Lesson 8, Topic 1
In Progress

How to Change Your Mind Copy

How to Change Your Mind:
The new science of psychedelics

Michael Pollan



For most of the 1950s and early 1960s, many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD and psilocybin as miracle drugs.  Yet by the end of the 1960s, the social and political shock waves unleased by these molecules seemed to dissipate.  The dark side of psychedelics began to receive tremendous amounts of publicity.

Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance.  A new generation of scientists, many of them inspired by their own personal experience of the compounds, are testing their potential to heal mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction.  Other scientists are using psychedelics in conjunction with new brain-imaging tools to explore the links between brain and mind, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of consciousness.

I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps these remarkable molecules might be wasted on the young, that they may have more to offer us later in life, after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set.  Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an “experience of the numinous” to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.

…plants and fungi with the power to radically alter consciousness have long and widely been used as tools for healing the mind, for facilitating rites of passage, and for serving as a medium for communication with supernatural realms, or spirit worlds.  These uses were ancient and venerable in many cultures…

After more than a half a century of its more or less constant companionship, one’s self—this ever-present voice in the head, this ceaselessly commenting, interpreting, labeling, defending I – becomes perhaps a little too familiar.  I’m not talking about anything as deep as self-knowledge here.  No, just about how over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings.  Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive – it helps us get the job done with a minimum of fuss – eventually it becomes rote.  It dulls us.  The muscles of attention atrophy.

Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need t run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation.  Yet they also relive us of the need to stay away to the world:  to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner.  (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.)  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!  And the algorithms of everyday life all but start over, as if from scratch.  This is why the various travel metaphors for the psychedelic experience are so apt.

Despite the 1960s trappings, the term “psychedelic,” coined in 1956, is etymologically accurate.  Drawn from the Greek, it means simply “mind manifesting,: which is precisely what these extraordinary molecules hold the power to do.

Chapter One  – A Renaissance

Albert Hoffman was the Swiss chemist who, in 1943, accidentally found that he had discovered (five years earlier) the psychoactive molecule that came to be known as LSD.  He tells the store, memorably, in his 1979 memoir, LSD, My Problem Child.  Hoffman had been tasked with synthesizing, one by one, the molecules in the alkaloids produced by ergot.  Ergot is a fungus that can infect grain, often rye, occasionally causing those who consume bread made from it to appear made or possessed.  (One theory of the Salem witch trials blames ergot poisoning for the behavior of the women accused.)

The second watershed even of 2006 came when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by the new chief Justice, John G. Roberts Jr., ruled that the UDV, a tiny religious sect that uses a hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca as its sacrament, could import the drink to the United States, even though it contains the schedule I substance dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.

Evidently, this includes relatively new and tiny religious groups specifically organized around a psychedelic sacrament or “plant medicine,” as the ayahuasqueros call their tea.  The UDV is a Christian spiritist sect founded in 1961 in Brazil by José Gabriel da Costa, a rubber tapper inspired by revelations he experienced after receiving ayahuasca from an Amazonian shaman two years before…the initials UDV sand for União do Vegetal, or Union of the Plants, because ayahuasca is made by brewing together two Amazonian plant species, Banisterioopsis caapi and Psydhotria viridis.)

Griffith’s paper and its reception served to reinforce an important distinction between the so-called classic psychedelics – psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and mescaline – and the more common drugs of abuse, with their demonstrated toxicity and potential for addiction.

Per Griffith:  “The phenomenology of these experiences is so profoundly reorganizing and profoundly compelling that I’m willing to hold there’s a mystery here we can’t understand.”

MAPS has sponsored several small clinical trials that have demonstrated MDMA’s value in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  Rick Doblin defines psychedelics generously, so as to include MDMA and even cannabis, even though their mechanism of action in the brain are very different from that of the classic psychedelics)… Doblin believes fervently in the power of psychedelics to improve humankind by disclosing a spiritual dimension of consciousness we all share.

…along with the feeling of ineffability, the conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is a hallmark of the mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation.  William James gave a name to this conviction:  the noetic quality.  People feel they have been let in on a deep secret of the univers, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction.  As James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.”

James also said:  “Mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge…They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance…and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.”

Stanislav Grof began teaching instead something called Holotropic Breathwork, a technique for inducing a psychedelic state of consciousness without drugs by means of deep, rapid, and rhythmic breathing, usually accompanied by loud drumming.

