Michael Pollan's study of psychedelic drugs mixing history with a treatise on therapeutic use passes the acid test.
The author, the beneficiary of a long and satisfying career and a similarly enduring marriage, is quietly considering psychedelic drugs as the remedy for a mid-life crisis.
His book unfolds in three acts. The first is an engaging, mildly revisionist history of LSD since its synthesis by Albert Hofmann in 1938, and of psilocybin since R Gordon Wasson, a Manhattan banker and amateur mycologist, discovered it for the West in southern Mexico in 1955.
Wasson’s encounter with “the mushrooms that cause strange visions” was related in 15 pages of Life magazine that year, the Western public’s first insight into the psychedelic experience. (The phrase “magic mushrooms” was coined by one of the magazine’s subeditors.) But, by then, psychiatrists and researchers – following Hofmann’s belated and accidental discovery of LSD’s psychoactive properties in 1943 – were already using it on their patients, and themselves.
It is, Pollan observes, a forgotten history, peopled by the likes of Humphry Osmond, who, in 1951, took his research on LSD and mescaline from St George’s Hospital in London to a remote Saskatchewan mental hospital, where he administered LSD to more than 700 alcoholics – about half of whom duly became sober. Osmond also provided the dose of mescaline that inspired Aldous Huxley to write The Doors of Perception.
By the mid-60s, LSD was being used in psychiatric institutions even in New Zealand. But in 1966, Hofmann’s employer, Sandoz Laboratories, alarmed at the social spectacle generated by Timothy Leary and his acolytes, announced it was ceasing distribution of the drug, and it was outlawed by panicky governments.
But the thread was never quite broken. In the book’s second act, Pollan takes the journey (or rather, several journeys) himself, ingesting LSD, psilocybin and DMT. He is generous with his readers in describing his hopes, fears, joys and visions, toying repeatedly with the mystical implications of his experiences and struggling to square them with his journalistic materialism.
From there, it’s a long run of modern brain science to the book’s conclusion. MRI scans tell us that LSD quietens a part of the brain called the default network, the seat of the self and the bossy manager of inputs. It’s also implicated in the destructive and repetitive behaviours of depression, anxiety and addiction, which is where most modern LSD research is focused.
Pollan doesn’t really need to proselytise for psychedelic science – it’s here and it seems a certainty that psilocybin and LSD will both be licensed for therapeutic use in the next few years – but his ability to think through what’s in front of him is invaluable. If psychedelics can free addicts of their bonds, or help terminal cancer patients through the trauma of mortality, should they also be available to “healthy normals” seeking merely to refresh their relationship with life?
In the end, even Pollan can’t work through all the implications. But he has provided a fascinating and masterfully written exploration of what has been and what might yet be for these “remarkable molecules”.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: THE NEW SCIENCE OF PSYCHEDELICS, by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane, $38)
This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.