How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Book Summary

Author Michael Pollan is known for his expertise in covering nature-related topics. Throughout his career, he’s written about everything from gardening to food. How to Change Your Mind continues down that same path, but is more controversial because of its coverage of a stigmatized and often-ostracized subject. It’s a book that reports on a wide-ranging perspective on the past, present, and future of psychadelics.

If you’d like to read How to Change Your Mind, you can grab a copy at Amazon. For the sake of transparency, please note that I get a small commission if you decide to buy it.

Notes and Quotes

How to Change Your Mind Summary

Changing the perception of psychedelics.

  • Pollan says they are “far more frightening to people than they are dangerous”.
  • Most problems that arise from them are “exaggerated or mythical.”
  • It’s not possible to die from an overdose from psychedelics such as LSD or psilocybin.
  • People worry about addiction, but these kinds of substances are not addictive.

The start of the modern renaissance of psychedelic research started in 2006.

  • The first event of this year was the 100th birthday of Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, who discovered LSD in 1938.
    • The world’s first LSD trip occurs as a result in neutral Switzerland during this time.
      • Hofmann notes the feeling of a “afterglow” following his trip. Very common feeling following a psychedelic experience.
    • Hofmann understood the youth’s adoption of LSD in the 1960s as a response to “the emptiness of what he described as materialist, industrialized, and spiritually impoverished society that had lost its connection to nature.”
  • The second event came when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a tiny religious sect called the UDV could import ayahuasca into the US. 
    • Ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. It gave Native Americans the right under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause, to use peyote in their ceremonies. 
  • The third most influential event of the year was the publication of Roland Griffith’s landmark paper titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance,”

Who is Roland Griffiths?

  • A scientist in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
  • In 1994, his career took an unexpected detour.
    • A friend introduced him to Siddha Yoga. 
      • “Despite his behaviorist orientation as a scientist, Griffiths had always been interested in what philosophers call phenomenology—the subjective experience of consciousness.”
    • He then started practicing meditation.
      • Griffiths had tried it before when he was a graduate student, but couldn’t do it for long.
      • He tells Pollan that in 1994 “something opened up for me”, and meditation became a huge part of his life. 
    • As a result, Griffiths started to embrace the notion of life as a mystery.

Who is Bob Jesse?

  • A computer engineer, who was the vice president of business development at Oracle.
  • Jesse tipped off Pollan on Griffiths’ paper on psychedelics.
  • He “organized a small gathering of researchers, therapists, and religious scholars at the legendary Big Sur retreat center to discuss the spiritual and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and how they might be rehabilitated.”
  • Pollan says that Jesse will be seen as one of the “scientific outsiders in America” who helped kickstart second wave of psychedelic research.

Who is Rick Doblin?

  • Another psychedelic enthusiast like Jesse.
  • Founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1986.
    • Coincidentally, MDMA was made illegal this year.
  • He’s pushing for FDA approval for medical use of psychedelics.
    • Why?
      • Would incorporate psychedelics into American society and culture, not only medicine.
      • Similar strategy followed by the backers to decriminalize marijuana.
        • Promoting the medical use of cannabis made it more acceptable to the public.

“What stands out most for me is the quality of the awareness I experienced, something entirely distinct from what I’ve come to regard as Bob. How does this expanded awareness fit into the scope of things? To the extent I regard the experience as veridical—and about that I’m still not sure—it tells me that consciousness is primary to the physical universe. In fact, it precedes it.” 

Bob Jesse on his psychedelic experiences.

Hallmarks of a mystical experience (by drugs, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation, etc.)

  • A feeling of ineffability (AKA the inability to describe the experience in words).
  • A profound objective truth.

People feel they have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction. As James wrote, “Dreams cannot stand this test.” No doubt this is why some of the people who have such an experience go on to found religions, changing the course of history or, in a great many more cases, the course of their own lives. “No doubt” is the key. 

  • Pollan on the noetic quality of psychedelics.

Science vs. the Mystical Nature of Psychedelics

  • Can’t verify through its customary tools.
  • The reports of how one feels after a psychedelic experience are anecdotal. 

Who Charles “Bob” Schuster?

  • Served under Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. as their director of National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  • Jesse invited him to discuss the merits and pitfalls of psychedelics.

Who is Bill Richards?

  • A psychologist who guided many psychedelic journeys in the 1960s and 1970s.
    • More than anyone alive, with the “possible exception of Stan Grof”. 
  • Richards administered the last legal dose of psilocybin to an American in 1977.

Richards explains the ineffable quality of psychedelics to Pollan through metaphor:

  • “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.”

America isn’t the first culture to feel “threatened by psychedelics:”

  • Griffiths points out to Pollan that the Spanish suppressed them and considered them “dangerous instruments of paganism.
  • “That says something important about how reluctant cultures are to expose themselves to the changes these kinds of compounds can occasion,” he told [Pollan] the first time we met. “There is so much authority that comes out of the primary mystical experience that it can be threatening to existing hierarchical structures.”