Descriptions of such experiences always ound a little thin, at least when compared with the emotional impact people are trying to convey; for a life-transforming event, the words can seem paltry.

When I mentioned this to Richards, he smiled.  “you have to imagine a caveman transported into the middle of Manhattan.  He sees buses, cell phones, skyscrapers, airplanes.  Then zap him back to his cave.  What does he say about the experience? ‘It was big, it was impressive, it was loud.’ He doesn’t have the vocabulary for ‘skyscraper,’ ‘elevator,’ ‘cell phone.’  Maybe he has an intuitive sense there was some sort of significance or order to the scene.  But there are words we need that don’t yet exist.  We’ve got five crayons when we need fifty thousand different shades.”

States of consciousness that Plotinus, Saint John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart were writing about.  It’s also what Abraham Maslow was talking about with his “peak experiences.”

“you go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred.  It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered.  And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.”  …whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion.

Chapter Two – Natural History

Paul Stamets, TED Talk 2008 on mushrooms: “6 Ways Mushrooms can save the world

Stamet’s aspirations for the fungal kingdom go well beyond turning petrochemical sludge into arable soil.  Indeed, in his view there is scarcely an ecological or medical problem that mushrooms can’t help solve.   (Turkey tail mushrooms – Stamets claims to have used it to help cure his mother’s stage 4 breast cancer)

For years now, Stamets has been talking about the vast web of mycelia in the soil as “Earth’s natural Internet” – a redundant, complexly branched self-repairing, and scalable communications network linking many species over tremendous distances.  (The biggest organism on earth is a honey fungus in Oregon that is 2.4 miles wide.)

Everything is connected is ever the subtext…

Entheogens”  He traced their use all the way back to the Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks, through the “pharmocratic inquisition,” when the Spanish conquest suppressed the Mesoamerican mushroom cults, and forward to the “entheogenic reformation” that has been under way since R. Gordon Wasson’s discover that those cults had survived in Mexico.

Wasson’s article about “The Magic Mushroom” in Life Magazine from the 1950s

Psilocybe azurescens aka “azzies” are the organisms of the ecological edge…the edge of civilization, and of course these mushrooms brng us t the edge of consciousness…anyone who picks a mushroom trails an invisible cloud of spore behind him; this, he believes (Stamets) is the origin of the idea of fairy dust.

Alexander von Humboldt, the great early nineteenth-century German scientist(and colleague of Goethe’s) who revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.  Humboldt believed it is only with our feelings, our senses, and our imaginations—that is, with the faculties of human subjectivity—that we can ever penetrate nature’s secretes.  “nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice” that is “familiar to his soul.  “Everything is interaction and reciprocal,” said Humboldt.

Huston Smith, the scholar of religion, once described a spiritually “realized being” as simply a person with “an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything.”   Faith need not figure.  Maybe to be…in the presence of an astonishing mystery, is nothing more than the recovery of misplaced perspective, perhaps the child’s-eye view; maybe we regain it by means of neurochemical change that disables the filters (of convention, of ego) that prevent us in ordinary hours seeing…

Chapter Three – The First Wave

Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, written in 1954 was based on his own experience with psychedelics.  Huxley had long harbored a lively interest in drugs and consciousness—the plot of his most famous novel, Brave new World (1932), turns on a mind-control drug he called soma—as well as mysticism, paranormal perception, reincarnation, UFO’s and so on.  He wrote:

To make this trivial world sublime,
Take half a gramme of phanerothyme     (combined Greek words for “spirit” and “manifesting”)
To fathom Hell or go angelic
Just take a pinch of psychedelic.

Bill W. founders of AA – credited his own sobriety to a mystical experience he had on belladonna, a plant-derived alkaloid with hallucinogenic properties, that was administered to him at Towns Hospital in Manhattan in 1934.  Few members of AA realize that the whole idea of a “spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a higher power” – a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous—can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.  He also experimented with LSD.

Steve Jobs often told people that his experiments with LSD had been one of his two or three most important life experiences.  He liked to taunt Bill Gates by suggesting, “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acidd once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.” (Gates has said he did in fact try LSD.)

