A Guide for Psychedelic Virgins and Skeptics?

By James PennerJuly 23, 2018

A Guide for Psychedelic Virgins and Skeptics?

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

FOR SOME SKEPTICAL READERS, books about psychedelics can be placed in three mental categories: “psychedelic boosterism,” “mystical hyperbole,” and “New Age rubbish.” The labels reflect the assumption that the psychedelic convert is bound to be too “exuberant” or “enthusiastic” in describing his or her drug experiences. When Michael Pollan began doing research for How to Change Your Mind, he was well aware of the perils of the genre. A noted culinary critic and author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he attempts in this book to approach the subject with caution and circumspection — he tries, in other words, to avoid being labeled a “psychedelic evangelist” or a “New Age kook.” Whether he achieves his aim is open to debate. His ambivalent tone can also be viewed as a rhetorical tactic designed to persuade the reader that he is a credible and “reliable narrator.” Certainly much of his credibility stems from his reputation as a respected journalist, but also from his outsider status. When Pollan agrees to take psychedelic drugs, he presents himself as a stand-in for the skeptical reader; he is an LSD-virgin turned “psychonaut” for the purposes of journalistic and scientific inquiry.

How to Change Your Mind is, then, different from other books on psychedelic drugs precisely because the author has so many reservations. Although he admits to trying magic mushrooms once or twice in his late 20s, he confesses that he was scared of LSD because he had read sensationalistic accounts of people ingesting LSD and jumping out of five-story buildings. “By the early 1970s, when I went to college,” explains Pollan, “everything you heard about LSD seemed calculated to terrify. It worked on me: I’m less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.” The new scientific research articles appearing in the mainstream press in 2010, however, piqued his interest, especially the psychedelic research being conducted at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University. Could psychedelic drugs actually relieve the “existential distress” of the patient diagnosed with terminal cancer? It seemed they could. His objections gradually fell away.

A visit to the doctor was still in order. His cardiologist advised him that LSD and psilocybin (the chemical version of magic mushrooms) were fine because they have “remarkably little impact on the cardiovascular system,” but he advised his patient to stay away from MDMA (ecstasy) because it “is an amphetamine, and so, chemically, it implicates the heart in a way that [classic] psychedelics don’t.” Pollan devised an ambitious research agenda in what might be termed “Psychedelic Studies and Applied Mysticism.” It includes a BA in rare varieties of magic mushrooms, then an MA, as it were, in spiritually guided LSD and psilocybin trips, followed by an ambitious interdisciplinary PhD project: “smoking the toad” (5-MeO-DMT). The latter is the crystallized venom of a Sonoran Desert toad, one of the most powerful psychedelics known to humankind. The author’s psychedelic bucket list does not end there, however. For good measure, he adds a postdoc in Ayahuasca. His trip reports are presented not as hedonistic adventures or what skeptics might describe as “mental masturbation,” but as Pollan’s practical way of testing the claims of psychedelic enthusiasts and the conclusions from the clinical trials conducted at NYU and Johns Hopkins.

Pollan begins the first of six chapters with the remarkable story of how various high-profile medical researchers and drug abuse experts at Johns Hopkins Medical School managed to get the conservative Food and Drug Administration to lift its ban on psychedelic research. Despite being non-addictive, psilocybin had been labeled a Schedule I drug in 1970 during the moral panic of President Nixon’s “War on Drugs” campaign. [1] Pollan’s coverage of the history of psychedelics in the 20th century provides important context for lay readers, but his most engaging insights appear in the “Travelogue Section,” which documents his first-person experiences with psychedelic drugs; and in the groundbreaking neuroscience chapter, which examines what functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) can tell us about the human brain on psychedelics. Regarding the latter, most remarkable perhaps is Franz Vollenweider’s claim that the psychedelic experience may facilitate “neuroplasticity”: “a window in which patterns of thought and behavior become more plastic and […] easier to change.” Pollan suggests that the Swiss researcher’s theory could be revolutionary because it “sounds like a chemically mediated form of cognitive behavioral therapy.” This said, he also acknowledges that, at this point, it is still “highly speculative” because “there has been little mapping of the brain before and after psychedelics to determine what, if anything, the experience changes in a lasting way.”

