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How to Change Your Mind

Product no.: 978-0735224155
A brilliant and brave investigation into the medical and scientific revolution taking place around psychedelic drugs—and the spellbinding story of Pollan's own life-changing experiences.

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Publisher's Synopsis
When Michael Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety, he did not intend to write what is undoubtedly his most personal book. But upon discovering how these remarkable substances are improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life, he decided to explore the landscape of the mind in the first person as well as the third. Thus began a singular adventure into various altered states of consciousness, along with a dive deep into both the latest brain science and the thriving underground community of psychedelic therapists. Pollan sifts the historical record to separate the truth about these mysterious drugs from the myths that have surrounded them since the 1960s, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists inadvertently catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research.

A unique and elegant blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, and medicine, How to Change Your Mind is a triumph of participatory journalism. By turns dazzling and edifying, it is the gripping account of a journey to an exciting and unexpected new frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and our place in the world. The true subject of Pollan’s “mental travelogue” is not just psychedelic drugs but also the eternal puzzle of human consciousness and how, in a world that offers us both suffering and joy, we can do our best to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.

Reviews
'Sweeping and often thrilling… It is to Pollan’s credit that, while he ranks among the best of science writers, he’s willing, when necessary, to abandon that genre’s fixation on materialist explanation as the only path to understanding. One of the book’s important messages is that the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, for the dying or seriously ill, can’t be separated from the mystical experiences to which they give rise."        ~The Guardian

"Very few writers, if any, have the gravitas and journalistic cred to tackle this explosive subject—from both the outside and the inside—extract it from its nationally traumatic and irrationally over reactive past, and bring both reason and revelatory insight to it. Michael Pollan has done just that. This is investigative journalism at its rigorous and compelling best— and radically mind opening in so many ways just to read it."       ~Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Excerpt
"In the spring of 2010, a front-page story appeared in the New York Times headlined 'Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.' It reported that researchers had been giving large doses of psilocybin—the active compound in magic mushrooms—to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their 'existential distress' at the approach of death.

These experiments, which were taking place simultaneously at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University, seemed not just improbable but crazy. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, the very last thing I would want to do is take a psychedelic drug—that is, surrender control of my mind and then in that psychologically vulnerable state stare straight into the abyss. But many of the volunteers reported that over the course of a single guided psychedelic 'journey' they reconceived how they viewed their cancer and the prospect of dying. Several of them said they had lost their fear of death completely. The reasons offered for this transformation were intriguing but also somewhat elusive. 'Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states,' one of the researchers was quoted as saying. They 'return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.'

I filed that story away, until a year or two later, when Judith and I found ourselves at a dinner party at a big house in the Berkeley Hills, seated at a long table with a dozen or so people, when a woman at the far end of the table began talking about her acid trips. She looked to be about my age and, I learned, was a prominent psychologist. I was engrossed in a different conversation at the time, but as soon as the phonemes L-S-D drifted down to my end of the table, I couldn’t help but cup my ear (literally) and try to tune in.

At first, I assumed she was dredging up some well-polished anecdote from her college days. Not the case. It soon became clear that the acid trip in question had taken place only days or weeks before, and in fact was one of her first. The assembled eyebrows rose. She and her husband, a retired software engineer, had found the occasional use of LSD both intellectually stimulating and of value to their work. Specifically, the psychologist felt that LSD gave her insight into how young children perceive the world. Kids’ perceptions are not mediated by expectations and conventions in the been-there, done-that way that adult perception is; as adults, she explained, our minds don’t simply take in the world as it is so much as they make educated guesses about it. Relying on these guesses, which are based on past experience, saves the mind time and energy, as when, say, it’s trying to figure out what that fractal pattern of green dots in its visual field might be. (The leaves on a tree, probably.) 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. (Leaves!)

I piped up to ask if she had any plans to write about these ideas, which riveted everyone at the table. She laughed and gave me a look that I took to say, How naive can you be? LSD is a schedule 1 substance, meaning the government regards it as a drug of abuse with no accepted medical use. Surely it would be foolhardy for someone in her position to suggest, in print, that psychedelics might have anything to contribute to philosophy or psychology—that they might actually be a valuable tool for exploring the mysteries of human consciousness. Serious research into psychedelics had been more or less purged from the university fifty years ago, soon after Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project crashed and burned in 1963. Not even Berkeley, it seemed, was ready to go there again, at least not yet.

The dinner table conversation jogged a vague memory that a few years before somebody had e-mailed me a scientific paper about psilocybin research. Busy with other things at the time, I hadn’t even opened it, but a quick search of the term 'psilocybin' instantly fished the paper out of the virtual pile of discarded e-mail on my computer. The paper had been sent to me by one of its co-authors, a man I didn’t know by the name of Bob Jesse; perhaps he had read something I’d written about psychoactive plants and thought I might be interested. The article, which was written by the same team at Hopkins that was giving psilocybin to cancer patients, had just been published in the journal Psychopharmacology. For a peer-reviewed scientific paper, it had a most unusual title: 'Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.'

Never mind the word 'psilocybin'; it was the words 'mystical' and 'spiritual' and 'meaning' that leaped out from the pages of a pharmacology journal. The title hinted at an intriguing frontier of research, one that seemed to straddle two worlds we’ve grown accustomed to think are irreconcilable: science and spirituality.

Now I fell on the Hopkins paper, fascinated. Thirty volunteers who had never before used psychedelics had been given a pill containing either a synthetic version of psilocybin or an 'active placebo'—methylphenidate, or Ritalin—to fool them into thinking they had received the psychedelic. They then lay down on a couch wearing eyeshades and listening to music through headphones, attended the whole time by two therapists. (The eyeshades and headphones encourage a more inward-focused journey.) After about thirty minutes, extraordinary things began to happen in the minds of the people who had gotten the psilocybin pill.

The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably 'occasion' a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published.

What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable 'to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.' Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five 'most spiritually significant experiences' of their lives; one-third ranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their 'personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,' changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.

Though no one knew it at the time, the renaissance of psychedelic research now under way began in earnest with the publication of that paper. It led directly to a series of trials—at Hopkins and several other universities—using psilocybin to treat a variety of indications, including anxiety and depression in cancer patients, addiction to nicotine and alcohol, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and eating disorders. 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.

As someone not at all sure he has ever had a single 'spiritually significant' experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a 'beyond' where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real."        ~Prologue: A New Door

Author Pollan, Michael
Book Type Trade Paperback
Page Count 480 pp.
Publisher Penguin Books 2019
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