CREATIVITY:  Working in groups of four, James Fadiman and Willis Harman administered the same dose of LSD to artists, engineers, architects, and scientists, all of whom were somehow “stuck” in their work on a particular project.  “We used every manipulation of set and setting in the book,” Fadiman recalled, telling subjects “they would be fascinated by their intellectual capacities and would solve problems as never before.”  Subjects reported much greater fluidity in their thinking, as well as an enhanced ability to both visualize a problem and recontextualize it.  “We were amazed, as were our participants, at ho many novel and effective solutions came out of our sessions,” Fadiman wrote.

Chapter Four – Travelogue



Here I was, in range of my sixtieth birthday, taking LSD for the first time.  It did feel something like a rite of passage, but a passage to where, exactly? … I never achieved a transcendent, “non-dual” or “mystical-like” experience…but the novel plan of consciousness I’d spent a few hours wandering on had been interesting and pleasurable and, I think, useful to me.  I would have to see if its effects endured, but it felt as though the experience had opened me up in unexpected ways.

Because the acid had not completely dissolved my ego, I never completely lost the ability to redirect the stream of my consciousness or the awareness it was in fact mine.

Mushrooms –  Psylocybin

“This could easily take a terrifying turn,” it occurred to me, and with that a dim tide of anxiety began to build.  Recalling the flight instructions, I told myself there was nothing to do but let go and surrender to the experience.

Relax and float downstream. This was not at all like previous trips, which had left me more or less the captain of my attention, able to direct it this way or that and change the mental channel at will.  O, this was more like being strapped into the front care of a cosmic roller coaster, its heedless headlong trajectory determining moment by moment what would appear in my field of consciousness.

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 scene of the self-s dissolution with benign indifference.  I was present to reality but as something other than my self.  And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened.  … There was life after the death of the ego.  This was big news.

When I think back on this part of the experience, I’ve occasionally wondered if this enduring awareness might have been the “mind at Large” that Aldous Huxley described during his mescaline trip in 1953.  Huxley never quite defined what he meant by the term—except to speak of “the totality of the awareness belong to Mind at Large” – but he seemed to be describing a universal, shareable form of consciousness unbounded by any single brain.  Others have called it cosmic consciousness, the oversoul, or Universal Mind.  This is supposed to exist outside our brains—as a property of the universe, like light or gravity and just as pervasive.  Constitutive too.  Certain individuals at certain times gain access to this awareness, along them to perceive reality in its perfected light, at least for a time.

“The Toad” – smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (incilus alvarious), also called the Colorado River toad, which contains a molecule called 5-MeO-DMT that is one of the most potent and fast acting psychotropic drugs there is.

It turns out the very same molecules flow through the natural world and the human brain, linking us all together in a vast watershed of tryptamines.  Are these exogenous molecules any less miraculous?  (When they come from a mushroom or a plant or a toad!) It’s worth remembering that there are many cultures where the fact that the inspiration for visionary experiences comes from nature, is the gift of other creatures, renders them more meaningful, not less.

My own interpretation of what I experienced – my now officially verified mystical experience—remains a work in progress, still in search of the right words.  But I have no problem using the world “spiritual” to describe elements of what I saw and felt, as long as it is not taken in a supernatural sense.  For me, “spiritual” is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise with the voice of the ego is muted or silenced.

But the ego, that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle.  Deeming itself indispensable, it will battle against its diminishment, whether in advance or in the middle of the journey.

When Huxley speaks of the mind’s “reducing valve” – the faculty that eliminates as much of the world from our conscious awareness as it lets in – he is talking about the ego.  That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality, “a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.”   It’s really goof at performing all those activities that natural selectin values getting ahead, getting liked and loved, getting fed, getting laid.  Keeping us on task it is a ferocious editor of anything that might distract us from the work at hand, whether that means regulating our access to memories and strong emotions from within or news of the world without.

Chapter Five – Your Brain on Psychedelics

All three molecules (LSD, psilocin, 5-MeO-DMT) are tryptamines.  A tryptamine is a type of organic compound (an indole, to be exact) distinguished by the presence of two linked rings, one of them with six atoms and the other with five.  Living nature is awash in tryptamines, which show up in plants, fungi, and animals, where they typically act as signaling molecules between cells.  The most famous tryptamine in the human body is the neurotransmitter serotonin, the chemical name of which is 5-hydroxytryptamine.  It is no coincidence that this molecule has a strong family resemblance with the psychedelic molecules.

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