Pollan interviewed volunteers who participated in psychedelic research for this book.

  • “For every volunteer I’ve interviewed, the experience yielded many more answers than questions, and—curiously for what is after all a drug experience—these answers had about them a remarkable sturdiness and durability.”

Pollan’s research gave him this impression on psychedelics impact on perception.

  • “I had a sense of initiation into dimensions of existence most people never know exist, including the distinct sense that death was illusory, in the sense that it is a door we walk through into another plane of existence, that we’re sprung from an eternity to which we will return.”
  • “The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious. Yet people come out of the experience understanding these platitudes in a new way; what was merely known is now felt, takes on the authority of a deeply rooted conviction. And, more often than not, that conviction concerns the supreme importance of love.”

Pollan on one of science’s limitations:

  • “I realize there are just some domains that science will not penetrate. Science can bring you to the big bang, but it can’t take you beyond it. You need a different kind of apparatus to peer into that.”

The difference between psychedelics from other drugs is that “the meaning comes out of the experience”.

Negative Capability: “the ability to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without reacing for absolutes, whether those of science or spirituality.”

Henry Luce was the founder and editor and chief of Time-Life. He and his wife Clare were enthusiastic about the possibilities of psychedelic drugs during the 1950s.

  • In 1955, he commissioned R.Gordon Wasson to write an article for LIFE Magazine about trying psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico. This piece brought psychedelics into the American mainstream.

Why the Spanish drove the use of psychoactive mushrooms underground.

  • “The Spanish sought to crush the mushroom cults, viewing them, rightly, as a mortal threat to the authority of the church. One of the first priests Cortés brought to Mexico to Christianize the Aztecs declared that the mushrooms were the flesh of ‘the devil that they worshipped, and . . . with this bitter food they received their cruel god in communion.’”

Who is Paul Stamets?

  • An american mycologist “who is using fungi to make original contributions across a remarkably wide range of fields”
    • These include medicine, environmental restoration, agriculture and forestry, and even national defense.

Pollan on what he felt during his first psychedelic experience:

  • “There had also been, I felt, an opening of the heart, toward my parents, yes, and toward Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. Some of this openness has persisted. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence.”
  • “Before this afternoon, I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural—of God, of a Beyond—but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think. 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.’”

Who is Timothy Leary?

  • An American psychologist who conducted psychedelic experiments at Harvard in the 1960s. 
    • He came late to psychedelics, launching the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960.
      • By the time he came onto the scene, there had already been more than 10 years of psychedelic research in North America.
  • Some think he’s the cause of the counter-cultural revolution in the 1960s. But Pollan writes this:
    • “His success in shaping the popular narrative of psychedelics in the 1960s obscures as much as it reveals, creating a kind of reality distortion field that makes it difficult to see everything that came either before or after his big moment onstage.”
  • His biggest contribution to psychedelic science was the theorizing of “set” and “setting”.

Who is Stephen Ross?

  • Psychiatrist who specializes in addiction in Bellevue.
  • Directed an NYU trial using psilocybin to treat the existential distress of cancer patients.
  • Has since turned to the treatment of alcoholism with psychadelics.

The treatment uses of psychedelics in the 1950s:

  • Addiction
  • Depression
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism
  • End-of-life anxiety.

In the mid 1960s, the culture and psychiatric establishment turned against psychedelics. As a result “an entire body of knowledge was effectively erased from the field, as if all that research and clinical experience had never happened.”

Who is Humphry Osmond?

  • An English psychiatrist who is a “little-known but pivotal figure in the history of psychedelic research” according to Pollan.
  • Wrote of the promise of LSD and its ability to allow a therapist who took it to “enter the illness and see with a madman’s eyes, hear with his ears, and feel with his skin.”
  • He coined the word “psychedelic” by marrying two Greek words that together meant “mind manifesting”.
  • He collaborated with Aldous Huxley, the English writer and philosopher .

Who is Al Hubbard?

  • Pollan calls him “the most improbable, intriguing, and elusive figure to grace the history of psychedelics”.
  • After taking psychedelics, “Hubbard realized it was up to him to bring the new gospel of LSD, and the chemical itself, to as many people as he possibly could. He had been given what he called a “‘special chosen role.’”
  • “Hubbard believed that ‘if he could give the psychedelic experience to the major executives of the Fortune 500 companies,’ Abram Hoffer recalled, ‘he would change the whole of society.’”
  • In 1953, Hubbard connected with Osmond over lunch, which led to a “collaboration that changed the course of psychedelic research and, in important ways, laid the groundwork for the research taking place today.”
  • Hubbard proposed to Osmond that the mystical experience that people had on mescaline or LSD could be used as therapy. In Hubbard’s mind, “the experience was more important than the chemical”.
  • Pollan seems to draw a connection between Hubbard’s arrival in Silicon Valley with LSD to the tech boom that later exploded 25 years later.
    • “How much does the idea of cyberspace, an immaterial realm where one can construct a new identity and merge with a community of virtual others, owe to an imagination shaped by the experience of psychedelics? Or for that matter virtual reality? The whole notion of cybernetics, the idea that material reality can be translated into bits of information, may also owe something to the experience of LSD, with its power to collapse matter into spirit.”