Pollan’s “Travelogue Section” begins with a critical reexamination of the “recreational” model of psychedelic experimentation. The author tells us that he himself mostly avoids tripping at home on his own, instead seeking the counsel of underground psychedelic guides or therapists whose intent is to heal patients or help users “fulfill their spiritual, creative, or emotional potential.” Pollan estimates that there are hundreds of underground psychedelic guides currently working in the larger Bay Area. The drugs, he believes, “require a cultural vessel of some kind: protocols, rules, and rituals that together form a kind of Apollonian counterweight to contain and channel their sheer Dionysian force.” One of Pollan’s most powerful trips is his magic mushroom trip with “Mary,” a psychedelic guide from Providence, Rhode Island. After ingesting a large mushroom with chocolate, the famous food critic finds himself objecting to the new age electronica (Thierry David) that Mary has selected for his trip. As he puts it, after being agitated by “computer music” that resembles “a video-game dystopia,” he yearns to be in nature rather than a captive audience: “Whose world was it? Not mine, and I began to wonder, whose brain am I in? (Please, not Thierry David’s!)” Pollan finally quiets his mind and floats downstream. As the food journalist heads to Mary’s restroom, a rich aesthetic experience awaits him:

Inside, the bathroom was a riot of sparkling light. The arc of water I sent forth was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, breaking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light. This went on for a pleasant eternity. When I was out of diamonds, I went to the sink and splashed my face with water.

Shutting off his rational mind, he surrenders to this ecstatic state: the boundary between the sacred and the profane blurs and the banal becomes wondrous.

Pollan’s visionary experience does not end there. Returning from the bathroom, he asks Mary to please substitute classical for spa music. Eventually they settle on the second of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma. Although the author has heard Suite No.2 in D minor many times, mostly at funerals, he feels he has never truly listened to it. Now, however, he gains a tactile understanding of the music:

Opened to the music, I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe. Then I passed down into the resonant black well of space inside the cello, the vibrating envelope of air formed by the curves of its spruce roof and maple walls. […] So I became the cello and mourned with it for the twenty or so minutes it took for that piece to, well, change, everything.

Pollan adds that “Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death — to the deaths of the people now present to me, Bob’s and Ruthellen’s and Roy’s, Judith’s father’s, and so many others, but also to the deaths to come and to my own, no longer so far off.” Corroborating Aldous Huxley’s belief that psychedelic drugs can enlarge and heighten aesthetic awareness, Pollan’s epiphany also reinforces the results of Stephen Ross’s NYU psilocybin study — namely, that psychedelics can revolutionize our treatment of end-of-life anxiety. After undergoing guided psilocybin sessions, the terminal patient, in many cases, does indeed overcome fear of death, coming to terms with his own dissolution. 

How to Change Your Mind thus presents a sophisticated conversion narrative. A committed rationalist and staunch materialist (at least at the outset of the book), Pollan makes it his goal not to be seduced by the various psychedelic drugs he ingests. And yet he presents his reliable narrator self as ultimately powerless to deny the intensity and profundity of his mystical drug experiences. The dialogue between the committed rationalist and the reluctant mystic makes his narrative immensely engaging: the reader must weigh and juxtapose the author’s sober and dispassionate claims alongside the ecstatic reports from his first-person drug experiences.

The publication of How to Change Your Mind in 2018 is one of many indications that we are witnessing a cultural sea change with regard to psychedelics. It’s the first time that a book about psychedelics has reached the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-sellers list. Despite Pollan’s success, some members of the psychedelic community have faulted him for being too cautious when discussing the issue of legalizing psychedelics. At his talk in Pasadena in April, Pollan insisted that he does not actually consider himself “to be an advocate for psychedelic drugs.” His response may simply be a manifestation of legal and intellectual coyness. The fact is that his book is actually full of claims that are anything but coy. For example, Pollan remarks in his preface that he wonders if psychedelic drugs are often “wasted on the young, that they might have more to offer us later in life, after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set.” Although How to Change Your Mind contains a legal disclaimer (“no attempt should be made to use these substances for any purpose except in a legally sanctioned clinical trial”), many of Pollan’s loyal readers are likely to treat this book as an invitation: another gustatory exploration meant to entice.


James Penner is an associate professor of English at University of Puerto Rico, Rio Pedras. He is the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (Indiana University) and the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (Park Street).


[1] Schedule I classification indicates that the drugs have a potential for abuse and no current medical use.

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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