Tuesday, July 10, 2018


'MIDWAY THROUGH the twentieth century, two unusual new molecules, organic compounds with a striking family resemblance, exploded upon the West. In time, they would change the course of social, political, and cultural history, as well as the personal histories of the millions of people who would eventually introduce them to their brains.
'As it happened, the arrival of these disruptive chemistries coincided with another world historical explosion—that of the atomic bomb. There were people who compared the two events and made much of the cosmic synchronicity. Extraordinary new energies had been loosed upon the world; things would never be quite the same.' 

Thus begins 'A New Door'. the Prologue to this substantial work 'How To Change Your Mind' by American writer Michael Pollan. The two molecules he refers to are LSD and Psilocybin.

Over the last twenty years, Pollan has become best known for a string of books that connect the human and natural worlds: the ethics and ecology of eating, food and agriculture, gardens and architecture. See list here).

His 2002 book 'The Botany of Desire' contains material on psychoactive plants. Through this research, he was surprised to discover 'a universal human desire to change consciousness'. Pollan admits to have taken some magic mushrooms in his youth  which was more of an aesthetic experience that a full blown trip. So, as he outlines in the book's prologue, he had reached 60 without having had a full-blown psychedelic experience himself or a mystical one for that matter. 

The real trigger for writing the book was a 2006 paper from scientists at John Hopkins University entitled 'Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meanign and Spiritual Significance'. Pollan was intrigued by this new frontier between science and spirituality and began to investigate.

His book is essential reading and provides an up-to-date survey of psychedic research and its applications. Firstly he delves into the history. His account of the huge amount of work with psychedelics carried out in the 1950s not only by scientists but also by the CIA contains much information that will be new and surprising to many readers. For instance, in one Canadian state large hospital was devoted entirely to treating alcoholism with LSD. Much of this early research was either lost, ignored or supressed.

Timothy Leary, the most well-known figure in the field, brought LSD into the mainstream but his efforts to turn the world on also created a moral panic about its effects that led to a complete ban on psychedelic science for more than 30 years.

Now even his critics recognise that Silicon Valley in particular was inspired and developed to a significant extent through LSD use and that Leary played an important role in a much more complicated historical story than has previously been recognised.

There is also a lengthy and detailed chapter on the rediscovery of psychedelic mushrooms, particularly psilocybin and other fascinating fungi.

The new work at John Hopkins and at other US universities signals a renaissance of investigations into the use of psychedelics - particularly psilocybin - for the treatment of depression, addiction and for helping patients with terminal illnesses prepare themselves for their demise. Most seems to lose their fear of death, the drug giving them the realisation that we are part of a connected universe.

Pollan uses psychedelic guides - an undeground network of trained people who can sit with you while you are tripping and help you understand the experience after you land back in the real world. He takes LSD, psilocybin and DMT which comes from a Mexican toad. The last trip is the most dramatic and the briefest - a roller coaster ride. He describes his trips in great detail and the reader can share vicariously his experience.

The book then looks at the latest neurological experiements whereby patients are put in an MRI scanner and given a dose of psilocybin. This allows scientists to see what is happening in the brain when these experiences are taking place.There is now huge confidence that psychedelic experiences can help with many of the world's most important mental problems which we urgently need to address.
There is an excellent 2018 radio interview with Michael Pollan on NPR 'Reluctant Psychonaut' Michael Pollan Embraces The 'New Science' Of Psychedelics' and another interview on KQED entitled What We Can Learn From Psychedelics.

There's a valuable review in the Evening Standard  entitled 'How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan - review: a man who believes you’re never too old to take a trip' by Richard Godwin.

Michael Pollan's own website


Inside Dope: LSD In Britain


Read more about Timothy Leary here with a review of 'I Have America Surrounded',
a biography by John Higgs.


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