What is the MK-Ultra research program?

  • Since 1953, had tried to figure out whether LSD could be used as a “nonlethal weapon of war” or manipulation.
    • Example test cases include:
      • Truth serum in interrogations
      • Mind control
    • None of these test cases came to fruition.

“It is one of the many paradoxes of psychedelics that these drugs can sponsor an ego-dissolving experience that in some people quickly leads to massive ego inflation. Having been let in on a great secret of the universe, the recipient of this knowledge is bound to feel special, chosen for great things.”

Who is Ken Kesey?

  • An American novelist who had an LSD “trip that would inspire him to spread the psychedelic word, and the drugs themselves, as widely and loudly as he could.”
  • With a group of followers called the Merry Pranksters, he organized the distribution of LSD to thousands of youth in the Bay Area “in an effort to change the mind of a generation.”

“To psychiatrists with no personal experience of psychedelics, their effects were bound to look a lot more like psychoses than transcendence. The psychotomimetic paradigm had returned, now with a vengeance.”

“Bootleg LSD’ started showing up on the streets in 1962 to 1963, causing many who tried them to go on “bad trips”. 

  • These people began “appearing in emergency rooms and psych wards”, which then influenced mainstream psychiatry to distance itself from psychedelic research.
  • “LSD was now regarded as a cause of mental illness rather than a cure.”

Why have powerful drugs, such as opiates, maintained a separate identity as a “legitimate tool of medicine”, while psychedelics have failed?

  • Timothy Leary “made it difficult to argue that a bright line between the scientific and the recreational use of psychedelics could be drawn and patrolled.”
    • “Leary was all too often willing to say out loud to anyone in earshot what everyone else believed but knew better than to speak or write about candidly.”
  • Pollan says that “irrational exuberance about its potential” was the downfall of the first wave of psychedelic research.

“LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material.”

The big lesson out of the 1960s: 

  • “the importance of finding the proper context, or container, for these powerful chemicals and experiences.”

Who is Leo Zeff?

  • A Bay Area psychologist who became one of the most renowned underground therapists of psychedelic therapy.
  • He created standard operating procedures and protocols for underground therapy. 
    • Agreements he codified between guides and patients included:
      • Strict confidentiality.
      • No sexual contact.
      • Total obedience to a therapist’s instructions during a session.
    • He also developed many of the “ceremonial touches, such as having participants take the medicine from a cup: ‘a very important symbol of the transformation experience.’”
    • “Zeff also described the departures from conventional therapeutic practice common among psychedelic guides. He believed it was imperative that guides have personal experience of any medicine they administer.”

“Psychedelic researchers working in universities today are understandably reluctant to acknowledge it, but there is a certain amount of traffic between the two worlds, and a small number of figures who move, somewhat gingerly, back and forth between them. For example, some prominent underground therapists have been recruited to help train a new cohort of psychedelic guides to work in university trials of psychedelic drugs.”

“It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal. This is a failure of my language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post- linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth. Love is everything. Okay, but what else did you learn? No—you must not have heard me: it’s everything! Is a platitude so deeply felt still just a platitude? No, I decided. A platitude is precisely what is left of a truth after it has been drained of all emotion. To resaturate that dried husk with feeling is to see it again for what it is: the loveliest and most deeply rooted of truths, hidden in plain sight. A spiritual insight? Maybe so. Or at least that’s how it appeared in the middle of my journey. Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious.”

Pollan trying to write about his second psychedelic experience. This euphoria didn’t last for long though, and he wished the experience was more transformative.

“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. No, this was more like being strapped into the front car of a cosmic roller coaster, its heedless headlong trajectory determining moment by moment what would appear in my field of consciousness.”

Pollan on his third psychedelic experience.

“Here, the limits of our language become a problem: in order to completely make sense of the divide that had opened up in my perspective, I would need a whole new first-person pronoun. For what was observing the scene was a vantage and mode of awareness entirely distinct from my accustomed self; in fact I hesitate to use the “I” to denote the presiding awareness, it was so different from my usual first person. Where that self had always been a subject encapsulated in this body, this one seemed unbounded by any body, even though I now had access to its perspective. That perspective was supremely indifferent, neutral on all questions of interpretation, and unperturbed even in the face of what should by all rights have been an unmitigated personal disaster.”

