How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind – by Michael Pollan
Date Read: 5/25/18. Recommendation 9/10.

A look into the renaissance of psychedelics and how a new generation of scientists are testing their potential to improve mental health, including depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Pollan is a brilliant writer, offering a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the book, which helps add a voice of reason to an often fanciful topic. He acknowledges the provocative, often uncomfortable frontier of psychedelic therapy, which sits somewhere between science and spirituality. True to form, his deep interest in the natural world comes through, specifically as it relates to psilocybin (mushrooms). He also digs into the broader cultural and historical significance, detailing the stories of each influential character involved. But the best parts of the book are moments when Pollan examines ambiguous, difficult concepts such as consciousness, spirituality, ego dissolution, and the ineffability of his own psychedelic experiences. Whether you're interested in better understanding the science, potential benefits to mental health, or a new lens through which to view the world and your own experience, this book makes significant contributions to furthering each. 

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 


My Notes:

Psychedelics are having a renaissance. A new generation of scientists are testing their potential to heal mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.

LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception, and, by doing so restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time.

What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions – involving the temporary dissolution of one's ego – that may be the key to changing one's mind.

It is virtually impossible to die from an overdose of LSD or psilocybin (remarkably little toxicity), and neither drug is addictive (animals will not self-administer a psychedelic more than once). But they can create terrifying experiences (most of which turn out to be short-lived panic attacks) and people can be liable to do stupid and dangerous things on them.

Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we're confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner...If you need to be reminded how completely mental habit blinds us to experience, just take a trip to an unfamiliar country. Suddenly you wake up!

Many researchers also focusing on the spiritual effects of psychedelic experiences on healthy normals. Early psilocybin studies show lasting changes to personalities (openness to experience, one of the five traits psychologists use to assess personality) and improvements in well-being.

Two hallmarks of the mystical experience: ineffability and the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you. (Noetic quality: the conviction that you have been let in on a deep secret of the universe)

Descriptions of such experiences always sound a little thing. Imagine a caveman transported to Manhattan. Then zap him back to his cave. What does he say? Does he have the vocabulary for planes, skyscraper, cell phone? There are words we need that don't yet exist.

Negative capability: the ability to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without reaching for absolutes (whether science or spirituality) - concept proposed by John Keats.

"Spiritual revival is our best defense against not only soullessness, but against religious fanaticism." -Huston Smith

Somehow, for some reason, these remarkable mushrooms produce, in addition to spores, meanings in human minds.

Mycelia in a forest link the trees in it, root to root, not only supplying them with nutrients, but serving as a medium that conveys information about environmental threats and allows trees to selectively send nutrients to other trees in the forest.

Stoned Ape Theory: Theory that ingestion of psilocybin caused rapid development in the hominid brain for analytical thinking and societal bonding. Epitome of all mycocentric speculation (not really susceptible to proof or disproof, no way to trace consumption). According to Terrence McKenna, Psilocybes gave our hominid ancestors "access to realms of supernatural power," "catalyzed the emergence of human self-reflection," and "brought us out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination."

Why in the world would a fungus go to the trouble of producing a chemical compound that has such a radical effect on the minds of the animals that eat it?

"Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice that is familiar to his soul." -Alexander von Humboldt

As long as it works, as long as it heals people, why should anyone care? (This is the same discomfort scientists feel about using placebos. It suggests an interesting way to think about psychedelics: as a kind of "active placebo." As Stanislav Grof put it, psychedelics are "nonspecific amplifiers" of mental processes. 

1965, media in full panic mode, urban legends about the perils of LSD spread more rapidly than the facts. Narrative of LSD as a threat took on a life of its own.
-False: LSD could damage chromosomes, cause birth defects
-More people did end up in emergency rooms with paranoia/anxiety attacks, but full-blown psychosis extremely rare unless at risk of schizophrenia. M.D. Andrew Weil saw a lot of bad trips in the 60s, his solution was to tell the patient having an anxiety attack to excuse him as the person in the next room is having a serious problem. They would immediately begin to feel much better

Importance of set and setting: Shamans have understood for millennia that a person in the depths of a trance or under the influence of a powerful plant medicine can be readily manipulated with the help of certain words, special objects, or the right kind of music. Suggestibility of human mind during an altered state can be harnessed as an important resource for healing.

Great lesson of the 1960s experiment with psychedelics: the importance of finding the proper context, or container (steadying set of rituals and rules), for these powerful chemicals and experiences. 

For some people, the privilege of having had a mystical experience tends to massively inflate the ego, convincing them they've been granted sole possession of a key to the universe. This is an excellent recipe for creating a guru. The certitude and condescension for mere mortals that usually come with that key can render these people insufferable.

LSD trip: Ego did not completely dissolve, instead reached pleasantly bizarre mental space between being awake and falling asleep (hypnagogic consciousness). For a few days after, afterglow casted a pleasantly theatrical light over everything, italicizing the ordinary in such a way as to make Pollan feel uncommonly appreciative.

