Last month, I talked about New Year’s Resolutions and Our Immunity to Change so I was very intrigued when I read the title of Michael Pollan’s new book: How to Change Your Mind- What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence. Michael Pollan has written 5 New York Times best sellers including Food Rules; In Defense of Food; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He teaches at Harvard and at U.C. Berkeley; he presented his book last May at Talks at Google and he has been selected to speak at the 2019 edition of Wisdom 2.0 conference which I will be attending next March. So despite my initial reluctance to engage with the topic, I not only read the book but I am now writing about it here.
What I find particularly interesting about the book is the fact that, at a time where mental healthcare is in a state of crisis, Pollan is suggesting that psychedelics could become a tool for understanding and healing the mind. Also, the overlapping of psychological and spiritual studies with the findings of neuroscience and newly developed brain imaging techniques is staggering.
While the subject of this book may, at first, seem to be a departure from Pollan’s interest in food and Nature, there is actually a common thread with his previous work as he first discusses plants that change human consciousness such as coffee, tobacco or magic mushrooms. He goes on to describe the natural history and ancient lineage that different cultures around the world have with experiencing with hallucinogens, typically in a sacred rite of passage ceremony, with guidance by elders. He investigates a number of scientific experiments conducted since 1990 at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, N.Y.U., U.C.L.A. and Imperial College London and describes it as a renaissance. And finally he talks about his own experimenting with the drugs.
Pollan’s interest in the topic started in 2015 when he learned of a peer-reviewed scientific paper authored by a team at Hopkins in the journal Psychopharmacology titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experience Having Substantial and Sustained Personal meaning and Spiritual Significance” and wrote a New Yorker article titled The Trip Treatment- Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results. This article and the book point to studies with volunteers subject to depression, addiction or dying from cancer, who under the influence of these molecules, experienced “springing out of their mental jails”, “I felt free, carefree, reenergized”, “I was not immersed in thoughts patterns”. These interestingly enough are also benefits of meditation, prayers, coaching, psychotherapy and other modalities such as fasting, breathing techniques, sensory deprivation or trance dancing. And this is where neuroscience comes in: fMRI results of volunteers under the influence of psychedelics in these clinically controlled studies show striking similarities to fMRI results of long-time meditating monks and, in both situations, the stories told after this experience by the participants are of ego-dissolution.
Pollan then goes on to demonstrating, using neuroscientific studies, that these benefits are obtained when the brain Default Mode Network (DMN) is unplugged. The DMN is a part of the brain that is activated when our mind wanders, when we self-reflect, when we are immersed in our narrative self, our beliefs and stories, when we ruminate; it’s highly related to our sense of self or ego. Pollan says: “if ego has an address, it’s in the DMN”.
Furthermore, the deregulation of the DMN allows for different parts of the brain to talk to each other without connecting through the DMN and therefore creating new pathways in the brain. And that is also the phenomenon that Dr. Alice Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley) points to in her book The Philosophical Baby- What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life where she explains that babies are actually more creative, more conscious and smarter than adults because their DMN has not yet been developed, allowing for more exploration while problem solving. Also, Robin Carhart-Harris from Imperial College London talks about a high-entropy brain and of expansion of consciousness when DMN is turned off. (If you are interested in delving into the topic, there is a lengthy youTube video, mentioned in the book, where both professors exchange on this).
So, what begins as an journalistic investigation into the study of psychedelics from the historical and scientific perspectives turns out to be a voyage into different states of consciousness and what it means to be present to one’s life, both in happiness and in suffering. It’s a fascinating read (and I have not even mentioned here the experimentations that went on at Esalen in the sixties and seventies, or the intersection of high-tech in Silicon Valley and LSD back then as well as now in the form of research funding).
And, may be most poignantly, the book gives us hope for possible new developments into mental healthcare, a critical issue in our society and culture.
I look forward to his presentation at Wisdom 2.0. And, if you read the book, I would appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me at email@example.com or commenting on this blog. Thank you!