How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollen 2018
Pollen, a best selling author about books on food, a NYT Magazine contributor, and the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley, is a superb writer who dives deeply into his chosen topic and emerges from his reading, interviews, and investigations with clear and engaging analyses and stories for the reader. This is an important book and likely to have a major impact. The first half of the book is a detailed history of the research and therapeutic use of LSD, psilocybin, and other hallucinogens in the 1950’s and ’60’s before the substances were essentially outlawed by the Federal government under Nixon in 1971. There were too many names, acronyms and events for me to keep track of, but it was eye-opening to learn how mainstream research into these substances was well funded and mainstream in academic centers and how widespread their use was in psychiatric practice prior to 1971. What followed was a long period when research and use of hallucinogens went underground and much of what had been learned essentially disappeared, only to emerge recently once again as a legitimate area of exploration and use. The chapter on neuroscience where Pollen simplifies a very complex topic in a sophisticated and effective manner was superb. He characterizes the adult brain as being rigid (‘the grooves of sled tracks in the snow’ is one of his many effective metaphors) having learned to take the quotidian flood of sensory input and channel it into ‘predictive’ systems with separate areas of the brain dealing with separate topics and senses. In some people, this organization and activity is out of balance, a condition that he describes as either high entropy (schizophrenia) and or low entropy(depression, OCD). The hallucinogens essentially change the entropy in the brain, shaking up these ‘predictive systems’ (he likens it to shaking up a ‘snow globe’ or rebooting a computer), enabling areas of the brain that ordinarily don’t connect to do so and returning us to a ‘childlike state’ of wonder, awe, and ego dissolution. The central actor in the brain in his model is the Default Mode Network which under ordinary circumstances constructs the ‘ego’ and protects and enables it to view itself as separate from the rest of the world. Psilocybin explodes this DMN and dissolves the ego during its action, enabling the brain to expand its understanding of the world and dissolving the boundaries between self and the wider universe. It may sound a bit too mystical for you, but read Pollen and be amazed by his description of the benefits that these drugs have given to those who are dying, depressed, addicted, and otherwise compromised by a brain that evolution or disease has not optimally wired. This brief review has not done justice to Pollen’s important book. Read it and make up your own (hopefully, optimally entropic) mind.