Psilocybin trip: The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more, and there was no one left to mourn its passing. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the sense of the self's dissolution with benign indifference.

For me, "spiritual" is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced.

The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up...there is a whole world of souls and spirits out there, by which I simply mean subjectivities other than our own...allows us to feel less separate and more connected, "part and particle" of some larger entity. Whether we call that entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters.

Some scientists have raised the possibility that consciousness may pervade the universe, suggesting we think of it the same way we do electromagnetism or gravity, as one of the fundamental building blocks of reality.

The idea that psychedelic drugs might shed some light on the problems of consciousness makes a certain sense. A psychedelic drug is powerful enough to disrupt the system we call normal waking consciousness in ways that may force some of its fundamental properties into view.

"Predictive coding" - model suggests that our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memories.
-If you were able to experience another person's mental state, it would probably feel more like a psychedelic state than a 'normal state' because of its massive disparity with whatever mental state is habitual with you.

When the brain operates on psilocybin, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don't exchange much information...The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or "cross talk," among its various neighborhoods.

Even a temporary rewiring of the brain is potentially valuable, especially for people suffering from disorders characterized by mental rigidity. A high-dose psychedelic experience has the power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility–entropy–in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles.

Entropy is often associated with expansion–as in the expansion of a gas when it is heated or freed from the constraints of a container. It becomes harder to predict the location of any given one; the uncertainty of the system thus increases.

Alison Gopnik on similarities between the phenomenology of the LSD experience and her understanding of the consciousness of children: hotter searches, diffused attention, more mental noise (entropy), magical thinking, and little sense of a self that is continuous over time. 

Psychedelic therapy - operating on a frontier between spirituality and science that is as provocative as it is uncomfortable.

Existential distress, few tools available to address this, especially common in those confronting a terminal diagnosis. Obsessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thinking.

"A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice. You're losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying." -Katherine MacLean

Results of Johns Hopkins and NYU psilocybin cancer studies:
-80% of cancer patients showed reduced anxiety and depression that lasted for at least 6 months after session
-80 patient study (must be repeated on larger scale)

Key themes of psilocybin experience/trials:
-Powerful feelings of connection to loved ones
-Shift from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness
-Powerful emotions - joy, bliss, love
-Egolytic effect - ability to silence or muffle the voice of the ego
-Achieve a new distance on their lives, a vantage from which matters that had once seemed daunting now seemed smaller and more manageable, including their addictions.

Psilocybin studies with addiction (smokers):
-Six months after, 80% were abstinent
-12 months after, 67% were abstinent (much better rate of success than the best treatment currently available)
-Simplicity of feedback: "Smoking became irrelevant, so I stopped." "The universe was so great and there were so many things you could do and see in it that killing yourself seemed like a dumb idea."

"Duh moments" - Under the influence of psilocybin, "insights become more compelling, stickier, and harder to avoid thinking about. Deprive people of the luxury of mindlessness." -Matt Johnson

Countless people have taken psilocybin and continued to smoke. If it does happen, it's because breaking the habit is the avowed intention of the session.

"Psychedelic therapy" is not simply treatment with a psychedelic drug but rather a form of "psychedelic-assisted therapy," as many of the researchers take pains to emphasize.

Dying, depression, obsession, eating disorders–all are exacerbated by the tyranny of an ego and the fixed narratives it constructs about our relationship to the world.

Rat study with drug addiction:
-Well-known study that rats will quickly addict themselves to drugs, in preference to food.
-Less-known aspect is that if the cage is enriched with opportunities for play, interaction with other rats, and exposure to nature, the same rats will ignore the drugs and never become addicted.
-Lends support to the idea that propensity to addiction might have less to do with genes or chemistry than with one's personal history and environment. "Do you see the world as a prison or a playground?"

Peter Hendricks: "Awe promotes a sense of the 'small self' that directs our attention away from the individual to the group and the greater good." An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism. "We now have a pharmacological intervention that can occasion truly profound experiences of awe" (awe in a pill).

Psilocybin studies with depression:
-After 1 week, 8/12 were depression-free
-After 3 months, 7/12 still showed significant benefits
-After 1 year, 6/20 remained in remission
-More than half eventually saw clouds of depression return, so not necessarily a one-time intervention. 

Mendel Kaelen, a Dutch postdoc in the Imperial lab, snow metaphor:
"Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction. Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways."

A happy brain is a supple and flexible brain...depression, anxiety, obsession, and the cravings of addiction are how it feels to have a brain that has become excessively rigid or fixed in its pathways and linkages–a brain with more order than is good for it.

Mental time travel is constantly taking us off the frontier of the present moment. This can be highly adaptive; it allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. But when time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward-looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety.

For me, the psychedelic experience opened up...a space where you can entertain all sorts of thoughts and scenarios without reaching for any kind of resolution...occasionally I have emerged from the state with usable ideas, images, or metaphors.

I still tend to think that consciousness must be confined to brains, but I am less certain of this belief now than I was before I embarked on this journey. Maybe it too has slipped out from between the bars of that cage.