More of Pollan on this third psychedelic experience. From this experience, started to understand what the volunteers in the cancer-anxiety trials told him. He saw how psychedelics could give perspective.

“I managed, barely, to squeeze out the words I had prepared, “trust” and “surrender.” These words became my mantra, but they seemed utterly pathetic, wishful scraps of paper in the face of this category 5 mental storm. Terror seized me—and then, like one of those flimsy wooden houses erected on Bikini Atoll to be blown up in the nuclear tests, “I” was no more, blasted to a confetti cloud by an explosive force I could no longer locate in my head, because it had exploded that too, expanding to become all that there was. Whatever this was, it was not a hallucination. A hallucination implies a reality and a point of reference and an entity to have it. None of those things remained.”

Pollan on his fourth psychedelic trip 

Pollan’s notes on the silencing of the ego:

  • “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.” 

“What neuroscientists and philosophers and psychologists mean by consciousness is the unmistakable sense we have that we are, or possess, a self that has experiences.”

Comparing the brains of experienced meditators and psychedelic users:

  • Yale researcher Judson Brewer found through fMRI scans that these brains look alike.
    • “The transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network.”
      • When the brain relies less on the default mode network, the ego is temporarily disabled, “and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away.”
    • The mystical experience from a psychedelic trip may produce a similar feeling to when we deactivate the default mode network.

Finding from Roland Griffith’s lab: “psychedelic experience leads to long-term changes in the personality trait of openness”.

Psychedelic experiences can sharpen a person’s “sensitivity to one’s own mental states, especially in the days immediately following.”

  • Becomes easier to focus your attention and distance yourself from rumination.
    • Pollan found that he could pinpoint his own consciousness on a spectrum ranging from contraction to expansion.
      • When he feels generous or grateful, open to others, he is more on the expansion end.
      • When he’s feeling afraid, defensive, rushed, worried, regretful, there’s a sense of contraction.

“In recent years, “psychiatry has gone from being brainless to being mindless,” as one psychoanalyst has put it. If psychedelic therapy proves successful, it will be because it succeeds in rejoining the brain and the mind in the practice of psychotherapy.”

How psychedelics can help terminally-ill people cope with their pending death:

  • There aren’t many tools that psychiatrists have to “address existential distress”. That’s according to Tony Bossis, a palliative care specialist that Pollan interviewed. 
    • What is existential distress? 
      • It’s “what psychologists call the complex of depression, anxiety, and fear common in people confronting a terminal diagnosis”.
        • “Xanax isn’t the answer,” Bossis said to Pollan. He believes something more spiritual will likely be a better solution.
  • The premise behind clinical trials of psychedelics and their influence on the dying is that “the fear of death is a function of our egos”. The ego then “burden us with a sense of separateness that can become unbearable as we approach death.”
    • One of Bossis’s patients participated in the trial and had experienced a transformative shift in perspective. 
      • The man, named Patrick, came to understand that the “ cancer is something completely out of my control, but the fear, I realized, is not.”
      • His wife saw the change and noticed how patient and calm he had become. 
        • Amidst her grief, she remembers him telling her before he died: “This is simply the wheel of life. You feel like you’re being ground down by it now, but the wheel is going to turn and you’ll be on top again.”

“An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism.”

“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.”

Will there be a market for psychedelics?

  • Pharmaceutical companies have shown little interest so far. Why?
    • “For one thing, this class of drugs offers them little if any intellectual property: psilocybin is a product of nature, and the patent on LSD expired decades ago”
    • “For another, Big Pharma mostly invests in drugs for chronic conditions, the pills you have to take every day. Why would it invest in a pill patients might only need to take once in a lifetime?
  • Psychedelics could disrupt the state of psychiatry, too.
    • Psychotherapy sessions are on a recurring basis. But a psychedelic session only needs to occur once to have a huge impact.
      • “It is true that a psychedelic session lasts several hours and usually requires two therapists be present for the duration, but if the therapy works as it’s supposed to, there won’t be a lot of repeat business.”

“We don’t die well in America. Ask people where do you want to die, and they will tell you, at home with their loved ones. But most of us die in an ICU. The biggest taboo in America is the conversation about death. Sure, it’s gotten better; now we have hospices, which didn’t exist not so long ago. But to a doctor, it’s still an insult to let a patient go.” 

Tony Bossis on the cultural stigma around death in the U.S. 

Pollan notes that Bossis thinks that psychedelics can change the conversation and experience around dying…as long is there’s buy-in from the medical community.

  • “This culture has a fear of death, a fear of transcendence, and a fear of the unknown, all of which are embodied in this work.”

“This, I think, is the great value of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness: the light they reflect back on the ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary.”

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