Book Summary and Review: ‘How to Change your Mind – The New Science of Psychedelics’ by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is a journalist, and his sixth book ‘How to Change your Mind – the New Science of Psychedelics’ topped the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in 2018.

The book offers a broad overview of the history, culture and scientific research around psychedelics – substances like LSD, psilocybin (the hallucinogenic compound found in magic mushrooms) and ayahuasca (a South American tea). He takes us from the discovery of LSD right through the hippy sixties and seventies, the subsequent disasters that led to the re-classification of psychedelics worldwide as illegal, and finally up to today and the new research uncovering the potential these substances have to treat a vast range of mental health illnesses.

Psychedelics could help treat things like alcoholism, addiction, depression and anxiety – with just one dose reportedly bringing results that would take therapy years to achieve. In his book, Pollan brings together theories on why this could be the case, partly by detailing the historical and cultural background of psychedelics, but also by venturing into the lion’s den and talking about his own experiences with hallucinogenic substances.

These descriptions do not disappoint: some parts of his experiences seem beyond imagination, and even at times, quite scary. Pollan is good at relating his trips to the research, and illuminating why it is that psychedelics could potentially have such a hugely healing effect.

Michael Pollan How to Change your Mind

One idea is that a psychedelic trip, when placed in the right ‘setting’, can give the user a feeling of having their ego (or sense of self) completely washed away, often resulting in a spiritual connection with the world that makes you realise that feelings like loneliness are just an illusion.

While this might seem like a lot of mumbo jumbo, early indications show that the depth of the spiritual experience is positively correlated with how much people recover – that is to say, people who have a stronger experience (measured by the number of different ‘spiritual events’ that happened during their trip) are more likely to still be feeling much better a number of months later.

This could be another clue for why psychadelics seem to be so effective: one of the things that’s so hard to do when you’re going through a mental health crisis is to stop going down the same old thought pathways that contribute to your problems. Psychedelics, by offering this life-changing experience, seem to reboot your system and make it much easier to change the way you previously thought about your situation.

However, there are two crucial aspects to getting this experience right that Pollen really emphasises. The first is setting, or the environment in which you have the experience. This is important because everything that the subject can sense could become part of the trip (including touch and hearing) in unpredictable ways, so it’s crucial to make sure that the environment is sympathetic and reassuring – for example, Pollan describes how he was wearing dark ski glasses with a foam edging, and the foam became part of his hallucination in the form of giant dark mountains!

Secondly, you must face anything scary you encounter head on. Not doing this is a recipe for a bad trip: by running away, you give the bad image more power, but by facing the object or vision you minimise its potency – which strikes me as being an apt metaphor for mental health in general.

Not following these two pieces of advice appears to have been one reason some of the early trials didn’t go as planned: for example, researchers who didn’t understand the importance of setting put users into starkly clinical environments, which led to a number of bad and/or ineffective experiences.

Overall, the book is a great read for a glimpse at the frontier of entirely new research into treating mental health illnesses. Perhaps the one thing that’s missing is a bit of a cautionary note on legalisation and usage: it seems that to encourage fruitful research we need a bit of a relaxation on the legislation, but it would be a bit of a stretch to start letting everyone use them – especially given what we know about the importance of setting.

However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t go ahead. New research in this field is extremely important given the following passage in the book:

“The new research into psychedelics comes along at a time when mental health treatment in this country is so ‘broken’ – to use the word of Tom Insel, who until 2015 was director of the National Institute of Mental Health – that the field’s willingness to entertain radical new approaches is perhaps greater than it has been in a generation. The pharmacological toolbox for treating depression – which afflicts nearly a tenth of all Americans and, worldwide, is the leading cause of disability – has little in it today, with antidepressants losing their effectiveness* and the pipeline for new psychiatric drugs drying up. Pharmaceutical companies are no longer investing in the development of so-called CNS drugs – medicines targeted at the central nervous system. The mental health system reaches only a fraction of the people suffering from mental disorders, most of whom are discouraged from seeking treatment by its cost, social stigma, or ineffectiveness. There are almost forty-three thousand suicides every year in America (more than the number of deaths from either breast cancer or auto accidents), yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment. ‘Broken’ does not seem too harsh a characterisation of such a system.”

[* – ‘As in the case of many drugs, the SSRI antidepressants introduced in the 1980s were much more effective when they were new, probably owing to the placebo effect. Today, they perform only slightly better than a placebo.’]

Psychedelics seem like a promising new field of treatment, and it will be exciting to see where the research leads. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

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