers: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013), Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001). The Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A young readers edition was published in 2009. The Botany of Desire received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best non-fiction work of 2001, and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com. Pollan is also the author of A Place of My Own (1997) and Second Nature (1991). Pollan is currently the Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer and Professor of the Practice of NonFiction at Harvard University. Since 2003, Pollan has held the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. In addition to teaching, he lectures widely on food, agriculture, health and the environment. Michael Pollan, who was born in 1955, grew up on Long Island, and was educated at Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University, from which he received a Master’s in English. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife, the painter Judith Belzer.